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In Praise of Video Game Music

February 8, 2010

Video games themselves, as an art form, are generally looked down upon, so it’s not very surprising that video game music is almost entirely ignored. Is there a legitimate reason for this? Any gamer will tell you there’s good video game music (Super Mario Bros.) and bad video game music (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles): The medium at least has distinguishable levels of quality — shouldn’t that merit some attention? A true fan of video game music is someone who thinks deeply about whether a polka evokes the act of swimming with jellyfish.Likewise, I’ve been humming — if not outright singing — the Mario Theme for as long as it’s been around; and my sister and I would perform it at east once a week: Any tune that’s that resilient after 25 years deserves some recognition — especially when it’s composed of nothing more than a few digital “blips!”

Good video-game music, like good movie music, complements the action. For example, the underwater levels in Super Mario Bros.: The melody is deep, and mellow; the beat is jarring, polka oompahpah, and yet it works: The former is fluid and suggests water; the latter is tense and suggests danger.

Another aspect of video game music is that it has no definite play-time. In a movie, the music will last only as long as the scene requires; in a video game, the time it takes a player to finish a level or sequence isn’t fixed, so the music plays for a while and then repeats itself. This means the composer needs to find a melody that can be played over and over again with minimal aggrevation to the player. Try it; it ain’t easy. Too distinct a melody or intense a beat gets old fast — nobody hums the theme to Bowser’s castle. Good video game music has to be listened to repeatedly.

The best video game music rivals any film score and tends to sound very similar but is a lot harder to put together. The best I’ve ever heard is Grim Fandango, and that’s not forgetting the Final Fantasy series — LucasArts even released a CD of GF‘s soundtrack. In a game that manages to combine the feel of Casablanca, Glengerry GlenRoss, 50s counter-culture, and Latin American independence, the task of composing such a large and varied array of music is daunting in itself, doubly so to make it work in a video game.

If for no other vindication, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack the whole time I’ve been writing this.

Grim Fandango opening


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