A brief history of video game music – Part 2: A modern movement

Laced With Wax A brief history of video game music Part 2: a modern movement

Writer Jack Gosling brings us up to the modern day with the conclusion of his brief history of VGM.

If you haven't already, check out "Part 1: From ‘bip!’ to ‘bwomp!’

By Jack Gosling

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:

(Check out Laced With Wax's "10 of the best licensed music moments in video games")

Rock ‘n’ role-playing

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):

(Laced With Wax recently interviewed Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck about his involvement with indie game NOCT).

Replay, remix

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.

Jack Gosling is a freelance writer and public speaker – www.jackgosling.co.uk  |  Twitter: @jackgosling