Inside the Video Game Music Revolution: “The Whole World Has Changed”
imagine it: a sweltering summer night in August. People throng the Royal Albert Hall for the final performance of the busy summer schedule of the Proms.
But when the audience calms down and the orchestra gets going, spectators will no longer listen to the sweet melodies of Bach or Beethoven. No: instead, they will listen to music from the Pokémon franchise. Pokémon Red and Blue, to be exact.
For those who think classical music and video games are worlds apart, think again. From the dinky 8-bit music of Donkey Kong to the rising chords of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, music has always been an essential (and rapidly evolving) part of the gaming experience.
This year’s Gaming Prom will see the orchestral European premiere of award-winning musician Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score for the first-person shooter Battlefield 2042 – quite a feat, given that the soundtrack is made up mostly of natural sounds that have been subjected to several filters.
Best known for her work on the award-winning soundtrack to Joaquin Phoenix’s critical darling, Joker, as well as composing the score for the television series Chernobyl, Guðnadóttir and her husband Sam Slater (with whom she co-wrote the score) are at the forefront of the inexorable shift from video games to mainstream appeal.
“Video games are such an important part of so many people’s lives,” she tells me on Zoom.
“It’s a bigger part of raising people today than it was when I was growing up. [up] and I basically had access to Tetris, and that was it. They become such a complex thing, and people are very invested in a lot of these games. So much content is created on television, in movies and computer games, and in the music industry.
“We also have more access to a lot more technology, so it’s quite easy for musicians to explore a wider variety of sounds and processes across genres,” she adds. “And I really welcome that, because I’m a big fan of experimentation. It’s nice when you’re given the freedom to be able to explore different worlds.
This freedom, ultimately, resulted in a sequel that eschews traditional instruments in favor of elements the player sees on the screen in front of them as they play.
“There are no instruments that you find in an orchestra or a band or anything like that,” Slater explains. “It’s all about those materials that were very apparent in front of you on screen.”
In this case, it involved making sound from metal, sand and other materials, before passing them through a filter which edited it to create what Guðnadóttir calls “musical clay”.
So far, so cutting edge. But the pair are adamant that video games are a natural home for Guðnadóttir’s talents, allowing him to experiment with unique sounds in a new digital space – unlike film or television scores, which must adhere to a linear narrative, game scores are necessarily more varied and expansive because no player’s experience will be the same.
She is not alone. Nowadays, composers of all persuasions are getting into the game – literally and figuratively. Indeed, one of the impressive aspects of the Video Game Ball is the wide variety of music that audiences will listen to at night.
“We actually planned this ball a few years ago, for 2020,” says Proms manager David Pickard. “What interested me was that people writing for video games were really developing and growing. We did a pretty interesting sci-fi music ball in 2018, and I was so struck by the fact that we had a very different audience that came to listen to this music.
“We’ve also had a lot of people say to us, ‘Come on, game music is happening now in a big way.’ And I think we just felt the time was right to make one ourselves.
The moment has been brewing for decades. Coming to life in 1958 (the very first video game was a rudimentary version of Pong), the industry has been riding the wave of technological revolution to gain momentum in recent years, giving us open-world RPGs, simulators multiplayer battle games and complex puzzle solving games to spend hours.
Today it’s a sprawling monolith, generating billions of pounds in revenue a year; this year, the global video game industry is expected to earn £10 billion in the UK alone, making it a bigger source of revenue than the film and music industries, separately. And with games regularly boasting multi-million pound budgets, it’s no surprise that the music we hear when playing them has also evolved into something very sophisticated. In 2019, BBC Radio 3 launched its weekly Saturday afternoon show Sound of Gaming (its presenter, Bafta-winning composer Jessica Curry, had previously created and presented Classic FM’s gaming music show High Score – obviously the BBC wanted in on the act).
In addition to the rich and intricate scores that will be due at this ball – conductor Robert Ames will pay homage to games like Final Fantasy, adventure game Dear Esther and crossover role-playing Disney Kingdom Hearts in his program, as well as Battlefield 2042 – the evening will also pay tribute to the beginnings of gaming.
“The history of video game music is about those composers struggling with the technological resource limitations of early consoles,” says Slater, when I make the mistake of suggesting that 8-bit music is simple to create.
“There’s all these composers running around saying, ‘Oh my God, if we like to hack a specific cartridge into this Atari console in this way, we can get access to one more voice, which means we can put a snare in there.’
“It took so much thought to deal with the limitation of resources, of which we have such an abundance now,” he continues. “There is so much memory now that you can really go wild. So I don’t think early video game scores should be called simple. I have a lot of respect for that, I think it’s amazing.
Today, video game composers have the freedom to experiment in whole new ways, with new sounds thanks to the extraordinarily sophisticated technology available, but that sense of innovation and ingenuity remains.
“Personally, I think electronic music is particularly well suited, because it invites the use of a whole variety of sounds, and opens up what we could do in terms of genre. So it’s like having a huge box of toys, basically,” electronic musician and composer CHAines tells me.
CHAines (their real name is Cee Haines) has dabbled in video game music before, creating soundtracks with the LGBTQ+ organization Rainbow Game Jam, for games such as Prism Break and The Curious Case of Timmy McRover.
For them, the importance of video game music cannot be overstated, not only in its potential to cross genres, but in its growing influence.
“I think we’re the most innovative genre,” they say. “Personally, I think a lot of my inspiration comes from people like Darren Korb, who writes for Supergiant Games; disaster that made the soundtrack of Fez as well as a lot of film music; Thomas Dvorak and DVA for Amanita games.
“There is a lot of incredibly rich work. And in a way, I think studios choose musicians who have a full life in concerts or concert music: it’s kind of a nice association of the voice of the artist with the artistic vision of the game I think that’s what makes the best couple.
One thing is certain: with an increasing number of composers entering the video game arena, the traditional divide between video games and the rest of the music industry is slowly disappearing.
“I absolutely think video game music should be taken seriously,” Slater tells me from his studio.
“It’s a strange snobbery to prioritize cinema and television; film composers then television composers and then games. Good music only comes from industries that are respected, so respect that and you’ll get a lot of good music out of it.
David Pickard agrees. “As a musician, it’s impossible not to be affected by what’s around you if you engage in it,” he says.
“This whole world has changed tremendously and the people who write for it have changed. I think composers are generally interested in exploring different ways that give them different accents, and I think that’s exactly what’s happening with the games.
“People who might not have thought of it before now think it’s interesting territory.”
From 8 Bit to the Proms, the gaming revolution is here to stay.
Gaming Prom – 8 Bit to Infinity is at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday August 1 at 7:30 p.m. Book tickets here