The idea of composing video game music wasn’t always regarded with seriousness. Similar to film scoring in its early days, many looked upon video game scoring as a side hustle or passion project, but never as an actual career choice. Yet the cultural and economic growth of this medium has proven to be more than just a source of income but also a full-fledged career option.
What helped drive the demand for the video game music that exists today is the gaming community’s affinity for innovation, but also the nostalgia associated with the video games that these people played in their youth. This gave video game music another layer of meaning, as if those old melodies heard long before were now the catalyst that brought you back to a forgotten time.
Let’s take a closer look into video game music of the past, and how it has impacted the present. We’ll also discuss how listeners are enjoying video game music outside of the gaming context.
Video game music is an evolving artform, having long let go of its original chiptune sound and moved towards a more cinematic ambience. With that said, there are still games such as Shovel Knight that strive for the 8-bit look and sound of the past, in a sense legitimizing the aesthetic as a genre by itself. And the chiptune sound did not limit itself to video games: in the late 1970s the group Yellow Magic Orchestra were already making music with computers, and they would even sample sounds from famous video games of the time.
But this style of music ceased to serve as the soundtrack to many video games (and thus be of much interest as a musical genre) after the ’80s, and only began to reassert itself around the early 2000s with acts such as the Postal Service using chiptune sounds in many of their songs.
In the later part of the first decade of the 2000s, chiptune artist Sabrepulse introduced the world to a new genre of chip music known as chipbreak: a mixture of 8-bit music and breakcore. In the video below you can see him performing his music to an enthusiastic crowd, but what’s most intriguing about it all is his setup, which consists of a laptop connected to two Gameboy consoles.
Although video game music has departed from its origins, the medium continues to be tied into the music of the past as well as the future. The limitations held by the hardware is in a way what pushes the genre forward and makes it idiosyncratic. The constant technological “battle” one has to endure when composing a chiptune piece makes it feel more like you’re programming instead of composing, and that’s where a lot of chiptune artists find the charm. And if anyone is interested in composing their own chipmusic, it’s possible to do so with the free software LSDJ! (If you don’t own a Gameboy, you can always use an emulator).
These hardware limitations are basically non-existent in the current age of video game music. That raises the question if video game music has lost its idiosyncratic flavor now that it’s open to all possibilities of sounds. In a way, yes. One of the reasons why many of the Nintendo games have melodies that stick with us to this day is that melodies were the easiest thing the composers could manipulate.
Video Game Music and Lo-Fi
Speaking of Nintendo, we are currently seeing an appreciation for video game music of the past in the genre of lo-fi hip-hop. It’s no surprise when videos like “n i n t e n d o a n d l o f i” get upwards of 6 million views, or that the “Zelda and Chill” hit the mark of 25 million (the “and chill” and the spaced-out-typing a e s t h e t i c are common attributes of the lo-fi genre). It’s noteworthy how something considerably niche and removed from its time is still able to resonate with millions.
Due to the hardware’s monophonic nature, early video game music was filled with arpeggios and a heavy reliance on its melodies and themes. But one thing that remains distinctive in the medium now is its interactivity. Unlike the audience of a movie or a song, the choices a player makes influence not only the game, but the music as well. There are plenty of different techniques that make use of this interactivity, which you can read about in Michael Sweet’s “Top Techniques for Composing Music for Interactive Media” article, also on Take Note.
So although the chiptune genre may not be as active as it once was, video game music still remains idiosyncratic in its ability to adapt to its audience’s commands. A video game composer’s task is to make music that’s suggestive and responsive to the player, in addition to being unique to the game’s environment in order to create the most immersive experience.
Video Game Music Technology
What’s most exciting about video game music now is that the technology keeps evolving, creating new possibilities for composers. Just like we can see in film scores, the approach in composing for video games is usually influenced by what’s already being done in the industry. In the early years of cinema, film scorers would never have dreamed of composing something like the ambient soundtrack that appears on The Social Network, but nowadays that type of minimalistic scoring is considered the norm.
Technology still remains an important part of musical innovation, and nowadays video game music composers find themselves with a lot of freedom to create their scores and don’t have to settle down due to technological impasses. And it shows!
Modern Video Game OSTs (Original Soundtracks)
The past decade has seen outstanding soundtracks like Fez with its impressionist synths, Celeste with the mesmerizing melodies you get to hear over and over when you inevitably die (over and over and over and over), but we also have soundtracks that push the boundaries of what this medium can do. Ape Out, which was released in 2019, has a procedural and reactive music system, meaning that the score is a direct reflection of the players’ actions and choices. It uses thousands of drum samples that go from smooth and chill to extremely intense, depending on the situation. The soundtrack basically assumes the role of a jazz drummer improvising, and the game does it magnificently.
Yet on the other end of the spectrum, we have C418’s soundtrack for Minecraft. Instead of constantly interacting with the player, the music takes a more relaxed role, meshing with the environment, with its iconic ambient tunes. Many times these creative decisions can be made by the game’s director, and a composer’s task would be to faithfully execute their vision, ultimately uniting the whole game to the unique mood or feeling it’s trying to express.
Video Game Concerts
We’ve also recently seen an entirely new experience taking place in the video game world: live concerts. In 2019, electronic musician Marshmello played his set to 10 million people in the multiplayer battle royale game Fortnite. In contrast to the niche live performances of video game music in the 1970s and ’80s, the crossover audience from gamers to music fans was exponentially higher. Afterwards we got to see Ariana Grande and Travis Scott also perform in Fortnite, Lil Nas X perform live in Roblox, 100 gecs doing a fundraiser show via Minecraft, and more. Even just this week, Soccer Mommy announced a listening party for her new Sometimes, Forever album on Roblox.
Video Game Music is Here to Stay
The popularity could be due to the fact that more people play video games than they did before. And more of these people listen to music than the earlier generation of gamers, which could all be attributed to the fact that technology has increased accessibility to both music and games, just as technology has expanded the limits of what is possible when composing for video games. It just goes to show that there is still so much to explore in the sonic world of gaming.