journey game screenshot music
Music, Video Games

The Music of Gaming

Gamers, you may want to show your support for your chosen pastime by watching the Grammys this Sunday.  Why?  Because for the first time in history, the composer for a video game has been nominated for a major Grammy (officially, Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media).  Which game?  PS3’s interactive parable, Journey.  The composer?  Austin Wintory, a 28 year old Denver native who is now up against such musical luminaries as Howard Shore, Hans Zimmer and John Williams.

Talk about unlocking an epic achievement!  The music in video games has been eligible for the Grammys since 2000, yet other than a nomination for the instrumental arrangement of a song from Civilization 4, the well has been empty.  Maybe this will open the floodgates.

I was actually thinking about music in video games recently while waiting for Star Wars: The Old Republic to load.  For some reason – it could be my equipment or it could be something with the dynamics of the game due to its upcoming expansion – my game loading has been moving slower than the line at the DMV, and when I do get ingame, the first 20 minutes or so are lag city.  So I’ve had a lot of time to just sit and listen to the music while waiting for the graphics to load or for my bounty hunter to catch up with the action.  Luckily, the music is, well, Star Wars, which is about as good as it gets.  But have you ever stopped and just listened – really listened – to that music behind the loading screens?  When it’s good, it’s just extraordinary.  Not just in composition, but in arrangement and orchestration as well as in execution.  It really can be high class, entertaining stuff.

On the flip side, when the music isn’t good, it drags the whole game down.  For instance, I remember getting into the Lord of the Rings Online beta.  After three years of anticipation, I found that the game was, yes, gorgeous but ultimately disappointing; this was highlighted for me by a thinness of the accompanying music – what there was of it – that couldn’t be fully explained away as the constraints of beta.  By launch, the music was better, but it still was lacking, in placement and in quality.  In the end, as much as I wanted to love the game, it ended up just not being enough to hold me – just like the music.  It wasn’t awful – it just wasn’t enough to hold me.

And again, with another flip, is how a game is enhanced when the music is epic.  Say what you will about World of Warcraft, love it or hate it, it has arguably the most recognizable and luscious musical soundtrack in all of gaming thus far, certainly in MMORPGs.  The different themes for races and places and actions are not only very mood-inducing, but also help with player identity.  Even the tongue in cheek dance moves of the various races (night elf males doing Napoleon Dynamite, human males John Travolta-ing their best Saturday Night Fever moves, dwarf females river dancing, orc males and their Hammer Time, blood elf females doing a toxic Britney, etc.) adds a musical humor to the game, endearing it further to its players.  I remember when selections from the WoW soundtrack finally made it to iTunes, it caused a lot of excitement in the WoW community.

But even if WoW set the stage, many other games have embraced adding amazing musical scores to their gameplay, not only to add tension and graphic suspense to the action, but to make the player experience even more cinematic than ever before.  A great example comes from my own household:  by the time Mass Effect 3 was released, my son had saved up enough to get the collector’s edition, and a big reason he did so was to have a copy of the soundtrack to add to his music library.  And what about Final Fantasy?  Its live orchestral concert version, “Distant Worlds: the Music from Final Fantasy” is still playing to audiences worldwide (alert:  there are tickets to the Valentine’s Day concert in Milwaukee, all you gaming love birds out there).

So what about you folks?  How important is the music in your games?  Have you ever been in a game where the music detracted from the action or activity?  What would you rate as the best gaming soundtrack ever?

4 thoughts on “The Music of Gaming”

  1. Music in games (along with sound design) are a HUGE part of gaming for me. If done well, music makes good games into great games, even classics.

    It blows my mind when I hear people saying they've never listened to a game's music. "Oh, I just mute the music and listen to my insertgenrehere playlist." You guys are missing out!

  2. I agree with you both! The music can add so much, or take so much away from the experience of a game. My friends used to make fun of me for listening to the music in World of Warcraft and I will even admit to owning a CD (or two!) of that music. Just like in a movie, music can draw you into the emotion of the moment and I think that is especially important in a game since you are in many ways placing yourself into that story.

    There are games, though, where I prefer to listen to my own music because the repetition of it grates on my nerves. But I think those are mostly arcade games. Music from epic, all encompassing games like WoW totally deserve a dedicated listen.

  3. Oh wow, I could go on for days about gaming music. XD It's such a massive part of my life. I'll have to stop reporting on goofy industry news and write up something about how passionate I am about it, I guess. Thanks for the inspiration, Sharon! 😀

  4. Nananea, I agree with you 100%! Both my kids listen to their own music when they're gaming, especially my daughter, and I feel like they are missing out! But then, my son does point out great gaming soundtracks to some of the games he plays but I don't, so maybe he's listening more than I know.

    And Regina, I guess I don't play arcade games all that much, but remembering back to when I would spend hours watching my boyfriend (now my husband) play PacMan and Centipede, I can understand your reasoning! (Back when he played, we had to go to an arcade! Shows you just how old I am, I guess…)

    Can't wait to hear about your musical passions, Jerry!

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