By Thomas Quillfeldt
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):
[We spoke to Hello Game’s audio director, Paul Weir, about how he worked with rock band 65daysofstatic to create the in-game soundtrack of No Man’s Sky]
Electronica: The great concentrator
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.
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