Game soundtracks: the new film scores?

As the soundtrack on Medal Of Honor: Warfighter proves, game music is developing, and it can only be a good thing, Kevin writes...

During my teenage years I had a thing for soundtracks. At that time I was going to the cinema fairly regularly. This was before wardrobe-sized LED screens became common place, and at a time when ticket prices actually allowed you refreshment as well as your entry.

My circle of friends sought to broaden horizons, and occasionally we’d make horizons broader than our ages strictly allowed. But, whatever the film, I kept an ear out for music. An obsessive student of melodies (at least outside of the classroom) I’d carefully analyse the mood, considering the effect on both narrative and audience any music helped inspire. If I was sufficiently affected I’d make it my mission to head to a shopping centre and buy the soundtrack.

Naturally, I was heavily into computer games as well. But at the time I didn’t consider them to have music which was similarly important. Sure, FFVII had some wonderful composition in it, but as far as I was concerned that was just something those lovable kooks at Squaresoft did. Why? Okay, because they were obsessed with the videogame experience, and its subsequent enhancement of something or other.

I wasn’t. In my mid-teens I wasn’t interested in unique musical composition in games. I was obsessed with breeding golden chocobos, finding the FIFA goal scoring sweet-spot and extensively touring the Half Life game-world using noclip. Atmospheric music was simply that, and although we might all instantly recognise the theme from Tetris (a status richly deserved), at the time it was a repetitive tune to fit shapes to. Right?

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We might now retrospectively qualify gaming soundtracks, but until recently they haven’t objectively been as big a deal in gaming as outside of it. After all, if people relate music to anything other than the artist, traditionally it’s to film. This is changing, and fast. Perhaps it’s because maturity has now spread to all corners of the polygonal art that is videogame production. Perhaps it’s because developers now give equal gravity to all possible aspects of a virtual experience. Or perhaps it’s because teenagers like me grew up and, remembering those film experiences with perfectly pitched soundtracks, want to curate full-blooded experiences on their own terms.

It must be something, because the songs, the soundtracks and the compositions that come along with videogames are often now pieces of art in their own right. Perhaps we’ve all grown up and realised that the amount of work that goes into game production is worthy of our attention, so now we’re paying more of it and noticing small developments. But the music is certainly getting better.

As examples we can cite Bioshock, Bioshock 2, and the marks they made with their Garry Schyman compositions, altogether enhancing adventures in Rapture City. Quaint and delightful could quickly turn to chilling the nerves, and without them the games would be lacking in goose bumps and intrigue. They would still be good: the mechanics, the discovery of your first Big Daddy, the adventure and steampunk flavour would all be affecting. But the soundtracks added to those moments, and are now entwined with the experience.

Game music is important now to such an extent that when the British Academy Video Games Awards were introduced in 2003, there were ‘game awards’ before that, but from 1998 – 2003 no genuinely separate set of awards, music was one of the categories created. To justify that, you only need to look at the list of winners. The first winner, Harry Potter, may not be to everyone’s tastes, but the likes of Hitman, Tomb Raider and Dead Space are the sorts of games in which a carefully composed atmosphere is almost key to immersion. And the two more recent winners, Heavy Rain and L.A Noire, do little to dampen the thought.

Tellingly, this year’s nominees read almost like a list of essential gaming experiences from the last 12 months. Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, Batman: Arkham City, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Skyrim, Uncharted 3. All highly-respected and well-received games or franchises, and that they are nominated speaks volumes of the gamers but also the category’s importance.

Still the category develops though. It used to be that you could only hear the latest tracks from the chart world within games if you hung about the menus of EA’s sporting franchises. Hell, FIFA 13‘s playlist actually reads like the iPod Genius Mix of a clued up contemporary music connoisseur. This is no bad thing of course: attempting to recreate the feel of big day sporting events and those sweetly serenading highlights reels, the combination adds extra emotive content and value.

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More interesting though is the involvement of Linkin Park with Medal Of Honor: Warfighter. Not only has the band’s Mike Shinoda composed two tracks for the Warfighter soundtrack, but the official music video of the its single Castle Of Glass (from June’s Living Things album) adds a very real reminder of the context to occasionally tragic consequences of the work of modern tier one operatives.

The song features in-game alongside the work of composer Ramin Djawadi, returning to the franchise composing for the Medal Of Honor (2010) reboot. Linkin Park’s involvement might once have been lauded as a coup, but now speaks of an industry’s widening appreciation. Needless to say Linkin Park aren’t exactly small-fry. They’ve racked up 49 awards, including four American Music Awards and two Grammys, and a total 143 nominations in 14 years of activity. Neither is Djawadi small-fry: the German-born composer’s work is Grammy-nominated, and features on some film you may have heard of: Blade: Trinity, Open Season, Iron Man and Clash Of The Titans.

If anything, Warfighter‘s use of both original and adopted music hints at a brighter future for music in games. After all, it’s clear that gaming soundtracks are now of critical importance. They’ve been developing for some time, and they’ll surely continue to do so, but adding a crucial element to virtual experiences we know this: they help drive emotions and aid engagement. And in terms of appreciation, they’re held in high regard by bands and composers alike.

This leads me to state with absolute certainty, such changes indicate that music in games is a little removed from my teenage experience of it. But if I were a teenager now, they’d be the soundtracks I’d be interested in.


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