Video Games: The Composers, The Music, and The Future

Ok, I admit it, I’m a gamer. I try to justify the time I spend playing video games as research for potential jobs I may have as a composer (I actually want to write for video games if possible), but I know that at times video games are just a good excuse for procrastination. In all honesty though, through video games I have found new avenues to explore as a composer, from new techniques of writing to new overall sources of melodic and harmonic inspiration. If you ask me about some of the works that inspire me as a composer, I will answer music like the soaring themes by Harry Gregson-Williams for the Metal Gear Solid series, the tragically beautiful score for Final Fantasy X (written by Nobuo Uematsu), the electronic masterpiece of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory by Amon Tobin and Jesper Kyd (arguably the most in-demand composer in the video game world) and finally the other-worldly music of Marty O’Donnell from Halo series.

I doubt the makers of Pong and Space Invaders ever imagined that decades later video games would feature Oscar worthy scores written by world class composers like Hans Zimmer. The scores of the games of today move the hearts of the gamers who play them, so much so that orchestras like the Los Angeles Philharmonic have actually held concerts of solely video game music (apart of a larger organization called Video Games Live).

Writing for video games opens up so many more possibilities, and pitfalls, for the composer. With a good video game score, the music moves with you as the gamer. If you are playing a military-style game like Splinter Cell, your choices in the game should be reflected in the music (i.e. in a game like Splinter Cell which tends to focus on stealth, if the gamer chooses to throw stealth out the window and run in guns-blazing, the music should be affected quickly). This makes a new challenge to the composer, for they may be used to writing for film, television or concert performances where things are set and grounded, but in a video game everything changes according to the individual person. What makes a good video game composer, in turn a good video game score, is not only skill with melody, orchestration etc., but also someone who understands the intricate processes of the gamer (preferably a gamer themselves).

In all honesty, I believe that some large video game companies make a mistake in hiring big-time Hollywood-type composers simply because they are an industry juggernaut. They may have a name that could bring in some more money (of course if the choice fails the company could be in the red as their budget takes a major hit hiring a Hollywood composer), but they may not be the composer best suited for the job. I believe that it is time for major video game companies like Rockstar and others to give independent composers a chance. We may actually be better suited for the job, as we may be huge fans of the games they hire us to write for, and understand the plot-lines and general trajectory of the games better than an industry composer. They just have to give us a chance.

I wonder about the future of video game music, it seems like all that can be accomplished has already. Music is funny though, when you least expect it, an innovator comes out of nowhere and flips everything on its head. I am anxious to see who that innovator, or innovators, are, as new consoles will inevitably be released, unlocking a great deal of uncharted technological territory to work with.

4 thoughts on “Video Games: The Composers, The Music, and The Future

  1. Not to mention the fact that music can tell a gamer not only what they’re supposed to be feeling, but how they’re supposed to act. Lots of games use music to tell gamers “Enemy approaching!” without explicitly flashing it on the screen, so composers have to take the context for game design into account as well as the theme of the game. Overall a great post, as I’m curious about the innovations coming in the industry myself.

  2. Yeah it seems like guys such Jesper Kid, Amon Tobin, and Marty O’Donnell etc. have innovated as much as can be innovated, but I hope for advancements as there always seem to be some.

  3. Not a gamer, not a composer, but wanted to comment anyway because somewhere on this site you mentioned being a rock guitarist. I know video game soundtracks have progressed immensely since, but way back in 1996 Ronnie Montrose composed the soundtrack for a game called Mr. Bones, apparently about a skeleton/guitarist on some sort of quest. (Sorry, not a gamer, remember?) I think it is more just a collection of songs than a “score,” and it doesn’t match the quality of much of his other solo output. Nevertheless — and here’s my point finally — when I listen to the songs in order, I do get a sense of movement through a story and I am able to imagine (possibly completely misguidedly) what the game’s arc might be.

    If I’m reading correctly, I think you are saying that video game scores should be inherent parts of the whole experience and not just great-sounding music laid over the top of the game itself. Even without being a gamer, I am intrigued by the idea of scores that somehow shift with the player’s choices as the game is played. Moreover, I totally see your point that such music likely requires entirely new ways of approaching composing.

    I wish you and your independent colleagues luck in innovating a new paradigm in video game scoring. I imagine it as “adaptive composition.” I look forward to the listening experience apart from whatever happens in games themselves. How cool would it be to listen to a score that varies depending on what mood I’m in (or what button I push on my player).

    Anyway, uh, this got long. Your post opened my mind, dude, and I’m freaking….

    1. hey, hey. Yeah I am a rock/metal guitarist in addition to composition and stuff. I am super happy that I opened your world a little bit. I am in a dry patch with writing, so I am glad that my older posts still reach new people.

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