Fallen in love with game music? Comparing game scores to classic Hollywood scores
Since its inception, the gaming medium has toiled to prove its artistic merit. Other visual media — particularly film — enjoy copious praise as vehicles for art, while gaming is regulated to the kids table.
Convincing the naysayers to switch sides is a fool’s errand. The subjective nature of art means anything can be so called, or be denied. However, we can draw parallels between gaming and film by examining some of their component parts: writing, music, and visual design.
Gaming music in particular has enjoyed a renaissance in the past decade, and it’s not a stretch to say it’s punching in the same weight class as what we hear in film. Let’s examine the evidence.
Chiptunes and the seeds of nostalgia
In the beginning, gaming music was almost hilariously primitive. In those early days, the game scores were known as chiptunes, because the music was written directly to the chip.
Like most things in early gaming, Japanese game designers were the masters of this genre. Despite the technological limitations of gaming hardware — the NES could only manage three notes at any one time — they managed to craft earnest and catchy bits of electronica.
Chiptunes went on to have a substantial influence on other genres — there’s even a genre called 8-bit now — but it also cast a spell over an entire generation of gamers. The nostalgia for this music remains a powerful force in game design and business.
Here’s a look at how the music Zelda, a masterpiece of early gaming and ongoing flagbearer for Nintendo, has evolved from those early chiptunes days to now:
New media and the cinematic effect
Like roleplaying characters expanding their skills, gaming technology evolved. The limitations that made chiptunes an endearing necessity were removed, and new pathways opened.
Improving technology not only lifted the veil on what was possible for gaming music, it also propelled the industry to new revenue heights. More money brings more talent.
Today there’s a cadre of Hollywood-grade composers who consistently produce music for gaming. CEO and Founder of Laced Records Danny Kehler confirms: “It feels like video game music is finally receiving the praise and mainstream recognition it deserves, and this is helping to attract more composers to the medium.”
Kehler goes on to say gaming music isn’t so much pulling away talent from film or TV as it is profiting from a new breed of composers who are comfortable creating across mediums. After all, music in film and music in games play the same evocative role: elevating the meaning of a moment.
The consistent effect of music in gaming and cinema bears examination, because it strikes at the heart of any argument against gaming as an art form and serves as a natural comparison between gaming and film.
Music has a profound grip on the human psyche. It instructs us how to feel about the images we see in visual media.
Music illuminates the motivations and reactions of characters on the screen like an unseen area. Whether they know it or not, audiences often react more strongly to the music than the facial expressions of the actors.
Music enriches the ambiance of locations, imbuing each setting with a sense of familiarity when we return. It builds tension and releases it. Provides finality and foreshadows the future. Music fundamentally elevates film, and it does the same with games.
Leitmotifs, or the recurring pieces of music that makeup a score, are just as prevalent in gaming as they are in film.
Take the dragon motif from Skyrim, a high watermark video game production. The chanting and horn-heavy symphony are every bit as dramatic as leitmotifs from, say, the 300 original score. You could easily swap one for the other, and the effect would be the same.
The music is every bit as dense. The product is every bit as meticulous. The result is every bit as powerful. The first comment on the video above says it all:
All things considered, it’s no wonder then that composers would be drawn to the gaming medium.
Modular design and modern heights
Of course, composing music for games is not exactly the same as doing so for films. Cinema is a linear form of media. The experience is set on a rails, and the plot always moves toward the end credits.
In contrast, many games are non-linear; they allow the players to literally choose their own adventure. Consequently, leitmotifs need to spring into action without much buildup, because combat or story scenarios can happen at random.
Sarah Schachner, who composed the score for the Call of Duty franchise, elaborates: “In games, rather than telling a linear narrative story, the music underscores nuanced emotional environments. Writing music for specific situations that can last for indeterminate amounts of time, or need to segue into another music piece at any given time, is a unique challenge.”
In a sense, game music must be modular. Pieces need to fit together, but should also be able to be taken apart and experienced in isolation. What’s more, these songs must possess a certain eternal quality: players will likely hear them thousands of times, and that needs to happen without people beginning to hate the music.
Despite these technical requirements, video game music is flourishing on all fronts. And no game embodies the possibilities of modern gaming music like Ghost of Tsushima.
Ghost of Tsushima retales the 1274 Mongol of invasion of Japan in painstaking detail. The player controls Jin Sakai, your friendly neighborhood samurai who must defeat the invading army on his own after his brothers in arms are wiped out.
The game itself has garnered rave reviews for its meticulous depiction of ancient Japan, and the soundtrack also meets an incredibly high bar of creative execution.
Rather than falling into the cliches of “American Japanese” composition, the composers for Ghost harnessed traditional Japanese instruments, like the biawa lute, the taiko drum, and shakuhachi flute, to produce a stunning score that guides the player through a menagerie of traditional Japanese songs worthy of any Kurasawa film.
In fact, Shigeru Umebayashi, one of half of the composing duo, has worked on scores for major kung fu films like House of Flying Daggers and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny.
In this regard, Ghost of Tsushima truly represents the pinnacle of gaming music, and that zenith matches the artistic achievements of film. We know that because the same people are making the music.
Zach is the content lead at Soundstripe, a royalty free music company that supplies creators and businesses with stellar music for video.