The phrase “video game music” means something to most people—and something different from the phrase “movie music,” for example. The question is what it means and why. The skeptic might say there’s no such thing as video game music, only music that happens to be in video games, but even if that was true, it wouldn’t change the way people think and feel. This is a matter of word association, but also prototype theory and a pinch of Plato’s Theory of Forms.
The question is what the term brings to mind and why. In order to say “Yes, Virginia, there is video game music,” games must have carved out their own musical genre with unique characteristics.
I chose a sampling of twelve pieces of game music with these criteria:
* I consider the theme excellent in its own right.
* No 8-bit music. While chiptunes are a recognizable invention of the industry, there must be more to video game music than its instrumentation.
* No more than four well-known themes. I want most listeners to be unfamiliar with at least a few compositions so that they won’t already have mental associations with gameplay and can judge on their own merits whether the tunes sound like “video game music.” Only four pieces come from franchises that have sold five million or more copies.
First up is a trio of intro music. We begin with the Monster Hunter Main Theme and I can’t imagine any better illustration of what doesn’t come to my mind when I think of video game music. The gradual build and drawn-out notes remind me of the majesty of Jurassic Park or the grand scale of Star Wars. It reminds me of something that makes me stare in awe, not jump in and participate.
Wild Arms delivers an amazing intro scene on animation alone, but runs stronger still with Into the Wilderness backing it up. Inspired and classic music. Specific to video games? Not a bit. Unlike the Monster Hunter theme, this theme does make me want to pick up a controller and start killing enemies, but this could have been seamlessly slotted into any Western movie.
After four games stuck in Japan, Sakura Wars V made it overseas in the seventeenth hour. It’s apparent within ten seconds of its opening theme, Warriors of the Earth, that we’re in for a big band jazz piece. Sakura Wars has always drawn from all music genres even from an in-universe perspective, so this isn’t the series to turn to for dedicated game music.
Back to the 16-bit era we go, starting with The Last Duel from Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals. Composed by Yasunori Shiono, who made a single Platonically-perfect contribution to the world of game soundtracks and was never heard from again, this is on the short list of contenders for my ten favorite pieces of music in video games. Even so, when I ask myself whether I have a composition resembling this when I think of “game music,” my answer remains no. The feeling of excitement is there, it’s a fairly fast piece, and I can even say that I have trouble imagining it used for anything other than a game or an animated movie or TV show, but at best this is about 70% similar to what I have in mind.
Neutopia II‘s Sphere 2 hits the sweet spot in the sense that, much more than any other themes so far, I can’t think of a situation where this music would work outside of a video game. The question is why and the answer isn’t easy to pinpoint from this song alone. Is it only because of the TurboGrafx-16’s sound capabilities?
…not at all. From my favorite Sega Genesis soundtrack, Shining Force II, comes Welcome to Our Town. The Genesis wasn’t known for having sound quality on par with the Super Nintendo, but if I separate the melody from its instrumentation, it somehow reminds me of the Star Wars Cantina theme. It’s more upbeat, for sure, but I would call it whimsy, jaunty, and almost flaunty; what I wouldn’t call it, regardless of the instruments, is anything like my first idea of game music.
Dragon Quest IX features the similarly-named Come to Our Town. The pedigree of being in a far longer-running series than Shining Force doesn’t make this sound any more like my Platonic ideal, though. As he always has, Koichi Sugiyama reminds me of classical music above all.
Stage 4 has my favorite music in Super Star Soldier. We’ve come full circle from Monster Hunter with a swift beat and short notes all the way. This is unequivocally “game music” in my mind, pumping me up to shoot alien spaceships. Its main qualities are high speed, repetition, simplicity, high notes, brief notes, and a feel of excitement, which leaves one question: which of these is most important or do they all need to work together?
Yuzo Koshiro’s Etrian Odyssey III version of Battlefield – The First Campaign strikes me as definite game music with most of the same qualities as the Super Star Soldier composition: very high-pitched and simple, heavy on repetition but light on countermelody.
Boomer Kuwanger from Mega Man X yet again nails the mark. This music seems more layered than the EOIII piece, with a distinct bass line and percussion beat in addition to a synth background with almost as much prominence as the lead instrument. The last three examples have used 16-bit instrumentation, though, which raises the question of whether it’s possible to achieve this same feel with real or more real-sounding instruments.
Next is Mother Earth Altago from Ys Seven, which I would call something like an engaging fusion of rock and Celtic music. Not archetypical game music by any means, but the fast tempo brings it a little closer to my ideal. It’s exciting, fast, and pretty high in pitch, but I can imagine it in a World music concert. All in all, this doesn’t prove that music can have better instruments than 16-bit systems and still maintain unique game qualities.
Our tour concludes with Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia‘s Rhapsody of the Forsaken, which finally brings in a perfect storm. The DS’ sound isn’t exceptionally better than 16-bit systems, but I do hear an instrumental improvement and this piece also incorporates all of the elements I’ve mentioned. It’s fast, exciting, relatively simple, high, and repeats its key segments quite a bit. This is game music with high-quality sound and high-quality composition.
Listening to these pieces has been a trip through time, space, and sound. After it’s all played out, my strongest impression is that my prototype of game music is, above all else, fast. It might be impossible to use such high-tempo music in a live action movie for any extended period because of the physical limitations of human movement—and even an anime or cartoon would have difficulty writing a story with turns fast enough to match the music while still giving the audience time to digest the events.
Spending time to interpret scenes isn’t much of an issue for games because players are the ones performing their heroes’ actions. I liken it to riding in a car versus driving a car; passengers feel turns and stops more acutely than drives because they can’t see them coming. They aren’t mentally prepared for what happens until after it begins happening.
I don’t believe it’s coincidence that, almost across the board, my go-to examples of game music came from 2D action games. 2D developers couldn’t rely on the music conventions of film because their visuals and pacing so clearly didn’t resemble movies—and while filmmakers could time their editing with their composers’ music or vice versa, game developers can’t control their players’ actions. One player might never stop pressing the dash button; another might never use the dash button; a third might dash more often than not but occasionally slow things down. I get the sense that game composers aimed to create exciting pieces that would make the action seem intense and meaningful regardless of the specifics.
In other words, video game music is meant to roll with the player’s intentions, not the developer’s. Video game music is meant for the driver’s seat.