The importance of videogame soundtracks to arts

From cult to pop culture on a playtime

4 minutes to read
Lucas Pascholatti

Videogames and their soundtracks can transpose strong feelings and nostalgia to the players. They can put the players in a position of control that connects them with the games in such a way that the music is an essential part of the entertainment, as stated by Koji Kondo. I spent my childhood in a forest neighbourhood in north São Paulo. Videogames and music were, back then, my favourite kind of entertainment. What I didn’t realize at the time, is that all that instrumental music that I have been exposed to crafted an important part of my musical inspiration, to the point that I quite often find myself wanting to go and revisit all those songs from my childhood.

Videogames and their soundtracks can transpose to the players strong feelings and nostalgia

The videogame industry is one of the most important and lucrative industries of entertainment nowadays. Videogames are complex, as they simultaneously mix the visual and the auditory. They are also interactive, as they require players to have the ability to solve puzzles and problems, allowing them to develop their creativity and to expand their imagination to frontiers never wondered about before. Videogames put the players in focus when it comes to an immersion inside a world of visual, auditory, social and multimedia interaction that should not be taken for granted, as this has a big impact on society and contemporary culture.

Games can vary a lot in content and genre. They can be simulations, RPGs, strategy games, sports games, action games, or they can even be long journeys to new worlds with emotional stories that would make Tolstoy and Kubrick impressed, such as the epics of Metal Gear, by Hideo Kojima, or the Resident Evil Series by Capcom, for example. Some disciplined players can spend endless hours playing RPGs, such as Mass Effect by BioWare, Fallout 4 or Elder Scrolls, both by Bethesda. They can dedicate hours upon hours following a history, without necessarily having to finish the whole game, as readers usually do with long books. 

There is an immense world of music production dedicated to videogames. Since the first games were invented, music has been an important part of this type of entertainment, as it was directly linked to the emotions and situations players are exposed to, such as having to deal with beating a difficult boss in final levels.

For gamers who spend hours and hours dedicated to solving all the puzzles they are challenged with, the soundtrack and sound design is an important factor that often goes unnoticed. The work of Koji Kondo, the composer of Super Mario's catchy melody is a perfect example of the feeling videogame sountracks can cause players to have, even for those who only played Mario a little, it's already part of pop culture. 

The history of videogame music and that of electronic music made on computers go side by side, as the makers of first videogame soundtracks didn't yet have the technology to use orchestras or highly developed analogic instruments, which was possible with the much more recent, orchestral, soundtrack of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The production used simple computer softwares that could be applied to the hardwares available, which helped develop an industry of music production that became more complex each time.  

The history of videogame music and that of electronic music made on computers go side by side

Electronic music is a very complex subject in terms of its history, but also how it has been created, from the first simple synthesizers and drum-machines to our well-developed MIDI platforms of Digital Audio Working Stations. It’s an endless world of bits, that mix both analogue and digital instruments. Indeed, nowadays there’s hardly a distinction between analogue and digital music anymore; all music produced by the industry will certainly have electronic features.

Everyone who dedicated part of his or her life to play any kind of videogame certainly knows its soundtracks by heart. Being exposed to Sonic the Hedgehog or to the 80s techno of Streets of Rage brings back not only emotive memories, but a sort of music entertainment that goes far beyond just playing videogame, if listened to in isolation.

Important artists are also engaged with the production of soundtracks for videogames, such as Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails and the soundtrack for Quake, 1996. Some videogames use pop music, such as the famous Tony Hawk Pro Skater, Guitar Hero or Grand Theft Auto. This also allow players to experience well-known pop music while entertaining themselves with their games. Usually games associated with sports and action opt for non-licensed music, and this is for example what Fifa from Electronic Arts and Need for Speed are famous for.

Videogame soundtracks are usually a kind of non-commercial electronic or even orchestral type of music that is then turned popular 

Videogame soundtracks are usually a kind of non-commercial electronic or even orchestral type of music that is then turned popular. The same thing happens with cinema when the public is exposed to "non-popular music". As an example, recently in Europe Distant World, music from Final Fantasy, is touring with an orchestra, featuring the original composer Nobuo Uematsu. The London Philharmonic Orchestra has released an album playing just classic videogame soundtracks in 2011, which debuted 23rd on the Billboard 200, the highest debut orchestral release since Star Wars Revenge of the Sith, in 2005. 

Orchestras and videogames are closely connected since Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra in 2003. Yoko Shimomura, a 48 years old Japanese composer, has even recently recorded the Final Fantasy XV soundtrack in the famous Abbey Road Studio in London, which was also used by The Beatles.

Videogames are still not considered part of the formal arts by the orthodox public and analysts of famous museums, but there are much things to be analysed when it comes to the visual, the musical, storytelling and interaction on them. Videogames can be much more than pop culture or entertainment for youngsters; they can show that the borders between what is pop and what is cult is not as simple as many can assume.