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.