When it comes to video games, the soundtrack is often the unsung hero. As far as priorities go, it usually ranks after the graphics, gameplay and story.
However, video games take hours, if not days, to play. Their soundtracks are integral to the gaming experience. Does it hold up to repetition? Does it create atmosphere without distracting the player?
The best video game composers can cover those bases, while at the same time craft memorable pieces that play on long after you’ve beaten the game. This is probably something any avid gamer knows, or eventually come to realise.
If you are not into games, give these composers a listen anyway. You’d be surprise, if not totally taken in by their tunes. Rich, immersive, spine-tingling and awe inspiring – it takes real talent to bring atmosphere to a virtual world.
Icons To Be Remembered
As it is, no discussion of video game music would be complete without Jeremy Soule. Known for his orchestral works, the man has been referred to as the “John Williams of video game music” – and with a prolific body of work that includes soundtracks for over 60 games, he is one of the most consistent composers (of both quality and quantity) in video games.
He got his start by making the music for the SNES game Secret Of Evermore, which went on to become the fourth highest-selling RPG for the console. But it was the soundtrack for Total Annihilation – a game that could have been relegated to a cookie-cutter entry of the RTS (real-time strategy) genre, that really puts his name on the map.
Soule pushed for the soundtrack to be performed by a live orchestra, even going as far as offering to have his pay cut if it didn’t work out. In the gaming landscape of 1997, orchestral music in a video game was nearly unheard of, but it was a gamble that led to his first award.
Nowadays, he is most recognised for the soundtrack of Skyrim, the fifth installment in the Elder Scrolls franchise. It is his most critically acclaimed work and it’s not hard to hear why. If there was ever a piece of music that could describe a game in its entirety, the track Dragonborn does just that.
Although, let us not forget an ultimate classic. Ask anybody to name Nintendo’s biggest game and even those oblivious to gaming would be able to call out Super Mario Bros. and hum you it’s musical theme.
That’s no surprise because it is probably the most well-known video game score in history. It’s catchy, it’s memorable and would somehow always seem to fit with whatever was happening on screen.
All of that was done by Koji Kondo, the man responsible for some of the most recognisable and iconic music in video games.
Kondo was hired by Nintendo in 1984, at a time when the use of music was becoming more important, as their first person to specialise in musical composition for video games.
And since then, he has worked on some of the most popular Nintendo franchises including Legend Of Zelda, Star Fox and Super Smash Bros.
In an interview with the book Game Maestro (Volume 3), he says that is important to remember “that we are making music for video games” and “that the music should fit the game”.
This philosophy is apparent in his process when he composed the Ground Theme for Super Mario Bros. He would write a piece of music and have it put into the game and if it did not accentuate the action or harmonise with the sound effects, he would go back to the drawing board.
It is this consideration for the exchange that occurs between music, sound effects and gameplay that has resulted in him being regarded as one of the greatest composers for video game music.
Setting The Standard
Even though video games have been around for awhile now, it’s only been in the recent years that they are no longer dismissed as mere time-wasters for children. These days, the artistic merits of a game are measured equally against other forms of creative endeavours.
And when we look back and talk about the games that helped change that perception, Journey and its masterclass of a soundtrack composed by Austin Wintory will be remembered as one of the pioneers.
The development team and Wintory would work in a such a way, where the music would be used to create an area of the game and Wintory would then play through the section while adjusting the music and send it back.
As a result, it is impossible to separate the experience of Journey from its soundtrack. Wintory’s use of strings to evoke emotion and set the mood won itself critical acclaim within the gaming community and is often referred to as one of the best examples of video game soundtracks.
A sentiment shared by more than the gaming community, it became the first video game score to be nominated for a Grammy in the “Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media” category.
Following his success with Journey, Wintory has worked on the soundtracks for games like Horn, The Banner Saga trilogy and Assassins’ Creed: Syndicate and continues to compose for both indie and triple-A titles alike.
Talking about longevity, let us not forget Nobuo Uematsu. Arguably the world’s most well-known video game composer, he is synonymous with the long-running Final Fantasy franchise. He is one of the greats and you’d be hard-pressed to find a gamer who does not know his name.
It all began for him in 1986 after he joined video game company Square (now Square Enix) where he had the opportunity to work on the first Final Fantasy game. The game’s success spurred his career and he went on to work on other notable games from Square like Romancing SaGa and Chrono Trigger, as well as nearly every main Final Fantasy game.
With compositions that covered a wide array of genres and styles, Uematsu developed a reputation for being able to create music that resonated with players an emotional level – which was no easy feat due to the memory limitations of early gaming technology.
However, as a self-taught musician, it is somewhat of an irony that Uematsu is known for his cinematic symphonic pieces but (according to an interview with Red Bull Music Academy) is not great at reading or writing musical scores himself. This however, only makes make his achievements all the more impressive.
With albums and live performances featuring his game scores still in demand, it is undeniable that as far as composers go, whether in terms of talent, recognition or quality of work, Uematsu is of a rare breed.
So, you see – there’s actually a wide berth of musical talents that have helped define the video game industry. Plus, a lot of thought actually goes into making virtual worlds come musically alive.
Cover Image: Adrina / Sound Of Life
Writer | Jeremy Teo
Jeremy Teo has been on television and radio as a presenter for the entirety of his adult life. He enjoys video games, a good cup of coffee and listening to a good story. Find him on the internet as @JereSays.