Video game soundtracks edging towards cinema

by Katherine Salzberg / Beacon Correspondent • April 6, 2017

These days, video games are striving to convey grander stories, and game music has begun to closely emulate the examples set by movies.

Music in and around video games has come a long way from chiptunes—synthesized tracks created using the limited sound cards of the ‘80s. As the medium continues to evolve, its soundtracks don’t just function as ambience, but as significant ways to convey emotion, character, and experience, much like in cinema.

Take the “Legend of Zelda”series: It’s a game that’s been around since the late ‘80s, yet some melodies, themes, and chord progressions from older installments still appear in countless newer installments of the series. When protagonist Link storms a castle in the latest entry in the series, “Breath of the Wild,” orchestral music is underscored by staccato piano that appears whenever the player encounters a dangerous “Guardian.” But it also features clips from the main theme of the series and the older song, “Ganon’s Message,” symbolizing the imminent conflict between the hero and villain of the story. By incorporating earlier themes and older motifs, the music communicates the scale and danger of the challenge you are about to face, but compels older fans of the series to recall memories of defeating the supervillain in previous titles. Like in cinema, the score of “Zelda”doesn’t just communicate the gravity of a single situation. It also draws you into the world and the story within it. All those small moments lead up to a battle for the fate of an entire continent.

If you’ve made a habit of watching a movie or two recently, you’ve probably noticed a trend: trailers packaged with covers of older music, often made grim or depressing to suit the theme of the film. From The Social Network’s chilling choral arrangement of Radiohead’s “Creep” to the dark, intense take on The Beatles’ “Come Together” in Zack Snyder’s most recent Justice League trailer, these new spins on classic songs help convey the theme of the movie before you even think about buying tickets to see it. 

“Final Fantasy XV,” the newest addition to the best-selling series of role-playing video games, takes that idea and runs with it in its gameplay and ad campaign. The song used in the commercials is Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” which is famous for being covered over four hundred times. In the ads, it’s performed by Florence Welch, accompanied by a soaring orchestral arrangement. The game’s story is dark enough that Welch could have recorded more solemn vocals and still accurately conveyed the theme. But by evoking hope, she helps present and sell a story that feels grand, like something that lasts several times longer than a trip to the movies. 

But unlike cinema, most games also have music for, well, gameplay reasons—even if running through a field for hours is crucial to the plot, having no background noise at all would bore players. And no matter how long you run through that same field, the track will still snap to the same staccato piano if you ever get close to a guardian. Open world games like “Breath of the Wild,” where players are free to explore and aren’t forced into one track of gameplay, can admittedly feel like the music is formulaic instead of natural. From a technical aspect, it is, and most games fall into this situation just by nature of the medium. In a movie, even though each scene is carefully crafted, the score feels spontaneous simply because the viewers have no control over the characters and don’t know how the plot will progress. 

Video games and films are clearly two different things. People watch a movie, but they play a game, and companies have to consider how they want that player to feel interacting directly with their product. But even if the gap between the two are significant, it isn’t necessarily a given limit. The 2012 independent game “Journey”makes some progress toward a truly spontaneous game score. Like “Zelda,” both have protagonists that do not speak, but “Journey”is far more linear, following a nameless wanderer as they travel across a desert, encountering kindred spirits and obstacles alike along the way.

And in clear contrast to “Zelda,” the music of “Journey” does not endlessly loop, instead reacting to the player’s actions and experiences as they happen. Even the game’s official downloadable soundtrack only contains the most significant pieces of a massive array of audio. It was a huge undertaking, but also incredibly successful, becoming the first video game soundtrack to ever be nominated at the Grammys for “Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media.” And for a game score to be seriously considered in a category almost universally dominated by film and television, it has to be asked: is the gap in experience that wide to begin with? 

Not all games use these techniques, and not all of them should. But if game music continues to so closely emulate the examples set by its theatrical counterparts, it can’t be absurd to suggest that at least some can truly be considered art.