High Score: Music in Video Games
Dah-dah-dah doo dah-da – duh. If you totally called that as the beginning of the Mario theme, then you’re one step ahead of this article. If you didn’t, prepare to be schooled baby.
Music has always been a part of video games, with a few minor exceptions (Pong, anyone?). From the classic themes of the Mario franchise to the epic scores of Halo and Metal Gear Solid, music has provided a strong influence on the tone and theme of the game in question. By the way, Guitar Hero doesn’t count.
I remember listening to the Hill Top Zone theme from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 when I played it as a young whippersnapper. I also remember it from my iPod last week. Why? Because it was a great piece of music, 16-bit or no. More recently, the insanely good score from Metal Gear Solid 2, with a full orchestra and composed by Harry Gregson-Williams (The Replacement Killers, Enemy of the State, Phone Booth, and even the Shrek franchise – but we won’t hold that against him) totally kicked my ass via my eardrums. Two very different styles of composition and undertaken very differently, but they had the same result – Sonic and MGS are two of my favourite series of games. Coincidence? I think not.
On the other hand, games that simply don’t put too much effort into their musical score tend to bother me. I’m not saying it’s easy – a composer that is writing the score for a movie knows exactly how much time he has, whereas a video game score composer must take into account that every gamer takes it at his own pace. But that frequently becomes an annoyance in games like Dynasty Warriors 6: Empires (or the whole series, for that matter), which a friend of mine has been playing recently. I don’t care for the games to begin with, but I don’t mind sitting around on the computer while he plays. But eventually (sooner than later) I have to ask him to turn it down and I drown it out with some iTunes, because the terrible 30-minute looping electric guitar solo that is the soundtrack for that game makes me want to punch a baby, as Dane Cook so eloquently put it.
And I generally like babies.
Since orchestral scores have become more commonplace and appreciated in modern video games, it has gotten to the point where you can buy the soundtrack. A friend of mine made me listen to the Halo score before I ever played the game, and it was so epic that I played it almost exclusively for that reason (the books were also awesome, contributed by the same friend. The guy loves the Master Chief. I’m reasonably sure he wants to have his babies). You would never have been able to buy the soundtrack for Out of This World, and probably never will. Why? Because it sucked. Also, that was the hardest game I have ever played, and so I deny anything good about it.
I took a break just now to download the Halo soundtrack so I could listen to it while I write this.
Video game music has been such an inspiration and source of creativity for artists across the world for so long and had such a universal impact that many orchestras have played famous tunes from their favourite games (or at least, their conductor’s favourite games). Don’t believe me? YouTube it, baby. As a matter of fact, PLAY! A Video Game Symphony is a symphony world tour featuring music exclusively from the video game world. From MGS to the Final Fantasy series to Silent Hill, this show showcases some of the best gaming music out there. Now if only they’d tour their way back to Toronto, I could try and get tickets and not get them because they’re sold out again and cry myself to sleep listening to video game soundtracks at home and drinking copious amounts of beer. Maybe that was too personal.
Other ways artists have celebrated the video game score is by remixing it or doing a cover. There are so many Mario theme covers it’s not even funny. My personal favourite is Vadrum. Write that down. Plenty of indie bands, at least on the Canadian scene, have done covers of their own, varying from famous 16-bit themes to more modern stuff.
Basically, although a score won’t save a video game from bad gameplay or a terrible story, it can make the difference between a good gaming experience and the truly epic, memorable games that stay with us for years and years. And by stay with us, I mean stay on our playlists. So let me know what scores and songs are your favourites from the games you’ve played, and any cool covers or remixes that have been done for them.
Personally, it doesn’t get any better for me than when System of a Down sings Link!