Level 1’s are famed for their clever design (e.g. the craft of Super Mario Bros 1-1) and often berated for their ham-fisted tutorials (e.g. ‘Press X to kiss your wife’). Not regularly discussed is the music — inherently in the background (except music-based games like Rez), music can convey loads of information about the game world, the tone of the story and the pace of the gameplay.
We picked the brain of game music devotee Steve Vancouver, podcast host of the fledgling VGM Moments, to identify some of the best game music from opening stages over the past 25 years.
“One of a Kind” by Hiroshi Yamaguchi – Bayonetta (2009)
Is there anything more dramatic than a gravity-defying, bamboozling battle against demonic angels atop the face of a clock tower that is plunging to earth from a seemingly never-ending height. This isn’t your garden variety opening level — being more akin to a grandiose final boss fight — but it’s the ideal introduction to the mind-bendingly bonkers world of Bayonetta and it’s exaggerated set pieces.
Yamaguchi’s score is full fat Carmina Burana fare, with a massed orchestra pounding away, topped by a chanting choir. Subtle, it ain’t.
The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:
“Disco Descent” by Darren Baranowsky – Crypt of the Necrodancer (2015)
Rhythm games live and die by their soundtracks and, despite the suggestion in the game’s title, Crypt of the Necrodancer’s score is full of life (🥁 boom tish!). Disco Descent’s pacey 115 bpm tempo and snappy, four-to-the-floor beat is complemented by some acrobatic synth guitar riffs. It fits perfectly into the universe of knowing, chiptune-esque indie game music where Baranowsky is basically now royalty — it’s also great for introducing you to the unique mechanics of the game.
The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:
“At Doom’s Gate” by Robert Prince – Doom (1993)
This classic theme is a significant contributor to the fond memories formed by early 90’s kids when they fell in love with the very first Doom. Its MIDI heavy metal was clearly heavily inspired by the likes of Metallica, Slayer and Alice in Chains, and could be credited with being the first hyper-macho, mass-murdering dudebro ‘FUCK YEAH!!!’ video game moment.
The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:
“Life as a Flower” by Vincent Diamante – Flower (2009)
At the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum, Vincent Diamante’s score to thatgamecompany’s Flower is a breath of fresh air throughout the game. The music adapts to your actions, and collecting petals — one of the few traditional game mechanics — results in chiming musical notes which are in key with the score.
The opening level’s cue (Life as a Flower on the soundtrack album) teaches us that this is a tranquil, zen game world and that you simply don’t have to rush.
The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:
“Flight” by Yoshitaka Azuma – Panzer Dragoon (1995)
While the rest of the soundtrack is nothing to be sniffed at, you can hear that a lot of effort was invested into the first level of Panzer Dragoon, both musically and visually to help sell people on what was one of the SEGA Saturn’s launch titles. It’s one of only a handful of fully orchestral pieces from the score, and succeeds in its mission to showcase the game and console capabilities.
The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:
“Another Winter” by Anamanaguchi – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game (2010)
This is the stand-out track from the whole game and really kick things off with a bang. Retro-electronica-cum-indie-guitar-band Anamanaguchi pack in tonnes of melody and charm via synth and drum arrangements that make this sound as much of a skate punk track as it is chiptune. It’s just a shame the game is no longer available due to licensing issues, but thankfully the soundtrack is still out there on Spotify etc.
The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:
“Egg Planet” by Mahito Yokota – Super Mario Galaxy (2007)
The Overworld theme from Super Mario Bros is likely the more iconic piece, but for something that is indicative of the journey you’re about to take, Egg Planet (soundtracking the Good Egg Galaxy) is probably the superior ‘Level 1’ theme. You’re about to adventure across the stars and this piece — so full of life and excitement — sets your expectations just right. The solo flute section shouldn’t go unnoticed, as it providing a joyous sense of wonder within the orchestral swells.
The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:
“Siberia” by Graeme Norgate – Timesplitters 2 (2002)
It is plain as day that the Siberia stage from Timesplitters 2 is a reimagining of the Dam level from GoldenEye 007, but this particular cue manages to break free from Bond and stand out on its own. There’s a foreboding, cinematic feel to the piece and it captures the contrast between bleakness and beauty found in the environment.
Since stealthiness is such a common thing in video game, game composers as a group have had plenty of practise producing brooding, stealthy-sounding music — this great piece exemplifies this mood.
The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:
“Strike the Earth! Plains of Passage” by Jake Kaufman – Shovel Knight (2014)
Heralded as the second (or third) coming of the retro platformer, Shovel Knight had a lot to live up to following its successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013. It delivered in spades (😆) and went on to become one of the most lauded crowdfunded games, in no small part thanks to Jake Kaufman’s stunning work on the soundtrack. Coming immediately after the game’s introduction, this piece of music lets you know that you’re in for an adventure that is both faithful to its source material — 8-bit action platformers — and incredibly tongue-in-cheek.
The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:
“Old Friends” by Darren Korb – Transistor (2014)
This one is less of a ‘Level 1’ and more of an opening area. Old Friends sets the scene beautifully for this science fiction-does-art nouveau world by way of its haunting, rigid melody and crisp trip-hop beat.
As you progress through the area and get introduced to the different elements of the game, the soundtrack cleverly switches between variations on this theme. Extra percussion and echoing guitar are added during combat to ramp up the tension, while a hummed variation calms you whilst planning your attacks.
The track in isolation – YouTube; and as it’s used in the game:
A few Honourable Mentions — SEGA classics which have turned up in other Laced With Wax articles:
An iconic track filled with enthusiasm and life. A flurry of rising notes grips you in the first few seconds (during the level’s title screen) before the summery, fast-paced synths propel you into the level and the world of Sonic.
“Go Straight” by Yuzo Koshiro – Streets of Rage 2 (1991)
As we approach the fifth anniversary of Hotline Miami’s original release, we thought it would be cool to catch up with renaissance man Niklas Åkerblad (pronounced: or-kay-blood): as well as contributing music tracks to the Hotline Miami and Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number soundtracks under his music monicker, El Huervo, he created iconic game covers for both games and artwork for the respective vinyl releases.
Niklas Åkerblad’s covers for Hotline Miami (left) and Hotline Miami 2 — the latter featuring a self-portrait of him as the returning character, Beard:
“And who do we have here?”
Åkerblad first struck up a friendship with Dennaton’s Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin around 2010 in Sweden, whilst they were still developing the core idea of Hotline Miami (eventually released in late 2012). The three developed an artistically intimate relationship: “I was doing tonnes of other stuff myself [and] wasn’t really getting involved. Then the collaboration just sort of ‘happened’. We were hanging out and they were looking for music for the game. I had just released a mini-album, Do Not Lay Waste to Homes…, which they listened to and picked out a couple of songs [Daisukefeat. Shelby Cinca and Crush] that they thought could fit in the game.”
Söderström and Wedin were so inspired by Åkerblad’s track Daisuke that they decided to use his likeness for the (only) friendly character in the game: Beard. “They wanted to include a nice character because everyone else is so corrupted and evil — so they chose me! Then it felt perfect to have one of my songs play during those sequences.”
Here’s the first time Hotline Miami players meet Beard, soundtracked by El Huervo’s Daisuke:
Two further El Huervo tracks, Turf and Crush, also prominently feature in the game; Rust (El Huervo remix) was also included as a bonus track on the vinyl.
“It's like it’s from a movie or something, right?”
In developing Hotline Miami, the Dennaton duo — developer Söderström and graphic artist Wedin — were unabashedly drawing on various influences including the 2006 documentary Cocaine Cowboys; 2010’s ultra-violent movie adaption of the comic book Kick Ass; and the 2011 film Drive (also an adaptation of a novel, also ultra-violent).
Whilst Drive is set in the modern day, it has a strong 1980’s vibe communicated in part by its soundtrack. In a similar fashion, Hotline Miami, set in 1989, knowingly mucks around with period trappings — but its soundtrack is as rooted in 90’s instrumental hip-hop and 00’s synthwave as anything from the 80’s itself. In our interview with ToyTree, composer for the Quake-a-like first-person shooter STRAFE, we proffered a term for this mashed-up approach: ‘refracted retro’.
Niklas Åkerblad’s painting of Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin — the ‘Dennaton Posse’:
Did the team know that they themselves were creating something iconic — forging an aesthetic that would captivate so many fans and, in turn, inspire budding creators? Åkerblad responds: “From what Dennis [Wedin] has been saying, they just wanted to create something that they wanted to experience — and I felt the same. It was just a matter of trying to do something cool. We were trying to distil all the cool things that we had experienced to that point and get it in there, whilst doing something that we felt was truthful.
“A lot of [the aesthetic of the game] is thanks to Dennis — he’s an incredible beacon like that. If he was living in some tribal society thousands of years ago, he would be a really powerful shaman because that’s his main superpower: to tap into these things, unconsciously. If I told him that, he would probably just say ‘thanks’ and laugh a little bit at it!
“When Dennis introduced the animal masks, that really felt to me like ‘wow, this is really going to tap into the hive mind’. That idea is still around: fashion companies are adorning their little mannequin dolls with animal masks. That’s something that really broke through and has become a huge thing. It felt vibrant.”
Protski’s artwork for the Hotline Miami Collector’s Edition Vinyl disc sleeves, featuring masks (from L-R) Don Juan, Richard and Rasmus:
“I told them: ‘this is going to be something huge’ and they were like ‘no, we’re probably going to sell a couple of thousand copies’. I reiterated: ‘no guys, you’re going to be millionaires doing this shit!’ I think that scared them a little bit. I guess I wanted to create a little bit of a reality check in trying to be that voice that could still be intimate but also look at it from the outside.”
“So you came back?”
In case you hadn’t noticed, vinyl is back — El Huervo has released several (as well as cassettes!) — and video game vinyl releases are the new hotness (obviously). They serve a dual purpose: a high quality audio experience for those with the equipment to enjoy it; and a piece of tangible merchandise that helps fans commemorate a game which they might only possess and have experienced digitally.
In 2016, four years after the game’s original release, Åkerblad returned to the world of Hotline Miami to contribute the cover for the Collector’s Edition Vinyl, alongside Protski (a leading light among the fan community in terms of artwork), who designed the gatefold and disc sleeves:
Åkerblad also provided artwork for iam8bit’s 2015 Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number vinyl (Discogs), now sold out and not due for a repress (gatefold, cover and discs):
Does it concern Åkerblad that these deluxe vinyl sets might not even be played by their owner? “I actually had that in mind because I knew a lot of these people wouldn’t have turntables but they wanted to have an artefact. That’s why I wanted both vinyls to look really nice on a wall or if you opened it out and put it on a coffee table or whatever. To create good vibes in your home — have a better feng shui!”
Pictures of the Hotline Miami Collector’s Edition Vinyl in the wild, courtesy of Instagram’s @brenchu (left) and @sauceychaucey (right):
“Also the mystery of the vinyl entices people even if they don’t know it. People are so used to digitised information but here’s something that’s purely analogue. It’s almost like a talisman: ‘Can sound actually come out of this? It’s just a piece of plastic…’”
“Maybe we should leave it that way?”
The community around the Hotline Miami series has endured for longer than most game series enjoy. However, Åkerblad recognises that “everything fades sooner or later. Of course I’m happy that people are still stoked about it, but we’re done with it — we’re not going to make more Hotline Miami canon. That’s up to the fans if they want to do it. It’s in their hands.
“It’s done. We killed Jacket. With the most recent vinyl cover [for the first game], we really wanted to say to people: ‘This is us blowing Jacket up.’ He’s trapped in a nuclear explosion, in an eternal loop, because he’s cursed with the restart ability. He’s never going to get out. That ends everything.”
Niklas Åkerblad’s cover for the Hotline Miami Collector’s Edition Vinyl, depicting lead character Jacket being forever disintegrated:
“I approached the two vinyl sets a bit differently. With the Hotline Miami set [which was produced the year after the Hotline Miami 2 vinyl], it was in collaboration with Protsky so I had to think a little bit differently. I knew there were going to be three sides — [Below – 1.] Jacket from afar amidst the blazing fires and when you open it out, the first thing you see is this torn up face [2.] and this glaring eye looking at you to create a dramatic effect.”
Here’s a breakdown of Åkerblad’s illustrations for the vinyl.
(Below) “Laying down some base colours to see what I wanted the ‘feel” of things to be. I rarely do this.”
(Below) “Then I finalised the sketches, put them together and started colouring in the same range as the background throw-up.”
(Below) “Merging the background with the lines and getting all the colours in place before final touch-up.”
(Below) “Final piece where I added smooth highlights, shades and some scanned watercolour blorfs [sic] for more dramatic effect.”
(Below, left): “This was the first sketch I did in trying to understand what Dennis, Jonatan and I had been discussing.” (Below, right): “Just righting some wrongs with the design. D & J wanted it to be more religious, while I wanted it more like the first design — but that meant we wouldn’t be able to zoom in on the face like we wanted so they won.”
(Below-left) “This was the first sketch of the face which turned out to be the final design. We really wanted Jacket’s face to look seriously messed up from the explosion.” (Right) The final inside cover.
“How are you feeling?”
The legacy of the Hotline Miami series remains strong: the games and their soundtracks continue to be revered and fan art still abounds. On the topic of ‘legacy’, Åkerblad is equivocal: “I guess it’s good and weird. I try not to think about it too much. That particular album [Hotline Miami’s soundtrack], affected me because a lot of people were crying out for more Daisuke and I had to choose between doing more of that style or following my own path. It was perplexing, I didn’t really know how to handle it.
“I solved it by going completely against it, going crazy. Over the next few years, I released two albums: the first one [World’s End – Bandcamp; Spotify] was getting all my own shit out on my own terms; the second [VanDereer – Bandcamp; Spotify] was trying to make something a little bit more like what people were telling me they wanted [the album included the track Rust, which featured on the Hotline Miami 2 soundtrack]. Not because I wanted to have more success but because it was an interesting challenge: how will it sound if I try to be humble, listen to the fans and try to do something with that? Will I be able to do something true or will I just become a shadow of my former self?”
Niklas Åkerblad’s painted covers for World’s End (left) and VanDereer:
“It’s always possible to cash in somehow… I try not to think too much about it because I don’t want to be an intellectual creator so much as an emotional one.” As a music artist, Åkerblad points out that he feels “like more of a shaman than a businessman. [Making music for a living is] not just about money: you have to understand less tangible things. A lot of artists that I talk to want to live off of it, but they’re tangibly analysing the market instead of trying to cultivate their sensitivity towards trends. Since everything is pretty shallow on the Internet, not a lot of people tend to go deep — but it’s in the depths that you find the means to discern these things.
“If everything’s shallow, people are going to look for something interesting. Trying to be as ‘real’ as possible is going to come back in style in a couple of years. It’s just a matter of trying to stay true to yourself. I’m an introvert. I can be extrovert if I want to but that uses up a lot of energy. I tend to sit by myself a lot and think — that helps to try to stay true to yourself. It’s hard if you’re always out there and meeting people and being on the surface of things.”
“A picture is starting to take form here…”
The multi-talented Swede’s art style — mashing up traditional Japanese and Mexican Día de Muertos styles — involves striking uses of colour, something which helps his pieces and album covers stand out, particularly on the Internet an especially on social media. “[My pieces] are also quite heavy. It’s not so much about kitsch or style, sometimes I also get a bit frustrated when I see colourful art out there — it seems like it’s lacking depth.”
Niklas Åkerblad’s painted covers for the two parts of his double album: (left) Do Not Lay Waste to Homes… (right) ...Where You Must Rest Your Weary Bones:
“I’m really interested in getting that very particular dynamic between the extrovert and the introvert, so usually the subjects [of my pieces] are pretty heavy and personal, but the use of colours is also very personal. The bright colours are [about being] extroverted. I just want [my art] to pop somehow — something has to come through. I’m a crazy guy. I’m not easy to live with and be around for extended periods. The colours are a way to be explosive like that.”
Niklas Åkerblad’s painting, Ronin 3:
“I’ve been trying to get into more traditional art galleries etc. Being an ‘Internet artist’ today is like being a comic book artist in the 70’s: you feel like you’re doing something deep but the art world in general is not really acknowledging that because you are still ‘low brow’. I think a lot of artists struggle with that. Just because you have an idea of what you are, what type of artist you are, that doesn’t mean that is the kind of artist you are. You have to also be humble and open to what’s actually happening. There is an old saying that musicians want to be visual artists, and visual artists want to be musicians.
“My paintings don’t necessarily need to be in a gallery to be ‘real’ though. I’m selling prints to my fans over the Internet and I think they’re really happy to be able to have physical copies.”
Perhaps those prints and the larger canvas of the vinyl record sleeve are a way of introducing younger people to art? “About five years ago, I wanted to sell big paintings for lots of money and become famous in big galleries — but now [all that] feels mundane. It’s more valuable to give art to kids because that’s what they need. They don’t need just Call of Duty or flashy games that are kitschy stuff, they need depth as well to be able to develop into nice balanced human beings. Being able to provide that to them [by way of prints of my paintings and vinyl] feels worth so much more.”
“Oh, you don't know who you are...?”
Åkerblad’s attitude to culture is that it is like the circle of life, and he is just one link in the chain. “With Hotline Miami, we didn’t think about it too much at all, it was more about being honest in the creation process because we all love that. When we consume culture, we like it when something feels honest, true to themselves.”
He avoids misquoting T.S. Eliot (who didn’t say ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’), instead accurately reciting from Eliot’s The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” And while we’re at it, here’s the rest of that paragraph:
“...bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”
This clearly resonates strongly with Åkerblad, who was a bit stung by accusations in 2015 that he was stealing from game composer Akira Yamaoka by sampling guitars from Tears of Pain (from the Silent Hill soundtrack) for the Hotline Miami 2 track, Ghost.
“It was a homage to the great Yamaoka. I wanted to show my love for his music and use it in my own music as a communion. I think people should do that more. When you borrow something and put it in your game or whatever, it can be shallow. But if you steal it, make it your own and put it through your own filters… it will come out the other side as something totally different. People are scared of that. If I use a pose from an artwork that I really like and put it in my own piece, or use a sample that I like in my own piece because I want to honour it, some people, especially in the video game world, tend to frown upon it.”
Indeed, one artist that El Huervo’s music is reminiscent of is American producer, DJ Shadow, renowned for his omnivorous use of sampling to create atmospheric instrumental hip-hop. While discussing one of Åkerblad’s favourite games, Bloodborne, he points out: “They took almost everything from H.P. Lovecraft and instead of bashing it, people are celebrating it because [Lovecraft is] dead.”
“All of this other bullshit [copyright and the intellectual property regime] is just something created by modern society. It has nothing to do with creativity. If someone wants to use my art in their own art, go ahead! It’s flattering. Go ahead, copy my shit! I don’t care… That’s how it should be — it’s an ongoing [cultural] conversation. I hate the legal shit in between. I don’t understand why it has to be like that, the attitude of ‘I made this, I own it’. You don’t own it! You made it for other people to experience. That’s how art should work.
“You shouldn’t have to ask for money. You just have to hope that people realise that if they want more from you, they have to support you. And if they aren’t choosing to support you as an artist, maybe you’re just out of time, out of touch or have to work harder.
“Then again, society is run on money so it becomes a little bit of a conundrum!”
“It looks like you've been busy since we last met.”
Constantly juggling projects as usual, Åkerblad is currently working on a follow up to his 2016 album, VanDereer, more game projects and other paintings.
Photographer Gary Dutton, podcaster Jay Taylor and Laced With Wax editor Tom Quillfeldt chat about their favourite fad in video games: photo modes.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Unless you’ve been playing with your eyes shut, you’ll have noticed that modern video games are bloody gorgeous. Open-world, action-adventure and driving games in particular take us to stunning virtual locales, packed with incredibly detailed character models and illuminated by mind-bogglingly sophisticated in-game lighting.
Some of us aren’t content just to briefly pass through these impressive environments that are the products of hundreds of game development man-hours — we want to stop and smell the roses (and take screenshots of them).
To that end, we gathered together three avid gaming shutterbugs to discuss video game photo modes: (real life and virtual) photojournalist Gary Dutton; core member of the Cane and Rinse podcast team, Jay Taylor; and yours truly, Laced With Wax editor Tom Q.
Photo modes are Go!
Giant Bomb has it that the first console photo mode appeared in Gran Turismo 4 in 2004, and provides a handy list of games with the feature. Prior to that, there were games with photography mechanics (e.g. Fatal Frame, Pokémon Snap) and modders/hackers have long been able to break into game code and muck around with game engines and assets.
Of late, it seems to be Sony/PlayStation pushing the photo mode trend the hardest by including a Share button on the PlayStation 4 pad, and fully featured pause-and-shoot photo modes appearing in numerous first party/exclusive titles such as DriveClub, RESOGUN, The Order: 1886, inFAMOUS Second Son, The Last of Us Remastered, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, WipEout Omega Collection and Horizon Zero Dawn.
That’s not to say these are the only titles with photo modes — recent Forza games have also included them, several Warner Bros games (Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and Batman: Arkham Knight), 2016’s DOOM, No Man’s Sky and more.
Up close and personal
Tom Quillfeldt (TQ): “I’m stupidly excited to talk about photo modes with fellow obsessees. Over the last year, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time taking 1,000 or so screenshots in Horizon Zero Dawn and, before that, over 1,300 in Uncharted 4 — two exceptionally beautiful games.
“It’s just a nerdy side-pursuit. I love having having a large repository of arty game images that I’ve collected on my computer, as desktop backgrounds/screensavers.
“I got into photo modes with WipEout HD (2008) on the PS3 and became enraptured to the point that it would ruin the flow of most races for me. I’d try to pause at just the right moment as a weapon went off so I could swing the camera around for an arty shot.”
WipEout HD, shot by Tom Quillfeldt:
TQ: “I was always drawn to the idea of being able to capture images from games and get them onto my computer desktop, which led to me literally taking photos of the TV (which turned out pretty rubbish, of course). More recently, with beautiful games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt that don’t have a photo mode, I’d switch off the HUD [head-up display i.e. functional things on screen like health bar, mini-map etc.] to be able to take screenshots with the PS4 Share button.”
Gareth Dutton (Gary D): “For me, it started when I was playing Wolfenstein: The New Order in 2014. There isn’t a photo mode in the game, but I was just inspired by the Resistance safe house, where you can wander round and talk to the survivors/refugees. It’s this really cool story device and is a space that changes over the course of the game with different characters appearing. The art direction was so good, everything so meticulously placed and the lighting was beautiful. There’s all these little stories going on.
Gary D: “After that, I kept an eye out for photogenic games, whether they had photo modes or not. It was always a relief when you could choose to switch off the HUD in a game, as with Bloodborne — you can zoom in with the ‘Monocular’ item, make the player character sit down and the camera stays where it is but your avatar is out of shot. So you can fudge shots, it but it all takes a very long time.”
Bloodborne, shot by Gareth Dutton:
Gary D: “When I actually got onto proper photo modes, like with The Last of Us Remastered, it was a playground for me — I was in heaven.”
Jay Taylor (Jay T): “Although I tinkered with Dragon’s Dogma (2012) on the PS3, photo modes only really became a thing for me when I moved onto the PS4. The second that I got that Share button, I thought: ‘this is awesome, this is what I’ve been waiting for’. I also ‘fudged’ shots in games like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015) where you’d have to pause the game, remove the HUD and then take the shot.
“Probably the game that I put the most time into in terms of taking pictures using photo mode was Mad Max (2015).”
Mad Max, shot by Jay Taylor:
Games got gorgeous
TQ: “So why geek out about photo modes now? In the main, I think we three are all completely bowled over by the art direction in many video games these days, particularly during this console generation (none of us are PC-heads).”
Jay T: “I find myself constantly amazed by the detail in character models. Some of the close-ups of characters’ faces… [among the pics below] I’d never even realised there was that much detail to them. I’m constantly wowed, whether it’s skin imperfections, textures on fabric etc.”
Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Tom Quillfeldt:
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, shot by Tom Quillfeldt:
Gary D: “With The Last of Us, I used the photo mode [in the remastered PS4 edition] because I wanted to look closely at the characters and their relationships. I shot a portrait of Tess — she’s one of the most interesting, put-upon and strong characters and I wanted to capture that.”
The Last of Us Remastered, shot by Gareth Dutton:
Gary D: “In the picture, she looks battered and mucky but the fact is, that detail was in there already [thanks to the Naughty Dog character artists]. You’re running around the game world and characters are constantly wearing these world-weary expressions, and you can very easily not notice it at all.
“I also did a series on the architecture and interiors in the game. There is plenty of storytelling going on in those aspects of games. We’re all familiar with the term ‘environmental storytelling’, but it’s so much more than BioShock-style audio logs. With a game like The Last of Us, you notice all these details whilst you slowly plod through the world taking photos — a tourist in the level.”
The Last of Us Remastered, shot by Gareth Dutton:
Gary D: “There’s so much that artists and designers have packed in there that all makes sense and adds to the backstory. It must feel strange to work on those details and know that most players aren’t going to explicitly notice it, but that it will add to their experience without them necessarily being aware.”
TQ: “I imagine a environment or character artist might feel quite proud if they came across people praising those minute details. In Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture [which doesn’t have a photo mode, but also has no HUD], I was very fond of the twee evidence of rural English life, like hopscotches, climbing frames, rugby pitches etc. At an event in recent years, I was waxing lyrical about the amazing frisbees and bicycles in the game to one of the artists responsible [Alex Grahame at The Chinese Room]. I might have come across a tad unhinged.”
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, shot by Tom Quillfeldt:
TQ: “On the other hand, I can imagine a more senior creative director preferring that players enjoy the overall effect. If you were a chef and someone complimented only one ingredient rather than the whole dish, you might be a bit peeved. Photo modes give players the chance to pick things apart.”
Gary D: “Each person is probably different, but a senior art director might want you to notice the details but ultimately be won over by the overall atmosphere and sense of place.”
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, shot by Gareth Dutton:
Gary D: “It can be that way with other disciplines. I’ve been working with ustwo games on a photo documentary about Monument Valley 2’s development and the sound designer, Todd Baker, aimed to make the sound cohesive so that people don’t necessarily notice it but, at the same time, if you complimented him on individual bits, he’d definitely be very pleased about it! They want both…”
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, shot by Tom Quillfeldt:
TQ: “In Uncharted 4, you get to be a tourist in these incredible locations that you will most likely never get to go to. Even if you did go to Madagascar, or the remote Scottish highlands, you wouldn’t necessarily get to take photos whilst hanging off a cliff or leaping around in a gunfight. With photo mode, you get to explore photo-realistic versions of these amazing places, at your leisure.
“However, the pacing of Uncharted 4 was somewhat ruined for me (or rather, by me) because I was spending so much time taking pictures! It’s such a beautiful game… every 5-10 seconds, I’d turn a corner and there’d be something stunning to look at, so I’d have to stop and turn on photo mode. I almost wish photo mode had been locked until completion of the story, as I spent hours and hours not actually playing the game.”
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, shot by Gareth Dutton:
Gary D: “I did the same. I totally ruined it — I can’t help it!
“I can’t help it in real life when I’m taking photos. I can’t put the camera down until the battery has run out. And that problem extends itself to photo modes in games, particularly with a game like Uncharted 4 that has a very deliberate flow. The only reason it was OK with The Last of Us was because it was my third playthrough and in that case, it did enhance my appreciation of the game.”
TQ: “In that way, by adding that value to the package, Naughty Dog has hooked you, me and other photo mode devotees — we’re now all guaranteed repeat customers (as if we weren’t already). But we’ll also play those games twice, three times just to see everything, and also keep the conversation about them going years later.”
Gary D: “Definitely. I presume there will be a photo mode in The Last of Us 2 but I’m going to have to really stop myself using it the first time through.”
Jay T: “It’s weird to hear you guys say that — I’ve never thought of photo mode as a negative like that. I’ve always seen it as having the ability to capture a moment that you might not be able to recreate, even on another playthrough. So I’ve never particularly been bothered about pausing… the only time I’ll admit that it has become an issue is when I’ve spent half an hour trying to perfect a shot before realising that it’s not very good!”
Gary D: “That’s also true of real life photography [wasting time on a dud shot].”
Jay T: “Another time-based aspect of using a photo mode is that you find yourself watching a character’s idle animations because you’re waiting for that one moment when they scratch the back of their head… In The Last of Us, Joel rubs his arms every so often so I sat there for something like five minutes until he repeated the animation.”
TQ: “I also had the reverse problem — with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, I could never quite remember to pause in the middle of combat to take decent action shots, although I tried my best to deliberately get into exciting-looking fights.”
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, shot by Tom Quillfeldt:
Gary D: “There are a lot more parallels than people think between real life and in-game photography because they are essentially the same thing.
“That feeling that Jay describes: ‘this shot’s never going to come round again, what if I miss it?’ After a while, you learn that it’s madness to do that because there’s always going to be a shot that you miss because there are so many possible interesting photos you could take. Part of your development as a photographer is to know when to let it pass. Like the saying about jazz — that it’s about the notes you don’t play.”
As far as ‘the eye’ can see
Jay T: “Looking at Gary’s pics, it’s amazing how different [photos are when taken by] somebody who has that ‘photographic eye’, i.e. a better understanding of composition and light. I always think: ‘Damn! How have they achieved that?’”
Gary D: “I’ve been doing photography for so long in real life, working on photo documentaries… but even if I’m just doing an event, I’m mainly looking to answer the questions: ‘What story am I telling with this photo? What is this collection going to say when it’s finished? What sort of mood are these shots going to have overall?’”
The Evil Within, shot by Gareth Dutton:
TQ: “With some of these games, if you’re not fussed about putting together your own collection, you can always wait for someone with ‘the eye’, like Gary, who is going to do the hard work for you! Then you just download their best shots (for your own personal enjoyment) instead of going to the trouble of taking great shots, putting them onto a USB drive in the PS4’s Capture Gallery, transferring it to your computer, sifting through, deleting the rubbish ones, cropping etc.
“Gary — you’ve got access to Photoshop and can use your professional photography skills to change these shots after the fact, of course...”
Gary D: “Yes, I usually put them through Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, which is what I use for my ‘real life’ work. Lightroom is more of a photographer’s tool because it’s about editing, selection and organisation. With the tools, you’re tweaking things like exposure, colour temperature, highlights and the darks, whites and blacks of a picture.
“Using those tools for video game screenshots is not the same as editing a real life photograph because the screenshots are lower resolution. That means even the tiniest tweaks can have quite a dramatic effect, so you have to be careful how you use it.
“[That said], in the end, there’s ostensibly no difference between a photograph you’ve taken in the real world and a photograph you’ve taken in a game with modelled lighting. You’re still adjusting what is a recording of light rather than real light, and the images end up in the same format. You can therefore apply many of the same principles regarding light, which is cool.”
The Last Guardian, shot by Gareth Dutton:
The name’s Swagger, Max Swagger
TQ: “To an extent, adding a photo mode feels like an act of pure swagger on the part of game developers.
“Certainly with Uncharted 4, Naughty Dog is saying: ‘we’ve got this unbelievable engine, we’ve got the best artists and lighting programmers in the whole world — so go nuts! Stick the camera wherever you want, we’re proud of every single blade of grass.’”
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, shot by Tom Quillfeldt:
Gary D: “I definitely agree. It stems from showing off and saying ‘look at what we’ve made’.
“The conversation around games often still comes down to how many polygons everything has, how good it looks technically. But there’s not necessarily a great interest in overall art direction [as opposed to raw graphics]. It’s still very much about GPU grunt — we’re all still a bit obsessed with that in gaming culture. To that end, photo modes are definitely a marketing tool. Hopefully it will evolve away from that.”
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, shot by Gareth Dutton:
TQ: “With Horizon Zero Dawn and Uncharted 4 (and other games), you can embed the game or developer logo into the image. That, coupled with the fact that photo modes are generally unlocked from the beginning of the game, means that game marketers have got this incredible user-generated content machine which pumps out images on social media every day.”
Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Twitter’s @Williamjepma and @thesolitaryowl:
Jay T: “It does make me wonder with No Man’s Sky… If that photo mode had been in the game earlier, whether there might have been a bit less negativity around the launch.”
TQ: “Laced Records released the soundtrack to No Man’s Sky, so we follow the community fairly closely — there has been a steady stream of fantastic, colourful photo mode shots on social media, in part thanks to the @nomanspics Twitter handle, and @hellogames retweeting images. The people who love that game can now better promote its core appeal — to explore the universe, see some epic sights and encounter funky giraffe-dwarf-manimals.”
No Man’s Sky, shot by Twitter’s @giliaaan and @jamey_thomson — examples retweeted by @nomanspics:
TQ: “These aren’t marketing bullshots, they’re in-game screenshots, albeit with some image manipulation. It seems like a marketer’s dream to me, as long as players are using it to highlight how beautiful a game is rather than make fun of it and highlight weaknesses.”
Gary D: “That’s the danger isn’t it, the double-edged sword. Since the Share function has come along, you are potentially inviting [trouble].”
Jay T: “Assassin’s Creed Unity or the Ezio Collection springs to mind…”
Gary D: “Some brands, like the Assassin’s Creed series, can survive that kind of derision — if anything, it gives it more publicity. It could be damaging for others… People sharing all the bugs and weird things in Mass Effect Andromeda — the conversation became about that instead of what’s good about the game. I know people that have played it and genuinely enjoyed it.”
TQ: “On the positive side, it can pique people’s interest about a game. I’ve seen Jay post a lot about Mad Max — I’m not hugely interested in that game in terms of gameplay, but I’m certainly more intrigued after seeing those beautiful vistas.”
TQ: “Following on from that thought about Hello Games helping fans help No Man’s Sky utilising photo mode and social media… I hope developers and publishers continue to open up in this way and offer a simple, sanctioned way for players (who aren’t PC modders) to tinker — some might say ‘play’ — with the game engine and assets through a photo mode.
“I hope other developers take notes from PlayStation first-party approach with photo mode with somewhat standardised feature sets. Keep letting fans show off your game for you and don’t worry too much about people taking bad shots or trying to break the game — PC players are going to do that anyway and the console Share button is here to stay.”
Jay T: “I’d also love to see developers who have implemented a photo mode embrace it more warmly. I’ve seen it many times where you’ll be tweeting pictures of a game and even if you’re @‘ing a developer, there’s very little response from them. I get it, they’re busy, but these companies have got community people who should be on this.
“Certain developers — like Guerrilla Games with Horizon Zero Dawn — have done a blinding job. Not only did they create what I think is a benchmark version of a photo mode, but it’s the way in which they’ve continued to handle it and how they as a studio respond to people: constantly retweeting and commenting on people’s pictures. They’ve run a competition for nine solid weeks where they were taking two of their favourite shots every week and giving them prizes.”
TQ: “And they patched the photo mode to improve it too, adding different facial expressions and a range of quirky poses.”
Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Jay Taylor — ‘Aftermath’ pose:
Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Tom Quillfeldt — ‘Serenity’ and ‘Victory’ poses:
Jay T: “With that patch, it took me two weeks to realise that when you press L3 in photo mode, Aloy’s gaze follows the camera.”
TQ: “NOOOOOO! Don’t tell me this now! I had no idea and I’ve just bloody well taken 1,000 screenshots.”
Gary D: “Presumably these new poses and expressions opened up a lot of room for comedy? It’s nice they let you do that.”
TQ: “Many of the poses are deliberately silly or ‘kawaii’. It’s some great fan service”
Horizon Zero Dawn — an uncredited image that’s been doing the rounds in articles about the new poses:
What makes a great photo mode?
TQ: “It seems to be that the consensus here is that Horizon Zero Dawn is the photo mode to emulate, in terms of delighting fans and breadth of feature set. I feel like we are approaching a standardised feature set, give or take one or two things per game:
Moving the camera on a boom anchored around the player character,
field of view and zoom,
depth of field (focus distance and aperture f-stops),
camera roll (spinning the image),
bokeh shape (that cool circular blurred effect around light sources),
remove player and/or other characters,
change player character pose and expression,
filters (and filter intensity),
brightness, over-exposure and contrast,
time of day and weather,
borders and logos,
“Are there any of those features that you guys particularly love or spend the most time tweaking?”
Gary D: “The only thing I would use regularly is depth of field. From a photographer’s point of view, I rarely add filters to my real life work and if I do, I add subtle things. [Photo mode filters] feels gimmicky to me, but that’s just because I’ve spent so long doing this —it should definitely be in there because lots of people get a lot of enjoyment out of them.”
The Last of Us Remastered, shot by Gareth Dutton:
Jay T: “In Horizon Zero Dawn and other games, in terms of depth of field, you’ve got focal length and aperture and you’ve got to work the two to get things looking right. I like the idea of having both focus distance and f-stop aperture settings rather than just one ‘depth of field’ slider. It’s more akin to actual photography and uses the correct terminology. With f-stops — f/1.4, f/2 etc. — if you’re somebody who’s not confident with real cameras, it gives you a basic understand of what these things do to a photograph.”
Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Jay Taylor:
Jay T: “I use the filters a lot in Horizon Zero Dawn, but I often alter the intensity. Sometimes it’s nice to use ‘cross process’ and maybe just apply 10%, so it has a subtle effect. Similarly with with the black and white filter, you can desaturate an image just a little bit.”
Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Tom Quillfeldt — using the ‘Cross Process’ filters:
Gary D: “I think the photo modes we have now are going stay largely the same because the camera has to centre around a certain character or anchor point and you’ll always have to fight with geometry that you’re not allowed to clip through.
“Having the ability to use real camera controls is a great trend that more games should take note of, especially to serve fans who might be interested in photography but are slightly intimidated by it. Being able to play with f-stops and shutter speed and see how that affects a picture in real time without any consequences… that’s a nice way to encourage interest in photography in general.”
Jay T: “It has become ‘a thing’ for me now. When I’m looking for games to buy, especially in the sales, I’ll check to see if they have a photo mode, as it puts them above those that don’t.
“I recently dove into Batman: Arkham Knight based on the [patched-in] photo mode. Sadly, it was a disappointing experience which is real shame because if a game screamed out for moody shots, it was this one. It doesn’t quite have the functionality that I’ve come to expect — there were so many shots of the Joker that I was really happy with, apart from the fact that I couldn’t toggle ‘hide player character’ and remove Batman from the shot.”
Batman: Arkham Knight, shot by Jay Taylor:
Jay T: “I’d like to see a standardised feature set across photo modes in general. Sometimes I like taking pictures of NPCs, making them the focus, so I need to be able to hide the player character.”
The Last of Us Remastered, shot by Jay Taylor:
Guerrilla Games gives you the time of day
Jay T: “That time of day slider in Horizon Zero Dawn is the thing! That one feature really sucked me in — to have the ability to totally change how a photograph looks based on where the position of the sun is in the sky.”
Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Tom Quillfeldt — showing how the different times of day affect the lighting model (filters can also affect weather effects):
TQ: “You can usually tell an early-game Horizon ‘time of day’ shot because people go straight for that magical sunshine lense flare! It’s very much a magic trick. 100% pure swagger on the part of Guerrilla Games.”
Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Tom Quillfeldt:
Gary D: “To play devil’s advocate… From a purist’s point of view, I’m not that keen on the idea of changing the time of day or the weather [as in DriveClub] because I like the idea of recording a moment in time; a virtual moment where some things have come together that are out of your control. That’s what I love about photography. I do everything I can to set up something with the intention of creating a certain kind of image, but then the random factors are the thing that make it special. Something just happens to cast a particular shadow which creates a composition that you weren’t 100% anticipating…
“Imagine playing Red Dead Redemption 2 and pausing at the perfect moment… then you’d just make it perfect ‘High Noon’ every time.”
Jay T: “I’m completely the opposite! I want that time of day slider in there! [in Red Dead 2]”
Gary D: “But what if you had a gun fight and it just so happened to be noon when you shot someone [with a gun]... I appreciate that it’s very much my preference though.”
All mod cons
TQ: “I guess that photo mode-esque tools have existed for decades in terms of taking in-game marketing shots. And obviously the industry is fairly notorious for touching up so-called screenshots — colloquially known as ‘bullshots’.”
Gary D: “[I remember] back in the heyday of gaming magazines where they would claim that they were showing screenshots from the PS2, but you knew it wasn’t the actual game running. I’d always assumed that to achieve those shots, they would unlock the camera during development and be able to add/remove characters — as modders often do with PC titles.
“A lot of what we’re getting now [with official photo modes] feels like it stems more from the modding community than from the marketing side of things. That’s how I’ve always thought of photo mode — the modders got people’s attention with this stuff.”
TQ: “Which brings us nicely to my favourite modder/game photographer and my inspiration for getting so heavily into photo modes — Duncan Harris, AKA Dead End Thrills. Deadendthrills.com is just a brilliant website full of beautiful, classy video game images. He has a fantastic eye and can make you look at games in a different way — especially ones that you might not have thought too hard about but that clearly have impeccable art direction, like Mirror’s Edge or Spec Ops: The Line.”
Gary D: “He does what the marketing teams of yesteryear did, but in reverse. When you make a bullshot, you’re taking a single shot so you can put all the high-poly models in there and stuff that isn’t going to make it into the final game because of frame rate and performance issues.
“Whereas Dead End Thrills does that in reverse — he takes the finished product, runs it on some crazy-ass powerful machine, mods it and adds things that wouldn’t be recommended when actually running the game because it would affect performance.”
TQ: “In that way, he makes you appreciate just how incredibly beautiful games can be and how we’re all completely spoiled!”
Gary D: “As we’ve mentioned, people often don’t think about the amount of work that has gone into a game. They have the expectation that it’s going to run perfectly and never leave them bored or disappointed. Those high expectations mean we all get brilliant games, but it also tends to mean the people don’t stop to appreciate how it all came together.”
Photo mode: The next generation
TQ: “On that point of expectations, the contract between game-maker and the product-purchasing player is something like: ‘give us money and we’ll give you a video game to play’. It doesn’t necessarily include a clause saying: ‘said video game will include painstakingly modelled pot plants that shine in the coastal Italian sunshine’. But those details are in there and people like Dead End Thrills and we three intrepid shutterbugs strive to highlight them.”
Hitman (2016), shot by Tom Quillfeldt:
TQ: “To stray from photo modes for a moment, it’s also worth shouting out Andy Kelly’s Other Places YouTube series (Otherplaces.co.uk; YouTube channel), which achieves something similar to Dead End Thrills but through video.”
Gary D: “When you look at all the intricate detail in, say, the Marrakesh level of Hitman, you realise that so, so much work has gone into it and Andy Kelly’s videos can help you look at that stuff from a different perspective.”
Like Gary, Andy Kelly has also produced gaming photo collections, including:
Shout out to Vice Video Games Editor Mike Diver for commissioning loads of this great stuff!
Jay T: “I wonder if the next evolution of console photo modes and Share functions will be the ability to direct videos, having the same level of granular control in terms of removing NPCs etc.”
There have been replay modes at least as far back as Driver (1999) and in sports games. Valve release Source Filmmaker in 2012 and on the PC, PS4 and Xbox One versions of Grand Theft Auto V, there is the Rockstar Editor.
Jay T: “There are so many creative people, like @sunhilegend on Twitter — he was making short video clips of Horizon Zero Dawn that made it look like an action film. I couldn’t believe what he was doing — it’s stunning stuff. It generated so much word of mouth.”
Horizon Zero Dawn, shot by Twitter’s @sunhilegend:
TQ: “It would even just be nice to be able to turn live weather/environmental effects like the wind, as well as ambient sound effects — so you could take a ‘living photo’, as it were.”
Gary D: “There’s a video series called Freeze Game by Kieran Galaska AKA BeardBurrito (YouTube channel). He’s married together photo mode and video techniques to make montages of these fly-bys of frozen moments. It’s a really smart use of it, a halfway house between the two mediums.”
Jay himself recently had a crack at a similar type of video, featuring Horizon Zero Dawn:
It’s in the game
There are, of course, more literal ‘photo modes’ in certain games. In Grand Theft Auto V/Online you can whip your in-game camera out — the Snapmatic — and similarly, you can take selfies in Watch Dogs 2:
Whenever you rest for the night in Final Fantasy XV, you’ll get an auto-generated collection of photos from your travels, apparently ‘taken’ by your companion, Prompto. You can save and/or post them to social media.
Firewatch lets you take pictures with a virtual disposable camera and if you’re playing the PC version, pay $15 to have physical prints of those pics sent to you. It’s a nice touch for players, and scored a few extra news articles about the game.
Gary D: “I quite the difference between these two different approaches — ‘photo modes’ and in-game photo cameras. With photo modes in games like Uncharted 4, you are more like a director of photography on a film set: you can set up everything including the lighting; you can freeze everyone and have as much time as you need to slowly put people in place. If someone’s in your way, you can delete them. In real life that would be so useful sometimes, when someone’s ruining a really nice shot, you could just remove them!”
TQ: “Or just remove them from existence altogether.”
Gary D: “Yeah! depending on how annoyed I am with them…
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, shot by Tom Quillfeldt — the same scene at a black market auction held at an Italian estate, with character models toggled on and off:
Gary D: “With the in-game camera, rather than a pause-and-shoot photo mode, you can’t control every element and that adds a bit of chaos and interest — you could argue it’s closer to a real photography experience.
“Grand Theft Auto V/Online let’s you to play at being a photographer where you’re wandering around a virtual city and it becomes a simulation of street photography, essentially. You take on the role of opportunist, where you set yourself up in a place where it seems like something interesting could happen and find an interesting shot composition with nice lighting. You’ve picked a certain time of day to go there and then you wait for something to happen.
“It’s a metagame within GTA, which is a valid way of doing a ‘photo mode’. I remember getting together with the Midnight Resistance lot and seven or eight of us having a big multiplayer mess-around session in Grand Theft Auto Online, where I was sort of pretending to be a war/conflict photographer. I’d be running around chasing everybody else doing whatever they were doing, robbing places and causing trouble — and I was trying to take photos of the chaos and police fights. That was a really fun thing to do because I’m way too much of a coward to have a go at real conflict photography!
“It’s interesting to have those two sides of it. Are you taking in-game photos in order to present them somewhere else? e.g. as a genuine art project? Or is there also space for you to play at being a photographer as a game in and of itself, rather than with the intention to create some art from it.”
Grand Theft Auto Online seemingly enjoys an extremely active community of photographers, including Twitter’s @DrewBarnes85:
Gary D: “Unfortunately, Grand Theft Auto V’s implementation of photography felt a bit disappointing. It’s very much a marketing thing because you can only save photos at quite a small resolution and they get uploaded to the Rockstar Social Club, which you then have to log into to look at the pictures through their photo viewer. It’s not designed for you to go and create interesting things that you can take somewhere else, it’s designed to lock you into their stuff and drive traffic to the site.
“It’s not really in the spirit of ‘let’s see what you can make out of the world’. This feels like a bit of a missed opportunity because I very much wanted to do something meaningful in that game, but it’s difficult to do so.”
Jay T: “I did wonder initially if that restricted functionality was because the game was released on the previous generation. In the PS4 version of GTA5, if you use the Rockstar Editor, you can pause the game and remove the edit tools that are visible so you’ve just got the shot.”
Point and shoot
TQ: “As we wrap up, it’s worth quickly pointing out that in the past, there have been the numerous photography missions in games like Metal Gear Solid and Spider-Man 2…”
Jay T: “Gravity Rush 2 has photography as part of the gameplay — it’s a shame that it’s not a fully featured photo mode, especially given the art direction in that game.”
TQ: “In Life is Strange, you’re literally a budding photographer who is developing her ‘eye’ and attending photography lessons. You’re looking out for situations where the game will let you take a photo of as a kind of collectible — it’s a nice way of tying you to the character.
“And then there are dedicated photography games like Fatal Frame, Pokémon Snap etc.”
Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions; Life is Strange’s photo collectibles; Pokémon Snap:
Gary D: “As a mechanic, it’s essentially replacing a sniper rifle, aiming down the sights. Dead Rising uses it as a way to earn Prestige Points. That’s very much a ‘gamey’ element, as opposed to an intention to implement photography. It’s an interesting distinction.”
The inherent unreality of game worlds coupled with the video game industry’s massive J.R.R. Tolkien preoccupation (and through him, Richard Wagner's The Ring Cycle and various Nordic mythologies) means that for decades now, players have been presented with many, many different interpretations of ‘fantasy’.
The pursuit of creating a thousand resplendent fictional worlds has led to some sumptuous video game music, and we’re here to celebrate some notable tracks by talented composers. It will likely come as no surprise that this post is going to be largely taken up with floaty, ethereal voices (often a solo female) and lush woodwind and strings — such are the colours that these particular artists have chosen to paint with.
“Mysteries Abound” by Masashi Hamauzu – Final Fantasy XIII (2009)
This particular title in the Final Fantasy series is an acquired taste (much like its predecessor, Final Fantasy XII), but it also sports a cracking soundtrack (YouTube), as do its direct sequels Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Lead composer on the Fabula Nova Crystallis series, Masashi Hamauzu, brought a different vibe to the Final Fantasy series than stalwart Nobuo Uematsu (who composed entries #1 through #9 before the two collaborated on #10). His work is more impressionistic, angular, and directly influenced by classical music and opera.
This track from Hamauzu makes you feel like you’re lying suspended in a perfectly warm pool, staring up at glittering stars. Shortly after drinking a nice mug of hot chocolate.
“Then Were Created the Gods in the Midst of Heaven” by Austin Wintory – ABZÛ (2016)
Mellow underwater exploration game ABZÛ (Spotify; iTunes/Apple Music) is basically ‘Mysterious & Magical Wonderment: The Game’, in no small part thanks to its exquisite score by Austin Wintory (I’m going to continue calling him the ‘James Horner of game music’ just to see if it sticks).
During the 2017 run of video game music shows aired on UK national radio station Classic FM, host and VGM composer Jessica Curry repeatedly highlighted the innovation of Wintory’s choral writing. Only the second game composer to have been nominated for a Grammy (for Journey in 2012/13), he takes us on yet another, erm, journey in this piece, twisting and turning through different keys — Debussy-esque — before arriving back at one of ABZÛ’s beautiful core musical themes at 3:10.
“After the Dream” by Tomoko Sasaki, arr. Naofumi Hataya – NiGHTS into Dreams (1995)
Arguably, there is a multi-faceted ‘SEGA sound’ encompassing everything from Zaxxon through to the Dreamcast’s last hurrah, Sonic Adventure 2. Somewhere amidst all those fantastic scores is the brilliantly cheesy, blended pop from the quirk-assault that is NiGHTS into Dreams (YouTube).
This dreamy ditty might not seem out of place as hold music for a dentist’s practice, but the mere fact that you could pop the Sega Saturn disc into a normal CD player and play the soundtrack endears these tracks to my heart.
“Pandora’s Box” by Winifred Phillips – God of War (2005)
Winifred Phillips literally wrote the book on composing game music (A Composer's Guide to Game Music) and has generally been a leading light both for lady composers in media and women in games.
On the God of War soundtrack (YouTube), she mixed it up with several other composers, often providing the mythological mystery in counterpoint to all the thumping percussion, brass and shouty choirs found elsewhere.
“Song For Aloy” by Joris de Man, perf. Julie Elven – Horizon Zero Dawn (2017)
Whilst his ensemble work and orchestration is generally loverly jubbly, when you strip everything out and expose Julie Elven’s voice, you access the full power of de Man’s simple main theme — the keystone of the whole score. This bare version perfectly encapsulates the emotional distance lead character Aloy has to travel from being a local outcast, ensconced in the valley of her relatively backwards tribe, to being a globe-trotting, hyper-violent, one-woman justice machine.
Julie Elven, also a vocalist on several Total War titles, Star Citizen and World of Warcraft: Legion, gets to get her Enya on:
“To the Successor of the Crystal” by Kumi Tanioka – Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles (2003)
As mentioned above with Masashi Hamauzu and the Final Fantasy XIII series, Final Fantasy as a brand has become a home for many fantastic composers — beyond Nobuo Uematsu — to create wonderful soundtracks.
The sound of spin-off series Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles (YouTube) was crafted by the Hiroshima-born Kumi Tanioka, who was also one of the three composers on Final Fantasy XI (and member of FFXI tribute band, The Star Onions). A pianist at heart, she adds some delicate tinkling to this lovely, ethereal piece.
“The Ancestral Trees” by Gareth Coker – Ori and the Blind Forest (2015)
Brit-in-exile Gareth Coker has been doing more than just soaking up the L.A. sun — according to an interview he recently conducted with Kate Remington on the Music Respawn! podcast, he cut his teeth composing for trailers, learning how to tickle the listener’s eardrums across the whole audible frequency spectrum. His score for Ori and the Blind Forest (Spotify; iTunes/Apple Music) was nominated for a BAFTA in 2016 but faced stiff competition, losing out to Jessica Curry’s Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture (Ori and the Blind Forest won the award for Artistic Achievement).
In The Ancestral Trees, Coker cranks up the feels to 11 with shimmering tremolo strings, a touching piano melody in octaves from 0:21 before the whole thing erupts in a geyser of moonlit romance at 0:43.
“Wretched Weaponry:Quiet” by Keiichi Okabe – NieR:Automata (2017)
Like previous NieR games, NieR:Automata’s soundtrack (YouTube) was composed by Okabe Keiichi and his music production team, dubbed MONACA.
As with the game’s many endings, the soundtrack can be a bit complicated to get your head around. In the case of this particular track, it’s one of three variations on the soundtrack album and is sung by a double-tracked Emi Evans who wrote the lyrics in her invented, French-derived language ‘Nouveau FR’ or ‘New French’.
Frankly, the whole thing puts the ‘bon’ in ‘bonkers’.
“The Ballad of the Space Babies” by Jim Guthrie – Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (2011)
Like Disasterpeace (FEZ), Darren Korb (Bastion), Terence Lee AKA Lifeformed (Dustforce) and Ben Prunty (FTL: Faster Than Light), Jim Guthrie is one of a gang of composers that helped elevate a generation of superb, trailblazing indie games in the early part of the 10’s. As well as composing for the hit iPad adventure Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (releasing the soundtrack by way of album Sword & Sworcery LP - The Ballad of the Space Babies — Spotify; iTunes/Apple Music), Guthrie in many ways soundtracked the entire indie movement through his score for the 2012 documentary, Indie Game: The Movie (Spotify; iTunes/Apple Music).
Much of his music is gentle and subtle, reminiscent of the sorts of tracks found in Sofia Coppola movies.
The Fields of Ard Skellig by Marcin Przybyłowicz – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (Spotify; iTunes/Apple Music) is a gigantic game, thus the task of music director and lead composer Marcin Przybyłowicz in soundtracking its various regions and story events was also gigantic. To get an authentic medieval Polish sound, Przybyłowicz recruited folk musicians — various multi-instrumentalists and the group Percival — to essentially just jam out on traditional instruments including the lute, hurdy-gurdy, renaissance fiddle and bowed gusli. This behind-the-scenes video shows how he had to throw out his careful planning in favour of more free-form recording sessions.
In this atmospheric piece, we hear some of that folk playing and singing over the top of more filmic, dramatic chords and synth pads.
Video game podcaster Jeremy LaMont explores the beginnings of dynamic game music and how it manifests in modern soundtracks.
By Jeremy LaMont
In the same way that video games offer an experience that changes dynamically, a game’s audio—made up of music, sound effects and dialogue—can similarly be non-linear. In terms of music, there are sophisticated techniques that can mean that the work of the composers is experienced in a unique way for each play session. You may have heard of some of the rules-based techniques, including ‘generative’, ‘dynamic’ or ‘procedural’ music.
Early on in the history of video games, some game developers recognised the potential for dynamic musical scores. In a few games, such as 1984’s Lazy Jones (Commodore 64, MSX), clever programming and composition tricks such as ‘nested looping’ (a loop within a loop) were used to great effect, blending multiple tunes into one continuous and cohesive-sounding whole.
Although dynamic music is an impressive technical and aesthetic feat, dynamic scores were few and far between. Other early titles like 1981’s Castle Wolfenstein (Apple II) and Galaga (Arcade) to some degree leaned on in-game sound effects as music of a kind, in order to set the mood of the game.
The iMUSE-ing secret of Monkey Island
Dynamic music took a big step forward in 1990 with the development of the iMUSE (interactive Music Streaming Engine) by LucasArts’ in-house composer, Michael Land, who sought a more robust audio system while working on The Secret of Monkey Island.
Enlisting the aid of colleague Peter McConnell (who would continue on to create soundtracks for many LucasArts titles including Grim Fandango and Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II), the two created and patented iMUSE as the first dedicated dynamic music engine.
Using iMUSE, a game could transition between musical selections or add cues appropriate to on-screen action or player choices. Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge (PC) used iMUSE to great effect, adding transitional cues and music crossfading to produce a seamless and appropriately punctuated musical experience.
iMUSE was successfully implemented in many of LucasArts' subsequent games—not only adventure games. One of the system's most dramatic uses can be seen in the 1993 space combat simulator, Star Wars: X-Wing (PC), in which the appearance of friendly and enemy ships are appropriately ushered into the action, John Williams-style, with the appropriate leitmotif (a musical theme that is assigned to a particular fiction character, place or thing e.g. Darth Vader’s or Gollum’s theme). This early reconnaissance mission highlights the impact of large warships, such as Star Destroyers, appearing on the scene.
Following iMUSE, and perhaps as a natural progression of advancement in game technology, dynamic music systems started appearing across every genre, and now are found in most video games today. Music systems have become more subtle and complex, progressing out of the realm of programming event-triggered synthesized MIDI into the realm of overlapping stereo ‘stems’, either sampled-based and/or featuring real instruments, and more interactive cues.
Modern examples abound, and aren't limited to narrative or action games. It's not uncommon for a game to be entirely based on the idea of dynamic music (such as the acclaimed Rez) or, indeed, allow the player to create his or her own music (here’s Daft Punk’s Get Lucky arranged in Mario Paint). Developer Q Entertainment, founded by Tetsuya Mizuguchi (the man responsible for Space Channel 5 and Rez), is pretty much devoted to the idea of player-driven music creation:
A very literal and direct application of dynamic music might be Guitar Hero (2005) or Rock Band (2007), where player actions alter the actual instruments heard in licensed tracks (often for the worse!) but the ultimate effect is that the player feels like he or she is directly responsible for the quality of the performance of the music.
A side effect of more dynamic music is that there is less room for deliberately orchestrated, straightforwardly linear music. Compare, for example, a gameplay version of Vincent Diamante’s score for 2009’s Flower:
...with the linearly arranged version for the official soundtrack album:
Both are beautiful, and it’s possible (because of deliberate design) that players of Flower are more likely to emotionally connect with the arrangement that has is being played just for them, on the fly. It's pretty much a given these days that games will strive for at least that level of musical interactivity.
2017’s STRAFE features a quiet theme or ambient sound which loops at the start of each level before the hyper-violent action really begins (see if you can fool the dynamic music system in STRAFE by avoiding firing your gun for as long as possible!)
“I’d like to see more composers—as well as audio leads at developers—really pushing the limits of what we can do with a piece of music to support the player’s experience and still have it be a piece of music. Ideally, the player won’t hear the joins so that it’s like a piece of bespoke underscore that’s made on the fly.
“Each player’s an individual so, ideally, you won’t experience that moment where you walk into a cave and know you’re about to be attacked by skeletons because the ‘about to be attacked by skeletons’ music is playing, on cue. We can get increasingly granular with the [interactive uses of layers of music AKA ‘stems’]. We can use midi to control things and we can have samples on the fly now that memory’s a bit better.
“It’s complicated and it takes more time but I would loved to see something really pushing the creative boundaries, thinking of the gameplay as the performance of the music.”
At some point, composers and producers have to make some tricky decisions about how to take music that was composer for a dynamic system and carefully arrange it into a static, listenable soundtrack album. An interesting problem to tackle, when one considers the amount of effort that has gone into doing the reverse!
Do you have any favorite dynamic video game soundtracks? Let us know!
We gather tributes from notable Uematsu superfans from around the video games and game music communities.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
In June 2017 in Paris and London, Eckehard Stier raised his baton to conduct one of the world’s best orchestras—the London Symphony Orchestra—alongside the London Symphony Chorus, in performances of classical arrangements of music drawn from composer Nobuo Uematsu’s immense body of video game music.
The concert programme, titled Symphonic Odysseys, celebrated the work of a living legend—someone who has affected the lives of millions through his art. There’s only so much mileage in referring to Uematsu as the ‘John Williams of video games’, but the melodies and leitmotifs that suffuse classic Final Fantasy titles, c. 1987 - 2001, are seared into our memories in the same way as those from the Star Wars series.
It provides the greatest comfort that Nobuo himself is around to attend almost every concert featuring his music, soak up the adoration and grapple with the idea that the melodies he created whilst sitting alone in some dark corner of the Squaresoft offices in the late 80’s (I imagine) have influenced so many people’s lives.
Here are some tributes to Uematsu’s work—more specifically, alternative musical arrangements picked out by prominent superfans from around the world of video games and game music.
Nobuo Uematsu – Godlike genius; video game composer
Track: To Zanarkand from Piano Collections: Final Fantasy X
Arranged by Masashi Hamauzu, performed by Aki Kuroda
At the pre-concert talk before the 2017 performance of Symphonic Odysseys in London, the humble and jovial Uematsu joked about the irony of being completely untrained in music, yet there are people around the world writing their university theses about his music.
Proudly omnivorous in his musical tastes, the composer wished that he had had more opportunities to be experimental in his composition process (he admits that this was only really the case with perhaps his most popular piece, One-Winged Angel), but that video games beget often stifling deadlines.
Uematsu recalls Final Fantasy VI as being his favourite title to work on because of the cohesiveness, passion and dedication of a development team that was on the cusp of global domination (with Final Fantasy VII), but not quite there yet.
That said, his favourite piece from among all “his children” is To Zanarkand, the main theme of Final Fantasy X. When pressed, he shrugs: “I just like it”.
Maxine Kwok-Adams – First Violin, London Symphony Orchestra
Track: Final Fantasy VI Symphonic Poem: Born With The Gift Of Magic from Final Symphony
Arranged by Roger Wanamo, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra
“It's so exciting to be a part of the new video game music phenomenon in the recording studio and the concert hall. I’ve performed on many video game soundtracks, but it doesn’t get much more iconic than Nobuo Uematsu. The programmes of Final Fantasy music that have been adapted by Jonne Valtonen, Roger Wanamo and Masashi Hamauzu, including Symphonic Odysseys, Final Symphony and Final Symphony II, are epic works.
“My favourite is Final Fantasy VI Symphonic Poem: Born With The Gift Of Magic [Spotify; Apple Music] arranged by Roger Wanamo, as it begins and ends with a very simple melody—Terra's Theme. I have seen audience members shed a tear when they hear this beautiful tune; it obviously invokes memories of the game, as well as being a stand-alone tune of beauty and innocence. The piece takes us through so many emotions and styles from the fanfare opening, comedy moments, a demented waltz, a sinister sound world, fight scenes and the heroic ending, blending into the final occurrence of Terra's Theme.”
“I'm pleased that the London Symphony Orchestra has had so many opportunities to work with Uematsu both at Abbey Road Studios and on concert platforms all around the world. Audiences justifiably go wild hearing his music—and not just because of the obvious relationship to the games or Nobuo’s own, genuine modesty. I truly believe this music can hold its own on a concert platform, as it never fails to take you on an incredibly imaginative journey.”
Track: Troian Beauty(Final Fantasy IV) from Cafe SQ
Arranged by Schroeder-Headz, performed by Schroeder-Headz, Yu Sato and Hiroyuki Suzuki
“I once interviewed Nobuo Uematsu and mentioned that this was my favourite song so many times that he likely never wants to hear the track title said again!
“It's such a simple and beautiful piece of music, and one that doesn't get a lot of attention from fans. Although I really love the Celtic Moon version, this particular arrangement is special because unlike most arrangements that accentuate the sweetness of the original, this is straight jazz. Now, I love jazz, and think there needs to be more in game music in general, so being able to combine my favorite Uematsu track with this genre is just perfect. I mean, c'mon, there's even a drum solo in this! It's so good. It's on all of my event/party playlists, so go and find the CD and put it on yours as well!
“Whilst the Cafe SQ brand is relatively new, and I can't say that I have special memories attached to it specifically, I most certainly have special memories of the original track, Troian Beauty. I used to turn on Final Fantasy IV on my SNES and walk to certain in-game locations to listen to the music while playing with my Lego.
“This was one of those songs. It always brings to mind that first scene from Troia... A castle with beautiful blue water around it, and the green frogs swimming within. There's a way to get down into the moat and talk to the frogs, and one of them has something more than ‘ribbit’ to say to you! I guess you might associate the song with the character Edward, given that this is where you find him recovering, but that’s almost an afterthought given all these other things.”
Track: Final Fantasy VII (Symphony in Three Movements): II. Words Drowned by Fireworks from Final Symphony
Arranged by Jonne Valtonen, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra
“This movement contains everything that makes Final Symphony and Uematsu: it's a gripping and dramatic story. Great music with incredible emotions. The melodies are magical and the colors in orchestration are great art!”
Here is an excerpt of the movement, filmed live at Abbey Road Studios:
“The time we all spent together in Abbey Road was something special. The work on the recording, the humorous—and at all times constructive!—cooperation with Uematsu was very remarkable.”
Also: Classical Music director and on-air announcer at WSHU Public Radio in Fairfield, CT
Track: Fragments of Memories (Final Fantasy VIII) from Final Fantasy: A New World
Arranged by Arnie Roth and Eric Roth, performed by the New World Players
"What I admire most about Nobuo Uematsu's music is that it amplifies all of the emotions in the Final Fantasy games: from providing an injection of much needed heroism in the battles; to supporting those quiet moments when the characters are able to catch their breath. It’s hard to choose a favourite, but Fragments of Memories from Final Fantasy VIII is my pick. The simplicity of the waltz melody makes the wrenching emotions even more poignant.”
Here it is in game:
“It's beautiful just as it is in the game, but the arrangement that Arnie Roth [of Distant Worlds fame] and his son Eric made for chamber ensemble for their intimate Final Fantasy: A New World concerts is so stunning!"
“Being in the audience for this concert was a remarkable experience. The chamber ensemble arrangements that Arnie and Eric wrote gave us a chance to hear this familiar music in a new way."
Track: Silent Light (Chrono Trigger) from Symphonic Odysseys
Arranged by Jonne Valtonen, performed by the WDR Radio Choir Cologne
“Testament to the richness of his catalogue, I found it difficult to narrow down a favourite of Uematsu’s, let alone one particular arrangement. That said, one that stands out to me as a high point in my exposure to his music is Silent Light from Chrono Trigger.
“This choral arrangement—by expert musician/arranger Jonne Valtonen of Merregnon Studios—has several carefully executed extended techniques that help to create a vivid atmosphere. Each aspect of the original composition gets some form of careful consideration here. Rather than just having the choir sing the melody and harmonies, there are soft wind sounds, whistles, and quietly sung vowels held over long phrases that add an otherworldly sound to the entire piece, and enhance the impact when the choir does sing together in unison."
Here’s the original piece, in context: “Playing during the first dungeon in Chrono Trigger, this piece evokes a strong nostalgic feeling, and Mr Valtonen’s beautiful choral arrangement captures this whilst adding new layers of emotional complexity to the original material. Silent Light is just one example that showcases Uematsu’s ability to write compelling dungeon music over and over, whether it be the numerous compositions in the Final Fantasy series, or SaGa, or Chrono Trigger.”
Daniel Seto – SEJ West Community Manager, Square Enix Europe
Track: Tifa Funk (Final Fantasy VII), from MATERIA
Arranged and performed by Tetrimino
“Final Fantasy VII has been my favourite game of all time ever since I first played it on Christmas morning, way back in 1997. It changed my life, and Uematsu’s score played an important part in that. The game is a rare, generation-defining title with a soundtrack that features so many memorable melodies—some may say it features the best soundtrack in the franchise…”
“I love the entire Final Fantasy VII soundtrack but there’s one piece that easily stands out above the rest to me—Tifa’s Theme. It lies at the heart of the entire game, much like the character herself. Cloud may be the protagonist and Sephiroth the franchise’s most iconic antagonist but to me, Tifa is the character that brings the game together and gives it real soul. She’s effectively the mother of the group and her theme perfectly captures this with its warm, comforting melody. Without Tifa and her theme, Final Fantasy VII would be missing its heart.
“The love triangle between Cloud, Tifa and Aerith is one of the game’s biggest narrative drivers in terms of characters, and this is why my track pick would have been the second movement of the Final Fantasy VII Symphony, Words Drowned by Fireworks, from Final Symphony (Spotify). Arranger Jonne Valtonen weaves Tifa’s, Aerith’s and the Final Fantasy VII Main Theme in and out of one another as Cloud tries to choose between the two women, before [**IRONIC SPOILER ALERT**] Sephiroth comes along and removes one from the equation. It’s a powerful arrangement that shows the tender side of each character.” [Ed: But we’ve already included it elsewhere, so…]
“There’s also another side to Tifa, evidenced by the Tetrimino track, Tifa Funk,” released by the Materia Collective as part of its 5-disc collaborative album, MATERIA:
“Tifa is a strong woman who has a bit of flair to her. She always tries to wear a smile, even when she knows that her best friend and love interest Cloud’s memories conflict with reality, and this version of her theme shows that positive attitude whilst keeping that warm, motherly essence. It’s like she simultaneously wants to hug you and dance with you just to cheer you up… Or dress up provocatively and deliberately get captured in order to infiltrate an establishment of questionable virtue, just to protect you.
“These two versions of Tifa’s Theme not only show the different sides to her character, but also demonstrate how multifaceted Uematsu’s original theme really is. One theme can fit any mood and bring out treasured memories while still staying true to the character.
“It’s a rare talent that Uematsu-san has and you only have to witness the number of fans that turn up to any one of the Final Fantasy concerts around the world to see how his music has touched so many people. There are so many Final Fantasy themes that I could discuss in terms of how impactful and important they are to me, but Tifa’s theme stands at the top of them all. “Also, Tifa is best girl!!”
David Housden – Composer, Thomas Was Alone & Volume
Track: Fisherman's Horizon (Final Fantasy VIII) from Distant Worlds
Arranged by Arnie Roth & co, performed by the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
“This was one of my favourite pieces in the game. There are so many beautiful 'small town' themes in Final Fantasy VIII, but this is the pick of the bunch for me. It has such a peaceful, tranquil essence that you instantly felt at ease here after escaping the prior chaos.
“Hearing it fully realised by the wonderful Stockholm Philharmonic and the orchestration of Arnie Roth, among others, takes it to a different plane though. Unshackled from the restraints of the original PlayStation sound chip, it truly soars and the tutti crescendo with full choir at 2:48 is simply stunning.
“I love the voicings and the way the harmony spreads through the different sections, as the piece develops. It really embellishes on the original so much, whilst still retaining the identity and essence of the track. Something which is absolutely key to a successful and faithful arrangement, and they achieved it with aplomb here. It never fails to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
“I remember very clearly being 14 or 15 years old when experiencing it for the first time and being incredibly moved by it. For me, it really highlights Uematsu's versatility as a composer. Hours of music went into that game, and understandably some pieces are stronger than others. During the third disk [which starts with a meeting with Headmaster Cid and Edea at her house and ends at Lunatic Pandora], themes become notably less memorable and then, out of nowhere, he treats us to one of the highlights of the entire game. The mark of a true great.”
Track: Waterside (Blue Dragon) from Symphonic Odysseys
Arranged by Jonne Valtonen, performed by the Munich Radio Orchestra
“Jonne Valtonen arranged Waterside as a piece for string orchestra. The melody moves through the different sections like being carried by waves of the sea. The arrangement is so beautiful, so intense—heartbreaking, really—that it is easily one of my favorite Uematsu pieces. The co-operation between melody-maker Uematsu and orchestra mastermind Valtonen is at its best here.
“Blue Dragon was the first soundtrack Uematsu composed for Hironobu Sakaguchi’s post-Final Fantasy studio, Mistwalker. This was after Uematsu went freelance back in 2004, so it certainly meant a huge step for him and his career.
“Funny story: I know that this music plays when you are entering the bathroom in Mr Uematsu’s house! You could view this as his special sense of humour, but I can’t help but think that he would only do this if the piece meant a lot to him.”
Merregnon Studios produces video game classical concerts and albums including Final Symphony, Symphonic Fantasies and Symphonic Odysseys.
Larry Oji – Community Manager and Head Submissions Evaluator, OverClocked ReMix
Also: Co-Founder, OverClocked Records
Track: Everything = Nothing (OC ReMix #1349)
An arrangement of Compression of Time (Final Fantasy VIII) by Sefiros (Bryan Henderson)
“We have several amazing OC ReMixes of Nobuo Uematsu's music, so it was difficult to pick just one when there are great arrangements like Jake Kaufman’s & Tommy Pedrini's version of The Impresario (Final Fantasy VI), The Orichalcon’s & bustatunez's Rare Square (Final Fantasy VII) and Theory of N's Al Bhed Ec Faent (Final Fantasy X).
“However, the Uematsu-based OC ReMix that's endured for me the most is Bryan ‘Sefiros’ Henderson's take on Compression of Time from Final Fantasy VIII, entitled Everything = Nothing. The original theme is catchy at its core, but has some pretty quirky instrumentation on the original PlayStation. Sefiros was able to dramatically transform it into a cinematic orchestral piece infused with tons of tension and emotion. The subtle changes and instrumentation additions over the course of the near-seven minute track are things that a first-time listener might miss, but shouldn't overlook—the evolving textures are why this ReMix sticks with me so strongly, more than a decade later.
“Back in 2011, I had the good fortune to interview Uematsu-san face-to-face in Baltimore before a Distant Worlds performance, but I wish I had the forethought to play this ReMix to him and [producer/conductor/arranger] Arnie Roth. While Bryan did also release an updated version in 2012, I'd love to one day hear an actual live orchestra bring the brass, drums, and particularly the strings of Sefiros's epic rendition of this classic theme to life. If there's ever a concert tour based on OC ReMixes, I've got my bucket list item-within-a-bucket list item!”
Track: Dancing Mad (Final Fantasy VI) from Distant Worlds II
Arranged by Arnie Roth & co, performed by the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
“Choosing one track by Uematsu-san to declare as my favourite is as hard as trying to identify what my favourite game is. I am a big fan of the Final Fantasy series, but there are other series I definitely prefer overall as games to play. But one thing is for certain: my favourite music in all of video games comes from the Final Fantasy series, over classics such as Zelda or even Mario. There have been so many incredible tracks over the years, such as Liberi Fatali, Prelude, To Zanarkand—the list is seemingly endless.
“The easiest way to narrow it down is to pick one from my favourite game in the series: Final Fantasy VI.
“Dancing Mad plays during your final battle against Kefka, one of the greatest villains in all of gaming (let alone just in the Final Fantasy series). This track is epic and haunting; those deafening organ pipes that sound off as you fight make it feel like it really is the end of days. To this day, I have no idea how Uematsu-san and his team managed to get those incredible orchestral sounds out of the S-SNP sound unit in the SNES.
“The song itself is very similar to One-Winged Angel in terms of composition and tone: both are epic and stand out because they’re inextricably tied to such great ‘bad guy’ characters. Uematsu-san has made so many incredible tracks and songs over the years, but Dancing Mad will be the one I always return to, to remind me of just how incredible Final Fantasy is as a series, and the incredible memories I’ve had playing the games.”
Jeremy Lamont – Podcaster, Video Game Grooves & gameBYTES
Track: Balamb Garden from Final Fantasy VIII
Arranged by Daisuke Minamizawa, performed by Derek Bui
“Uematsu's Balamb Garden strikes an evocative balance between sanctuary and agitation, holding conflicting feelings in tension, not unlike the disposition of protagonist Squall Leonhart. The smooth winds early in the piece, and the melodic eddies later on, are underscored by the persistent tick-tock of strings. One could parallel this with Squall’s cool disdain for the rigidity of the student timetable at the ‘Garden’ [i.e. fantasy high school]. The piece is pleasant and hopeful, and provides a nice, listenable interlude between exciting missions for SeeD [a private militia made up of teenage students, for some daft reason].
“This arrangement for guitar by Daisuke Minamizawa makes the theme seem like such a natural fit for solo classical guitar—Balamb Garden could well have been written for the instrument. The fingering for the which is reminiscent of certain compositions by 18th-19th Century Spanish classical composer, Fernando Sor. I may be biased towards the instrument, but after a few listens of this rendition of Balamb Garden, I’d be tempted to suggest that any remake of Final Fantasy VIII should swap out the synthesised orchestra for solo guitar! That may sound like heresy, but Uematsu compositions are so wonderfully versatile, it just might work.”
Arranged by Tsuyoshi Sekito & Kenichiro Fukui, performed by The Black Mages
The Black Mages, including Nobuo Uematsu on keyboards, perform Clash On The Big Bridge live:
“I'm not sure this is my single favourite Uematsu arrangement, but rather a track from my favourite Final Fantasy arrangement album (where I have a hard time choosing the best of an awesome bunch). Maybe best to stick to an absolute Final Fantasy classic: Clash On The Big Bridge (more commonly known as Battle At The Big Bridge) originally appears in Final Fantasy V where the party is set to battle Exdeath's right hand, Gilgamesh. Multiple versions of the piece have appeared across several Final Fantasy titles.
“What's special about The Black Mages version is that instead of being the typical orchestra or piano arrangement, this is full-on prog rock! And an ‘official’ rendition, given that it was performed and arranged by Square Enix employees Tsuyoshi Sekito and Kenichiro Fukui (and produced by Uematsu himself).
“Whilst it’s an epic tune in and of itself, here Clash On The Big Bridge gets an injection of tension and atmosphere thanks to a some extensive guitar and keyboard solos—something I imagine wouldn't have been out of place in the game itself. I’ve often had this album on in the background when playing Final Fantasy and other JRPGs, as these heavy rock versions of Final Fantasy battle music make everything feel much more grand and bombastic—this track is no exception.
“The album is so special to me because of the way I learned about it. I was in my mid-to-late teens at the time and I was listening to a lot of metal—progressive metal in particular—and had been a sucker for everything Final Fantasy prior to that. I was randomly searching the internet for new musical things related to Final Fantasy when I read about this album being just hard rock/metal versions of battle themes from different Final Fantasy games and I had to have it. I didn't go looking for track snippets or anything like that—I immediately ordered it online and waited patiently… and it was everything I had hoped it would be!
"Sadly, The Black Mages disbanded in 2010 due busy schedules and copyright issues between the members of the band and Square Enix. For those who can't get enough of this type of thing, Uematsu formed another band called Earthbound Papas which also performs Final Fantasy music (as well as Uematsu tracks from other games and original tracks).”
Arranged by Dashiel Reed and performed by Videri String Quartet
“Although pretty much ALL of Uematsu's music is wonderful, I think my favourite is One-Winged Angel.
“The main reason for that is my personal connection to this particular arrangement of ours. We play a lot of different arrangements, from a lot of different games. If we don't announce the piece, you can always tell EXACTLY the moment when the audience figures out what we are playing (it's usually a few measures in).
“Not so with One-Winged Angel. People recognise that piece by the second chord! I'm not actually sure if any of our audiences have even heard the third or fourth chord because there is always such excitable cheering. It's clear that this piece is important to a lot of people.
“For many, this was the first exposure to the immense power of dense orchestration in a video game. In interviews, Nobuo had attributed musical quotes and inspirations to Stravinsky and Orff, and we, as an ensemble, love any fusion between classical music and video games.
“Also, as gamers, it’s a relief to hear a piece that is through-composed [the music theory term for a piece with no repeating sections]. I’ve grinded Aeris to level 99 in the Temple of the Ancients and can happily go the rest of my life without hearing those tubular chimes again. One-Winged Angel differs from Uematsu’s other works, in that he composed 20 to 30 musical phrases and deliberately arranged them in sequence, similar to a jigsaw puzzle. As a result, new ideas are constantly being introduced, always keeping the listener (and performer) on their toes.
“Arranging this piece for string quartet definitely had its challenges. Obviously, a quartet only has four players compared to a full orchestra which often has 90+ players. Our arranger, Dashiel Reed, utilised the quartet's full potential by using double and triple stops [playing two or three notes at the same time] and techniques such as tremolo and ponticello [playing right next to the bridge, resulting in a spooky, scratchy sound].
“This arrangement is one we have always had fun playing, and the audience's reaction enhances that feeling. I'm pretty sure all those positive memories associated with playing it have had a direct influence on why it’s my favourite Uematsu track.”
Leah Haydu – Podcaster, Cane and Rinse & Sound of Play
Track: Force Your Way from Final Fantasy VIII
Arranged by Tsuyoshi Sekito & Kenichiro Fukui, performed by The Black Mages
“Final Fantasy VIII is my favourite Final Fantasy game, and has been ever since I first played it, later on spending many, many hours either playing or watching my roommate play during our graduate school years (when we probably should have been studying). I didn't discover The Black Mages until years later but by then, the music was so ingrained in my memory that the concept of rock arrangements of those familiar tunes was basically the best thing I could imagine.
“Uematsu's soundtracks range from sweeping, epic overworld themes to pounding battle music and this track definitely falls into the latter category. It gives me the feeling that my characters are definitely on a mission, and that they aren't going to be stopped by anything. This particular arrangement is perfect in that regard, enhancing the driving intensity of the battles you're fighting. It always reminds me of fighting NORG in the basement of Balamb Garden, and then I just start itching to play Final Fantasy VIII again. More so than on a normal day, that is.”
Track: Terra’s Resolve (Terra’s Theme from Final Fantasy VI)
Arranged by Chad Seiter, performed by the Slovak National Orchestra
“Terra’s Theme will always be my ultimate Uematsu piece—it’s my favourite track from my favourite Final Fantasy game. Such a simple, repeating melody, yet at the same time it feels like a relentless march from oppression to redemption. Nothing can stop Terra as she goes from hopelessness to hope (a good rule of thumb for life that—never give up no matter how hopeless things seem). The first time I heard it on the SNES back in 1995, as the opening credits scrolled up the screen, I was blown away by how grand it sounded. I guess that was the moment I fell in love with JRPGs.
“There are so many great arrangements of it (even Jeremy Soule [of Elder Scrolls fame] had a pretty decent crack at it), but this is one of my favourite versions of the theme as a standalone piece. It manages to pack in the widest range of emotions possible from that simple melody—from bombastic, to reserved, to triumphant—and it just goes to show how clever Uematsu is as a composer; how he can create one melody that has many meanings. I think that’s his real talent.”
Thomas Quillfeldt – Community Manager, Laced Records
Track: Ahead On Our Way from Piano Collections FINAL FANTASY VII
Arranged by Shirō Hamaguchi, performed by Seiji Honda
“I’ve always suspected that the first Final Fantasy game you play is likely to remain your favourite (a bit like Souls games, Zelda etc.) Final Fantasy VII was that gateway RPG for me—as for so many others—and it has provided the most inspiration for me out of all the creative works I’ve consumed, be they films, books, artworks, games and so on. It’s also the soundtrack that sparked my passion for game music. Similarly, I feel that your first album of alternative arrangements of Uematsu compositions is likely to remain a firm favourite.
“Discovering that there was a world of recordings and live performances beyond the original soundtrack led me down a decade-long rabbit hole, hunting down as many game-related albums as possible. I fell into curious habit of sorting tracks I liked (in their thousands) by mood, for instance labelling tracks ‘summery’ or ‘heroic’.
“The most relaxing of these moods is one that I nicknamed ‘sunset journey’—music that evokes that keen sense of yearning as your team of characters plods onwards towards their goal across a glorious fantastical landscape (usually at sunset). The Final Fantasy series has always traded on that feeling of being on a journey, which is why it was no surprise to me that Final Fantasy XV’s design centred around a literal road trip.”
“In Final Fantasy VII, Ahead On Our Way plays when you’re in the first post-Midgar town, Kalm. Even if the original track officially falls into the ‘peaceful town’ category, this exquisite arrangement and performance typifies this ‘sunset journey’ mood—highly melodic, full of longing and somewhat bittersweet. Again, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Square-Enix throwback JRPG, I Am Setsuna, featured a solo piano score. I wonder if that would have been as appropriate without the many high quality ‘piano collections’ albums that have been created around JRPG soundtrack compositions.
“This version of Ahead On Our Way is arrestingly beautiful and brings a deft, emotive and very human touch to the piece.”
Game composer Amos Roddy, AKA ToyTree, chatted to us about synthwave, his favourite scores and his love of "magical" vinyl
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Picture this: it’s 1996, you’ve just finished setting up your Windows 95 PC which is rocking an Intel 200 MHz P6 processor with 16mb of RAM, CD-Rom and 3.5-inch floppy disk drives—and you’re already bored of Encarta 96’s Mindmaze. The Manic Street Preachers’ A Design For Life is playing on the radio. Then you boot up STRAFE and your head literally* explodes… (*figuratively)
Such is the power of the fastest, bloodiest, deadliest, most adjective-abusing, action-packed first-person shooter of 1996**, developed by Pixel Titans and published by Devolver Digital on Steam (PC/Mac) and PS4 (**actually 2017).
An important part of STRAFE’s impact is thanks to a furious, pumping score (Spotify, BandCamp) by Amos Roddy, AKA ToyTree. Based in Portland, Oregon, he’s a relative newcomer to video game music composition with a handful of notable indie projects under his belt.
Here’s our chat about his influences, STRAFE, the vinyl revival and where he’d like to see game music going in the future.
The genesis of a game music philosophy
Young Amos was a “Sega Genesis kid” before becoming a “PlayStation kid”, enjoying gameplay and soundtrack classics Streets of Rage 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Final Fantasy VII, among others.
Ultimately, he was most interested in the artistic cohesion of a game, rather than specifically the music. Roddy most fondly remembers a title that fired his creative imagination: 1996’s claymation point-and-click adventure, The Neverhood, one of those games that still stands out for its aesthetic and production values having been born when the creator of Earthworm Jim, Doug TenNapel, pitched Steven Spielberg.
“That came out when I was very young but it caught my creative imagination: over the course of several years I drew pictures of the world of The Neverhood and wrote little fan novels—though I claimed they were actually set in their own world! And the music was utterly, wonderfully bizarre.”
To hear more of the soundtrack by Terry Scott Taylor, check out Imaginarium: Songs from the Neverhood (Discogs; YouTube).
“As a teenager, I got sucked into the depression of adolescence and fell into massively multiplayer online games which I don’t think are particular great fuel for the artistic imagination. But as an adult, with so many cool indie games to choose from, it’s really easy to find inspiration. At the moment, the games I find most compelling are those that build a world for you to live in.”
According to Roddy, no one is nailing it as much as Tomáš Dvořák, AKA Floex, the composer behind the celebrated soundtrack to Amanita Design’s Machinarium (Discogs; Spotify)—Roddy’s all-time favourite score—and the more recent Samorost 3 (Discogs; Spotify).
But Roddy is keen to stress that he’s not overly fond of value judgements about music and games, preferring to talk about things in relation to one another in terms of “fields of colour—this composer’s doing this, that composer’s doing that. I don’t like ‘the 10 best X’ or ‘the best fighting games ranked #1 to #10’. Steal from the works that you can learn from but the rest of it—don’t poo-poo it, don’t rate it.”
Reinvention reaps rewards
Prior to becoming a game composer, Roddy suffered some measure of frustration in trying to get his “personal music”—various songs he’d been slaving over—out from the privacy of his bedroom and present them to the public. Despite being a lover of analogue recording equipment, real instruments and a more delicate sound, he chose to drastically change direction and invented an electronica-based alter-ego, ToyTree, that would give him the pseudonymic freedom to be much less precious about his artistic output; an approach that would lead to him to early success as a video game composer.
“I’d historically been way too shy with my music. Do that for long enough and you set a precedent and get stuck in a self-defeating loop. So I threw up my hands and said ‘fuck it’, and set about doing something more light-hearted and playful rather than heavy and lyrical.”
ToyTree’s first EP, Pigeon (Bandcamp), became his calling card to the indie games industry: “The more I worked on it, the more I wondered whether I might pitch this to games developers. I’d always been an avid gamer—why the hell not?” The fact that his electronica output was under an artist monicker made it feel less personal, helping him pluck up the courage to pitch his music.
“There’s this feeling in the indie game space that sound designers and composers are the door-to-door salesmen of the industry—that they’re everywhere because it’s perceived as a quick way into the business. And that’s how I got going. I finished the EP and approached everyone and every project I could find that I thought was cool and asked if they needed sound.”
STRAFE was Roddy’s first project but the development ran so long—three years—that he was able to sign on to, and complete, several other soundtracks in the interim, including a mysterious “kingdom-building simulation” developed by Thomas van den Berg (AKA Noio) and Marco Bancale (AKA Licorice) and published by Raw Fury, simply called Kingdom. Roddy also contributed additional music for the expansion, New Lands.
He’s humble enough to acknowledge his good fortune in teaming up with talented developers: “Even if I had created my own luck, Kingdom did very well and that wasn’t my doing; and STRAFE has generated a whole lot of hype that also wasn’t my doing.”
The relationship between Roddy and STRAFE’s development team, Pixel Titans, was established after he contacted them through the indie games-focused website, TIGForums. “There’s a nice community there. People are always helping each other out. It seems like a good place to go if you’re starting out.”
Work on STRAFE continued as a back-and-forth over email. “I worked pretty autonomously. Pixel Titans would give me descriptions of what they wanted, for instance ‘we need a song that’s like a creepy version of this or that’. For the second world of the game, the Black Canyon, they wanted something stormy, dark, evil and threatening.” Roddy’s musical response to this became the track Baptism:
“For the most part it was iterative, I would have that initial inspiration, then I would iterate and try to polish at least part of a song—maybe a minute—before sending it over. The creative director of the game, Thom Glunt, has pretty strong opinions so he would know straight away whether he liked something or not. Working with them, first impressions were really important. There’s a decent amount that ended up on the cutting room floor.”
Cooking up hot STRAFE-wave jams
Of his overall approach to STRAFE, Roddy admits: “I totally winged it! I’d never heard of synthwave before interacting with Pixel Titans. For reference, they sent me Roller Mobster by Carpenter Brut:
“I agreed to come up with something in that style as a trial track.” The sonic interview was a success, with the resulting track, Doomed, enjoying a place on the final soundtrack:
“I tried to figure out how people were writing synthwave—what is the first ingredient? I quickly realised that if I tried too hard to emulate that sound, it would simply end up as a worse version of what those artists do.” Since Carpenter Brut and similar electronica musicians tend to wear their retro influences proudly on their sleeve, it made sense for Roddy also to pivot towards the game music that had caught his ear in the early 90’s—the music of Sega Genesis games, in particular Yuzo Koshiro’s techno grooves for Streets of Rage 2:
“I tried to think of STRAFE as a racing game, as the initial pitch—which of course changed over the course of development—was that you only spend four minutes in a level: either you die or you finish it. That felt like a racing game or something like Sonic the Hedgehog where you just don’t stand still. It’s about speed and the sound reflects that. In Streets of Rage, the game pulls you forward—you’re always doing something.
“The cheap trick that I learned that is all over STRAFE is doing big fills at the end of eight bar sections. This happens a lot in the soundtrack but I left it in because it felt more ‘Sega Genesis’. There are almost always fills, ascending arpeggios or lead hooks that rise before dipping down right at the end. Like one of those GIFs that loops infinitely.”
He affectionately points to the first song in the game, Paint It Red, as an egregious example of this earworm approach:
The road to Ruined
A personal favourite track of Roddy’s is the last he wrote for the project—Ruined:
“I was finally starting to get my chops down in my little version of that genre. Most of it came together in an afternoon over the course of maybe three to four hours. My process of composing for STRAFE involved sitting sitting at the computer and messing around with sounds. It could be a kick drum, a lead, an arpeggio... and I would keep going until I found something that inspired me and build from there.
“[That process] feels like walking into a room with no lights on and trying to feel your way. At first it’s ‘where am I?’ and then eventually things start to become illuminated.”
A sonic secret weapon that Roddy used on Ruined was a software version of Shure’s Level Loc technology (SoundToys’ Devil-Loc): “Musically it can just trash whatever you’re doing if you turn it up all the way. It’s especially cool on drums. I used it way, way too much! And then I would squish the results with invisible side-chain elements.
“It’s my one contribution to synthwave! Even though people were probably already using it…”
Just add mud
An eager audio experimenter, Roddy talks of “smooshing” and “squishing” different sounds to create the desired effect. It took him a while before he found the overall sound of STRAFE: “Once I had written most of the music and was trying to mix it, it became a total mess. I was trying to clean it up to bring it closer to the production of other synthwave tracks, as there are a lot of things they do in terms of transients, sparkly high-frequency stuff and unified basses that make that genre work.
“It just wasn’t happening for me in what I’d composed to that point. When I would try to clean up a track, it would start to sound like a really bad dance track. After a couple of months I said ‘screw it, let’s go in a different direction.’” That ‘different direction’ embraced the muddiness and sludginess of Genesis/Mega Drive games in an effort to make the music stand out. “I decided to make it punchy by making the mid-range frequencies more meaty—rather than chase the crystal clear high frequencies of other synthwave music.”
This thoughtful, tactical approach also extended to the rhythms: “The entire game is basically four-on-the-floor. You might say ‘wow, that’s really boring’ but it ended up being a good challenge: ‘how can I make an hour’s worth of four-on-the-floor music sound interesting?’ The whole soundtrack becomes a formula, trying to keep an infinite ladder of hooks going on so that hook flows into hook and you always feel like you’re ascending.”
A self-confessed hermit, he jokes: “I guess that’s how it happens with energetic dance music in clubs?”
Causing an ear-Quake
“STRAFE is a weird soundtrack because on the one hand, it’s supposed to be taking itself really seriously, but I think of the music as kind of silly. There’s a lot of ‘dick rock’ hooks.”
Roddy is flattered to be told that there are hints of 90’s Nine Inch Nails amidst the synthwave. This is all the more relevant because Nine Inch Nails band leader Trent Reznor created the soundtrack to the 1996 game that has most clearly influenced STRAFE: Quake:
He's is more than happy to have had the opportunity to compose music in this style—call it ‘refracted retro’—where different aesthetic ingredients from the past are explicitly recycled to create something both resonant of the old and very much ‘of the now’. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the track Luftenstein, an homage to id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D (1992), a game often cited (not entirely accurately) as the first first-person shooter.
“People have reacted really well to the soundtrack, but there have been a few complaints that ‘this sounds like the 80’s’ and there was one review mentioning that the music was from the 80’s, not the 90’s. People don’t realise that none of this retro-influenced stuff being created now sounds much like what was going on in either of those decades. It’s a bastardisation of what we remember, a conflation of all of this stuff. I think it’s really neat.”
That said, he’s keen to move on from synthwave with his next project: “For one I’m sick of four-on-the-floor! The entire soundtrack is ‘hit’, ‘hit plus snare’ etc. It got a little stifling in a way. I’m glad people enjoy it and I’m really happy with how it turned out, but I’m not a synthwave musician at heart. My music for Kingdom is a little closer to my natural inclinations.”
“I’m curious to explore this musical space in a more personal way at some point in the future, maybe when I’m not writing explicitly for a game. Everything I produced for STRAFE was digital [i.e. composed solely on a computer] and I have all this analogue equipment. I’d like to stretch my legs in a different direction after this.”
The magical vinyl revival
The refracted retro vibes of STRAFE reach their apotheosis when it comes to the special edition vinyl of Roddy’s soundtrack album, made to look like a 3½-inch floppy disk/diskette, c. 1986:
“I’ve very pleased that vinyl is coming back. 2016 was the first year since the 1980’s that it was a billion dollar industry again. Culturally we’re at this point where people feel that music is something that they’re passively entitled to for free. Vinyl reminds them that a human made this—somebody actually wrote that music. Anything that brings this art form back into the physical realm is going to help out a lot. I know so many successful musicians who make $15,000 a year and they can’t survive on it. That sucks.”
Of course, video game music vinyl shares a dual role in 2017: as a physical music format for discerning listeners; and as a physical keepsake for gamers, like a t-shirt or poster, helping them to commemorate a game that they may only own digitally.
The allure of vinyl goes well beyond this for the sparkly-eyed Roddy: “People don’t realise this: records are magic! You have a needle that’s driving through a groove and it’s able to create two different channels of sound that are occurring separately. How is this happening? It’s so cool.”
“You also get these big, beautiful pieces of art. Oftentimes they’re really nicely made, especially right now because vinyl is still a bit boutique, it’s not mainstream [again]. I’m really glad that as a format, vinyl is the one that people are reviving. Cassettes are fine, but it’s still plastic. Records are beautiful, they’re awesome and they sound great.”
Diversification of instrumentation
Approaches to video game music is ever-evolving, and it’s something that Roddy is keenly aware of: “It’s a really odd time with this explosion of indie games, and this applies to music too. Maybe five years ago there weren’t that many titles, but the bar of quality was already really high. You had games like FEZ, Dustforce and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. But they were ‘indie game of the week’, not ‘indie game of the three-minute span’ like today. There’s going to be more and more market saturation on a logistical level, which makes it very difficult to break through and I don’t think it’s going to get easier for us to make this work.
“With that saturation though, there are going to be a lot of great musicians jumping ship from the traditional commercial music industry, which is not doing well.”
For Roddy, an exciting example of this is the fact that A Hawk and a Hacksaw, a duo of musicians associated with the band Beirut, are contributing music to the soundtrack of Forest of Sleep by Twisted Tree (the game ‘label’ which released Ed Key’s Proteus). “That’s pretty weird—how the hell is this amazing Klezmer band [a musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe] that does all-live instrumentation writing music in a game space?” Assuming such rich collaborations will occur more frequently, “I think game music is going to get better and better, the bar higher and higher.”
Do as I suggest, not as I do
Roddy adds: “I’d love to see less digital music and more live instrumentation,” fully acknowledging the irony of his statement in relation to his ToyTree output. “A little more experimentation that’s not just about people fishing around software plug-ins. Not that that’s bad—everything I’ve released so far as ToyTree has been digital. But there’s so [many types of music] out there. Things don’t need to sound sparkly, let’s mess it up!
“Even for the digital sounding stuff,” he says, pointing out his Korg MS20 analog synthesiser, “the actual unit sounds really different compared to the software emulation, the plug-in. Gamers haven’t played games against the backdrop of these sounds.”
The obvious reason, he points out, is that creating music with real instruments or analog synthesisers is much more complicated and a slower process overall, “and you really have to know what you’re doing with outboard equipment. That’s why I’ve so far stuck to digital, the turnaround for doing everything inside a computer is so much quicker. ” He appreciates that time and budget constraints put on composers can be constricting and admits that he’s enjoyed some artistic and creative luck in terms of past projects: “With Kingdom, the soundtrack came together very quickly—I was writing a song almost every afternoon. Sometimes you just get lucky and the music emerges, but I wouldn’t have been able to maintain that pace if the music hadn’t all been digitally created within the computer.
“With any game, it’s the composer’s hope to contribute something unique to the game, that describes the game itself and not just ‘a generic medieval town’. It’s more about ‘what does the town in this particular medieval world sound like?’ Instruments, whether digital, analog or acoustic, are all just options.
“That’s the challenge with writing music for media, but there’s so much out there that’s not digital that we can be using. There is so much stuff out there—instruments, sounds, moods—that people could be exploiting to make worlds in games sound believable, unique and fresh. I’m excited by that.”
The STRAFE soundtrack is available to pre-order at LacedRecords.com on 2xLP vinyl, standard edition or strictly limited special edition (only 300 copies!) – both editions include an option to add a Steam code for the game. Mastered by Joe Caithness at Subsequent Mastering.
Composer and orchestrator Jim Fowler talks about his hopes for an increasingly interactive future for games music, the joys of live instruments on soundtracks and the movement for more VGM on national radio.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
As an art form within an art form, video game music has come a long way since the days of its inception in the 1970’s. Jim Fowler, Principal Composer and Orchestrator at Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe, is someone who's witnessed both the blossoming of creative ways to implement in-game music, and the incredible diversification of types of music found in video games over the last 15 years. Essentially PlayStation’s musical handyman, Fowler has gone from transcribing tracks for early SingStar titles to being an accomplished game music composer in his own right, working on any number of in-house projects including AAA titles (across the LittleBigPlanet and SingStar series), Wonderbook and VR games (including J.K. Rowling’s Book of Spells and PSVR Worlds) and numerous trailers. His orchestration features on Jessica Curry’s BAFTA-winning score for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (Spotify) as well as The Chinese Room’s forthcoming Google Daydream VR game, So Let Us Melt. He also contributed to the Bloodborne score (Spotify) and, in particular, orchestrated the The Old Hunters DLC (YouTube).
Something that has changed significantly since Fowler started in the industry in 2004 is the broadening of musical genres and breadth of instrumentation used in game music: “The expectations of what music in a game can be have changed.
“By the time I started, things had already developed past the point of people thinking of game music as just bleeps and bloops. But, around 2004, if a game’s music featured an orchestra it tended to involve lots of brass and drums. As the medium has matured—and there are now lots of different types of games—that’s enabled the use of different musics. The expectation now is that the music will be correct for the game, in the same way that you expect the music to be correct for a film, TV show or play.”
Those revised expectations have meant that development teams can be more creative: “As a composer you can present [all sorts of] possibilities [for the music] and the developers are open to the idea of doing something different, something new. Audiences seem to be hungry for things to sound different—for there to be variety.”
In terms of games that are especially trying to stand out aesthetically—the likes of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Hotline Miami or FEZ—it becomes “another way to give your game its own, recognisable identity. There are certain pieces of music you hear and you just know which game/score/composer it’s from. Developers want their game’s music to stand out in much the same way that they want the art, the animation and the story to be distinctive.”
Fowler’s live big band score for a PlayStation 3 Wonderbook title, Diggs Nightcrawler, is exceptional (and unfortunately exceptionally hard to find)—here’s a taster:
The future of VGM: Gameplay-as-performance
Fowler feels that there is still territory to be charted by game music composers in terms of interactivity: “I’d like to see more composers—as well as audio leads at developers—really pushing the limits of what we can do with a piece of music to support the player’s experience and still have it be a piece of music. Ideally, the player won’t hear the joins so that it’s like a piece of bespoke underscore that’s made on the fly.
“Each player’s an individual so, ideally, you won’t experience that moment where you walk into a cave and know you’re about to be attacked by skeletons because the ‘about to be attacked by skeletons’ music is playing, on cue. We can get increasingly granular with the [interactive uses of layers of music AKA ‘stems’]. We can use midi to control things and we can have samples on the fly now that memory’s a bit better.
“It’s complicated and it takes more time but I would loved to see something really pushing the creative boundaries, thinking of the gameplay as the performance of the music.
“There’s real scope to think about music from the very beginning of the project in terms of how it’s going to be performed in-game, the way that you might think about how music is going to be experience in a concert hall or during a play.”
Verdi’s Requiem is one such example from the classical world where, for effect during a particular section, several trumpets play offstage, unseen to the audience. “You might think, ‘I’ll put these instruments over here because when they come in it’s going to be awesome.’ I’d love to see people thinking in those terms with games.” He offers a theoretical example: “Imagine an action scene where you have a pad [a held note or chords], but all of the brass stabs and hits are going to be triggered by explosions in the distance.
“Playdead’s INSIDE does cool things with its minimal music and with the sound in terms of how it’s all tied into the game world.” Here’s an example of Martin Stig Andersen’s music and sound design from INSIDE [SPOILERS for the middle of the game]:
Responding to this scenario, Fowler recognises: “It’s difficult for indie developers when there’s very few of you. You’re trying to take care of everything yourself—PR, funding etc.” He sympathises that it can be easy for developers to think of music as something added at the end of the process when they’ve got the headspace.
“But the nice thing about a composer coming in early on a project is that the music can become much more integral to the game. Also, if the composer can spend more time with the game and with its creators, they can get a much better sense of what it is and bring more to it via the music.
“Not that coming on late to a project means a composer will do a bad job,” he adds. “It’s just that given time to experiment, you’re more likely to discover something different and interesting. If nothing else, you can make sure the music ties in better with the mechanics of the game—it can really be designed within the interactivity of the game. This can help to shape the player’s experience, make it more bespoke. In that sense it can be really valuable for a developer to try and make the time early on to get a composer involved.”
The gaming equivalent of a ‘rough cut’
Unlike more linear mediums, such as movies or TV, games involve interlocking systems of gameplay that might drastically differentiate the experience of one player over another. As a result during the composition process, game composers have to anticipate this often abstract relationship between the player and the game.
It’s not that bad though, says Fowler: “In terms of keeping the player in mind… As a composer you do get the game equivalent of a ‘rough cut’—design documents which include concept art, reference points, possibly some early character models and a synopsis of the story. You might have an early storyboard of the whole game with level breakdowns and there will be goals for what the player is feeling at various points. Very early on there will be interactive experiments showing what the gameplay is going to be like. It might be just a load of visually uninteresting grey boxes, but it shows the interactivity and that it’s fun."
“So as a composer, you can get a sense of that timing before the game is finished. You don’t have as good a sense of the timing as you would with a cut of a film but from a musical point of view, we know what we’re aiming for and where the hero starts and finishes. Given the nature of games, we might not know what’s going to happen in the middle, but we know about the journey that’s going to be taken. Also, you don’t have to wait until the very end to put all the music in the game as you can insert music by yourself [into an early build], test how it works in the game and fiddle around.
“There is some abstract writing,” in terms of not knowing how the player will experience the music in the final game, “and you may have to wait until the very end of the project for any rendered cut-scenes that have fixed timing.”
Wearing multiple musical hats
It’s put to Fowler that a video game composer in 2017 is often required to be an arranger/orchestrator, a performer/musician, a programmer (sequencing and tweaking MIDI instruments), a producer (organising recording sessions and overseeing the production of each piece) and a mix engineer (mixing levels, applying effects and balancing parts). Does this mean that the video game composer who eschews these different roles in favour of focusing purely on composition has more head space? Does it change the sound of their scores?
He responds: “Everybody’s a composer whether your tool is writing down dots or [programming sample-based digital instruments]—it’s just a different tool to achieve the same end. I wouldn’t say you’re any more of a ‘real composer’ because you write the dots.
“It depends on the person and what they want to do. Some people want to really dig into all that tech stuff: they want to be involved in mixing or mix it themselves, they want to do all the programming. Others just want to write the music and hear it recorded; and some are in-between. It’s a preference thing. Occasionally, out of necessity, you may be required to do a bit more of that extra stuff than you would prefer to, but as long as it’s all scheduled properly then that’s OK.”
Live playing versus sample libraries
Money, time and inclination are a few reasons why a composer, game developer and audio team may or may not want to record using live performances rather than rely on samples and synthesised instruments. Of course, many game soundtracks feature a mix of both. But Fowler has form in this area, having studied jazz and scoring himself (boom-tish!) a position in the ostensibly well-resourced in-house audio department at Sony Interactive Entertainment.
Although he aims for live performances as much as possible, Fowler’s not a purist: “If you want your soundtrack to feature instruments [e.g. flutes or violins rather than explicitly synthesised electronic sounds], you should try to have them be real instruments. And, my preference is that if your final product features some real instruments, then you should aim to include as many as possible. Sometimes budget doesn’t allow for this, so you bolster things with sampled instruments. Even a handful of live instruments and human performances on top of mainly sampled instruments can really lift things.”
A quick look at the recording sessions for Bloodborne, which Jim Fowler helped orchestrate:
“That’s not to disparage samples—I love using them, there are some great libraries and you can make brilliant mock-ups—but they’re not real people. What you get with human players is their personal interpretation of the music and their feeling as they play it.
“Take a single, held note on a flute creating using a sample library: you can tweak it in terms of properties like vibrato or ‘attack’ [the aggressiveness of the beginning of the note]; you can play it with a woodwind MIDI controller [such as the Yamaha WX5] so you can get some shape. With all of that though, you’re still limited when affecting that recording or stitching together several recordings.
“Whereas a single held note being played by a person who is responding to what’s just happened and what’s going to happen next is always going to be different, slightly more ‘shaped’ and played with more feeling. There are fantastic string samples out there but 14 violins actually playing music together in the same room is always going to have a bit more flow and emotion. With real people, you get infinite variety and tweak-ability, instantly.
“Perhaps samples will get there eventually and you can them sound amazing if you have the time. As a one-off cost, it is more expensive to get all of those musicians in a room and record them. But once it’s done, it’s done. Whereas perhaps with samples, you could be spending a very long time [endlessly tweaking things] and that’s not necessarily practical for a full soundtrack.”
More than one way to skin a cat
Rather than hire a traditional game composer, developer Hello Games decided on Sheffield instrumental rock band 65daysofstatic to create the soundtrack for its opus, No Man’s Sky. We reported on the band’s 2016 EGX developer session discussing the project—after signing on, 65daysofstatic essentially went away and created a studio album in isolation, loosely inspired by what they had seen of the game to that point. With a complete record in hand, they then worked with Hello Games’ audio director Paul Weir (who we interviewed last year) to implement the various musical sections and strands into the game using a sophisticated dynamic audio engine. This meant that each player exploring the far reaches of No Man’s Sky’s almost infinite universe would get a bespoke music and sound effects experience.
Fowler finds this approach to game music just as valid as any other: “What [Hello Games] have done there is gain an extra collaborational viewpoint on what they were doing—creating an opportunity for the band to bring something new to the table that they might not have thought of. Musicians in a band, as opposed to a dedicated soundtrack composer, probably find it more natural to go away with some inspiration and make an album of music rather than sit and wait for a cut of a film and writing to that.”
The approach taken with No Man’s Sky “brings something different to the table—and it’s a great soundtrack! I think it would be quite exciting as a developer to send someone away for six months and then discover how they had interpreted what you’re making.” This approach has been used elsewhere, with Daft Punk creating the renowned TRON: Legacy (Spotify) soundtrack before the film had been shot.
As another creative example, Fowler mentions 1958’s Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows), where Miles Davis and band improvised to a screening of the movie. “I don’t think you could do that for a game—for lack of stamina! Playing for 48 hours straight…”
Some favourite game soundtracks of Fowler include Takeshi Furukawa’s The Last Guardian (Spotify) (“because it had lots of woodwinds which often get left out!”) and PlayStation 3 game, Warhawk. “I really liked the use of trumpets, especially during the main theme—it’s unusual to have them as the lead instrument because they’re quite punchy, but it suited the game well.”
The WarhawkMain Theme by Christopher Lennertz:
“I played a lot of Civilization, so Christopher Tin’s Baba Yetu [composed for Civilization IV] reminds me of spending all day playing... rather than doing the washing up!”
Thanks to Fowler’s orchestration work on the BAFTA-winning score for Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, he can now tune in to Classic FM and hear one of his projects played on national radio: “It’s exciting because it means something to people who don’t necessarily like, or are involved in the world of games. If I can say ‘some music that I helped with was played on Classic FM’, that means something to older family members. In that way, it’s nice to be able to share what you’ve been doing with people who perhaps aren’t going to play a game, or maybe will play a game as a result of having heard the music.”
In terms of this push for wider recognition of video game music happening in the realm of popular classical music, possibly excluding genres like chiptune, he is sanguine: “It has to start somewhere. It’s a slow creep forward but eventually the floodgates will open and things like [Disasterpeace’s electronica score for indie game] FEZ (Spotify) will get played on soundtrack shows, perhaps on other stations that don’t have such a specific remit.”
Haters gonna hate...
Fowler observes: “There is still a hurdle to overcome in terms of people who think game music is something else—they’re often surprised when they hear [the abundance of high quality] stuff. It can only be a good thing if more people are hearing what game music can be and having their minds changed… Or don’t change their minds but at least they’ve actually heard some game music rather than be against it on principle!”
And those dismissive types—the classical purists that sometimes appear in the Classic FM comments or on social media, denigrating video game music’s inclusion alongside Beethoven and Mozart—often rile up the most ardent VGM fans who come to its defence. Fowler points out: “All of video games has been through that… For a long time it was a thing that had to be defended from people who wanted to ban it because it was corrupting people; or was attacked as being a pointless waste of time. As a result, one of the habits you learned, as someone who liked games, was that you had to defend them as this fragile thing that might be taken away.
“But we’ve reached the point where it’s not a fragile thing anymore—there are enough games and differences in games that it’s OK for you to agree with someone who doesn’t like a game. It’s a habit we’re having to overcome—a knee-jerk defence of ‘our thing’. No one expects you to like every film if you like films, so I don’t think you have to like every game to call yourself a gamer.”
As the gaming world moves on from its humble musical beginnings, the limitations of technology and obscurity of games musicians are long behind us. In fact, many composers stand out in their own right as icons of the industry.
The original Silent Hill and its many sequels are well known for the dark, David Lynch-like soundtracks that drive some of the series’ more tense moments, and helped put composer Akira Yamaoka on the map. His music can be found in every mainline Silent Hill title in the series so far (seven games and two movies). With only the basic visuals of the PlayStation available at the time of Silent Hill’s release in 1999, Yamaoka's soundtrack had to do the heavy lifting in terms of creating a sense of constant threat and menace in the game.
Martin O'Donnell's soundtrack for Halo (2001) could very easily have become a generic, militaristic action score, but his majestic orchestral and choral music added a sense of grandeur to proceedings that became as important to the series as Master Chief and Warthogs. Even later games that don't directly feature his music still draw heavily from his work.
By contrast, games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002) used licensed music from the real world, serving as a carefully curated collection of tracks that encapsulates the spirit of the mid-80s with music from the likes of Iron Maiden, Blondie and my personal favourite, A Flock of Seagulls:
Music's huge influence on the world of gaming is apparent in almost every title we play today, but just as important is the impact video games have had on the world of music itself. Björk's Biophilia (2011) album launch involved an iOS app including 10 interactive experiences set to different tracks. Crossovers between music artists and video games can also be simpler affairs where artists are inspired by the popular games of the day. This is very apparent in regards to the Red Hot Chili Pepper's music video for the song Californation:
The video is packed with video games tropes such as a character select screen, loading bars and bonus points. When I first saw this on the Kerrang! channel in the early 2000s (or P-Rock for those old enough to remember), I looked forward to the day games would look this good. Despite the video being at odds with the slower, introspective feel of the song, it's a wonderful visual representation of the kinds of games we were all playing to death at the time. As reminiscent as it is of the 3D Grand Theft Auto games, Californation was released as a single (with accompanying music video) in May 2000, some 16 months before Grand Theft Auto III—it’s likely that 1999’s Crazy Taxi and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater were the biggest inspirations.
We've also seen big name composers, best known for their work in film, crossover to the world of games. Gladiator and The Dark Knight composer, Hans Zimmer, is perhaps the highest-profile example, contributing a main theme to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2—but it was Nine Inch Nails band leader Trent Reznor who laid the groundwork. Now widely known for his work on the soundtracks for films such as The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Reznor also wrote the music for seminal first-person shooter Quake. Channelling the industrial rock of Nine Inch Nails straight into the game, he helped lead a musical crossover movement rarely seen before in gaming (unless you subscribe to the theory that Michael Jackson wrote music for Sonic The Hedgehog 3):
Video games music now occupies its own corner of the Internet-based world of music-making thanks to an extremely active fan community that pumps out countless re-arrangements and remixes. One particular flavour of remix involves taking a popular song and cross-pollinating it with in a healthy dose of video game nostalgia to create something new, and very often of a high quality. One of my personal favourites is Team Teamwork's Ocarina of Rhyme, which takes tunes from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and mixes them with iconic hip hop songs:
The result is a unique piece of music and yet still instantly recognisable to fans of hip-hop and gaming alike. The popularity of this particular track (sitting at just over 720,000 views on YouTube) and crossovers like it show just how much games music have influenced, and are now an entrenched part of, popular culture over the past few decades. In fact, game music has become so iconic that concerts such as Video Games Live tour the globe selling out huge arenas and seeing leading orchestras play songs from the likes of Super Mario, Final Fantasy and Mega Man.
From bleeps to billions
From the simplistic digital beginnings of Space Invaders to the complex orchestral masterpieces of modern game soundtracks, music in games has made huge strides over the past 40+ years. Game music has moved beyond the confines of the console and into the mainstream, selling millions of albums and seeing sold out arena tours travel the globe. Its impact on wider culture has spread throughout popular music and blockbuster cinema as a whole, and changed the way in which music and sounds alter the way we play.
Games’ constantly evolving visual fidelity is always at the forefront of people’s perception of progress in the industry, but music has come just as far, had just as big an impact on the atmosphere and gameplay on offer, and ultimately changed the way we all enjoy our games. Here's to another 40 years of brilliant game music—wherever it comes from.
2017’s Record Store Day came and went (don’t forget, fantastic independent record stores exist for the other 364 days of the year too!) and the Internet erupted in a geyser of vinyl love. We spotted a few releases that looked particularly tasty in terms of presentation—here’s a mere smattering of what caught our eye...
The ‘assault on the visual cortex’ covers
The Black Angels – Death Song (LP - Partisan Records)
The Texas-based psych rockers The Black Angels have seemingly completed their tribute to The Velvet Underground in the naming of this album (The Black Angel's Death Song being a song from 1967 album The Velvet Underground & Nico). This double LP release, limited to 2,000 copies, features glow-in-the-dark vinyl discs and an awesome, brain-splitting black light cover (Discogs).
A current resident of Berlin, Israeli artist OFRIN offers up three tracks on this white disc 10” (Discogs), all recorded around the same time she was creating her most recent moody electronica album, 2016’s Ore (Spotify). The vinyl sleeve artwork (by graphic design agency E. Maximilian P. Pfisterer – www.empp.de) has a bit of a Thom Yorke & Stanley Donwood vibe (that is, the black and white artwork for The Eraser and Atoms For Peace).
You can hear the three tracks—Black Box (Deadbeat Rmx), Direction Eclipse (Universal Vacuum Mix by Pilocka Krach) and Träume—on Albumlabel’s BandCamp page.
(Listen closely to OFRIN’s 2013 track, CAT & MONKEY and at 1:49, you can hear the ‘finished copying’ sound from Mac OSX. Such a creative lady.)
Here are a few more eye-catching releases. Clockwise from the top left:
TOYDRUM - God Song (Frank Wiedemann Remix) (12” - SKINT) (Discogs)
Duke Spirit, The - Serenade EP (12” EP - Ex Voto Records) (Discogs)
Lovebirds ft. Galliano - Icarus Remixes (2 x 7” - Razor-N-Tape) (Discogs)
The Flaming Lips Onboard the International Space Station Concert for Peace (LP - Bella Union) (Discogs)
How do you make a game feel bang up to date in terms of contemporary style? Answer: Hire the most notable trap producer out there to create a huge sounding original soundtrack. Ubisoft’s confident return with Watch Dogs 2 was complemented by its cutting edge score (Spotify) by electronica supremo and Kanye West regular collaborator, Hudson Mohawke.
This double LP (Discogs) is limited to 1,000 copies.
Brian Gibson – Thumper (LP - Thrill Jockey)
This limited red translucent vinyl edition (Discogs) is an alternative to the iam8bit Collector’s Edition (which featured some beautiful Robert Beatty artwork) but is equally striking. The intimidating (some might say ‘thumping’) Thumper score (Spotify) was a side project for Brian Gibson, bassist and founder member of the band Lightning Bolt. Although this was a limited release of 1,000 copies, it does seem like there are some available from the Thrill Jockey label website.
R.I.P. Saruman the White
Christopher Lee – Metal Knight (10” - Charlemagne)
You may or may not be surprised to learn that actor Sir Christopher Lee—famous for playing Dracula, Saruman, Lord Summerisle, Scaramanga, Count Dooku and many more—was devoted to fantasy Heavy metal, recording multiple albums right up to his passing in mid-2015. This 2014 EP (Spotify) was recorded when he was a mere 92 years old! (It's very, very silly)
This picture disc pressing (Discogs) is limited to 500 copies. As with all the official Record Store Day releases, any remaining stock will be available online on the 29th April (i.e. strictly one week after Record Store Day itself).
If there are any beauties you spotted—or if you were lucky enough to find and purchase something cool for yourself—send us a pic! We hope to have something ready for Record Store Day 2018—keep an eye out for more info...
Rare-alumni Grant Kirkhope, Steve Burke and David Wise talk us through some of their favourite tunes from Yooka-Laylee.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Is it 2017, or really 1997 in disguise? The colourful 3D platformers of the late 90’s and early 00’s, so full of character, are back in a big bad way. Games like Banjo-Kazooie and Conker’s Bad Fur Day are the source of many fond memories for gamers, and the recently released Yooka-Laylee has explicitly been crafted in the image of such Rare classics.
Helping developer Playtonic to revive the spirit of Rare games from the 90’s and 00’s are a trio of alumni: composers Grant Kirkhope (Goldeneye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark and Viva Piñata), Steve Burke (Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts ‘n Bolts, Kameo: Elements of Power and Viva Piñata) and David Wise (Battletoads and the Donkey Kong Country series). Together they’ve created a delightful soundtrack that is old in spirit but fresh in execution.
We asked Kirkhope, Wise and Burke about their favourite tracks from the new crop and how they approached their respective compositions in the face of the intense retro vibes surrounding the project.
Grant Kirkhope – “World 2 Theme” (Glitter Glaze Glacier)
Kirkhope: “My favourite track is the one I wrote for the level Glitter Glaze Glacier”—entitled World 2 Theme on the soundtrack.
“I initially had a different idea for this that formed when we were preparing the Kickstarter. We had some artwork for the level, but it didn’t actually exist at that point. I wrote about 30 seconds of a piece for the Kickstarter page that I thought matched the artwork. But when I came to finish it off, I realised that it just didn’t fit the look of the level. I had been thinking along the lines of [Banjo-Kazooie level] Freezeezy Peaks but Glitter Glaze Glacier was nothing like it. [Playtonic writer and comms manager] Andy Robinson kept suggesting that I should change it—I eventually did so and I’m really pleased that I did.”
The Yooka-Laylee Kickstarter campaign key art for Glitter Glaze Glacier
“I was trying to write something that I thought would be more floaty and delicate and that really captured how beautiful the level looked—this majestic, icy expanse. As usual, I was thinking about what John Williams might do—he has always been my number one inspiration!
“I wanted a mix of spiky instruments and majestic ones, which is why there is a ‘noble’ trombone entry in the middle of the piece [1:03] as well as the French horns at the end [1:52]. Of course, I had to include some glockenspiel and vibraphone too—I love the way they sound together, as well as pizzicato strings and celeste. Having all theses different instruments and textures helps to convey what I was seeing in the level.”
“I wasn’t really thinking about the late 90’s era of platformers at all in this case, I was just trying to write the best music I could. Things have changed so much since then and it’s been really great writing this music and trying to harness some of the techniques that I’ve learned over the past 20+ years.”
Steve Burke – “Kartos Karting”
Burke: “I'd already been writing music for Yooka-Laylee for a week or so and by this time, I’d found a balance between that classic chiptune sound and something more modern. Although each track has different themes and instruments, I was more confident about the direction that the music was going in by this point (five tracks in).
“For Kartos Karting, the guys at Playtonic sent me concept art for the level and a few early gameplay video clips. For this track—and pretty much all of those for Rextro's Arcade—the starting point was early game music from the Commodore 64 and Amiga days. I grew up with those computers, and my first ever attempts at writing music were via MOD trackers on the Amiga.
“[Creative Lead at Playtonic, Gavin Price] encouraged me to make the music fun, quirky and catchy. With this piece, I imagined myself round a friend’s house on a Saturday afternoon in the late 80's, sitting in front of an Amiga and waiting expectantly for a new platformer game to load. We’d me chugging lots of Cherry Coke and watching something like The ‘Burbs or The Goonies at the same time!” Kartos Karting in action:
“I set up a slow tempo in Cubase [music recording software] and tried some different ideas—it had to be slow because I'm all fingers and thumbs these days! I tried some simple bleeps and bloops, early game sounds. Once I had a tune that I could hum along to, I sped it up to a more frantic tempo and started adding glitchy percussion samples. On top of these I layered orchestral sounds to give it a bit more weight and, finally, a soaring high string line over the final third of the track.
“The [music technology of the] N64 is positively modern compared to my approach to this track! I was thinking about a time when I'd buy a game merely because people like Rob Hubbard [composer for over 75 games including Populous, Skate or Die! and Jet Set Willy] or David Whittaker [Shadow of the Beast, Obliterator and Speedball] were involved with writing the soundtrack. Many of my school friends and I would decide to buy a particular C64 or Amiga game if the theme tune was catchy enough. Anybody else remember schoolyard punch-ups debating the merits of the Amiga or the Atari ST, and which was best? ...just me then."
Rob Hubbard's intro music for Skate or Die!:
“My time at Rare did play a part in how I approached this track—and the team at Playtonic Games as an extension of Rare. As composers, we were given a few starting points and then left to our own devices. There was very little micro-management and a lot of trust in us, that we would do our jobs and nail the tracks.”
David Wise – “Armed and Dangerous”
Wise: “I don't really have a favourite yet—tracks have to sit with me for a while before I can pick favourites—but there are a few I like. At the moment, it's the track for the swamp boss—Trev the Tenteyecle.”
Put simply, “for inspiration, I thought about being in a swamp getting attacked by a very mean boss! It took a few attempts to get it to sound mean enough. I used a [Native Instruments music programme] Reaktor 6 instrument called RAZOR, which is great at making gritty, mean sounds.”
Armed and Dangerous wasn’t deliberately based on tracks from previous games or console eras: “With Grant and myself having worked on N64 products, gamers might possible associate our style with the N64. But I wouldn't purposely go back and revisit existing tunes unless we were basing a soundtrack on a previous product. With Yooka-Laylee I was just enjoying writing for the intended gameplay.”
You can follow and find out more about the composers:
Writer Jack Gosling takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the history of video game music, from the 70s to the early 00s.
By Jack Gosling
Since the pixelated days of Pong and Space Invaders, video games have always strived to be on the cutting edge of technology. Not a month goes by when I'm not blown away by the amazing visuals and brilliant storylines on offer in some of today's triple-A blockbusters, and marvel at how far the industry has come in such a short time. I'm currently roaming the beautiful open Hyrule fields of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game which offers sweeping vistas and a gorgeous art style that just wouldn't have been possible when the original The Legend of Zelda hit the NES all the way back in 1986.
I still can't quite wrap my head around the fact that I'm able to argue with a teenagers on the internet whilst shooting lasers at giant robots in games like Titanfall 2.
But as important as visuals and graphical horsepower are to the latest and greatest in gaming, the same reverence really ought to be extended to video game music, its changing role in the industry and its huge influence on popular culture. Nowadays, some of the most widely recognised music comes from the world of games, and over the past decades we've moved from short MIDI files created in isolation, to a fully-fledged industry in its own right—including contributions from famous bands and musicians, and huge orchestral performances attended by adoring fans.
Although early arcade machines had experimented with sound effects, it wasn't really until the home console boom of the late 1970s, as well as the huge popularity of the Atari 2600 system, that we really saw sound itself become an important aspect of gaming thanks to synthesised, computer chip music. You might struggle to find someone who doesn't know the iconic sound of a Pong ball making a lovely satisfying 'bip!' as it safely hits its on-screen paddle, but it was Space Invaders' eerie alien drones that many think helped sow the seeds of modern game music.
Repetitive, monotonous and filled with a strange sense of dread, Space Invaders' pixelated marching sounds would speed up as the invaders edged closer to the surface of Earth, subtly adding tension to events as you played. It might be a stretch to call this music, but the sounds of Space Invaders create a genuine pressurised atmosphere - regardless of whether gamers at the time knew it or not.
In the 80s, the extra processing power allowed a firmer focus on more traditional music across the medium. Werewolves of London on the Amstrad is a great example of the kind of music I grew up listening to in games. Its soundtrack is spooky yet upbeat and plays pretty much non-stop as players roam the streets of London, attempting to lift their terrible curse by eating angry policemen. Listen out for the pitter-patter of tiny werewolf feet as you saunter along cobbled streets and misty back alleys.
Game music from this period was becoming an effective way to add a sense of tone and purpose to gaming in much the same way it does today, albeit in a cruder fashion. However, it was the likes of the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo (SNES) in the 90s that brought us true digital effects thanks to multi-channel chips, stereo sound and other technological advances. Music was starting to become a core aspect of gameplay itself.
Super Metroid on the SNES is a fantastic example of a development team attempting to create a mood that complements gameplay using this new technology. Its music is lonely, isolating and claustrophobic. For a game about a lone bounty hunter in exploring long-forgotten ancient ruins, it's pretty much perfect.Super Metroid's 16-bit music was composed by Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano, who helped lay the groundwork for atmospheric music that wasn't simply designed to be a catchy tune.
Musical movement and rhythmic rapping
Music was now an essential component of the video game landscape, adding a sense of atmosphere to a game but also standing as a creative output in its own right. From the music in the first level of Super Mario Bros. to Street Fighter II’s character select screen, music was now wrapped up in some of our greatest gaming memories.
With sound finally a core part of gaming, and the ever-advancing technology of the time allowing composers to spread their wings, it was only a matter of time until music itself became a gameplay feature. ‘Rhythm action’ games like Guitar Hero (2005) and Rock Band (2007) need little introduction, but it was 1996’s Parappa the Rapper on the PlayStation (which this month received a remaster on PS4), which laid the groundwork, giving us CD quality sound alongside 32-bit original effects. Parappa the Rapper’s unique art style and zany aesthetic were in service of the beat-driven actions that players were asked to perform.
The days of the enforced limitations of sound chips and MIDI are now long behind us, and sung or rapped lyrics are a viable option for games music, meaning that composers have a full range of expression available to help them tell stories through music in games. Taking the concept of Parappa the Rapper one step further was the PlayStation game Vib-Ribbon (1999), which would create wireframe platforming levels based off of players' own music taken directly from a CD of their choice.
One of my favourite games of all time is also a fantastic early example of music being used to manipulate and change gameplay—2001's Dreamcast title, Rez. Its storyline is a fairly flimsy tale of computer viruses and mainframes, but its real energy comes from the way players create their own music as they play. As players shoot down beautiful retro-tech enemies, extra musical layers are added to the game's core soundtrack, resulting in a unique musical experience every time you play. Rez's tunes may sound like they belong in a dodgy East End night club, but the game is a visual and audio assault on the senses and real proof of the way music can be used to truly alter the way we play.
With the limitations of early arcade, computer and console technology fading away by the early noughties, modern gaming was ready to show us the true impact of its music on the wider world.
Every year, EGX Rezzed comes to London—the smaller, indie-focused sister event to the giant UK games convention, EGX. Held at Tobacco Dock in the district of Wapping (yes, it’s a real place, pronounced ‘whopping’), it’s a gathering of keen souls who are there to geek out either by showing off their own games and/or fervently checking out upcoming titles.
Rezzed is a relatively intimate affair spread out across a labyrinthine network of rooms not unlike a Dark Souls dungeon (replete with sneaky shortcuts and hidden areas). Unlike many larger events, you can always get a game of something and, because there is such a diversity of developers in attendance, chances are that it will be something weird.
On the Friday afternoon, the atmosphere was relaxed but still full of enthusiasm both for the games themselves and the culture surrounding them—the cosplay, roving YouTubers/podcasters, board games meet-ups and plenty of attention-grabbing local multiplayer games designed to draw a crowd.
I donned a HTC Vive headset and let the developers of Polyphonia VR take my brains to another dimension. Polyphonia is “a VR music experience set in a surreal universe” and felt a bit like dropping acid in a disco after watching The Lawnmower Man (not that I’d know). Using both hands to manipulate some pulsating, garishly multi-coloured shapes was a blast, tossing them about the place before smacking several virtual drum trigger-bowl-thingies.
One of my favourite games on show—one I’ve seen regularly appear at events like this for years now—is the transportive A Light In Chorus. For some time, the developers have been working on its striking light-based aesthetic, recently adding a high-concept framework for the game itself: what if you were an alien that had discovered the Voyager Golden Record (featured in one of our weird vinyl round-ups) and it was your only means of interpreting human civilisation on Earth? Rock Paper Shotgun interviewed the team about this idea last year. As with Polyphonia, there is a slightly trippy music/sound-based game mechanic which turns the game into your own ethereal midi instrument, of sorts.
Tunnel Vision Games’ See You On The Other Side had me create and jump through shadows (a bit like the Portal mechanic), set in a world that felt monochromatic, cold and industrial, much like Playdead’s Limbo or Inside. The interesting thing here was that, for once, a designer had found a way to make me deliberately want to explore the darkest corners of a game world rather than avoid them.
An especially arresting game was the stunning race-to-the-horizon 3D endless runner thingy, EXO ONE. A bit difficult to describe, but great on the eyeballs:
A parade of right stunners
Of the games I did choose to dip into, the thing that struck me is just how beautiful video games can be today—even ones made by only a handful of people. Fantastical alternate history point’n’click game Herald, developed in The Netherlands, featured rather dishy, expressive characters to help bring the dialogue to life. Its story and setting draws from multiple cultures rarely seen in games, which was refreshing.
Danish game Figment, an action-adventure in the style of Bastion, is startling pretty with a hand-painted style giving it the same airy, otherworldly beauty as games like Broken Age.
What’s old is new (and oodles of fun)
And, in perfect keeping with the overall vibe of colour and retro-reinterpretation (taking what’s good about old stuff and adding smart, modern touches), we had a go at two highly-anticipated character platformers: Sonic Mania, with its eye fixed firmly on fans of Sonic the Hedgehog 2...
...and Yooka-Laylee, where the Playtonic team were showing off the Glitterglaze Glacier level. Jumping around the glistening icy world brought back memories of mucking up jumps and getting gloriously lost in games like Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie—albeit with a much improved feeling of control thanks to modern controllers and design techniques. The sense of anticipation around the game is palpable—fans of classic Rare-developed 3D platformers on the N64 are desperate to get their hands on it and to rekindle their love of a (no longer) bygone genre.
Yooka-Laylee is out next Tuesday (11th April), but not before Laced Records releases the soundtrack on vinyl, CD and digital download this Friday 7th April (find out more at Lacedrecords.com/collections/yooka-laylee). The soundtrack's three composers are all Rare alumni: Grant Kirkhope (Goldeneye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark, Viva Piñata), David Wise (Battletoads, Donkey Kong Country) and Steve Burke (Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts ‘n Bolts, Kameo: Elements of Power, Viva Piñata).
If you revel in discovery and enjoy celebrating the culture around games, I can recommend Rezzed as a day out. You'll just about see everything if not actually play all of it, but you'll definitely get to try some off-the-wall stuff if you keep an open mind—games that may even change your perception about what the medium can do and be.
Grammy-winning engineer Sean Magee on the mastering process, the gear and the age-old ‘analogue versus digital’ debate.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Creating a release-worthy professional music recording is a bit like baking a cake. The composer or artist gathers as high quality ingredients as possible (song ideas, players etc.), they might experiment a bit, settle on their final recipe, mix it all together and put it in the oven—i.e. writing, recording and mixing a track. When it comes to presenting the cake to a hungry public, you need to add icing and decoration: in the world of music, this bit is known as ‘mastering’. Since Laced Records works on a mixture of releases on vinyl, CD and digital including new albums like No Man’s Sky: Music for an Infinite Universe, track compilations like Hotline Miami and live/orchestral recordings like Final Symphony—all with subtly different mastering needs—we thought it would be fun to speak to one of the audio wizards known as mastering engineers.
Enter Grammy-winning engineer Sean Magee, specialist in analogue vinyl cutting, who has been a part of the mastering team at the world famous Abbey Road Studios in London for 20 years. As well as being entrusted with huge projects such as The Beatles In Mono vinyl remasters and albums by Pink Floyd, U2, Tina Turner and Iron Maiden, his versatile skills often see him work on “a rock band before lunch and Bach sonatas and partitas in the evening”.
But what does ‘mastering’ actually mean?
To a layman, the difference between a modern mastered track and an unmastered one can be imperceptible, other than a slight boost in volume and a vague sense of increased sheen. The process can seem like voodoo magic—even to people in the music business—with mastering engineers sitting right at the end of the studio recording process, ready to sprinkle fairy dust over a track.
Sean breaks down the nuts and bolts: “Mastering is making masters, literally. We take studio recordings—also called ‘masters’—and assemble them into a physical production master that can then go to a CD or vinyl factory. Part of the process is fixing problems and, if necessary, enhancing the sound with EQ [equalisation] or compression depending on what the client may want.”
The mastering process
Sean receives the final mix of a track either as a digital file (e.g. a 24-bit WAV with a sample rate of 96kHz or even 192 kHz) or as an analogue reel-to-reel tape. With a high resolution digital file, he will load it into a digital audio workstation (DAW—think Pro Tools or Apple Logic, although Abbey Road uses SADiE).
The audio signal will be run through an EMI TG12410 mastering or ‘transfer console’ (a desk with loads of knobs and sliders!) and, if necessary, he’ll run it through a ‘chain’ of audio processing units (e.g. a Chiswick Reach Valve Compressor), applying a unique combination of compression, limiting (gently capping the overall volume) and EQ as appropriate.
A dark art unto itself, compression is the process of shaping the overall sound of something (an individual instrument, a vocal or the whole track) so that, put simply, the quiet bits are louder and the loud bits are either quieter or more consistent. Highly compressed modern pop music, especially whilst being broadcast on commercial radio, sounds consistently loud so that the listener can hear all the parts, all of the time—especially the lead vocal. This stands in contrast to classical music or jazz, which can go from complete silence to very loud and back again several times over the course of a piece—it has a higher ‘dynamic range’ which mixing and mastering usually aims to preserve in a more natural way.
At this stage he will carefully listen to an individual track on special ‘monitor’ speakers (such as B&W 800D’s Bi amped with Classé CA-M400’s) and tweak settings accordingly. If an album is made up of tracks that were all recorded in similar circumstances—for instance, each track on Final Symphony was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra in the same room at Abbey Road using the same microphone set-up—he might not need to spend as much time checking other tracks as the first.
One of the most important parts of being a mastering engineer is tuning your ears to the room you’re working in. The material of the walls, floor and ceiling, the size and shape of the room, where the speakers are positioned (and how good they are) and where the engineer themselves sits can all subtly affect what they hear. Since Sean is aiming for the absolute best possible sound, his familiarity with his room—mastering room 6 at Abbey Road—is essential.
It’s often ideal for the mastering engineer to be a different person to the mixing engineer—a fresh pair of ears. Similarly, using a different room to the mixing engineer can also help reveal different sonic aspects of a track.
Depending on the project, to finish up Sean will ‘bounce down’ high resolution digital audio files or cut a vinyl master using the Neumann VMS-80 (pictured) lacquer cutting lathe.
Given the potential permutations available he tries to “keep everything as simple as possible—that way any alterations are usually very small and it’s less to write down!”
Vinyl and orchestral considerations
In terms of whether vinyl requires specialist mastering compared to digital or CD, Sean comments: “It’s not too different. The medium has various things to watch out for, as do other formats.” In essence, a great sounding final master will sound great across each format.
A professional mastering engineer is trained to spot any problems such as ‘clipping’, where a track’s volume goes above 0db, possibly causing unintended distortion. A crucial part of the job is tidying up the relative volumes of each track—individually and in relation to other tracks on a record.
Because of the typical sonic differences between pop/rock records and orchestral ones, the mastering process has to be adapted to reflect the nuances. He explains: “The biggest issue is management of dynamics. The full dynamic range of an orchestral recording is way more than the usable range of a vinyl record, for instance, so I have to manually ‘ride the fader’ by hand to make the quiet parts louder and loud parts quieter. The level changes happen over the course of 10 or more seconds, so the listener wouldn’t notice them.
“Apart from that, they’re mostly the same between genres—we cut as loud as we can within what we can fit on a side.” The ‘cutting level’, or volume, and amount of bass on a track will affect how many minutes of music can be crammed onto one side of a vinyl disc—a vinyl master is physically limited by what can be sent to the lathe cutting head.
This can even affect the track order, as some plants will recommend that the loudest tracks are positioned at the beginning of a disc to avoid ‘inner-groove distortion’ as the needle nears a disc’s centre.
Analogue vs digital
Asked whether it would be practical to go ‘full analogue’, i.e. skipping all digital equipment and computers in the process, Sean says: “Direct from the tape with no 1’s and 0’s involved sounds amazing and isn’t too much of a hassle to do. If the source I’m given is tape and it’s in good condition, then I may elect to do it this way because I can.” In terms of whether he prefers it to digital, he replies: “I think it’s a case of the situation you find yourself in when listening. An excellent recording is precisely that, whatever the medium—I like both.”
If anyone in the world was going to be an analogue purist, you’d think it would be a vinyl audio expert working with the best equipment in the world. Surprisingly, he is a modern music listener like any other: “Vinyl was the format I grew up with and I still have many of mine. But I don’t feel a need to listen to vinyl at home—I don’t even have a player—as I get to do it every day at work! I tend to listen to music on my iPhone whilst commuting. I’m not too worried about how it sounds—I just want to hear the music.
“The vinyl revival is a pretty good thing. The fact that the section of society most avidly buying vinyl records is teenagers is fantastic. It brings value back to music and reinforces the idea that it’s not disposable. As for people buying vinyl for the sake of looking cool whilst using bad quality turntables… it’s their business at the end of the day. The fact is, they’re buying it and if they buy it, then they need me to cut it. Hopefully the trend will see me to retirement!”
The home of the Fab Four
Abbey Road Studios is probably justified in its boast to be “the most famous recording studios in the world”. It was established in 1931 at a time where record labels such as the Gramophone Company (later EMI) owned studios and thus controlled access to professional recording. Fun fact: it was previously simply ‘EMI Studios’ before The Beatles, who played a pivotal role in building the reputation and myth of the place, named their 1969 album Abbey Road—the studios were subsequently renamed in 1970 to capitalise.
Sean adds: “Abbey Road’s reputation has been built over 85 years. It was the first purpose-built studio and some of the most earth-shattering records have been made here. I’m very proud to be a small part of its history and it’s a great motivation too.”
We interview Nine Inch Nails' touring guitarist Robin Finck about being drawn into the world of indie video games and composing for survival horror title NOCT.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
There are $100 million blockbuster video games with bright, exciting worlds full of endless distractions—featuring music scores that are filmic, emotive and sweeping.
Then there are murky, mysterious, messed-up indie titles that cater to people who crave some obscurity and surprise—and aren’t afraid of the exploring the darkest corners. More experimental audio design crafted within the confines of indie development often results in some brilliantly evocative, fresh-sounding music.
And so it is with NOCT: released on Steam Early Access (for PC, Mac and Linux) in late 2015 after a successful Kickstarter campaign, the 2D top-down multiplayer survival horror game developed by c3sk is all about darkness and discovery.
To create a haunting ambient score (Spotify, BandCamp), video game composer Pedro Pimentel (AKA Wordclock) teamed up with American guitarist and touring band member of Nine Inch Nails, Robin Finck. We spoke to Finck to find out what it was like to dive into the depths of the bleak, black world of NOCT.
Finck didn’t fall into video game composition—he was gradually enticed over decades: “An invitation prompted my direction. A deep-seated appreciation for the device and design of score is not a unique affection, though it’s in me. What is unique, maybe, is how opportunity backed its way into my Yes.”
That opportunity began to be forged before many of today's gamers were born: “I met a guy at Burning Man [festival] in the 90’s called Mike Wilson. Our camps zipped open on one another. He was always staring at me, and I him. I imagined him to be smiling through it all, though it was hard to tell because of the mask. We’d borrow and loan. I accepted his guests as they’d come by when he wasn’t around. Some would bring tins of chocolates and tell me about their lives. Eventually we got to talking, he and I, trying to launch a guy with a gas-powered fan on his back into the air. We’ve kept in touch for twenty years. More Burning Man, tours through Austin…”
As it turns out, Wilson would go on to have a highly influential career in games marketing and publishing, spearheading the campaign for id Software’s Quake (scored by NIN’s Trent Reznor) among others. Not long after, he brought Warren Spector into the Ion Storm fold, leading to the creation of the Deus Ex franchise.
In 2008, Wilson was a co-founder of the now-notoriously savvy indie game and film publisher, Devolver Digital—publisher of NOCT. Finck recalls: “I was touching down from another NIN tour and he asked me if I’d have any interest in scoring a game. I fingered aloud through the self-sabotage before folding a fervent fist, ‘Yes, I will treasure the opportunity.’ It was a good question and the right answer.”
Writing around the pesky player
New to video games music but not soundtrack composition, Finck embraced the task: “I forearmed everything off the desk, cut my nails, locked the door and listened. I welcomed the challenge of bolstering the game experience and revered the position on the team.
“Sure, it was different because I was ever investigating the synthesis of audio to a non-linear visual environment, one that lives at random. I wanted the OST experience to have a life of it’s own, all the while knowing the parts would be pulled at by untimely talons. The hardship of a field mouse.
“However, the endgame was always ‘how does this bit support the environment? Does it work before and/or after this other bit here? What about instead of? What if it happens in a flash, or stays parked here for many minutes on end? How is it juxtaposed against the sound design, the gun fire, the scrawl of text and dying?’ and so on…”
Co-composing across the Atlantic
Finck’s co-composer was Pedro Pimentel (AKA Worldclock), a specialist at creating ‘soothing, sleepy atmospheres’. “Pedro and I spent enough Skype time to make it to Mars and back, stopping for gas along the way.” For whatever reason, Finck says that he and Pimentel only interacted by voice, meaning that the creative collaboration itself was partially abstracted. This was a general factor affecting the whole project, for Finck: ”He was in Portugal, I was in California; Chris Eskins, the developer, was in Toronto.” iCal, Skype and Dropbox were the communication tools of choice.
“Pedro had successfully established a cursory vibe for the score. His peculiar field recording approach was a key element to the atmosphere. Together we expounded on those concepts. I brought much of the melodic and instrumental structures. A challenge throughout was to marry tuned instruments with Pedro’s non-tuned environments. I had to put on my ‘big ears’. We lobbed starts and finishes back and forth. It was an interesting experiment, shipping off ideas to Portugal and having them returned all dolled up. And sometimes I would do the dolling, or the dressing down. We set it to work well.”
Asked whether the brooding, ambient and elongated nature of the tracks necessitated regular head-clearing breaks, Finck merely replies: “Interminable wall scribble.
“We intentionally built long escapades to feel lost in space so that when a melodic structure appeared, it did so as an oasis, or some welcomed body that happened in passing. We purposely abstained from, or took breaks from, cadence-inferring instances. We really played with the concept of viewing the character from some sealed satellite, exaggerating that distance from the action. The hang of it.
“I was mindful to explore a breadth of keys and tonalities as a reaction to the randomness that game play imposes.”
As to whether guitarists fond of effects pedals like Finck himself and Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka have something special to bring to video games, he retorts: “No. We’ve all got the same effects. Everything I did on NOCT started on the piano or Dreadnought [a type of acoustic guitar] into my iPhone, to remember or to share.
“I’m into melody and progression. That sound wares stuff sorta happens by accident along the way, or during some experimental knife-throwing lab toward the end of a thing. Fun. Critical. Significant. Indispensable. But I like the bones best of all.”
It’s put to Finck that indie games might be the new punk rock. Not sold on this, he replies: “I’ll meet you here instead: It’s inspiring to live and to play in a trans-genre system, awash with all the ‘right now’ nonsense that makes finished shit happen fast. Amazing stuff. All around us. Limitless function and opportunity. Outside the box is certainly the norm place to be by now. This tech wizardry is real and there is no shortage of cloaks and pointy hats.”
He’s especially fond of renowned Danish developers Playdead: “They’re my favourite. What they did with Limbo and Inside was really paramount to drawing me into the whole scene. I absolutely love what they do and the way they do it.
The sun is (sort of) here again! Time to put down the pad, open the front door, walk outside and soak up some vitamin D… Alternatively you could catch some virtual rays—games tend to do a pretty good job of sunshine, blue sky and green fields.
Those peaceful, picturesque in-game environs provide game composers great opportunities to get their chill on, helping us feel relaxed, refreshed and ready to face any challenge.
To celebrate the onset of Spring, here’s a selection of the sunniest tracks from video games.
“Oven-Fresh Day” by Grant Kirkhope – Viva Piñata (2006)
Like the smell of freshly baked rolls on a sunny morning as the sound of children’s laughter rings out (etc.), Grant Kirkhope’s orchestral score for the Rare-developed Viva Piñata is supremely relaxing. Famed for his synthesised work on N64 classics GoldenEye 007 and Banjo-Kazooie, here it’s as if Kirkhope has been swigging from the same bottle of cheery rainbow juice as Studio Ghibli composer, Joe Hisaishi (while both have, in turn, been sipping vintages from the cellars of Vaughan Williams and Elgar).
It’s so evocative of the perfect English summer that if you transcribe all the individual notes played by the orchestra, they secretly spell out: M I N E S A P I M M S A N D L E M O N A D E T A.
Double dare you not to get that opening melody stuck in your head for the rest of the day.
“House of Lightning” by Jay Price – Sleeping Dogs (2012)
Sleeping Dogs, the well-regarded open-world game set in modern Hong Kong, may not be getting a video game sequel any time soon (R.I.P. United Front Games) but it seems that the IP might live on thanks to a planned movie adaptation being produced by the company behind the Fast and Furious series.
The original game—a fusion of Grand Theft Auto’s city-based traversal, Batman: Arkham Asylum’s combat and the story beats of film series Infernal Affairs—had a brilliantly eclectic soundtrack including some gorgeous eastern-tinged tracks. This track itself is a summery remix of Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Byrne and Cong Su’s main theme to the film The Last Emperor.
“Sailing on the Wind” by Vincent Diamante – Flower (2009)
For many console gamers who hadn’t really considered ‘games as art’ to that point, Flower by Thatgamecompany (the predecessor to 2012’s Journey), blew open the gates as to what a game could be: an artful, flowing, meditative experience with no on-screen score or health bar. The explicit aim of the developers was to engender positive emotions rather than strive to be objectively fun or challenging—tellingly this was their “first game outside the safety net of academia”, resulting in Flower’s thoughtful approach.
Vincent Diamante’s score on its own feels like a musical interpretation of an idyllic sunny day. But it also works wonders within the game: responding to the player’s actions, the sometimes still, sometimes soaring tracks contribute significantly to the game’s wonderful sense of flow.
“Green Hill Zone” by Masato Nakamura – Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)
For those of a certain generation, seeing the opening level of Sonic The Hedgehog on the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis was a jaw-dropping moment: the vibrant, tropical colours and exciting, exotically electronic music made a strong first impression.
Masato Nakamura was a band member of J-Pop group Dreams Come True and entirely new to games when he was hired by SEGA in early 1990 to compose for Sonic the Hedgehog. Despite his lack of experience and only four audio voices to work with, he nails the sense of motion and character that was necessary to launch Sonic into the public consciousness—through a driving beat, earworm melodies and quick counter-melody lines.
“The mediocrity sought out by everyone” by Motoi Sakuraba – Eternal Sonata (2007)
How many times has the word ‘mediocrity’ been used in the title of a piece of music? (Answer: Not many, and probably then only by way of an awkward translation).
Lush JRPG Eternal Sonata is centred around the historical (but fictionalised) person and music of 19th Century composer Frédéric Chopin. But just as pretty as the classical pieces weaved into the game’s narrative are the pastoral string, woodwind and piano tracks created by JRPG super-veteran, Motoi Sakuraba.
“Sandbox” by Darren Korb – Transistor (2014)
Both Supergiant Games and composer Darren Korb broke the indie big time with 2011’s Bastion. Follow-up title Transistor continued the collaboration’s adherence to stylish visual and audio design and again saw Korb craft a distinct, guitar-led sound using all sorts of fuzzy effects and crunchy trip-hop beats.
Sandbox starts off with a light, surf guitar bossa and before descending into some scuzziness.
“Welcome to Wonderland” by Yoko Shimomura – Kingdom Hearts (2002)
Japanese games veteran Yoko Shimomura, famed for classics like Street Fighter 2 and Final Fight, is one of those composers who seems like they’ve never stopped working for the last 30 years. Set to continue her work on the Kingdom Hearts series with the as yet undated Kingdom Hearts 3, she’s still riding high having been lead composer of the gigantic JRPG, Final Fantasy XV.
Nearly 20 years ago, the developers of the original Kingdom Hearts were trying figuring out how to stitch together an unprecedented number of fictional universes—from numerous Disney and Final Fantasy titles—into a new narrative a la Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. To help tie it all together, Shimomura had to come up with a raft of cute, memorable tunes that sat well with the myriad well-known characters and worlds and also worked within the conventions of the JRPG and 3D platformer genres. Welcome to Wonderland is a chirpy, restful delight.
The Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo album includes a classical orchestral suite based on Yoko Shimomura’s music for the Kingdom Hearts series, available on CD and vinyl from Lacedrecords.com; as a download via all major digital retailers; and on Spotify and other major streaming services.
“Woo!” by Jared Emerson-Johnson – Telltale’s Sam & Max Beyond Time and Space (2007)
Before Telltale’s mainstream breakthrough with The Walking Dead: Season One, the developer, along with long-term musical collaborator Jared Emerson-Johnson, plied its trade through licensed games as well as continuing classic puzzler franchises including Monkey Island and Sam and Max.
With Telltale’s three hilarious Sam and Max series, Emerson-Johnson was clearly in his element creating off-the-wall, jazzy brass and woodwind-led numbers including this joyous Caribbean romp, replete with steel pans.
“Besaid Island” by Masashi Hamauzu – Final Fantasy X (2001)
Final Fantasy X was the first game in the long-running series (that keeps going and going…) where composer Nobuo Uematsu shared the musical workload with others, including the classically-trained Masashi Hamauzu. Series fans might not have realised it at first, but the sparse, spaced-out music for the sunny Besaid Island location wasn’t by their favourite melodic master, Uematsu, but his talented colleague Hamauzu who would later take on composition duties for the three Final Fantasy XIII titles.
A bit like the film Apocalypse Now, the story around FEZ’s development is almost as interesting as the work itself. But whatever has been written and said about its tortured production, the game is undeniably an aesthetic triumph in no small part thanks to composer Richard Vreeland AKA Disasterpeace.
FEZ’s mellow, modern chiptune music is at its best during the serene setting of the game’s opening vertically-stacked village. Disasterpeace’s score, like the game’s overall style, is knowingly retro yet still fresh and distinct.
“Frontier Village” by Manami Kiyota – Xenoblade Chronicles (2010)
There’s a strong relationship between a number of modern Japanese cultural works and an idealised vision of 18th-19th Century Northern European country life, including an embrace of Celtic music and instruments. So much so that it is now a firm staple of JRPG soundtracks to hear gentle flute/woodwind melodies underpinned by acoustic guitar, accordion and light percussion, just as with anime titles such as Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service.
It’s almost always the same comforting picture: a village of pre-C20th houses and huts nestled cosily amidst natural surroundings and a welcoming population eager to converse and trade.
“Cheap Shop” by Anamanaguchi – Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game (2010)
We previously wrote about this particular extreme example of a cultural feedback loop (‘Why we ♥ video game music: Nostalgia’). Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game is a tie-in to a movie which is an adaptation of a comic book that draws heavily from video game tropes. Perfect justification then to bring in US electronica band Anamanaguchi to score the game in their characteristic ‘chiptune punk’ style.
It’s like a self-referential singularity—the breezy bossa of Cheap Shop apes the stereotypical easy listening muzak of department stores and hotel lobbies, reinterpreting it using the sound chip stylings of Super Mario. Even the track name snarks at the video game convention of conveniently situated merchants throughout the game world.
“Beautiful Morning” by Kentaro Haneda – Genso Suikoden Music Collection (2002)
With a main melody sounding like the intro to a daytime TV chat show about gardening, this exquisitely cheesy arrangement of Beautiful Morning from Suikoden II ought to make you feel giddily happy—or ready to throw up, depending on your tolerance for the twee.
Those of us enamoured with video game music beyond its initial, functional purpose love it for several reasons: feelings of nostalgia; as background music to our daily lives; and the fact that it can evoke and enhance certain emotional states.
Any music can make you feel something—good music is good music. But the designers of games and composers of game music seek to heighten what the player might feel at a given moment and we can revisit those heightened emotional moments through soundtrack music. In that way, game music that is eminently listenable outside of the game can help conjure up those feelings in real life—at the gym, motivating yourself to work or having a good sob whilst face down on the duvet.
Of course, when I say ‘the feels’, I mean strong emotions like acute sadness. All across video game fandom, you’ll find examples of people confessing to blubbing during a story moment: this Reddit thread suggests that Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One and The Last of Us are popular examples from recent years. These lump-in-the-throat moments often involved pieces of music that become fan favourites.
As we heard from contributors to ‘Favourite game music moments of the VGM community’, there are some games and music scores which successfully traffic in sentimentality better than others. One particular moment picked out by a contributor—where a teenage softly sings to a baby in Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, soundtracked by a beautiful choral piece—is also a personal favourite.
It’s so emotionally potent, it can cause one to tear up just thinking about it. The song that plays (the exquisite Cloud and Starlight by Jessica Curry) lyrically echoes the dialogue—everything about the delivery is incredibly touching.
Similarly, To The Moon—a short, story-driven game in the style of a classic 16-bit JRPG—tells an intentionally bittersweet, heartbreaking tale that weaves certain tracks from its piano-led soundtrack in and out of the actual story **SPOILERS**:
And it would be remiss of me not to bring up these particular piano chords [post-ironic character death **SPOILER WARNING** for Final Fantasy VII].
Fight on, bombastically!
A major role of modern blockbuster video game music is to get the player jazzed up and ready for the fight. This could be an epic roar of a piece over the opening titles or an action-packed combat/fight/battle/boss track—there is no shortage of heroic, huge, motivational music among video game soundtracks.
The combination of a full orchestra and choir belting out big themes is something relatively new to games, but very familiar to Hollywood epics. It’s a sound that seems to have found particular purchase among the big video game releases of 2011 such as Dark Souls, Batman: Arkham City and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The lyrics “Dovahkiin, Dovahkiin, naal ok zin los vahriin” are sure to rouse the spirits of millions of gamers, reminding them of many, many hours spent roaming the snow-capped region of Tamriel:
Another 2011 title, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, employed a variation of this rousing orchestral sound with composer Michael McCann clearly drawing inspiration from Hans Zimmer’s scores including the likes of Inception (2010) and Daft Punk’s score for TRON: Legacy (also 2010)—that is, blending electronic instruments and the traditional orchestra and choir:
Four to the score
There’s a separate strand of more modern game music which commonly accompanies in-game combat and heroic moments—I like to think of it as ‘Fuck Yeah!!’ music.
I previously mentioned the drugged-out electronica and synthwave of Hotline Miami in ‘Why we ♥ video game music: Nostalgia’—the indie title’s carefully curated licensed soundtrack still stands up as one of the great collections of underground electronica. It includes driving, four-to-the-floor house tracks, the likes of which have also appeared in games like Crypt of the NecroDancer and Furi. In all these cases, the right track can get you seriously geed up for virtual violence:
As Zelda fans are currently being reminded of with Breath of the Wild, the joy of exploration and awe of discovery are some of most intoxicating feelings gamers can experience and music often plays a huge part in that.
2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had both a vast, eclectic licensed soundtrack and also offered a wide variety of places and natural geography to explore. As these intersect, the chances are pretty high that the perfect track would come on the radio just as you discover some new nook or cranny. For me, those special moments included flying over the desert at dusk to the sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird and trucking along a country road with Woody Nelson’s Crazy playing as the sun rose.
That desire to always reach the far horizon is why music is so vital to RPGs, games that are essentially exploration engines designed to keep us in a constant state of rapt discovery. A key moment in JRPGs is whenever a new mode of transport becomes available, opening up a raft of new possibilities. In Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, as is traditional, you obtain a boat which allows you to take to the open seas. I remember the moment so clearly because of this absolutely wondrous, Debussy-esque piece by Koichi Sugiyama:
More so than films and TV, video games are about discovery. Even though some of the most personal in-game discoveries are quite often unscripted (and/or un-soundtracked), there are plenty of instances where a brilliant theme, pop track or ambient soundscape will heighten that feeling, forging a memory of that moment.
The many moods of game music
Obviously, there is a much wider kaleidoscope of emotions that video game worlds and stories are able to evoke and encourage. We like to be unsettled. Akira Yamaoka’s use of grinding, scraping and clanging industrial sounds for the Silent Hill games (and films) are incredibly effective and, frankly, shit me right up:
Whilst we explore dungeons and sunken palaces, there’s often a thick atmosphere of mystery and suspense, as with this unsettling, operatic wail of a track from Motoi Sakuraba’s score for Star Ocean: Till the End of Time:
So much time is spent sneaking around, avoiding enemies—David Housden’s soundtrack for indie stealth-em-up Volume helped keep players on edge:
Players enjoy being soothed with summery, peaceful sounds. Known for his work with BioWare including on the Mass Effect series, Jack Wall’s score for Jade Empire has some glorious cues:
We love to be romanced, especially if there’s a stuffed unicorn prop to look forward to at the end of the night… Mikolai Stroinski’s work on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is sure to stir some loins:
And, of course, a feeling of victory and heroic accomplishment is the goal of most games—something perfectly captured by this slightly bonkers but uplifting track from Ar Tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica:
Catch up with more thoughts on ‘Why we ♥ video game music’:
We thought we’d celebrate with a carefully curated list of some of the most beloved video game music tracks from classic 3D platformers—from the granddaddy, Super Mario 64, down the line of its descendents to 2007’s Super Mario Galaxy.
Say goodbye to the greys and browns of corridor shooters and post-apocalyptic wastelands—it’s time to reminisce about endless collectibles, lava levels and enough zaniness to fuel a week-long convention of the Monster Raving Loony Party.
“Staff Roll” by Koji Kondo – Super Mario 64 (1996)
As influential as Core Design’s original Tomb Raider was in terms of the evolution of 3D game design (that is to say, very), Super Mario 64 was the blueprint for a thousand games to follow—and not just 3D platformers.
The most obvious pick here would be the mellifluous, new age sounds of the beloved Dire Dire Docks. But there’s also a lot of love for Koji Kondo’s easy, breezy Staff Roll:
“Hog Wild” by Josh Mancell/Mutato Muzika – Crash Bandicoot (1996)
Crash Bandicoot fans must be feeling pretty happy at the resurgence of the character, with a surprise game ‘quotation’ included in Naughty Dog’s most recent blockbuster, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, and a full remake of the original trilogy coming in the middle of the year.
For a lot of people, memories of the first Crash Bandicoot game will be intimately tied up with the first time they ever played a PlayStation—and the intense frustration of mistiming a jump only to see Crash, astride a hog, plunge into yet another dark hole.
“The Final Battle” by Grant Kirkhope – Banjo-Kazooie (1998)
Kirkhope’s work on landmark Nintendo 64 titles including GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark and the Banjo series mean that he effectively soundtracked the childhood and early adolescence of an entire generation of gamers, a compliment reserved only for the likes of Koji Kondo (Super Mario; Zelda), Yoko Shimomura (Street Fighter 2; Kingdom Hearts) and Peter McConnell (numerous LucasArts Star Wars titles and adventure games).
The Final Battle is exemplary boss battle music: energetically egging you on as you dart around the arena, blood-pumping and palms sweating.
“Jacques” by Stewart Copeland – Spyro the Dragon (1998)
Remember The Police? As in ‘Sting and the...’ and songs about lovely topics like stalking and illicit teacher-student relationships. Believe it or not, the drummer for The Police, Stewart Copeland, was a composer for the first three PlayStation-exclusive Spyro the Dragon titles, bringing his jazz and rock sensibilities to the world of video games. According to this interesting interview Copeland conducted with magazine gamesTM, he was under such pressure to produce vast quantities of music for the games that he’d churn out four tracks a day in a glorious blaze of creativity.
“Time Station” by Soichi Terada – Ape Escape (1999)
Whilst the Nintendo 64 will likely go down in history as the console for 3D platformers thanks to Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, the PlayStation was also home to some high quality series including Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon and Ape Escape.
In a minimalist fashion, Japanese electronic music composer Soichi Terada made the hub area of Ape Escape—the Time Station—sound like a futuristic bullet train terminal somewhere in Tokyo c. 2077.
“Funky’s Theme” by Grant Kirkhope – Donkey Kong 64 (1999)
A classic 3D platformer that is perhaps not remembered as fondly as others, giant collect-’em-up Donkey Kong 64 nonetheless sold well. Despite David Wise being synonymous with the series both prior to, and following this particular entry, Grant Kirkhope took composition duties here, showing off his range with some serious grooviness.
“Mountain Pass Vs Klaww” by Josh Mancell – Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy (2001)
Before there was Uncharted, developer Naughty Dog’s flagship series was Jak and Daxter—the PlayStation 2’s answer to Rare’s 3D platformer dominance up to that point. Released later the same year as the last Rare Nintendo 64 outing (Conker’s Bad Fur Day), Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy is still held up as a classic of the genre.
Composer Josh Mancell is also known for his sonic stewardship of the Crash Bandicoot series; here he ratchets up the tension as Klaww, a “lurker of enormity”, hurls giant volcanic boulders at your bonce.
“Escape From The City” by Jun Senoue – Sonic Adventure 2 (2001)
2001: tough times would lie ahead for ardent SEGA fans and Dreamcast owners as Sonic Adventure 2 became the last Sonic game on the last major SEGA console. In 2002, it received a port for Nintendo’s (not that much more successful) GameCube, something that would have been utterly unthinkable a decade prior.
This pop punk ditty is part of a canon of Sonic-related rock tracks. Those recorded for the Sonic Adventure games were the fruits of what coalesced into a side project led by SEGA composer, Jun Senoue. The project became a band, Crush 40, which continued on to become the official musical ensemble of the Sonic the Hedgehog brand, touring the world and releasing albums to this day.
“Dimitri Battle” by Peter McConnell – Sly 2: Band of Thieves (2004)
The PlayStation-exclusive sequel by inFAMOUS developer Sucker Punch, Sly 2: Band of Thieves, sees you following, bugging and then battling a purple marine iguana in a Parisian club to drugged-out disco music. But seeing as we’re talking about 3D character platformers, nothing about that last sentence should seem remotely odd.
Peter McConnell, the LucasArts/Double Fine constant collaborator, joined the Sly Cooper franchise with this entry, bringing his characteristic tunefulness and versatility to bear.
“Courtney Gears Battle Theme” by David Bergeaud – Ratchet & Clank 3: Up Your Arsenal (2004)
PlayStation-exclusive series Ratchet & Clank started in 2002 and, like fellow PlayStation 2 platformers Jak and Daxter and Sly Cooper, it sought to pick up the baton from Rare which had finished its run of Nintendo 64 3D platformers the previous year.
The third game, Up Your Arsenal, was widely regarded as the best in the series, prior to the 2016 reboot. At times sounding like a late 90’s Steps/Europop hit, this track from long-time series composer, David Bergeaud, has all the layered, driving intensity of great boss battle music. Game soundtracks can never have enough synth slap bass and orchestra hits, in my book.
“The Meat Circus” by Peter McConnell – Psychonauts (2005)
2005’s Psychonauts was a symbol of writer Tim Schafer and co’s independence, it being the debut game of his new studio, Double Fine. But it also turned out to be a troubled case study on the difficulties of games development and the potential pitfalls of engaging with a publisher.
Reuniting several of the former LucasArts creatives that worked on adventure games like Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango, Schafer once again collaborated with artist Peter Chan and composer Peter McConnell. The latter’s music for the rock-hard final level of the game is, quite simply, bananas: a furious, jumping, gypsy-jazz romp.
“Gusty Garden Galaxy” by Mahito Yokota – Super Mario Galaxy (2007)
Released for the Wii, Super Mario Galaxy was the spiritual successor to Super Mario 64 that fans had pined for for years—not just that, but it is still one of most highly-rated games of all time.
To make the game sound as lush as possible, much of the music is performed by the 50-strong Mario Galaxy Orchestra (here’s a clip of them in the studio). This elevates the soundtrack immensely, giving the whole game package an incredible sheen of quality. This inspiring track will leave you ready to face anything, with a goofy grin on your face:
As we’ve been exploring in our blog series, ‘Why we ♥ video game music’, game soundtracks can come to mean an awful lot to people, not least because they become wrapped up with memories and emotions of specific gaming moments.
We asked some of the most passionate game music fans—including writers, podcasters and other industry professionals—to highlight their favourite occasions where a game’s soundtrack made a moment for them, forging a strong memory in the process.
Some have chosen to include minors spoilers, others have danced around them but ***MAJOR SPOILER ALERT*** for Suikoden, Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy VI and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.
Life Is Strange (2015) – “Welcome to Arcadia Bay High School”
Track: “To All Of You” by Syd Matters
Hollie Bennett, PlayStation Access Channel Manager at SIEE: “As a long time Final Fantasy and JRPG fan, people would probably expect me to choose something along those lines, but I really wanted to highlight something less obvious (for me).
“I was a little late to the party with Life Is Strange, playing it at the end of 2016—but I fell in love with it. It’s a game that plays with your emotions while beautifully portraying the excitement and difficulties of navigating both adolescence and high school… and having super powers.
“Near the beginning of the game the player character, Max, is introduced—she’s a transfer student who faces the dual challenge of being accepted by a new institution—Arcadia Bay High School—and by her teenage peers. You wander the halls of your new school interacting with various students and items before eventually putting your headphones in, pressing play and cranking up the sound; a method of escape that nearly all of us can relate to.”
“I tend to enjoy orchestral game music, particularly from JRPGs, but Life Is Strange includes a modern and mainstream collection of tunes. This song is by a contemporary French band, Syd Matters (fronted by Jonathan Morali), whose music can be found on streaming services [Spotify]—it’s also a timeless acoustic piece with a beautiful melody and a soulful vocal.
“It works so well in the game because it feels relevant, it’s implemented in such a way that I can instantly relate to our protagonist Max—and become her. It transports me. In that moment, I’m 16 years old, attempting to traverse adolescence and wandering those halls. I’m lying on my bed clutching my iPod. I’m listening and lost in thoughts of young love, rebellion amidst intense emotions.
“It’s striking how quickly To All Of You helps set the stage for one of the best games I’ve played of late.”
Undertale (2015) – "When you're gonna have a bad time"
Track: “Megalovania” by Toby Fox
Liam Edwards, host, Final Games podcast: “I was a little late to Undertale and some general life advice: if you haven't played, GO DO IT ASAP!
“It's magnificent in so many ways, one of which is the soundtrack. The game's creator, Toby Fox, must be a god-like creative genius. Not only did he write, draw, design and code the game—he also composed all of the music too, and it just happens to be one of the most inventive and incredible game soundtracks of the modern era.”
“Megalovania stands out to me as a perfect example of this. It's so upbeat and crushing at the same time. It plays at different points during the game, but there is one specific boss—no spoilers—where it's so freaking hard and upsetting. But, after hours and hours of listening to this track getting pumped up to beat that boss, it gets me so incredibly worked-up and energetic."
“I could have chosen any of the classics—e.g. Earthbound, Final Fantasy, Zelda—but truly, Undertale is special in so many ways and the soundtrack needs to be heard by more people. Megalovania, Dating Start, Heartache, ASGORE… just go binge yourself on them! [YouTube, Spotify]
Genso Suikoden (1995) – "Gremio sacrifices himself to save his young master"
Track: "Theme of Sadness ~ Guitar Version" by Miki Higashino
Jayson Napolitano, Owner, Scarlet Moon Productions: “Gremio is a companion to, and watcher of the main character Tir for the entire game, so they have a special bond. Towards the end of the story, Gremio sacrifices himself by locking the door to prevent a flesh-eating toxin reaching the rest of the party.
“It's pretty emotional, thanks to this track which makes me feel helpless and heartbroken—it also plays when other characters important to the main character die and as it’s a Game of Thrones-esque political drama, of course loads of people die!
“Genso Suikoden is an amazing saga spanning five games, with the first being my absolute favourite game of all time. It has wonderful music, a fantastic story, memorable characters and is not overly long.”
Resident Evil (1996) – "Momentary respite from the horrors of the Spencer Mansion"
Track: “Save Room Theme” (AKA “Safe Room Theme”) by Makoto Tomozawa, Akari Kaida and Masami Ueda
Andy Corrigan, freelance games writer (IGN AU): “1996's Resident Evil, despite clunkiness in some areas, provided 15-year-old me with so many important lessons about what games could be—I can almost certainly credit it as one of those that made me realise just how important a good soundtrack could be.
“Resident Evil's score made an action as simple as walking down an empty corridor fraught with tension, almost single-handedly heightening the senses by way of its looping mix of high strings and foreboding pads. Did I really want to keep going? The music constantly reinforced the fear that anything could jump out at me at any moment. Whether it did or not was irrelevant.
“If a zombie did lurch or a hunter leap, causing a moment of panic, the music was every bit as responsible for the scare as the action itself. Getting through an area completely unscathed rarely brought relief, because the cycle of tension only began again around each corner and at every new door, usually exacerbated in direct proportion to the length of time since I last saved.
“But why am I talking about music which isn’t even that which I chose? Because without explaining the contrast, understanding the magic moment becomes impossible.”
“In that first ever play through, Resident Evil oppressed and bombarded me with so much anxiety, that when a door would creak open and finally, the calming, peaceful tones of a safe room would start to filter though, it was only then I’d realise how much I’d been holding my breath.
“This piece of music meant many things: a place to save, a place to store items. Yet most of all it meant relief. Safety. Sanctuary. It meant a chance to take a breather, to settle my poor nerves before heading out to do it all over again.
“In a game of constant tension, those little moments of calm were priceless.”
Tomb Raider (2013) – “Lara versus the Oni Warriors”
Track: “Oni Combat Music” by Jason Graves [unreleased]
Kate Remington, podcaster (Music Respawn) and Classical Music director and on-air announcer at WSHU Public Radio (Fairfield, CT): “OK, true confessions time! I'm not actually very good at combat in video games, but this battle in the Tomb Raider reboot featuring Jason Graves' music was a life-changing (or ‘game-changing’!) experience. Until this moment, combat with multiple enemies was my least favourite part of any game.
“This time, though, Jason's incredible, energetic drumming, reminiscent of traditional taiko drumming, made me feel like I (or Lara) could take on anyone. This was the very first time I felt that ‘bring 'em on!’ surge of adrenaline and even now when I feel overwhelmed by bad guys in other games, I recall the confidence that music gave me."
“In fact, I was so carried away by the music that I was honestly sorry when this skirmish ended. “This music isn't included in the original soundtrack album, to my disappointment. The closest sounding in feel is Scaling the Ziggurat; also the cue The Oni has a similar feel.”
Final Fantasy IX (2000) – “Zidane comes to terms with the truth about his origins”
Track: "You're Not Alone" by Nobuo Uematsu
Frederik Lauridsen, writer, Blip Blop Wax: “The music and this scene work together perfectly. Main character Zidane has just learned about his origins, triggering existential crisis: he’s a clone, created for destruction. He decides that he's not worth the friendship of his companions and that he doesn’t want to trouble them anymore.
“The music starts out sombre, but as Zidane tries to fight his way through the castle [Pandemonium] alone, he is joined by his friends who want to fight alongside him and support him. Gradually the song opens up to reveal something more hopeful and triumphant, making it a perfect fit for the scene as Zidane's friends' attempt to show that they care about him no matter where he's from or what he is."
“This song is only used in this one relatively short sequence and it fits the mood perfectly. For teenage Frederik playing Final Fantasy IX back in the 90’s, this was a standout emotional scene where the action and music fuse to create a majestic moment in what I already considered to be a fantastic game. To this day, it is hands-down my favourite Final Fantasy track and when I had the opportunity to see one of the Distant Worlds orchestral concerts, I went to a performance in Vienna where I knew this would be played.”
Rez (2001) – “Area 5, when California Soul kicks in”
Track: “Fear” by Freeland (AKA "Fear Is the Mindkiller" by Adam Freeland) & "California Soul" by Marlena Shaw
Leon Cox, podcaster, Cane and Rinse & Sound of Play: “As with its spiritual predecessor and SEGA stablemate, Panzer Dragoon Zwei, the on-rails nature of Rez allowed developer Tetsuya Mizuguchi to perfectly choreograph the on-screen action with the in-ear soundtrack. Not only this, but though Rez is no rhythm action game, the diegetic effects—shots and explosions—are quantised in such a way that they feed into the beat of the music present in each of its five stages.
“The final level of the game, Area 5, was instantly hailed as something special upon its release in 2001 and has since deservedly gone on to acquire legendary status across multiple releases including most recently, on PS4 and PSVR [Rez Infinite].
“The entire 10-minute sequence is a masterclass in symbiotic, interactive audio visual feedback that only videogames can provide. The moment where the experience really begins to transcend all of its individual media arrives about three minutes and 20 seconds in:
“The player avatar ascends from its previously low altitude horizontal course, rising into the blue as the music soars. The sky darkens once more as a cluster of cannon fodder fighters creep up behind and a cylindrical monolith of a mini-boss looms above. Despite being enraptured by the spectacle, somehow I am still focused on maximising my multiplier while simultaneously avoiding any flak. I find it almost impossible not not to nod my head along to the determined, pulsating beat of Freeland’s Fear every single time I play this level—and I have played it many, many, many times.
“I’m always completely entranced by the time an unmistakeable sample is layered into the mix. Heavily treated but instantly recognisable, the horns from Marlena Shaw’s blissful 1969 version of California Soul embellish the surreal, alien landscape with a curiously comforting air. Written by Motown stalwarts Ashford & Simpson, California Soul had previously been a more conventional ‘B’ side for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. It is undoubtedly Shaw’s hazy, hot-boxed version—arranged by genius producers Charles Stepney and Richard Evans—that Freeland appropriated for Fear though.
“If some kind of ‘cool-o-meter’ was connected to Rez's Area 5, it would be merrily bouncing along at the top end of the green up to this point and then, cartoon style, the indicator needle slams hard into the red as steam and bits of spring start to spout from the gauge.
“Every aspect is working in unison, achieving the lofty aim of Miz’s Project K in providing something that at least invokes a convincing illusion of synesthesia. This marriage of the work of multiple artists across many decades still has the capacity to evoke in me something close to elation.”
Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture (2015) – “Rachel comforts baby Dylan in the main hall”
Track: “Clouds & Starlight” by Jessica Curry
Pete “Noob” Boyle, writer & podcaster, Gamestyle/DorkTunes: “This is a poignant moment of love & loss.
“Just prior to the release of Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of the soundtrack, which I hungrily listened to on repeat. As a soundtrack, it is possibly my favourite that I’ve heard in recent years, full of love, loss, hope, despair and pain which is interwoven beautifully throughout the experience of the game. I have several favourite music moments from the game, but the one I’ve chosen has me with tears in my eyes as I type.
“The scene takes place in the holiday camp main hall, where teenager Rachel is left in charge of the surviving children. They have been rehearsing a musical—Peter Pan—contrived to keep the children busy so they don’t think about the events unfolding around them. Rachel is sitting on the stage with baby Dylan in her arms at that moment the military’s planes fly over, dropping their payload of nerve gas to try to contain the fatal effects of 'The Pattern’. In a cooing voice, she recites the lyrics of Clouds & Starlight, which are repeated in the choral music cue which quietly comes in:
“I remember at the time it made my tears flow freely and was one of a few moments where I had to walk away from the game to compose myself.
“When I first heard this piece, weeks before playing the game, it moved me to tears. Now I know why. The power of the music, the writing and the performances in the scene are nothing short of spectacular—it’s possibly the most memorable moment of I have ever experienced playing any game. Even now, almost two years since its release, for it to have such an effect on me is something rather special.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) – “Link leaves Kokiri Forest and emerges onto Hyrule Field”
Track: “Hyrule Field” by Koji Kondo
Richard Stokes, @WeLoveGameMusic fan community: “Hyrule Field was my first experience of what we would now call an ‘open-world’ area of a video game. Back in 1998, it was so exciting when Link leaves Kokiri Forest and enters Hyrule Field for the first time: the camera pans across the top part of the field showing the entrance to Hyrule Town and the drawbridge, Death Mountain in the distance and across the field to the short path that leads back to the forest entrance. We now take these seemingly unrestricted environments for granted and when compared to later games in the Zelda series, Hyrule Field now feels comparatively small. But to 12-year-old me it was a huge place waiting to be explored.
“I liked the rolling, slightly dramatic start to the Hyrule Field theme, which then flowed into something bright and exciting. I also liked how the music could go from being happy and bright at one moment, to being something more dramatic and unnerving the next."
“I now think changes to the feel and tempo of the music—for instance when Link heads towards the entrance to Gerudo Valley or encounters a Peahat enemy—as an early example of ‘dynamic game music’ whereas my younger self would have been anxious about where the happy music had gone! It made me focus more on my surroundings and be wary about whether something scary could be over the brow of the next hill.
“Hyrule Field is still my one of my favourite video game themes, and I felt extremely fortunate and privileged to be able to hear it played live by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the 2011 The Legend of Zelda: 25th Anniversary Symphony concert in London. That was my first of many VGM concerts, and it was a very happy moment that I will never forget.”
Final Fantasy VI (1994) – “An opera in a SNES game? With actual singing!”
Tracks: “Overture”, “Aria Di Mezzo Carattere”, “The Wedding Waltz ~Duel” & “Grand Finale?” by Nobuo Uematsu
Mark Robins, campaigner, ClassicVGMusic (Keep Video Games Music in the Classic FM Hall of Fame): “I remember reading about Final Fantasy VI’s opera scene [known as either Maria and Draco or The Dream Oath] before I played it—in Super Play magazine, which was basically my gaming bible in the 90’s.
“When they said there was a Super Nintendo cartridge game that featured actual people singing I was, to be fair, sceptical. And looking back at it now, when you eventually hear those voices, you realise it’s pretty basic stuff, but hearing that audio wizardry for the first time was mesmerising.”
“The whole scene was amazing. The idea of having to be a body double for an opera diva and then the player having to hit all of the singing cues to keep the audience happy—when does that ever happen in a game? And Uematsu’s amazing melodies are completely timeless."
“It was a great moment in gaming: technically astounding for the time, a brilliant change of gameplay pace and a real surprise for players who had been playing the game for six or seven hours already. A perfect synergy of story, music and emotion. “And then Ultros turns up and spoils everything.”
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (2006) – “The battle theme you’ll hear A LOT”
Track: “Mass Destruction” by Shoji Meguro
Leah Haydu, podcaster, Cane and Rinse & Sound of Play: “If you know me at all (and by ‘know me’ I mean ‘have talked to me for more than five minutes’), then you’ve probably heard me ramble on about Persona 3 and Persona 4 at some point. Trying to pick which is my favourite really isn’t possible—not on a permanent basis, anyway! It changes constantly. One thing that does remain consistent, though, is how much I love the soundtracks to both. I think they might have made me unironically like J-pop. Is that bad?
“If you’re playing Persona 3, you’ll hear the battle theme a lot. A LOT. It’s my favourite JRPG track. At least for today.”
LittleBigPlanet (2008) – “Swinging Safari enjoys the music of Mali”
Track: “Tapha Niang” by Toumani Diabeté’s Symmetric Orchestra
Thomas Quillfeldt, Community Manager, Laced Records: “LittleBigPlanet was a revelation when I first played it back in 2009. Everything looked so physical, so tangible, thanks to the expert and artful use of the powerful new PlayStation 3. And, in keeping with the heritage of certain PlayStation games like WipEout and Gran Turismo having brilliantly curated licensed soundtracks, the track choices were inspired. I was blown away by the use of the famously bland lift/museum music, Left Bank Two, to underpin Stephen Fry’s spoken introduction as part of a wonderfully creative opening level.
“But it was the remarkable sound of Malian kora player Toumani Diabeté that really caught my ear. I’d never heard anything like it, let alone in a video game. As the beat kicks in after a long intro, it strongly piqued my interest, making the Africa-themed Swinging Safari level stand out in my memory ever since. It’s also a mesmerising track—from a Grammy-winning artist—in and of itself.”
“It was saddening to learn that Sony later patched out the wonderful vocal version of the song and recalled physical copies after some controversy surrounding the lyrics, which originally including passages from the Qur'an. I can imagine that music licensing teams across the industry became just a little bit more conservative after that.”
Tune by tune, we break down the structure of Roger Wanamo's Final Fantasy VI Symphonic Poem—an epic struggle between our heroine, Terra, and the villainous Kefka.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Conceived as a set of orchestral concert suites, first performed in 2013, Final Symphony is based on the music of video game composer Nobuo Uematsu. The pieces, including a symphonic poem, a piano concerto and a symphony, feature music drawn from several of the most popular Final Fantasy games (VI, VII and X).
Whilst the overall concert tour and resulting album was produced by Thomas Böcker and Merregnon Studios, arrangers Jonne Valtonen, Roger Wanamo and Masashi Hamauzu were tasked with weaving together melodies, rhythms and textures from in-game tracks—of which there are hundreds—into wonderful new orchestral works. Many of the original tracks were composed by Uematsu with the expectation that they would only ever be rendered by the now primitive sound chips of 1990’s game consoles.
Since Laced Records recently released CD and vinyl versions of Final Symphony, recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra at the legendary Abbey Road Studios, we thought it would be fun to breakdown one of the suites—Final Fantasy VI – Symphonic Poem: Born with the Gift of Magic arranged by Finland’s Roger Wanamo—to find out which game tracks made it in and how they fit together musically.
The London Symphony Orchestra recording Final Symphony at Abbey Road Studios with conductor Eckehard Stier:
“There is so much that I wanted to include, but not room for nearly everything. Originally my plan was to focus on the numerous character themes. Then the plan changed to focus on Terra and her story. One part of this story would focus on her friends, the other character themes. Then I had to drop that as well, as the piece would have become way too long.”
Instead, we get a musical face off between heroine and distressed demigod, Terra, and the genocidal clown, Kefka.
Notes about track time refer to the Symphonic Poem as heard on the Final Symphony studio album.
The suite opens with the opening bars of the Overture to Final Fantasy VI’s in-game opera about a war-torn romance—known as either Maria and Draco or The Dream Oath. We hear subtle variations of Terra’s Theme (0:21)—which will emerge triumphant over the course of the piece—murmured by the lower strings and played more prominently by the French horns. A bassoon whispers a few notes of the dastardly Kefka’s Theme (0:28).
The original track by Nobuo Uematsu:
0:46 – “Opening Theme” (AKA "Omen")
Within less than a minute, we hear the infamous chimes (“Long ago, the War of the Magi reduced the world to a scorched wasteland…”) and are enveloped by the anxious chords of the game's opening scenes. Wanamo adds two notes (0:49) after the three famous chords to maintain the presence of Terra’s Theme.
1:07 – “Troops March On” & “Terra’s Theme” (AKA “Tina”)
Almost immediately, we hear Terra’s Theme trapped within Troops March On—a direct reference to the way the game’s story begins with our magically powerful heroine being controlled and marched around by the evil empire.
After a minute, Terra starts to struggle against against her oppressors as a wrenching, melodic strings swell rises up (2:28), giving off strong hints of John Williams’ Jedi theme from 1977’s Star Wars. She is soon subdued, as the orchestra brings us right down to almost-silence (3:15).
3:18 – “Kefka’s Theme” (AKA “Cefca”)
To break the tension, Wanamo builds to a not-quite-climax, only to use the violins to laugh at the audience (3:29). By way of a cheeky bassoon solo (3:39), we witness the supposedly funny side of the game’s ultimate villain, the mass-murdering, world-destroying Kefka.
Wanamo comments: “This is the only part of the Symphonic Poem that doesn't feature Terra's Theme in any way—because Kefka is not the kind of guy who would let anyone interrupt his story with random comments about some puny half-human, half-esper freak!”
At 4:36, we hear shades of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre (AKA the theme to Jonathan Creek) before the madness really kicks off, along with the tempo. Adding to the bonkers, castanets make an appearance (4:56) ahead of a full orchestral stomp (5:25), replete with crash cymbals (found in the Uematsu’s original track) and plodding tubas.
Everything descends into a woozy, broken waltz (6:03) which emulates the feeling of drinking a quadruple shot of absinth, jumping on a spinning playground roundabout and holding up a separate kaleidoscope to each eye.
7:20 – “Another World of Beasts” (AKA “Esper World”)
Using some Disney-esque, eerily dissonant tuned percussion—a combination of celesta, harp and vibraphone—Wanamo establishes the ambiance of the worlds of the espers. Again reminiscent of Williams’ original Star Wars score, the Finnish arranger inserts Terra’s Theme played by a lone trombone (7:40). A solo flute picks up Uematsu’s mysterious melody from Another World of Beasts (7:53) and leads us into a thicket of woodwind and strings (8:10) that would be at home in Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune.
By way of an oboe solo, Wanamo smuggles in Uematsu’s own brief quotation of The Phantom Forest (8:28), present in the original Another World of Beasts track. Like a disquieting lullaby, Terra’s Theme returns on celesta (9:13). Wanamo explains: “This is where she comes to terms with who and what she is. It is the first time during the whole piece that we hear her theme in it's original form, clearly and uninterrupted.”
Wanamo plies the audience with repeated instances of the melody from Another World of Beasts, tumbling over one another (10:19), speeding up and getting louder, with Kefka’s Theme sneaking around in the background.
10:58 – “Metamorphosis”
As Terra and the party reach the sealed gate the the world of the espers in the game, all kinds of prog rock madness erupt—Uematsu being famous for his love of bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and also progging-out his own instrumental rock group, The Black Mages.
Wanamo launches the orchestra into Metamorphosis, substituting the bass guitar and drums of the original track with pounding timpani drums. Terra’s Theme appears again, like a small ship in a violent storm (11:10)—as do the iconic chords from the Opening Theme (11:22).
11:33 – “The Unforgiven”
The strings keep the pace up with some furious flurries as, in the game, Cyan tries desperately to rescue the situation in Doma, helpless in the face of Kefka’s atrocious acts.
11:55 – “Battle Theme”
We hear what sounds suspiciously like it could be from the Final Fantasy VII and VIII battle themes (11:51) as the piece builds to the introduction of Final Fantasy VI's Battle Theme. A solo trumpet plays the familiar jaunty tune (12:03) that is burned into the memory of every dedicated Final Fantasy fan whilst a cheeky xylophone joins in for some fast runs and trills (12:28).
12:53 – “Save Them” (AKA “Protect the Espers”)
Terra and Kefka’s themes battle it out as we break into the snare-propelled excitement of Save Them. This segues straight into the track's uplifting French horn melody (13:03) which is repeatedly overcome by the crashing waves of Kefka’s powerful, malevolent main melody (13:13).
At 13:50, everything comes to a stop—the battle is over.
13:56 – “Dancing Mad”
The lower strings quietly, sonorously pull our senses together by way of a slowed-down version of the organ theme from the last part of Dancing Mad.
Before long, we’re raised to our feet, first by the higher strings (15:03) and then rest of the orchestra (15:12). And if you don’t get goosebumps when Terra’s Theme triumphantly returns in its full glory (15:33), complete with epic brass countermelody (16:01), you likely don’t have a pulse.
There are reasons other than nostalgia that video game music enjoys fans beyond the act of playing games themselves: in the era of portable, digital convenience; of YouTube, Spotify and smartphones—game music makes fantastic background music.
Not all of it, of course, and many would argue that game music, at the point of its creation, can strive to do and be more—to matter more as part of the overall medium. But current trends lean towards in-game soundtracks cushioning and punctuating the player experience rather than disrupting it. Most music composed for video games is crafted in such a way that it doesn’t draw attention to itself.
Listened to in isolation, great game music can serve as the soundtrack to our actual—as well as our virtual—lives.
Loop de loop
From the days when game music was just lines of code given voice by a computer or console sound chip, gamers have become accustomed to never ending, unchanging loops of music. The best repeated musical material infiltrates your brain, focusing your concentration and tethering you to the game’s world and systems. With score attack games, long form games (e.g. real time strategy or role-playing games) and multiplayer competitive games etc. I’ve no doubt there’s a large subsection of players who have developed a Pavlovian response to certain tunes, whereby their thumbs start to twitch and their heart starts to race.
I’m also certain that for several generations, the sound of looping chiptune emanating from children's bedrooms contributed to the widespread cynicism of parents regarding the artistic and developmental merits of video games. Fans of video game music arguably have a much higher tolerance threshold for repetition and find comfort in their favourite tunes—hence the existence of extended video game music tracks on YouTube. 10 hours of Tetris Type-A, anyone?
Because I can’t go a single blog without mentioning Final Fantasy and I'm feeling confessional, as a teenager I recorded an entire side of a cassette (remember those?) with looping Final Fantasy VII world map music as an aid to sleep. I was clearly ahead of my time.
Discreet by design
Whilst video games continue to find their way in terms of being a progressive, daring artistic medium, most game music exists to complement the visuals and interactivity. In this way it can be similar to film or television music, ducking during dialogue and sitting well with other sound effects.
Many games also now enjoy sophisticated ‘non-linear’, ‘adaptive’ or ‘generative’ soundtracks, where the music playing changes depending on what the player is doing. A game’s soundtrack might be muted and tense whilst you’re sneaking undiscovered through a building, exploding into life once you’ve been spotted by the enemy.
Here’s a technical example of the different layers of intensity possible with modern audio tools:
The individual snippets of music that are fed into an audio engine are supposed to transition and layer smoothly on top of one another and so tend not to have melodies or rhythms that stick out and break the general flow—meaning that there are fewer musical elements trying to catch your ear than with a pop song or classical symphony, for instance.
Then, when it comes the soundtrack album, the composer will settle on a set sequence of musical snippets to give an overview of how that level or boss fight might sound—a sonic smorgasbord. Thus you end up with interesting, listenable, but not necessarily extraordinary tracks. A good example of this is electronica artist Solar Fields’ excellent score for Mirror’s Edge (Spotify):
In the 21st Century the umbrella genre, electronica, has become a staple of video games music. No surprise there: it’s generally cheaper and easier to produce than writing for and recording live instruments, more accessible to learn as a budding composer/producer and naturally fits with the themes of technology and futurism that society broadly associates with video games. With its roots in dance music, drug culture and experimentalism, electronica composers as a professional set are at peace with the idea of their music serving as a background to other activities.
Some excellent examples of video game electronica to aid concentration are Disasterpeace’s warm, wide, fuzzy FEZ score (YouTube; Spotify); the mellow Monument Valley albums (YouTube; Spotify); and Darren Korb’s trip-hoppy Transistor score (YouTube; Spotify).
For something more ambient and soundscape-y, in 2015 Laced Records released the Noct soundtrack by Nine Inch Nails and Guns’N’Roses long-term collaborator Robin Finck and dark ambient artist, Wordclock (Spotify):
Fade to background
Video game composers as a group are constantly striving to create music that helps people focus better on what they’re doing. That’s not all game music is good for and that’s not it can be, but it is why you get round-ups of ‘work background’ game music from major gaming websites like Vice’s Waypoint and IGN. It’s pretty simple: a lot of game music sits brilliantly as background music to work and other activities because that’s what it was initially conceived to do by clever composers and audio programmers.
There’s also the fact that video game music fans—one assumes also avid gamers—have a higher tolerance for repeated musical material than non-gamers, conditioned by years of playing score attack/arcade games, puzzlers, grindy RPGs, fighting and sports games and so on.
We love video game music, even if we’re happy to have it play second fiddle to other things.
**For a limited time, you can get over 15% off of the the price of the No Man's Sky soundtrack by 65daysofstatic on 4xLP & 2xLP vinyl, 2xCD and digital: US store | Rest of world store**
By Thomas Quillfeldt
How to depict an infinite universe? It’s a question that has tested developer Hello Games in creating 2016’s much talked about sci-fi exploration and survival game, No Man’s Sky.
The largely generative in-game soundtrack draws its music cues from an album—Sheffield rock band 65daysofstatic's No Man’s Sky: Music for an Infinite Universe—which Laced Records released in late 2016 on digital, double CD and double & quadruple vinyl LP. Unusually for a soundtrack, it's an album first and foremost: the sixth studio record by the band, crafted in much the same way as their previous projects.
This also meant 65daysofstatic teaming up once more with long-time collaborator Caspar Newbolt—AKA caspar (v)—to design the record sleeve. We chatted to the him about the process and the ingredients that went into creating the cryptic, epic artwork for the album.
A long time ago in a galaxy not that far away...
Caspar came across 65daysofstatic in 2005 thanks to a flatmate taking him to a London gig. “I thought the show was fantastic. I was particularly struck by how they were just these punk kids in ripped jeans and t-shirts thrashing away next to a shitty PC laptop, yet somehow emitting this incredible electronic sound akin to Squarepusher or Nine Inch Nails.”
Here's a video of the band playing Radio Protector live at the Small Town America all-dayer in 2006:
The following year, he checked back in on the band after opening a studio in New York. “I discovered the song Radio Protector, which sounded classic, timeless to me like, say, 1979 by the Smashing Pumpkins. I was entranced and wanted to help them go further somehow so I offered what services I could to achieve that. Their music and aesthetic seemed to fit perfectly with mine—at least that’s what I told myself!”
After some back and forth, “it turned out we were all into the same stuff. Our regular conversations from that point on were layered with shared references and fuelled by a hopeless level of ambition to somehow change one thing or another about the world.” The collaboration quickly bore fruit by way of a new website for the band around the time of their album, The Destruction of Small Ideas.
Caspar Newbolt's cover for 65daysofstatic's Wild Light:
Commenting on the beginning of the working relationship and collaborating with a band as hardworking and intelligent as 65daysofstatic, Caspar adds: “I don’t think it would be fair to say it was effortless. We’re friends, we get along well and the conversations are not all about work, but when it’s time to work—we work hard. There are disagreements but there are great discoveries too. Together we push each other to do things we didn’t know we could do and the results are always good.
“There has to be blood, sweat and tears to make anything good really, and these guys being no strangers to that concept either. They digested and analysed everything I did.”
No Man's Sky: Music for an Infinite Universe 4XLP vinyl Disc 1 sleeve by caspar (v) and John DeLucca. The sleeve was printed with a matte lamination finish whilst the colour paintings were printed using a Spot UV coating:
Album first, soundtrack second
Caspar and the band’s working relationship prior to the No Man’s Sky project enabled them to keep the game’s still-in-development artistic and aesthetic throughput at arm’s length. “65daysofstatic have never paid allegiance to anything that might hinder them doing the best work possible."
He cites Daft Punk’s TRON: Legacy soundtrack: “I remember listening to it knowing it was good because it was made before the  film had even been shot.” The French dance music duo had created the score based on their love of the original 1982 film, “which is a masterpiece and had arguably defined a large part of Daft Punk’s aesthetic and sound. As such, their score was a eulogy to that first film and, as a piece of work, is a great deal better than the actual film turned out.”
In this way, discussions with 65daysofstatic about the artwork for the No Man’s Sky album were based on the premise that they were making a score based on a version of the game as it existed in their heads (indeed, they weren’t to play the game until very late in the scoring process). The ideas for the artwork were to stem from this vision, rather than from the game’s marketing assets.
Explains Caspar: “This meant that we were going to work on our terms and only needed to impress ourselves. We were working in the dark to a certain extent, but happily so. You simply can’t do good work by committee. You have to be left to your own devices—although we were constantly aware of the fact that Hello Games or Sony might dismiss all of it because it wasn’t aesthetically in tune with the final game.
“That ever-present sense of risk has always been there, working with 65daysofstatic. I personally had no idea if they’d even like what I was doing. We’re friends, but that didn’t mean they had to like anything I made! We were on our own in that respect and it lit a fire under our asses.”
A universe of possibilities
To get started on such a project, Caspar explains: “You simply have to have a strong enough idea—one that translates well into multiple representations. In terms of themes for the record sleeve, “the band wanted to capture what it might be like both to explore space in all its infinite beauty, but also to understand humanity and everything we’d done to this planet and might do to others. Thus there was this inherent sadness in our comprehension of the great expanse. Pretty quickly, we were focussing on images that felt like they might be from another planet, but that already displayed a sense of destruction and abandonment."
The 4xLP vinyl Disc 2 sleeve:
“By the time we hit on our final aesthetic, regular collaborator John Delucca and I had two strong approaches that, if combined, would provide us with potentially infinite iterations. But we had to work very hard. There were a couple of entirely different approaches left on the cutting room floor which included custom graphics and entirely different narrative approaches to the project.” Despite those versions being discarded, the effort wasn’t wasted: “Without those we’d not have, nor believe so strongly in, what we have now.”
The 4xLP vinyl Disc 2 sleeve reverse:
When quizzed about the irregular, cryptic black shapes that scar the disc sleeves, Caspar is tight-lipped: “Their meaning, whilst clearly articulated between the band and I, is best left open to interpretation. The poetry of an image is everything. Just like the scene in the horror film you can only hear but not see. Your own imagination serves you better than anyone else’s ever will."
The 4xLP vinyl Disc 3 sleeve:
He admits that they're trying to communicate something by obscuring the images: “The moment I threw one of the shapes right over John DeLucca’s beautiful paintings I knew we were onto something. It felt thrilling in a way I’d not felt about my work in a long time. In terms of the poetry of an image, I was forcing people to feel like something was unexplained or inexplicable. Here was something beautiful that you may never see fully with your own eyes. I wanted, with John’s help, to created something clearly magnificent but also unsettling—a blind spot, a bad feeling, a void or an unanswered question. To me that said everything about what the band were trying to say with the music and consequently in our discussions about the artwork. Fortunately, they agreed with me!”
Detail from the Disc 2 sleeve:
Caspar agrees that it wouldn’t be too strong to call it a defacement. “It’s wider than that though, and perhaps a little less easy to articulate. What did Michelangelo Antonioni say? ‘A film you can explain in words is not a real film.’ I subscribe to that line of thinking completely.
“It was decided right at the end of a long process. We’d tried many things and I was losing sleep by this point. Then it suddenly hit me late one night in the studio and I knew it was right. I packaged it up and sent it to the band. In the morning I had an email back from them saying ‘this is it.’”
Caspar also designed the artwork for the 2xLP and 2xCD editions of the soundtrack:
The typeface for the record sleeve is Citizen. “I’ve had it on my hard drive for a long time, waiting for the right project. Everyone loved it from the moment I presented it."
The 4xLP back cover:
Caspar explains the two lines of thinking when it comes to typefaces and design. “On the one hand, there’s only really about 30 good fonts and generally you can use those again and again and everyone is always happy. A well-made, timeless typeface will perform incredibly well in many circumstances—century after century."
Detail from the reverse of the Disc 4 sleeve:
“On the other hand, sometimes you need something entirely out of left field or perhaps even custom-made. When it comes to films, video games and to a certain extent record covers, this is often the case. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange comes to mind and there are many other examples."
"The Citizen typeface spoke to me immediately in terms of the band’s desire to create artwork that felt science fiction at heart, but also as if it had been photocopied rapidly and consecutively in a Taiwanese basement for the purposes of some underground political agenda.”
Someone’s got to be the last man standing
Now a New York-based designer, Caspar has a secret history as a game-maker: “As a 16-year-old back in England, I used to make shareware games with my old friend Jasper Byrne [developer of Lone Survivor and composer for games including Hotline Miami]. We made them exclusively for the Commodore Amiga. Sadly, I haven’t gotten round to playing No Man’s Sky yet but I would love to one day—I don’t possess the hardware—or have the necessary free time!”
The 4xLP vinyl Disc 4 sleeve:
When it comes to tips for budding designers and artists, Caspar shares this anecdote: “At a dinner party, I once sat opposite a professor of music at Cambridge University called Alexander Goehr. I was moaning about the chasm between my aspirations and my almost non-existent success. I wanted to be good so, so badly and yet felt there were so many people better than me. And I was whining to a man so capable that he’d been offered a knighthood for his work. Once I’d finished, he leaned over, looked me in the eye and said ‘look—someone’s got to do it.’
“It dawned on me that I simply had to hang on, even if it was by my fingertips at times. Whether I was going to be any good was another matter, but if I could simply be doing the job longer than the next guy then one day, responsibility would land on me. And one day it did, and it seems I was good enough that it kept happening again and again after that."
The 4xLP vinyl box spine:
“I say that as someone who’s never studied what he does. I taught myself how to use all the software I use. I get by purely on the desire to make beautiful work and work with those who’ll encourage me to do so. If your work is good enough there’s a point where they don’t even ask for your CV. When employing people at my studio I certainly don’t ask for that. We wouldn’t even be talking if you work hadn’t already gotten you in the room.”
Given that we’re still seeing innovation in making turntables cheaper and/or more space-efficient—like this minimalist ‘Love’ turntable or the 'autostreaming hifi turntable' Gearbox Automatic—all those newbies getting into vinyl will need some great tunes to play, not to mention some ostentatious covers, attention-grabbing gatefolds and delectable discs to gawp at.
We had a lot of fun casting about the web for entries in our initial ‘Wide world of strange and beautiful vinyl’ round-up. Here are some more beautiful and/or bizarre releases that caught our eye—just a drop in the vast vinyl ocean of remarkable releases.
Vinyl Williams – “Into” – Company Records (2015)
The clue is in the name. Purveyor of ‘somnambulant pop’, Lionel ‘Vinyl’ Williams, clearly throws everything into the design of his gatefold artwork and discs, especially with this mesmeric limited rainbow starburst vinyl.
The Flaming Lips / Tame Impala – “Peace And Paranoia Tour 2013” – Lovely Sorts of Death Records (2013)
The Flaming Lips and Tame Impala always deliver on two fronts: incredible looking vinyl and extreme wackiness. This limited edition EP has been fondly described as “fuck-around stuff”, musically-speaking, with each band covering two of the others’ tracks—but the release looks great. The vinyl colours were hand-poured by New Fumes/Daniel Huffman.
It’s not easy to find mint copies of the original CBS/Date Records release, so this coloured-disc pressing by Newbury Comics of the recent Varèse Sarabande release is an eye-catching alternative. Recorded in 1967 at Abbey Road Studios, The Zombies made Odessey & Oracle whilst breathing essentially the same air as the band which recorded immediately before them—The Beatles during the Sgt. Pepper sessions.
Journey – “Escape” – Columbia Records (1981)
Stanley “Mouse” Miller—of The Grateful Dead album cover fame—designed this sci-fi sleeve (which originally had a patterned, embossed cover) for Journey’s E5SC4P3.
Earthless – “From The Ages” – Tee Pee Records (2013)
This instrumental hard rock album comprises four tracks, the last coming in at over half an hour in length and the whole caboodle was recorded in just two days. I’ll wager that the extraordinary cover (by Alan Forbes) and gatefold art (by Mike Eginton) took a tad longer to produce.
Kickstarted retro-style arcade racer Drift Stage may still be at the ‘public early alpha’ stage, but it has already enjoyed two car-shaped vinyl release featuring synthwave/80’s rock tracks from Hugh Myrone’s soundtrack—Drift Stage Main Theme and Exclusive Coupé.
Toto – “Africa / Rosanna” – Columbia (1982)
Just in case you didn’t know what the A-side of this single was about, Toto decided to be really, really explicit.
If bands America, Europe, Asia (and Japan) all created similar ‘continent-cut’ vinyl records, a collector could have a whole world of fun. Sadly the Manic Street Preachers’ single release of Australia was only circular. Similarly unsubtle is Skid Row’s Youth Gone Wild axe wax (Atlantic, 1989).
And this late 80’s novelty hip-hop single by Fat Boys (Wipeout – Urban Records, 1987) is just… spectacularly tasty. For some entertainingly, monumentally bad lip synching, be sure to check out the video.
The Residents – “The White Single” – Ralph Records (1984)
Somewhat apt for a 1984 release, this 7” vinyl is always watching you... thanks to white a disc with red printed veins and a blue iris label.
Whirr – “Around” – Graveface Records (2013)
With a custom spiral die-cut jacket, shoegaze band Whirr’s Around also comes with milky clear with black splatter and milky clear in-black colour-in-colour discs.
Perturbator – “Dangerous Days” – Blood Music (2014)
A major collaborator with Dennaton Games and Devolver Digital for the Hotline Miami soundtrack (and with Laced Records for the Collector’s Edition vinyl), Parisian Perturbator’s vinyl productions—for his soundtrack-inspired ‘dystopian synth-exploitation’ sound—explore the art of the neon nighttime, replete with ladies of the night.
And what could be sexier than the cover of soft rock band Orleans’ Waking and Dreaming? (Asylum, 1976)
Split Enz – “True Colours” – A&M Records (1980)
New Zealand’s zany Split Enz, featuring a pre-Crowded House Neil Finn, released a striking laser-etched version of their fifth album, as well as multiple versions with different coloured, striking artwork.
99% of music from games is created to sit in the background—one aspect of the ‘video’ bit of ‘video games’. As a result, there’s a lot of laid-back game music that is perfect for sending you off to la la land.
There’s also a whole world of musicians creating arrangements of their favourite tracks across official and fan releases. A lot of this music is upbeat chiptune or hard rocking metal covers; on the other hand, a large percentage of it is pretty mellow—often in a Celtic style or solo piano—and aims to soothe like an aural hot chocolate and warm duvet.
A good sleepy track needs to be melodic (but not too catchy), consistent (no volume spikes or long pauses), not have any potentially grating instruments and be comforting (rather than spookily atmospheric).
Trust me, I’ve pillow-tested these tracks and can 100% guarantee they’ll snzzzzzzzzzzz…………….
“Over the Sorrow” by Koichi Sugiyama – Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
Legendary Japanese composer Koichi Sugiyama—the certified oldest video game composer in the world and first to record with a live orchestra—has been pumping out music for the Dragon Quest series since 1985 and is still going, with Dragon Quest XI slated for 2017. If a snobby classical music fan listened to his work, they’d probably accuse it of being too ‘lightweight’ and ‘pops’. But his orchestral work is also as comforting as a hug from someone in a woolly jumper.
Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, originally released in 2004, is the biggest selling title in the West that the series has seen, in part thanks to a brilliantly funny and well-done voice localisation and a lush orchestral version of the soundtrack—this stunner was performed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra.
“Sounds from Shattered Seashells” by OBFUSC – Monument Valley
Monument Valley was a smash hit on mobile, in part due to its pastel colour palette and serene soundscapes. Following the trend that has seen contemporary electronica seep into smaller, artier game titles, here we have an Aphex Twin-esque, ambient track—grab a bourbon from the hotel mini-bar and stare out over the nighttime city lights from your 20th floor window...
“Daydreaming Again (Words Drowned by Fireworks)” by Pot Hocket – Final Fantasy VII: Voices of the Lifestream
There is now a reliable pipeline of fan-organised collaborative albums based on the music of particular games; normally nostalgic favourites from series including Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda. The OverClocked ReMix community was a trailblazer, releasing the free Final Fantasy VII: Voices of the Lifestream nearly 10 years ago.
This gentle guitar ditty is so soporific, it will seep out of your speakers, fluff your pillow, give you a foot massage and read you a story.
2010’s NieR was an odd release which received mixed reviews for a maxed-bag of gameplay styles—upcoming sequel, NieR: Automata, is scheduled for release in 2017. One thing everyone agreed upon was that NieR’s soundtrack was arrestingly beautiful, with memorable melodies that spoke of longing and loss.
“Lost Souls' Alliance” by Peter McConnell – Grim Fandango Remastered
Part of the genius of Peter McConnell, long time collaborator of LucasArts/Tim Schafer/Double Fine, is his ability to turn his hand to all manner of styles and ethnic instruments and come out with something that fits the game, no matter how diverse the rest of the soundtrack is (this short documentary video looks into his approach to game composition).
With this track, he gently cross-pollinates Central and South American instrumentation with a hint of Angelo Badalamenti’s understated music for Twin Peaks.
“Nascence” perf. Robert Thies – Journey: Transfiguration (comp. Austin Wintory, arr. Laura Intravia)
If ever there was going to be a game soundtrack that received wider recognition, it was going to be for what many perceive as the high watermark of games-as-art: 2012’s Journey. Not content with a Grammy nomination for his original soundtrack, composer Austin Wintory has released two further albums of arrangements and curiosities related to the game and its sound.
The EP, Journey: Transfiguration, features some lovely, stripped back versions of the best tracks from the wider soundtrack.
“Catfish Muse” by R. Carlos Nakai – Civilization V
Civilization V has a gigantic soundtrack, stuffed full of original score, licensed tracks and library music—with an incredibly diverse range of music from different ethnicities across various continents. That said, this is a game people play for thousands of hours, so no doubt even 20+ hours of music can start to seem repetitive eventually.
And as for this hefty slice of Native American flute loveliness… well, it’s very relaxing, as long as you don’t hate the sound of the Native American flute.
“Eleanor's Lullaby” by Garry Schyman – BioShock 2
Quite a lot of Garry Schyman’s music for the BioShock series is like real life: nasty, brutish and short. Amidst the gloom though, he can summon the sublime.
This track plays over the ‘light’ ending of the game—the skies don’t darken, the world isn’t subjected to a horrifying evil and (some) characters live happily, blissfully ever after. Probably.
““β”1:Botschaft” by Masashi Hamauzu – Piano Pieces "SF 2" Rhapsody on a Theme of SaGa FRONTIER 2
Composer Masashi Hamauzu grew up in Germany, the son of Japanese parents—a pianist and an opera singer. As a Square employee, he became the Final Fantasy series lead composer for the three games under the Fabula Nova Crystallis (Final Fantasy XIII) umbrella. His approach to game music is more angular and classical than other of Square’s composers and his arrangement skills have seen him contribute to the Merregnon Studios concerts, including Final Symphony.
Particularly lovely are his trilling, twisting and turning piano pieces. This track comes from a 2010 album of piano arrangements that yes, really is called: ‘Piano Pieces "SF 2" Rhapsody on a Theme of SaGa FRONTIER 2’.
“Peace of Akatosh” by Jeremy Soule – The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Skyrim, Skyrim, Skyrim. That’s all anyone ever talks about. Well, Square and BioWare alumnus Jeremy Soule has been working on The Elder Scrolls series since 2002, producing haunting music to knit together Bethesda’s giant fantasy game worlds.
This synthesised choral piece from 2006’s Oblivion massages the senses and is in keeping with much of Soule’s chilled-out work: not happy, not sad, just ancient, storied and vast
"Snake Eater" by GENTLE LOVE – Prescription for Sleep: Game Music Lullabies Volume II
With this rendition of Metal Gear Solid 3’s James Bond-esque title song, Snake Eater, saxophonist Norihiko Hibino is revisiting his own composition, paying it loving homage whilst his piano partner AYAKI tinkles the ivories. It’s chill-out jazz at its cheesiest—and sleepiest.
“All Gone (No Escape)” by Gustavo Santaolalla – The Last of Us
If you haven’t played The Last of Us, this is a relaxing piece of solo cello with ensemble music.
If you have played The Last of Us, it’s a desperately sad, downbeat harbinger of the grey world of misery the heroes of the game will have to endure long after the credits have rolled.
But no problem—you’ll probably be asleep by this point, right?
I love video game music. Since you're reading this, you're probably pretty fond of it too. But game music is an odd, amorphous thing to be in love with.
After all, modern game music, like film or TV music, is just music. It can be of any genre, played on any configuration of live and electronic instruments and be consumed on any audio format—from OGG to cassette. One of the principle reasons we collectively adore game music is because of that powerful emotion, nostalgia—the driver of comfort, of creativity and of consumerism, so intensely magnified by the Internet.
It’s easier to pinpoint what fan communities like OverClocked ReMix and music artists like the Game Boy-toting Chipzel have fallen for: namely the familiar, beloved sounds and synthesis of particular console or computer sound chips. They also harness their passion for the old—the video game-sounding genre known as chiptune—as fuel to create new things.
Nostalgia comes in different shapes and sizes. It’s pretty straightforward to say that strongly connecting with a game or forming strong gaming memories often also creates a bond with the respective music involved—and that listening to said music back can fire your imagination and allow you to replay that game in your head. Music transports us, especially when it is intimately tied to the memory of a world which we, as players, have actively occupied. Music summons us back to Spira, to Dunwall or Lordran.
I’d hazard the guess that a lot of JRPG world map and battle themes are forever seared into the memories of players that have spent hours grinding out experience points. Nostalgia for a game, or a particularly memorable section of it, deepens our relationship with game scores, for better or worse.
Things can work in reverse of course—a piece of music can strengthen the bond between player and game.
There was also that productive summer I spent achieving 100% completion of Final Fantasy VII with Manic Street Preachers’ album Everything Must Go on constant repeat. Small Black Materia That Glow In The Sky etc.
Equip – Head: Rose-tinted glasses
Great soundtrack music can make you think better of a game in hindsight. I am enamoured with almost everything about classic LucasArts adventure game Grim Fandango except for a number of infernal puzzles that tortured my 15-year-old brain. But the fantastic jazzy Peter McConnell looping soundtrack, which I have revisited many more times than I have replayed the game, has since helped me gloss over memories of acute frustration with balloon animals and forklift trucks.
Nostalgia for a game can also rose-tint our opinion of certain pieces of game music. Where someone else might hear banal bleeps and bloops, I hear one of Koji Kondo’s Mario masterpieces; but despite my subjective preference for lots of game music, a trained musicologist would likely make a strong case for the relative musical merits of Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4 in E flat major versus Dire, Dire Docks from Mario 64. A lot of game music isn’t hugely interesting in isolation, divorced from our nostalgia for the game in question—understandably so, given the context of most game music’s creation in terms of budget, time, technology and contemporary taste.
In any case, the era of gamers standing up for game music in the face of contempt from snooty musos is hopefully behind us for several reasons: game music has grown sonically more sophisticated, games are now mainstream entertainment and wider music culture is exponentially more fragmented in the Internet age, with listeners able to genre-hop across centuries of music with the click of a button. Thanks to Internet subculture culture, there are too many genres and subgenres for music snobs to police effectively.
The taste war regarding game music seems to have moved on to arguing the relative merits of orchestrally recorded scores in the comments section of Classicfm.com (in part thanks to the efforts of our friends at ClassicVGMusic to propel game music into the higher reaches of the Classic FM Hall of Fame, much to my Mum’s dismay).
Licence to chill
On the topic of classical music, games can of course ignite or rekindle passion for an external piece of music, as happened for me with Resident Evil and its inclusion of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (one of the entries of our blog ‘9 times classical music waltzed into video games’). It reminds me both of Jill Valentine’s clumsy rendition c. 1997; and subsequently learning to play the whole sonata (badly) on the family piano. That particular movement sits happily alongside all manner of soundtrack and arranged game music in my personal playlists.
Nostalgia for licensed music in games is strong as well: people regularly recall fond memories of games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2/3, Gran Turismo /2, Amplitude and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, in part thanks to perfectly curated licensed soundtracks that struck a chord. We also took a look at ‘10 of the best licensed music moments in video games’.
Music can transcend games too. The interesting thing about indie darling Hotline Miami is that its mixtape aesthetic (drawing on the neon ultra-violence of the film Drive, documentary Cocaine Cowboys and the comic capers of Kick Ass) and its music (drugged-out electronica and synthwave) have taken on a life beyond the game itself. When talking about Hotline Miami’s soundtrack (Laced Records produced the kickstarted Hotline Miami Collector’s Edition Vinyl), it is entirely unsurprising to see comments like ‘I didn’t really play the game, I just love the music/style/art’.
Bleeps and loops
A lot of the sounds you traditionally associate with game music—the bleeps and bloops—have, thanks to nostalgia, thoroughly infiltrated other genres, primarily electronica (which in turn has infected pop music). In an extreme example of a cultural feedback loop, US electronica band Anamanaguchi released a ‘chiptune punk’ soundtrack for movie tie-in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game, an adaptation of a comic book which draws heavily from video games.
Alongside Anamaguchi, several other prominent eletronica artists like Ladyhawke and Kode 9 are featured in the excellent Red Bull Music documentary series, Diggin’ in the Carts, gushing about classic Japanese video game music. We touched on this in our look at ‘10 tracks that sound like they should be from video games’, pointing out that Kanye West’s track Paranoid is clearly sonically influenced by classic SEGA game music.
Cast magic: Reflect
Game music nostalgia is such a powerful force that it is now being harnessed as part of marketing campaigns, as occurred with the Final Fantasy XV Live soundtrack concert livestreamed from Abbey Road Studios. The concert, part of an unprecedented multi-media marketing campaign to revitalise interest in the whole series, took place two and a half months before Final Fantasy XV’s release. It appears designed to capitalise on fans' voracious demand for Final Fantasy music performed by a live orchestra, with concert tours like Distant Worlds and Final Symphony stoking up nostalgic feelings about the series (we recently interviewed Final Symphony concert producer Thomas Böcker). Even better, it featured the work of Kingdom Hearts series composer Yoko Shimomura, herself no stranger to the orchestral concert treatment.
Concerts featuring the music of Pokémon, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Tomb Raider and Dear Esther also took place in 2016, all timed to a greater or lesser degree to coincide with a wider marketing campaign for a game release.
I am irrationally infatuated with Garbage’s Not Your Kind of People because it was in a 2013 Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain trailer. When I hear that song, I don’t think of the actual game itself (which I completed and moved on from in 2015), I’m nostalgic about my prior excitement for a game I hadn’t yet played—the impossibly alluring vision I had in my head of Big Boss’ final hurrah.
Our love of game music is inexorably linked to our love of games—they are often fused in our memories. But a piece of game music can stand apart as a musical work in its own right; it can retroactively soften our impression of a game, endearing us to the overall experience; it can also be used to stoke nostalgia for the past to sell us things in the future.
Tellingly, game music arouses such devotion that it has blossomed beyond individual game titles themselves, with fan communities built around remixing or riffing off of classic tunes—and commercial entities (including Laced Records!) bringing new records and live performances to bear.
We love game music, but that love is complicated and coloured by nostalgia.
Listen to enough music (and play enough games) and the chances are that you’ll come across songs or pieces that remind you of certain games.
Of course it’s a bit chicken and egg: music for modern video games has escaped the limitations of sound chips and can sound like anything—it also continues to be hugely influenced by popular music, arguably more so than ever. On the flip side, we’ve reached the point where popular music has absorbed the textures and timbres we associate with video games with notable artists, songwriters and producers professing their love for classic game music.
Rather than agonise over the distinction between ‘game music’ and simply ‘music’, here’s a quality selection where each track feels like it would be at home as part of the score or licensed soundtrack of a given game.
If you think we’re missing anything blindingly obvious, by all means holler at us on Twitter (@Laced_Records) or Facebook (/LacedMusicLtd).
“Red Right Hand” – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Recently used as the title credits song for TV period drama Peaky Blinders, this 1994 track from Australia’s Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds would feel right at home among the soundtracks of Western-themed games like Red Dead Redemption (YouTube, Spotify), Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (YouTube) and Gun (YouTube)… anyone remember Gun?
“Walking Shoes” – Gerry Mulligan
There have been some brilliant jazz-infused game soundtracks over the years including Peter McConnell’s for Grim Fandango (YouTube, Spotify), Jim Fowler’s Wonderbook: Diggs Nightcrawler and the darker L.A. Noire (YouTube, Spotify) by Andrew Hale. Telltale’s The Walking Dead composer Jared Emerson-Johnson also pumped out some excellent jazzy tunes for that company’s three seasons of Sam & Max adventure games (YouTube).
This track from jazz legend Gerry Mulligan typifies the light and bright feel that many game composers set their sights on:
“Reverie” – Isao Tomita / Claude Debussy
Richard Vreeland, AKA, Disasterpeace has firmly established his sound through game scores for FEZ and Hyper Light Drifter, as well as indie movie It Follows.
Warm—but often warped and wonky—synthesiser sounds were also the preserve of Japanese composer/arranger Isao Tomita, who came to global prominence thanks to his 1974 Grammy-nominated album Snowflakes Are Dancing (YouTube, Spotify). This bizarre, dream-like record was an entirely synthesised rendition of several famous pieces by French impressionist composer, Claude Debussy.
Nintendo might be winning the nostalgia war in terms of present-day conversations about game design and all-time classics, but SEGA’s sense of style and aesthetics during the early- to mid-90’s lives on with soundtracks like Street of Rage 2 (YouTube) and OutRun (YouTube) still being celebrated today. The sounds of the 1991 SEGA flagship title, Sonic the Hedgehog, are so distinct, so memorable that they continue to permeate popular culture, including this Kanye West track:
“Meeting” – Zbigniew Preisner
Similar to Disasterpeace, Austin Wintory is a composer known for his distinctive sound (even if they are both plenty versatile). His video game soundtracks for Journey (YouTube, Spotify) and its spiritual successor, ABZÛ (YouTube, Spotify), both harness a mysterious, fantastical orchestral palette that elevates each game.
Polish film composer Zbigniew Preisner’s 1998 album Requiem for my Friend (Spotify) plumbs similar neo-Romantic depths with the second half of the album in particular featuring some beautiful work:
“Glawio” – Com Truise
A certain strain of ‘slow-motion funk’ infected electronica around 2011, coalescing with the neon-soaked, ultra-violent stylings of the film Drive and indie game sensation Hotline Miami (you may be familiar with it 😎). Given that Hotline Miami’s soundtrack is one of the great collections of underground electronica c. 2011-2012, pretty much anything (of a certain standard) from that scene feels like a good fit.
Whilst this track from Com Truise is on the mellow end of the eletro-funk scale, since Hotline Miami, we’ve seen driving, four-to-the-floor electronica turn up in all sorts of game soundtracks like Crypt of the NecroDancer (YouTube, Spotify) and 2016’s Furi (YouTube, Spotify).
“Treefingers” – Radiohead
We often visit alien worlds or float around in the vastness of space in video games which necessitates vast quantities of ambient music—Paul Ruskay’s Homeworld score (YouTube) is a great example.
More recently, there has been a spate of great, atmospheric ambient work—from Robin Finck's score for Noct (Spotify; released by Laced Records); Lara Croft GO by Pixel Audio (SoundCloud); Stafford Bawler’s work on Monument Valley (Spotify); and Ben Babbitt’s three (and counting) Kentucky Route Zero scores (YouTube, Apple Music).
“End Titles From Blade Runner” & “One More Kiss, Dear” – Vangelis
Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack IS the sound of cyberpunk, and the blueprint for many a video game soundscape. This cacophonous track has provided inspiration for many, and would sound at home among any of the Mass Effect soundtracks. Listen closely enough to Scrap Brain Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog and you’ll pick up various similarities.
Then there’s Vangelis’ own homage to the jazz songs of the 1930’s, One More Kiss, Dear, which would slip comfortably into the licensed soundtracks of the Fallout and BioShock series.
“Warszawa” – David Bowie
David Bowie and Brian Eno’s co-written instrumental from 1977’s Low is particularly reminiscent of some of Nobuo Uematsu’s emotionally heavier tracks from Final Fantasy VIII—such as Unrest or Drifting—as well as other of his scores from the 90’s.
Over March and April, we ran a Kickstarter campaign that received almost FOUR TIMES the funding we’d hoped for (an incredible £156k versus a target of £40k—thanks to all backers!). The result was this sumptuous triple 180-gram vinyl set with art by original Hotline Miami collaborator El Huervo (Niklas Akerblad) and Protski.
The 22-track album is one of the great collections of underground electronica with this edition including four additional tracks by Perturbator, M|O|O|N, El Huervo and Jasper Byrne.
The Hotline Miami Collector's Edition vinyl cover, by Niklas Åkerblad (El Huervo):
Sheffield rock band 65daysofstatic created the soundtrack for No Man’s Sky and we are proud to present the OST album as 2x and 4x vinyl, 2x CD and digital download. All versions include the full 10-track album and an additional six soundscapes from the game.
You can also find it on iTunes, Spotify, Apple Music and all major digital outlets. To find out more about the story of the album, be sure to check out:
Remember watching Transformers: The Movie as an 80's kid? And thinking you had The Touch?
The man who penned that slice of rock awesomeness, Stan Bush, helped to celebrate the release of the game Shadow Warrior 2 with The Warrior EP: a four-track vinyl featuring brand new track Warrior and Bush classics The Touch and Never Surrender (as well as an off-the-wall version of The Touch featuring Shadow Warrior 2's Lo Wang).
Recorded, mixed and mastered at London’s legendary Abbey Road Studios with the London Symphony Orchestra, Final Symphony features classical arrangements from Final Fantasy VI, VII & X. The entire production was overseen by illustrious Final Fantasy composer, Nobuo Uematsu.
We interviewed producer Thomas Böcker about his mission to bring classic Square JRPG music to the classical concert hall. Here’s a video interview with Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu and one of the beautiful tracks from the album:
Performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, the release includes music from some of Square Enix’s most cherished role-playing games, including Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross. Tracks were mastered at Abbey Road Studios for this special vinyl edition.
Music from video games can have a wonderfully soothing effect—after all, it is often designed to be emotionally affecting yet sit in the background. To that end, as Christmas rolls around, it’s a good time to pluck out some of the more delicate, relaxing tracks either from games themselves or alternative arrangements recorded by ensembles and soloists.
Please enjoy this selection of soft, silky and occasionally spooky tracks which, whether intentionally or not, seem to evoke winter, snowy weather and that magical, fantastical feeling of Christmas time.
“Once Upon a Time…” by Tomoki Miyoshi – I Am Setsuna
Released earlier this year, I Am Satsuma Setsuna was a title explicitly conceived to give nostalgic JRPG fans of classics like Chrono Trigger more of the same (the developer is literally called 'Tokyo RPG Factory'). The creators opted for an entirely piano-based score which, since the game is set entirely during winter, is specially crafted to suggest snowy forests and towns.
Once Upon a time..., performed by Randy Kerber, begins with delicate arpeggios in thirds: the sound of snowflakes.
“To Know, Water” by Austin Wintory – ABZÛ
I know, I know, this year’s artful ABZÛ is all about water and wet things. But if you close your eyes and imagine a vast, shimmering, icy cave whilst listening to this sublime Austin Wintory piece, you can’t help but be transported by the transcendent melody, spacey reverb and heavenly choir.
I swear, if Wintory doesn’t stop his relentless march of creating beautiful AND interesting scores that put others to shame, all us writers will have to start calling him the “James Horner of game music” or some similar baubles.
“The Streets of Whiterun” by Jeremy Soule – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
When he’s not composing music for various series including Metal Gear Solid, Bayonetta and Yakuza, Norihiko Hibino is wielding his sax and teaming up with pianist AYAKI to create Prescription for Sleep albums as the duo GENTLE LOVE. Prior to recent albums focusing on the music of individual games like Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana and Undertale, the pair released soporific mixtapes drawing from all sorts of classic game music, including this track from the coldest region of Tamriel—Skyrim.
“Woods Darker than Night” by Coeur de Pirate – Child of Light
No one ever said this was going to be a lighthearted playlist. There’s something chilling about this instrumental track from French Canadian singer-songwriter Coeur de Pirate’s 2014 soundtrack for Child of Light. The piano that leads the piece is like a lonely child wandering in the cold, snowy woods; the attendant string ensemble is a pack of winter fairies guiding them away from—or perhaps towards—darkness and danger.
“Mysterious Forest” by Miki Higashino – Genso Suikoden
Japanese RPG series are never just about the games themselves—they're also about the art and music (and cosplay) generated by fan communities and, frequently, recording artists. Suikoden is no different, although it—like Star Ocean, Tales of... and numerous others—isn't as well-known in the West as Final Fantasy.
Throughout the Noughties, the Konami series saw the release of several albums of arrangements, including 2003’s Genso Suikoden Music Collection ~Celtic Collection~ from which this pretty vocal arrangement by Yuko Asai and Tetsuya Takahashi comes.
You can count me among the many fans of the original Tomb Raider scores by Nathan McCree, who recently joined the ranks of game composers to see the staging of an orchestral concerts featuring their most beloved music.
But spare a thought for Crystal Dynamics’ previous composer-of-choice for the series, Troels Brun Folmann, who oversaw the music of Tomb Raider from 2006-2008. Juxtaposed with his trademark bombastic, busy orchestral style is his ability to create beautiful, sparkling ambient music. This cue, from 2007’s Tomb Raider: Anniversary is like a big, warm, aural Christmas hug.
“Kakariko Village” by Koji Kondo – The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
I’ve tried to avoid the obvious but there are just some tunes worth coming back to. You may not think of Kakariko Village from The Legend of Zelda series as a wintry place, yet this lush string orchestra arrangement of Koji Kondo's theme (from the 1999 Hyrule Symphony album, co-arranged by Ryuichi Katsumata) is enough to melt the coldest heart.
“Lonely Pebble” by Daniel Jacob Teper – Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Similar to the other touching 2014 ‘UbiArt’ game, Child of Light, First World War adventure game Valiant Hearts: The Great War has an enchanting, handcrafted feel to it. Its score features a number of composers including mysterious pianist Daniel Jacob Teper, contributor of several plaintive, arrestingly simple pieces.
There’s something snuggly yet sorrowful about this track and the way it's produced. The sound of the piano is compressed and slightly distorted—'warmed up'— to make it feel more intimate. You can really hear the ping of the hammers on the strings of the higher notes, making them almost glockenspiel-like.
“Moongazer” by Kan R. Gao – To The Moon
2011’s faux-JRPG To The Moon is a tearjerker and no mistake. Similar to Undertale, the game’s lead creator, Kan R. Gao, was also its main composer.
Moongazer may come across a bit over-sentimental but it resonates so perfectly with the themes and emotional drama of the game, one assumes, because it was composed by the same pen that wrote the story—and clearly a devotee of 16-bit era Square JRPGs and the music of Nobuo Uematsu.
“Blue Fields” by Nobuo Uematsu – Final Fantasy VIII
Thank the lord for arranger/composer Shirō Hamaguchi and his work on Final Fantasy over the years. Released the same year as the game, the 1999 orchestral album FITHOS LUSEC WECOS VINOSEC: Final Fantasy VIII is near-perfect and tends to see its classily recorded tracks modded into the recent Steam version of the game by ardent fans.
Uematsu usually brought his A game to the world map music of the first nine (or so) titles in the series and this arrangement of Blue Fields is a haunting, mysterious masterpiece that conjures icy plains and glaciers.
**For a limited time, you can get over 15% off of the the price of the No Man's Sky soundtrack by 65daysofstatic on 4xLP & 2xLP vinyl, 2xCD and digital: US store | Rest of world store**
By Thomas Quillfeldt
We recently covered 65daysofstatic’s EGX developer session on the creation of their album No Man’s Sky: Music for an Infinite Universe and how they worked with developer Hello Games to implement this body of music into one of the most talked-about video games of 2016.
Instrumental to that process was a man who wears several sonic hats: No Man’s Sky’s audio director, co-composer and sound designer Paul Weir.
Laced: How did it come about that a game development studio like Hello Games hired a rock band?
Weir: “Using 65daysofstatic was [No Man’s Sky game director and Hello Games’ Managing Director] Sean Murray’s idea. Right from the earliest stages, from when we first started talking about audio for the game, Sean didn’t want a conventional game soundtrack—he was listening to their music when the team was initially prototyping the game and the intention was always to work with them.
“The details of that—what music they were going to write, how they were going to write it, how we were going to implement it—were up to me.”
Laced: In their EGX talk, 65daysofstatic emphasised that the album had to work as an album first. How was that resolution reached?
Weir: “That came from us as much as anything—it wasn’t even a discussion. We all thought that if you hire a band, there’s no point trying to make them something they’re not. Let them be themselves and write an album with the knowledge that we wouldn’t just use it in the game as is.
“There was potential for it to go wrong—people might assume that, because of the generative nature of the in-game soundtrack, we would simply deconstruct the album and try and cram it into the game. That’s not the way I work so that’s not how I did it.
“The album itself was finished about a year and a half before the game was finished but then we went back to the sessions, recorded more and used the tracks as a structure around which to build the in-game score. For the generative soundscapes, they sound like aspects of the album but they’re not actually the album itself, although we occasionally employed chunks of the album tracks as linear music.”
As the player approaches a space station for the first time, the outro of the album track Asimov kicks in:
Weir: “[In terms of album tracks playing in the game] we’d always talked about key moments but the music wasn't written specifically for those key moments. That’s my job on the music director side, to decide which bits go where.
“Perversely, I quite like that the one piece of music that’s known from the album because we used it in the trailer—Supermoon—you don’t hear any aspect of it until you reach the centre of the galaxy.”
One of the trailers for No Man’s Sky, featuring Supermoon:
Laced: Hello Games is a small, plucky indie studio. 65daysofstatic is a plucky instrumental rock band. Was there any shared mindset between the two teams?
Weir: “It helps that 65daysofstatic are pretty technical themselves and were going in that direction anyway—it wasn’t a problem to communicate our intentions to them. We get along fantastically well and our mindsets are very similar. In some ways I think they found the process of working with someone to build some software creatively rewarding, in terms of growing as a band. It allowed them to approach their music in a different way once we got down to the generative stuff.
“I go to Sheffield quite a lot to see them. They once made a comment that Hello Games was like a rock’n’roll band... I replied: ‘But you guys are the rock’n’roll band!’, they said ‘no, you’re way more rock’n’roll!’ and so on.
“Similar to 65daysofstatic, the Hello Games team was making up the rules as they went along, feeling their way. Sometimes doing things that are a little bit unexpected, a little bit odd maybe. Not always succeeding but at least having the ambition.
“There’s definitely a sense that we [at Hello Games] are driven by individuals and by characters, not by corporations, not by group meetings—we don’t do that! Even if it doesn’t always work, they’re trying to do things in a different way. [No Man’s Sky] is made by creative people, that’s it. There’s no hierarchy to the company. So there are some similarities between working for a company like Hello and being in a band.
“The ‘Hello Games way’ is to steam your way through it. We don’t sit there stroking our beards saying ‘we’re going to use this bit of music, this bit of music’. You just go ahead and you do it and if something’s really wrong… Sean will hear things as and when he plays the game. If there’s something objectionable, then obviously I’ll know about that. But most of the work will go straight in and that’s it. We’re such a small company that there’s just not the time or space to overthink things.”
Laced: Do you hope more bands will get involved in game projects?
Weir: “I’m not particularly interested in involving bands, why would I be? I’m more interested in writing music myself, thanks. I don’t want other people to do it for me!”
Laced: [laughs] You did also do some composition for the game...
Weir: “You can tell which bits I wrote because I tend to use less guitar, basically the less noisy stuff!”
Laced: Were you doing anything drastically new in the way you incorporated all the music into the game?
Weir: “Like a lot of generative music, basically [our engine] is a glorified random file player with a whole load of behaviours laid on top of it, which is linked deep into the game mechanics. I can control what plays and when and how it plays into relationships between different instruments. It’s not going to come out with anything new but it’s quite a far distance from just playing a linear track.
“It makes it incredibly easy to change behaviour, to change rules, to make music happen in different ways, to mix it completely differently, to introduce new soundscapes really easily. This is not massively new, people have played with these ideas. I think we made more use of it than games tend to.”
Laced: Is it ever difficult to get away from the technology, to step back and make sure the music fits?
Weir: “To shout about the technology we’re using for the music, that’s irrelevant to me. What I’m trying to do is to create a soundtrack that has a life, that’s sustainable.
“Ultimately, you’re happy to have music playing which reinforces [what’s on screen] and provides all the beats that you expect it to without being overly repetitious—that continual sense of relevance of the music to the game which is very hard to do when you’ve got limited linear music tracks. Technology should always be completely transparent—it’s just a means to an end.
“For many games I’ve worked on, the sound design is pretty well functional—that’s not to say you can’t do a good job but there’s not that much room for doing something which is aesthetically interesting. Everything gets reviewed and analysed.
“On No Man’s Sky, with my sound design and 65daysofstatic’s music, I had the opportunity to do something more interesting. I’ve been in the industry a while and I have been called a maverick—I cringe a bit at that but I also quite like it! Sometimes having an experimental approach doesn’t fit with the culture of a particular development team.”
Laced: It must be hard work, one person creating the sound of an infinite universe...
Weir: “Just having one person doing audio is quite mad given the scale of the project but again, that’s the nature of the company.
“Sound design and music—it’s an emotional thing. I don’t think in terms of diegetic/non-diegetic. I don’t think any sound designer sits there and thinks ‘I’m now going to make a non-diegetic sound for this scene’. You do what you feel is creatively right.
“When people comment on the audio, particularly on Twitter, it’s really nice and I respond to it. People like the rain in the game. Rain is very emotive. It’s not just rain: it’s rain on a building, rain on a window, rain in a forest, rain in a cave. It’s lush rain, cold rain—everything has character.”
Caught in a storm:
“One of the things I’ve tried to do is split things up between the sounds we can recognise instantly and the more electronic, artificial sounds. You see an alien landscape but you hear something that’s very familiar. That’s an interesting sensation.
“Across the board we’ve always said we’re Star Wars, not Star Trek—that’s certainly true of the sound design where everything’s a little bit clunky and mechanical, not necessarily clean and efficient. Star Wars—the original trilogy—their sound design was very make-do, very clunky. If you listen to it with modern ears, it’s not what you remember it to be. You have the notion that it’s really slick but it’s really not.
“I record the sounds around me, literally stuff from my house, electric tin openers, trolleys… The ladder sound is the little oil radiator I’ve got next to me because it’s bloody cold in the office when it’s Winter! There’s a certain perverse reward recording hand dryers in a toilet [for] the jetpack. I get a certain pleasure out of that.”
Laced: Can the maths be a trap?
Weir: “I’m not interested in the maths. I’m not interested in the process. I’m not a programmer but I work well with programmers and because I have that opportunity to design systems, I’m going to exploit that. I always like creating new technology to explore new ideas.
“A lot of game programming is smoke and mirrors—you want maximum effect from minimum input. You don’t want to build anything any more complex than it really needs to be because it’s always going to cause a problem. Stability is everything, as we know. The balance is that we [at Hello Games] want to do things differently but we have to be sure that it’s going to be stable and fulfil its role. You could be a big game developer and do it—Rockstar have done amazing things with their audio tools.
“The nature of games development is that the technology is continually changing and you’re pretty much reinventing the wheel in every game development cycle, unlike in film. That’s naturally going to bleed through to the audio tools. That’s kind of my thing really—to create new opportunities by creating new tools.”
Laced: The Chinese Room’s Jessica Curry, composer for Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, has regularly commented that there’s too much noise in modern media—we’re bombarded by music which constantly seeks to regulate our emotions when playing or watching. Would you agree?
Weir: “Yes, I would agree with that. Less so now but there used to be a tendency to play music for the whole game.
“You need to think very carefully about where it’s dramatically necessary. Even in a game like ours where we don’t have any structure to it—there’s no narrative—we are still quite deliberate about when the music is completely in the background, literally ambient, and where we push it forward because we want to say something, make you feel something or mark an event. That movement between background and foreground is deliberate and something I think about carefully in the games that I work on.
“Game music now is usually of a very high quality, it’s just not always that interesting. But then that’s also true for a lot of film music. I’d love to occupy a space where what I’m doing—whether it’s myself or collaboratively–is musically interesting. That’s the priority.”
Laced: We seem to be living in an age particularly ripe with retro, lots of very self-aware pastiche, creators wearing their influences on their sleeve as a way of identifying with a particular aesthetic trend or being part of a community, for instance with chiptune. Where do you sit with that?
Weir: “I personally find that slightly backward-looking—as a composer, I’m not that interested in that.
“It’s true for quite a lot of film. There was a period of considerable experimentation, from the 50’s probably through to the early 80’s. But nostalgia’s a powerful thing—we always say ‘it was better back then’. Finding your way through the medium, trying different ideas is always more interesting than going: ‘we like John Williams, let’s make it more John Williams-esque’.
“That always used to be my criticism of Hans Zimmer. You could always tell a Hans Zimmer score as it was always so obviously pastiche. He’s different now. As a music director—and I hate to say this—I think he’s a genius and is always finds interesting angles. There are a lot of Hollywood composers who are excellent at technical composition but their scores are just not terribly interesting.”
Laced: Might video games be a better medium for musical experimentation?
Weir: Sure, because we can be more experimental. At Hello Games, where we haven’t got a publisher dictating what we’re doing and we’re fairly light on hierarchy, we have the opportunity to do interesting things if we want to. Often, the bottom line [making a profit] is so powerful that it’s hard to do that—it’s really hard to do that in TV, it’s hard to do in most films. I think games are a great opportunity to try something different.”
Laced: Any other game scores you’ve been enjoying recently?
Weir: “I’ve been playing The Last of Us Remastered and the music and sound design is tremendous. I thought Lara Croft GO had a really interesting soundtrack—quite unexpected for a Tomb Raider [franchise] game. I also keep restarting Bioshock Infinite, primarily because of the quality of its audio.”
Some 35 years old, the Japanese role-playing game genre doesn’t seem to have dimmed in popularity, with 2016 seeing the flagship JRPG series, Final Fantasy, enjoy its 84th game release (depending on how you count the numerous spin-offs, re-releases and mobile titles). Of course a major element that keeps fans coming back over and over is the music—that familiar sonic comfort blanket that envelops us when we enter a peaceful town, encounter a thrilling battle or enter a mysterious dungeon.
We had a quick whip round various members of the game music community—podcasters, composers, concert promoters—to see what their most beloved games and tracks were.
Thomas Böcker & Jonne Valtonen – Final Fantasy VII (1997)
“Final Fantasy VII is very close to my heart. It always felt very attractive to me because of the story which was mature for its time, which covered all sorts of emotions in one game. The first time I saw it was when my brother played it at home and it captured me right away.
“I love the piece 'Words Drowned by Firework' as it is such a beautiful, romantic piece which stands in stark contrast to the dark, somehow depressing, game world.”
“Final Fantasy VII is one of those few games that made me really feel a sense of loss. Later, studying the game more closely for our Final Fantasy VII symphony [one of the suites in Final Symphony], it just strengthened this feeling for me. Somehow the game just gets under my skin, despite having a similar setup to other JRPGs (e.g. character tropes including the reluctant hero, the calculating villain, the comic relief, the caring woman, the tough woman; as well as the existential threat to the whole world).
“My favourite piece is 'Aeris’s Theme'—I think it´s one of the best that Nobuo Uematsu has written.”
“Final Fantasy VII was the gateway JRPG for me. It was the first game that I picked up where I was sucked into the story rather than the gameplay. I was just blown away by the depth of storytelling (for a video game!). 'Aeris's Theme' and 'Opening - Bombing Mission' will always have a special place in my heart.”
“My first JRPG is probably still my favourite – Square's Secret of Mana. During the dark winter of ’94, I picked up a battered, second-hand copy (the game had only been released here in the UK in November 1994, but someone had already either finished it or tired of it). My girlfriend (at the time) and I played the game obsessively until we had both completed the epic saga, although for some reason neither of us wanted to use the real-time simultaneous co-op feature. The flat echoed with the sample-laden sounds of Hiroki Kikuta's phenomenal 16-bit score, albeit sadly piped through the tinny, tiny mono speaker of a portable TV.
“My favourite piece of music from the game (and one of my favourite pieces of all time) remains the astonishing, mysterious yet joyful, 'Into the Thick of It', which still promises great adventure while retaining its uncanny power to conjure me back to that era, half my lifetime ago.”
Kate Remington – Chrono Trigger (1995) & Earthbound (1994)
“One of the aspects of music for JRPGs that never fails to amaze me is how much music the composers had to write for each of these games. The soundtracks for Chrono Trigger by Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu and Earthbound by Keichi Suzuki and Hirokazo Tanaka are lengthy explorations of a huge variety of Western music.
“What I love about the soundtrack for Chrono Trigger is that the music is an integral part of the story, adding a dimension to the locations and characters. 'Kingdom Trial' is a great example of a cue that creates a rich sense of place and action. In his notes about writing the soundtrack, Mitsuda explained that he follows the philosophy of balance in the universe, for example good and evil or major and minor. In 'Kingdom Trial', he subtly shifts between major and minor, from hope to despair. Although the orchestration is limited, it's easy to imagine the orchestral instruments that could bring this track to life.”
“'Silent Light', one of the tracks that Nobuo Uematsu wrote to complete the score, is another favourite of mine. The simplicity of the melody, the delicacy of the writing and the flow of 3/4 time give a lot of forward motion to this cue. 'Ruined World' is a powerful cue as well. The ambient wind sound and haunting metallic percussion make visiting this landscape almost unbearably painful. This cue seems to me like a precursor to the desolate ambient music in Fallout 3 and 4.
“And the soundtrack for Earthbound is so ahead of its time! The music actually figures into the adventure and that provided Suzuki and Tanaka all kinds of freedom to create cues that can reference anything—and they do! There's the Reggae-inspired 'Friendly Neighbors', which reminds me of UB40, or 'Enjoy Your Stay', a wonderful beguine. Listening to Earthbound again, I realise just how complex and diverse the score is. I also remembered that the soundtrack is 22 years old and not by Disasterpiece! It's THAT contemporary-sounding.”
“Chrono Trigger was my first ‘real’ JRPG. I really loved how the plot went to great efforts to focus on the characters and their interactions—everything about it is so masterfully crafted. I loved all the music, but 'Corridors of Time' stands out to me because when I first heard it (upon seeing 12,000 BC for the first time), it came as a total surprise. I just sat in front of my screen in awe before I remembered I was playing a game.”
“I remember paying £63 in 1995 for an import copy of Final Fantasy III (as Final Fantasy VI was called back then on the American SNES)—that’s well over £100 in today’s money and the most I’d ever paid for a game. But it was student money well spent.
“I’ve never played a RPG with such a deep and well-rounded ensemble cast. Every character was just perfect and they all had their own backstories to discover; there was no single hero and I loved them all. But mostly I loved Locke and Terra. I wanted to be Locke so badly—he’s a treasure hunter and DEFINITELY not a thief—and I always thought he should have ended up with Terra rather than Celes. The whole game was magical—how could they fit an adventure so epic on a cartridge so small?
“'Terra’s Theme' is my favourite of all of Nobuo Uematsu’s tracks. So simple and yet so powerful, it is the ultimate march towards redemption. I’ve always loved video game music, but it was hearing the original orchestral arrangement of this that set me on the path to starting ClassicVGMusic and championing video game music in general. Without Terra’s Theme there might not be ClassicVGMusic, and without ClassicVGMusic I think life would have been very different for me. It has quite literally been a life-changing game.”
“Final Fantasy VI captured my heart and never let it go. I love Nobuo Uematsu's use of character themes (which is at least a little reminiscent of how John Williams uses themes). My favourite track is 'Forever Rachel'—there's just something about it that breaks my heart every time I hear it.”
Pete “Noob” Boyle – Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (2008) / Persona 4 Golden (2012)
“Persona 4 sticks in my mind as one of my favourite JRPGs. I was initially drawn in by the beautiful, colourful graphics and by it being set in a school. After picking it up for a paltry £6 during a PlayStation Network one Christmas, I jumped in despite not having played a JRPG since Final Fantasy VII back in the day (for shame!); Persona 4 blew my tiny little mind away. The colours, the characters, the story… and the music!
“Persona 4’s music is quite simply sublime, with each piece eminently recognisable—none more so than Junes Theme. So catchy and joyful, this piece is constantly referenced throughout the game as well as playing at a location that pass through countless times during a playthrough. It’s not often that you get such a catchy tune in a game that you have to sing along, but speaking with friends about Persona 4 regularly sees them singing it at me! The game will always be a classic and Junes Theme will forever stay happily lodged in my brain”... **Goes off humming**
“Final Fantasy VIII is such a nostalgia-fest for me, as I first played it when I was 14 years-old (an impressionable age!). It’s also my favourite game score of all time and the bar to which I hold the entire series. Final Fantasy VII, IX and X all have beautiful moments and hold a special place in my heart but none quite have the same consistency as Final Fantasy VIII. Hearing this music for the first time had such a profound effect on me, it was the catalyst for my career, as I decided then and there that I wanted to be able to try and create something similarly beautiful and affecting for audiences.
“'Fisherman's Horizon' is probably my all-time favourite piece of Final Fantasy music. The melody is absolutely beautiful and it's backed up by a typically amazing harmony from Nobuo Uematsu, creating a tonally stunning tapestry.”
“It's so very hard to pick a favourite JRPG but Xenoblade Chronicles fits the bill the best. Maybe it was because it came at a time where most JRPGs were feeling stale or uninspired, but that game just hit all the right notes for me. It's also the only JRPG I've ever replayed because I loved it so much (I don't have a lot of time, so if I play an 80+ hour game TWICE, that really says something. It had a great story, characters, incredible world design and a simple to pick up—but tricky to master—combat system.
“Not to mention the amazing soundtrack which featured virtually every style of music I've ever enjoyed including my favourite non-boss battle theme of all time: 'Mechanical Rhythm'."
Frederik “Blip Blop” Lauridsen – The Legend Of Heroes: Trails In The Sky / Second Chapter (2004 & 2007)
“Part of what really made the games special for me is how the plot slowly and mysteriously develops. It's hard to truly appreciate until, in the second chapter, you learn about the real puppeteers behind events up to that point. The games do recycle some classic JRPG clichés (I could live without some of the teenage romance) but overall, they have decent combat mechanics, a really good story as well as well-written and diverse characters. I can’t wait for the English language port of the third and final chapter, scheduled for 2017.
“The soundtrack is composed by ‘Falcom Sound Team jdk’ (Hayato Sonoda, Wataru Ishibashi and Takahide Murayama). It isn't among the very best JRPG soundtracks, but it still does have some great standout tracks. My favourite is probably 'Fateful Confrontation'—an epic boss battle theme which plays when you fight some of the baddest of the bad guys. What makes it so great is that the track is essentially the culmination of another piece of music ('The Enforcers') that plays during earlier encounters with these particular bosses. When 'The Enforcers' plays, you know shit's about to go down. But when it's 'Fateful Confrontation', it's on a whole other level.”
“I don't know how to begin talking about my love for Super Mario RPG, except by stating that I don't remember anything before Super Mario RPG! I guess that's how nostalgia works: by striking when you're vulnerable. Nothing can ever beat the wonder and amazement I felt playing this game, my first RPG, on my older brother's SNES9X emulator.
“Although Yoko Shimomura's soundtrack is fantastic, my favourite track is 'Fight Against Culex', which is actually Nobuo Uematsu's Final Fantasy IV boss theme—Square and Nintendo produced Super Mario RPG together. The collaboration made the game quite unlike any of the games in the series that came after.”
Thanks to Sebastian Wolff and the Materia Collective for conducting a quick poll of their favourite JRPGs—it seems like there hasn’t yet been a better period for the genre than Square’s 1994-97 output. Tallied responses:
Chrono Trigger (30 responses)
Final Fantasy VI (18)
Final Fantasy VII (14)
Final Fantasy IX (13)
The Golden Sun series (9)
Earthbound, Kingdom Hearts, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Xenogears, Xenoblade Chronicles (6)
Final Fantasy Tactics, Star Ocean: the Second Story (5)