It’s Time to Start Paying Attention to Video Game Music, EDM’s Most Underrated Genre
Posted by Isabelle 8 months ago in Features
Video games have long had a sound of their own, one that was just as rough and quirky as games were themselves. Maybe they weren’t for everyone, but they were full of fresh and exciting ideas. Some artists know this better than most — you don’t have to look far to see this, either — Frank Ocean used the Playstation startup chimes to open
Channel Orange. Lindsey Lowend’s entire musical motive is video game samples. Ellie Herring’s latest video displays a fascination with Myst. Ryan Hemsworth gets freaky with video game tech. And you can watch Just Blaze and J.Rocc gush about Street Fighter II’s groundbreaking music in this documentary.
Historically, the idiosyncratic sound of games was borne mostly from great limitations. It was music produced from downright primitive chipsets that didn’t allow for a huge sonic palette but managed to be just chunky and raw enough to have a unique character, the sort of sound that couldn’t be found anywhere else.
But we don’t have those limitations anymore — game music can sound like whatever it wants to sound like. And what it wants to sound like has become fascinating. The profile of independent games has risen dramatically over the last decade, allowing for more interesting, bizarre and expressive games that are about things other than shooting aliens and stealing fast cars. These were thoughtful games made by people interested in art. So naturally, the artists creating the music to accompany these games also became more idiosyncratic than ever.
Often, this resulted in something that sounded entirely new, crafted by artists who are cognizant and well-versed in the quirky language of early game music but with something of their own to say, a way to carry the sounds forward that feels fresh and distinct. Sometimes it just resulted in damn good music, worth listening to even if you’re not interested in video games (but maybe they’ll get you to think about them more).
Here’s a few artists to get started with; artists who work primarily in video games (although a few of them can be heard in other arenas) and are helping to redefine what game music can be.
A Canadian singer-songwriter with a wistful, nostalgic sound, Jim Guthrie has been making music for twenty years now, but it was only recently (2011, to be exact) that Guthrie turned his attention towards making music for games. That’s where things get real interesting. Guthrie composed the score to Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP, a game that used touchscreens and music to tell a weird stream-of-consciousness story that didn’t make a whole lot of sense but was — and remains — one of the most unique smartphone gaming experiences. A big part of that is Guthrie’s sense of play and wonder, which really shines through on songs like “Lone Star,” which uses synth-y arpeggios and chunky drums that sound like retro game loops done with modern tech and a more quirky sensibility.
Appearing out of nowhere to score the surprise indie hit Thomas Was Alone, David Housden took a charming game about jumping rectangles (no, really) and along with the charmingly cheeky narrator Danny Wallace, elevated a simple game about navigating jumping puzzles into something wonderfully humane and charming. Housden’s music on Thomas is spare in its instrumentation — built largely around beautifully simple piano and string parts — but not afraid of more video game-y bleeps and bloops, which ironically and playfully work to make the music sound that much more human. It’s an idea he furthers in his most recent soundtrack, Volume, his second collaboration with Thomas Was Alone creator Mike Bithell.
Darren Korb/Ashley Barret
Darren Korb’s soundtrack for the indie gem Bastion is the sort of thing you want every game to sound like — full of character, boldly taking on an identity of its own. For that game, Korb crafted a mostly instrumented neo-folk jam odyssey, punctuated with just enough gorgeous vocals to haunt you when you least expect it. For Transistor, the next game he scored, Korb teamed with singer Ashley Barret for a melancholic future vibe. Both are utterly perfect evocations of the accompanying games’ mood and setting, and “We All Become” is good enough to almost get me into Drum ’n Bass.
A lot of games, in a bid for more mainstream acceptance/respectability, tap film composers to provide the sounds that help push their games forward. Sometimes this works out great (various games in the Metal Gear Solid and Far Cry series have done quite well in this regard). Other times it doesn’t — the current state of big-budget film soundtracks isn’t all that inspiring, after all; full of loud blaring horns and Zimmer-esque endless violin vamping. Then you have game composers that filmmakers should really be scooping up as fast as they can — like Austin Wintory, who sounds like one of the best damn contemporary film composers ever — only he’s primarily known for his work in games. That’s totally fine too, the video games with his music in them are lovely works made all the more lush with Wintory’s sounds. Journey is a wonderful art-house experience, while Assassin’s Creed Syndicate offers something a bit more traditional and big-budget, but wonderfully distinct.
Like horror movies, horror games are having something of a renaissance right now. They’re smarter, scarier, and more clever than ever, not just interested in scaring you but also being about things — unsettling things you might not want to think about to begin with. Mikko Tarmia’s score for SOMA, one of the best games of last year, is one that both does what you’d expect a horror score to do — effortlessly maintain and ratchet up feelings of dread and tension — but while also punctuating that with moments of ethereal longing, a chilly warmth that’s as ephemeral as the brief moments the game makes you feel safe.
“Operatic” is a thing that few games aspire to, and when they do, it’s usually meant to add gravitas to some manner of excess — maybe there’s a climactic battle, and the game wants you to feel important, so it throws in some Latin chanting or whatnot. Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture is the exact opposite of largesse — a quiet game where you simply walk around investigating a town where everyone has disappeared. Jessica Curry — whose work has been featured in the equally pensive game Dear Esther and the terribly frightening Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs — manages to effortlessly pull off a score that is both operatic yet restrained, like The Leftovers but with less misery. It’s a standout soundtrack even on a list full of them, and pretty much worth the price of the game it’s a part of.
Chances are, you know someone who plays Minecraft. Probably a kid. Minecraft is the closest thing we have to a modern Pac-Man something a whole generation of kids not necessarily inclined to playing video games all know and mostly love. There are many charms to Minecraft, but a surprising one is its score — mostly piano and mostly devoid of any sort of flash or verve, C418’s chill score to the biggest game on Planet Earth. Also, it’s the score most likely to get kids to sit behind a piano, so that’s a plus.