Video games are typically musically associated with retro midi files and the ‘bleeps and bloops’ of Pacman and Tetris. There’s even an online documentary series celebrating video game music right from its birth, all the way up to the modern day.
Some may think that video game music hasn’t changed much since the 80’s, but this couldn’t be further from the truth, as it’s being increasingly developed for and performed by classical orchestras in concert halls worldwide.
The retro sounds of Pacman are familiar to most, generating undeniable nostalgia, but video game music has grown far beyond this
The Classic FM Hall of Fame was introduced 22 years ago, but it’s only recently that video games have been acknowledged within, somewhat controversially.
Some classical music purists might argue that video game music doesn’t belong alongside the likes of the mighty Chopin or Tchaikovsky, but to that I say; why not? Video game music is just as spectacular and emotive as some of the well-respected classics and should be recognised as such.
With the 2018 winners of the Classic FM Hall of Fame announced this past Easter weekend (see the full list here), including Banjo-Kazooie at 239, Kingdom Hearts at 188, and Final Fantasy at 99, here are some of our favourite examples of video games using orchestral scores to influence and craft their stories, bringing happiness to gamers everywhere.
The majority of famous video game composers hail from the land of the rising sun, with Nobuo Uematsu and Koji Kondo, responsible for the Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda series’ respectively, celebrated by millions for their musical masterpieces.
Japanese composer Nobuo Uematsu is sometimes referred to as the ‘Beethoven of video games music’
Uematsu’s work was recently celebrated at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall, in honour of the 30th anniversary of the Final Fantasy series. I’m not ashamed to admit that after snapping up tickets for myself and a group of friends to the Distant Worlds 30th Anniversary concert, conducted by Arnie Roth and performed by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, I cried with happiness for the first three performances.
Hands down, one of the best nights of my life
Uematsu is perhaps best known for a very dramatic Latin-sung boss battle theme. One Winged Angel, from Final Fantasy VII, is an adrenaline pumping delight, getting players in the mood for a long, epic battle at the end of the game. You can’t help but smile as the first notes play out, preparing to give it your all. Pretending you can sing in Latin is also pretty fun.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Koichi Sugiyama’s orchestral score for Dragon Quest VIII is the perfect accompaniment to a rich and vibrant world. The battle music offers an up-tempo ensemble, once again getting the energy pumping for some turn-based monster bashing, while presenting a much more soothing composition for exploring the world map and local towns. The change from slow and calming to frantic isn’t anywhere near as jarring as it sounds, blending perfectly from one to the other, adjusting the players mood to fit.
One of the few Japanese RPGs I know that includes an orchestral only soundtrack, I never tired of listening to Dragon Quest VIII on my journey to save the world from evil
A more recent example from the world of Final Fantasy comes in the form of Apocalypsis Noctis. Composed by Yoko Shimomura, rather than Uematsu, I had the pleasure of witnessing this perfectly intense piece in the flesh at the Distant Worlds concert, and could feel my adrenaline surging as I leaned forward in my seat in sheer delight.
There are Western composers to celebrate too of course, such as Martin O’Donnell, recognised for his work on the likes of Halo and Destiny, also celebrated by fans in live concerts. Renowned film composer Danny Elfman also dabbles in the world of video game music, and is noted for his work on the action role-playing game series (RPG), Fable.
Garry Schyman is known for his haunting soundtrack to underwater first-person shooter, Bioshock. An eclectic mix of genres, the sequel to the first game even came bundled with a vinyl of the full orchestral score for those who forked out on the collector’s edition. I don’t own a vinyl player, but that didn’t stop me from buying it and heading over to my grandparents’ house to initiate them into the world of video game music.
Bioshock’s underwater world of Rapture was accompanied by a dark but wonderfully composed musical score, immersing players into the abandoned dystopian world
Other notable examples from Western composers include Austin Wintory, responsible for the Journey soundtrack, a voiceless, textless and isolating adventure through a vast desert. And of course, I have to mention Jeremy Soule’s work on the Skyrim soundtrack, receiving awards from the Game Audio Network Guild, and even a BAFTA nomination.
Lastly, Polish composer Frédéric Chopin is curiously celebrated in Japanese RPG Eternal Sonata. Alongside original pieces from composer Motoi Sakuraba, each chapter reveals more about Chopin’s life and legacy, featuring a classic from his repertoire. Since playing this game, I’ve even been inspired to listen to Chopin in order to concentrate at work or relax at home.
tri-Crescendo’s visual take on a young Frederic Chopin was somewhat androgynous, but this doesn’t take away from the musical brilliance of the game itself
While video game music in the Classic FM Hall of Fame will continue to be a bone of contention as both fan bases struggle to find common ground, I would love nothing more than to see these scores celebrated more by mainstream audiences. One day, it won’t be labelled as video game music, and composers will be known by name alone, not just for the games they have composed scores for.