Why we ♥ video game music: Nostalgia

Laced With Wax Why we love video game music: Nostalgia

This is part of a blog series “Why we ♥ video game music”:

– ‘The background soundtrack to our lives

– 'The feels'

– 'Scratching the vinyl itch'

By Thomas Quillfeldt

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.  

Remember me

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.

Killer Instinct’s industrial metal opening theme, to me, is the sound of eating pizza and drinking warm Pepsi using an ironing board as a table, gawping at the ‘2.5D’ SNES graphics and Orchid’s ass...ets. I can clearly picture Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker’s Mother Base menus when I hear Entry Gate. Despite being rubbish at the game, I’ll never forget the NiGHTS into Dreams character select screen for its dreamy, soft synth music with eery samples of children.

Video games can make such a strong impression that there are musicians who have recorded entire albums remixing the original scores and rapping from the perspective of the game’s characters, as is the case with Black Materia: Final Fantasy VII by Random AKA Mega Ran and Lost Perception:

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.

Binding agent

Things can work in reverse of course—a piece of music can strengthen the bond between player and game.

I listened to Jessica Curry’s score for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture prior to playing the game, and extensively around the time of my first playthrough. For me, the soundtrack and the game stand as parallel works and I think more highly of both as a result: they work brilliantly in harmony, especially as the lyrics to the songs subtly relate to the game’s story itself (as explored in detail by Wired journalist Chris Kohler in this podcast); but I can also appreciate the soundtrack album on its own.

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.

It can even happen with trailers. The music playing during the official trailer of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild isn’t there just to excite people about the new game but also tickle fans’ fond memories of Zelda games past; the orchestral score behind the most recent trailer for Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is meant to make us nostalgic for the lush production values of the first game.

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.

Finale bossa

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.

This is part of a blog series “Why we ♥ video game music”:

– ‘The background soundtrack to our lives

– 'The feels'

– 'Scratching the vinyl itch'