Music Matters (Especially in Gaming)

Video games stand at the forefront of modern entertainment. Much more than child’s play, video games manage to outperform Hollywood movies. As demographically targeted and niche as they are, they manage to transcend the merits of virtually all other forms of popular entertainment.

It is quite interesting that despite this, they are the culmination of such historically prevalent arts as painting, sculpture, film, architecture, theatre, literature and poetry, and certainly, music. Music is a powerful tool used to help create the most emotionally engaging and entertaining gaming experiences. If you don’t think this is true, you should read on.

Music in a video game can have a vast array of effects on the gamer. Sometimes it can make you feel truly immersed, when used in conjunction with strong imagery it can make you cry and other times it can force yawn after yawn in its monotony. Whatever the effect, it is always present and always relevant. A shining example of this is the soundtrack to the game Fallout 3.

This absolutely epic soundtrack manages to define a time period that has long since passed. The music spans the early to mid 1900s, drawing from immensely popular artists of the time like Billie Holiday, Bob Crosby and Allan Gray. This powerful music accomplished a variety of things. First, it introduced a new generation to great, great music that existed long before us.

No experience will ever match the day my grandmother recognized the soulful voice of Billie Holliday spurting from the radio on my Pip boy. Had I never played Fallout 3, I don’t think I would have ever experienced her amazing voice. Despite this, the real power in the soundtrack is its generous contribution to the sense of immersion. In the game, was it the devastating imagery that made you feel as though you were stranded in a post-apocalyptic wasteland in a time long ago? Or was it the music?

The music in a video game can easily contribute to the game’s impression in your mind. What did I remember most about the iconic title BioShock? Well, honestly, it was the Big Daddy. A close second however, was the tune “How much is that doggy in the window?” by Patti Page. It is an amazing idea to fathom: One of the most critically acclaimed games of our time borrows influential music from the 1950s. Perhaps it is because of this that the game is so popular.

Its soundtrack licensed the suave and debonair Bobby Darin, The legendary Bing Crosby and even more Billie Holiday. But the strength of music in games is much, much more than the utilization of once popular music. The music created for games is what helps make the very medium so remarkable. Let us cite immensely successful Japanese publisher Square Enix.

The storytelling and drama in their games, most notably the acclaimed Final Fantasy series, has always been powerful and moving. As strong as this element of the series is, many argue that it plays second fiddle to the ambient, beautiful and sensational music it so often makes use of. The music in these games has accomplished many things.

Kingdom Hearts, one of the publisher’s most prized franchises, brought international music to the masses. The TV promotions, openings and endings of the games star none other than thee Utada Hikaru. Utada is a Japanese mega-star whose ethereal and airy performances of “Simple & Clean” and “Sanctuary” beckoned unto an entirely new generation of listeners.

It’s remarkable even now to think that instead of simply hiring an American pop star to gracefully address their now beloved series, they chose to stick with Utada, who interestingly enough is fully fluent in English. I am truly in debt to Square for introducing me to this amazing artist, because I’ve been enjoying her since I saw the first Kingdom Hearts commercial more than eight years ago.

The centerpiece of Square Enix’s musical affinity in their games is without doubt the Final Fantasy series. I believe that it was in a Final Fantasy game that I actually first discovered how emotionally gripping game music can be when used in conjunction with strong imagery. [FINAL FANTASY VII SPOILER ALERT] When the long blade of Sephiroth emerged from the chest of Aeris I was sad. It wasn’t until the moving orchestral arrangement took off in the fight that preceded that I was distraught and tears poured from my eyes like an injured school girl. [END SPOILER]

The series is renowned for its use of great music to bolster its already great narrative. But this series did more than create passionate sequences with its music. It is probably single handedly responsible for the growth in the popularity of video game music. How might one series have accomplished such a feat you ask?

It’s very simple really. The music is simply good, not relatively good. The music of these games can stand without the game itself, and this is a feat. Music lovers, even those who do not play video games, can enjoy the layered compositional arrangements and sweeping orchestration of the Final Fantasy series.

Enter Nobuo Uematsu, a composer that since working on the Final Fantasy series has become critically acclaimed and world renown. His work spans numerous best selling games and has spawned various projects and concerts. The Black Mages, an instrumental rock band, has remade many classic tracks from the games into Progressive Metal and Symphonic Rock songs, multiplying their appeal.

Distant Worlds is a musical tour that spans the globe, bringing the influential music of the Final Fantasy series to music connoisseurs, Classical listeners and oh yeah, fans of the game, in extravagant live concerts. Music from FF has been performed by such acclaimed orchestras as the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

I hope that by now, we can all agree that music matters. Have you never wondered why game soundtracks can cost as much as or more than the games themselves? When the uninformed think of video games, legendary composers, international superstars, exceptional classical music and popular music from sixty years ago aren’t typically what come to mind. For those of us in the know however, Masashi Hamazu and Nobuo Uematsu are the modern day equivalents of Beethoven and Mozart.

Video games may be art but they may also be a hybrid: a combination of arts that in itself is greater than any one alone. Sure the gaming industry is more valuable than either the film or music industry, but so much of the medium is a fusion of these elements. Perhaps nonbelievers can at least find merit in these individualized concepts.

Because at the end of the day, I hate Final Fantasy XIII passionately, and yet its entire soundtrack has been the most played thing on my iPod all month. Even if you don’t think games can be art, you must admit to their artistic merits. Because, music is art, isn’t it?

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Kenneth Richardson

Kenneth is a Graphics and Game Design student who's worked as an author for since June of 2010. His favorite gaming genres are Fighting, Role Playing and Sadistic Action games like Ninja Gaiden and Bayonetta. In addition to gaming, he is also strongly interested in music, fashion, art, culture, literature, education, religion, cuisine, photography, architecture, philosophy, film, dance, and most forms of creative expression.

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