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Tuesday 26 November 2019


Arcade symphony

Video-game soundtracks are filling concert halls – and changing how composers think about music, too

By Thomas McMullan

Not long from now, in the cavernous space of London’s Royal Festival Hall, an orchestra will warm up. The lights will dim. A conductor will stride on to the stage. The rustling of conversations will subside and an audience will listen, enraptured, to a soundtrack from a video game.

This sold-out concert is made up of music from the 2017 game, Nier: Automata. It comes to Europe following four similarly sold-out shows in Tokyo, and in the wake of a spate of high profile concerts dedicated to video game music. The Royal Albert Hall alone has played home to a series of dates showcasing music from the long-running Final Fantasy series, as well as an entire night of soundtracks from PlayStation games.

Final Fantasy live at Jones Hall, Houston

“Orchestras in particular are very tuned in, if you’ll pardon the pun, to the fact now that there is this massive audience there,” says the presenter and composer Jessica Curry, who hosts a new weekly BBC Radio 3 programme dedicated to video game soundtracks, and has previously won a Bafta for her work with the UK-based gaming studio The Chinese Room. “And the music is really good. People are realising that there is some beautiful, exquisite, sophisticated music here.”

These concerts say a lot about the maturing audience for video games, perhaps even how these audiences can be brought into pre-existing cultural modes. At best, it’s a mutually beneficial exchange. “Audiences have been arguably dwindling for traditional classical music, and the audiences for games music is absolutely huge,” says Curry, who presented the night of PlayStation music and tells me that many people there had never heard an orchestra play live before. “That to me was absolutely thrilling, to say that this space isn’t just for the elite. It isn’t just for the top one per cent.”

Composer Nobuo Uematsu (left) and conductor Arnie Roth (right) following a performance of Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy at the Royal Albert Hall in 2017

The managing director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, James Williams, has called video game music an important “access point” for young people to experience classical music, which goes some way to hint at the appeal this new medium may have for traditional cultural institutions, but ultimately downplays the impact games are having on music. Because video games are not only bringing new audiences into old spaces, but are fundamentally affecting how some musicians think about making and playing music. From algorithmic raves to role-playing ensembles, game music is a difficult thing to contain in a single box, even a box as big as the Albert Hall.

First, it’s worth paying attention to what sets video game music apart. When the music from Nier: Automata is played live, it will be accompanied by projected visuals from the game. This is a familiar format for anyone who has recently seen a live performance of a film score, where scenes tend to be played out on a large screen as the musicians twiddle and strum beneath. But a game is not a film, and game music does different things to film music.

Nier: Automata (2017)

“A film score only has to concern itself with what happens on screen at a specific point in time,” says Lena Raine, who composed the music for 2018’s Celeste. “It’s a direct 1:1 score, glued to the picture. With games, the scoring is experiential. You’re not scoring to picture, you’re scoring the potential of the players’ actions within a space. It’s an interesting contrast especially when you place it in a linear context for soundtrack releases or concerts, because ultimately any linear representation of game music loses something along the way.”

After all, video game music is bound, whether tightly or loosely, to interactivity; the push and pull between a composer and a player. Jesper Kyd, who has composed for the Assassin’s Creed, Hitman and Borderlands series, tells me his work is “100 per cent the opposite of writing a hit song, where the focus is on creating music that instantly gets the message across very clearly”. Instead, given that players might be with the game for hundreds of hours, the music has to be written in ways that lends depth and detail to what the player does and where they go during that journey.

Borderlands (2009)

“In movies there’s often tension for the main characters’ arc, or a constant connection,” he says. “For games there are situations where you are scoring more to the actual map, adding different tensions, suspense and conflict that all fit the storyline used in that map.”

Early arcades might have been full of looping sound files and set level music, but as the technical and artistic ambitions of the medium have developed, so too has the scope for game music to react to the directions the player chooses to take. Even a seemingly straightforward game like Celeste, which follows a woman’s trials as she climbs a mountain, is built around what the player does or doesn’t do, where they go, how long they take to get there. “I specifically wanted each arc within the game to develop and evolve as players complete it,” says Raine. “It’s a linear game, but the individual player experience within that linearity is totally up to their own ability to complete it.”

Celeste (2018)

Dr Holly Rogers, a reader in music and film at Goldsmiths College, University of London, explains that this approach puts an emphasis on game music to be an adaptable, changeable fabric; able to be stitched and re-stitched depending on what happens to the player: “In theory, the texture, style, mood, instrumentation, speed and motives of the music must also be able to move in several different directions.”

She talks about two important considerations when structuring music for a game: horizontal sequencing, which could involve more drastic changes in motive, texture or mode as a player moves between locations or challenges; and vertical rescoring, which may involve subtler “patches” being added to the music depending on the player’s actions. “The first is pre-set and helps to establish a general scene. As a result, it can be musically quite complex. The second, on the other hand, is highly responsive to gameplay but must remain in a single key, or stick to a simple modulation. When a player makes a decision, a new patch is initiated that adds to the music’s texture, instrumentation and or rhythm to reflect the altered mood.”

Put these things together, and a score for a game is less a series of tracks one after the other, and more of an epic improvisation. A pioneering example of this came in the early 1990s, when the composers Michael Land and Peter McConnell developed an audio system for LucasArts called iMUSE (Interactive Music Streaming Engine). First used in the point-and-click adventure game Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (1991), the system allowed for impromptu shifts between audio compositions, and paved the way for how we think about music in games today.

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (1991)

“Our metaphor for the iMUSE system was the pit orchestra in a musical,” McConnell tells me. “The players have a score, but the conductor can change things on the fly to match what’s going on onstage. I played in a pit orchestra in high school. We might be playing a ‘vamp’ or repeated section, and the actors would do something, and the conductor would tell us to jump to the ending after the repeat, to keep up with what was happening.”

In one section of Monkey Island 2, for example, the player can explore a town called Woodtick. While the town has its own theme, different instruments and melodies are introduced depending on which building the player enters. “This required a tremendous amount of composing and programming time,” says McConnell. “But the result was pretty cool: an evolving piece that plays differently each time depending on what the player does. In that sense the player becomes a participant in the music.”

These kinds of approaches have rippled outside of the computer screen, as well as the melodies themselves. For a generation of musicians that grew up playing games, their sounds and styles are part of the pop cultural mesh that is plucked and spun from. Burial and Rustie are just two examples of well-known producers to sample audio from games, including Metal Gear Solid (1998) and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998).

Rustie performs at the Bonnaroo Music And Arts Festival in 2015

The composer and producer Danny L Harle, who has worked with pop stars such as Carly Rae Jepsen and Charli XCX, is another example of a musician taking inspiration from video games. His final thesis when studying classical music at Goldsmiths was a piece of chamber music that used video consoles as musical instruments. “I often find myself thinking I’ve written a tune and then realising it’s actually from one of the video games I played as a child,” he tells me.

Danny L. Harle at the PC Music showcase during SXSW 2015

Others go further, incorporating the interactive structures that games use, but in concerts instead of consoles. “There are loads of recent pieces that work with interactivity and journeys,” says Rogers, who names a 2004 piece by the Irish composer Jennifer Walshe, titled This is Why People O.D. on Pills / and Jump From the Golden Gate Bridge. “She asked the ensemble to learn to skateboard, then, when they pick up their instrument, to imagine they are skateboarding a specific route; they’re asked what the wind feels like, or the bumps in the route. Then they have to play the journey. It’s interactive and embodied in the same way that role-playing gaming is.”

Some have taken the idea of reactiveness that’s so crucial to games and used it to foster different ways of thinking about musical improv. The algorave scene, for example, is based around making sounds from live coding, with musicians responding in real time to the audience by writing and modifying lines of code that are often projected as visuals. “‘Traditional score-based composition doesn’t have much to do with my way of thinking about music,” says Alex McClean, who coined the term “algorave” with the composer and academic Nick Collins in 2011. “It’s a very western classical conception, and a limiting world view, really. I am much more interested in improvisation, where the musician is an explorer, seeing where an idea takes them.

“So, yes, I think of live coding as providing an environment for exploration, like an open sandbox game such as [Media Molecule’s game creation system] Dreams. In fact, Bogdan [Vera], one of the developers of Dreams, has performed at one of my algoraves using Dreams on a PS4.”

Dreams (2019)

There’s a jazz-like sense of improvisation to many of these projects, so perhaps it’s no surprise to see that some games foreground this musical connection. In the recently released Ape Out, developed by Gabe Cuzzillo, the player takes on the role of a gorilla, escaping from a maze of gun-wielding humans. It’s a stylish, stylised experience, all Saul Bass-esque outlines and bright colours, with a pummelling jazz percussion soundtrack. This music reacts dynamically, pulling from thousands of samples on the fly. As the player flings guards against walls, cymbals crash. As more enemies fill the screen, the drums go wild. Not only does it match the ebb and flow of the action, but it frames the player as a musician themselves, improvising a rampaging drum solo.

Ape Out (2019)

Cuzzillo collaborated with the composer Matt Boch on the music for Ape Out, who previously designed the hardware for the Rock Band series. With guitar-shaped controllers and mini drum kits, those games presented a very literal idea of an interactive concert. But you don’t necessarily need drumsticks to think of your controller as an instrument. Whether it’s playing a lullaby in Zelda: Ocarina of Time or choosing radio stations in Grand Theft Auto, even moving through a virtual space at a particular speed, video game music is linked to the players; their moments of empowerment, failure, success, frustration. This involvement is potent.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)

“The two-way flow of influence and information in games make for an extremely profound immersion,” says Rogers. “Often we engage with the images and actions in a conscious way, but the music influences our subconscious, and assumes great power. When we hear it again, without the images, it can activate memory in a very emotional way.”

In London’s Royal Festival Hall, when the orchestra plays the music from Nier: Automata, the audience won’t only hear the music but also – if they have played the game – their involvement in it. Whether it’s a pixelated adventure, a live-coded improvisation or an ensemble of musicians recalling a route taken on a skateboard, interaction underpins the sound. When it comes to music for games, audiences hear the journey. It’s what reverberates.

Photographs AWR Music Productions LLC, and Square Enix, Andy Paradise/Royal Albert Hall, Gearbox Software LLC, Matt Makes Games Inc, Lucas Arts/Disney, Media Molecule, Gabe Cuzzillo/Developer Digital, Nintendo and Getty Images

A gaming playlist

1. ‘Resurrections’, from Celeste (2018), composed by Lena Raine

The music for Celeste, much like its pixelated art style, pays homage to the Super Nintendo-era of platforming games, while at the same time going much further than retro nostalgia. Pianos and percussion blend with glitchy tones, creating a real sense of momentum as the player tries, fails, tries again, fails again, to scale the titular mountain.

2. ‘Casino Calavera’, from Grim Fandango (1998), composed by Peter McConnell

Peter McConnell’s long-running relationship with LucasArts led to some fantastic soundtracks, particularly for the point-and-click adventure games of the 1990s. His work on Grim Fandango, which also happens to boast some of the finest writing in games, is a fusion of big band jazz, film noir and mariachi. He’s spoken in the past of drawing in particular from San Francisco’s Mission District, where you’re just as likely to hear swing and salsa as you are modern jazz.

3. ‘Asimov’, from No Man’s Sky (2016), composed by 65daysofstatic

No Man’s Sky is built around an algorithmically generated galaxy of over 18 quintillion planets, so when the experimental rock band 65daysofstatic approached the task of composing a soundtrack, they took a similarly ambitious approach. The music for the game is made up from a raft of samples, woven together by the game depending on the situation the player finds themselves in.

4. ‘Carry Me Back to Her Arms’, from Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (2015), composed by Jessica Curry

Set in a deserted English village, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture deals with ideas of loss, faith and community. Jessica Curry’s soundtrack, which won her a Bafta, glows with choral pieces that buoy the game’s emotional beats without resorting to the overblown orchestrations video games sometimes tend towards. A beautiful piece of work.

5. ‘The Legend of Zelda Theme’, from The Legend of Zelda series (1986-), composed by Koji Kondo

Koji Kondo is responsible for some of the most enduring melodies in video game history, largely through his work with Nintendo. It would be easy to choose his iconic ‘overworld’ theme for 1985’s Super Mario Bros, but this slot goes to ‘The Legend of Zelda Theme’ for its ability to combine a sense of childish wonder with a lingering impression of melancholy. What better music to remember adventures taken when you were young?

6. ‘Dirtmouth’, from Hollow Knight (2017), composed by Christopher Larkin

Hollow Knight is a game about exploring a vast, subterranean world of ruins and sunken cities. Christopher Larkin’s mournful soundtrack, with an emphasis on piano and strings, gives subtly different shades to each environment the player encounters, creating a real sense of place as the player moves through the game’s labyrinth.

7. ‘Liberi Fatali’, from Final Fantasy VIII (1999), composed by Nobuo Uematsu

Best known for his work on the long running Final Fantasy series, Nobuo Uematsu is a master at grand, sweeping compositions. His opening theme for Final Fantasy VIII is a fine example: a Latin choral piece that’s about as epic as they come. Uematsu has been called the John Williams of video games, but he also knows his way around a jazzy synth track. Final Fantasy VIII alone is absolutely full of them.

8. ‘Minecraft’, from Minecraft (2011), composed by C418

The ambient soundscape of Minecraft sometimes sounds like it could have come from Brian Eno’s Music for Airports. Composed by the German musician and producer Daniel Rosenfeld, who goes by the name C418, it’s a perfect accompaniment for a game that feels both open-ended and meditative.

9. ‘The Last of Us’, from The Last of Us (2013), composed by Gustavo Santaolalla

As soon as Gustavo Santaolalla’s music starts playing in The Last of Us, you know you’re in for something different to the standard zombie video game fare. Built around Spanish guitar, the main theme from the post-apocalyptic adventure combines a forlorn melody with just a tint of Spaghetti Western bombast.

10. ‘Hydrogen’, from Hotline Miami (2012), composed by M|O|O|N

Hotline Miami’s soundtrack is a killer mix of blistering techno and woozy lo-fi, including a range of artists such as Sun Araw and Jasper Byrne. The game’s tongue-in-cheek ultraviolence, and repetitive cycle of life and death, works perfectly alongside tracks like ‘Hydrogen’ from electronic producer M|O|O|N, with its frenetic, staccato computer beeps and dirty driving bassline.