The Wide World of Video Game Music

By Michael Mendis

One of the most prominent elements of cultures around the world is music.  Talented people from each culture come up with songs and even whole genres of music that reflect the things they go through in life, the emotions they feel, and the hopes and dreams they have for the future.  Normally we think of culture and music in terms of nationality and ethnic groups, but gaming culture, too, has a love for music.  From grand orchestras, to acoustic guitars, to old-school chiptunes, music plays a huge role in the experience of playing games.  This article is filled with links to game music, so put your headphones on and let’s take a tour to see some of what video game music has to offer.

In the early days of video games, music was created entirely on chips within the console itself, so developers had to make do with the bleeps and bloops that those chips had to offer.  This limitation meant that composers had to be particularly creative in order to create good music, and as a result, some of the catchiest tunes in all of gaming came from this era.  For gamers my age, these chiptunes became the soundtrack to some of our most treasured childhood memories, and to this day, songs like Green Hill Zone (Sonic the Hedgehog), Lost Woods (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time), and the Overworld Theme of Super Mario Bros. remain incredibly popular and iconic.

As technology advanced and new consoles came out, more and more developers acquired the resources necessary to put pre-recorded music into their games, greatly expanding the types of music you could create for these interactive experiences.  Classical instruments, hard rock, complex guitar pieces, dramatic vocals; these became tools in the toolbelt of the game composer, and it wasn’t long before all these things and more were used to great effect in stirring a wide range of emotions within players.

Music from games like Skies of Arcadia or Uncharted puts the player in the mood to go on a grand adventure that sees them traversing all over the in-game world and discovering secrets lost for centuries.  The wildly popular game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim features some of the best music when it comes to exploration, simply getting lost in the open world and soaking in the beauty of the cold wilderness.

Games with darker, more mature themes use somber and contemplative music to set help set the tone.  Acoustic guitar pieces have been used to great effect in these pieces, including the theme of The Last of Us, the end credits for Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season 1, and this beautiful yet ominous song from Bastion.

And then, of course, there are the fast-paced, heart-pounding tunes that get the player excited for a big boss fight.  Many games have them, and thus you’ll find boss music created with all sorts of different instrumentation.  Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance assaults the ears with hard rock, Undertale draws inspiration from decades past with complex chiptune-esque songs, and Final Fantasy XV sends the player soaring with its sweeping orchestral themes.

Up to this point we’ve only talked about how official game developers create music for people to listen to as they play, and you might be thinking that gaming music is a one-way street: developers create, players consume.  What we haven’t touched on is how regular fans take that music and make it their own, adding to the culture of gaming music that they already know and love.  The remixing community is incredibly vibrant, with countless remixes of video game songs both old and new created all the time.  Perhaps the most well-known place to find game remixes is OC Remix, which is a database of thousands of remixes; this site has even helped amateur musicians remix entire soundtracks from games such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Castlevania, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.  Plenty of other talented people can be found online who have created some excellent game remixes, such as Smooth McGroove who sings game songs acapella, and Tsuko G. who plays game songs with his kazoo!  And sometimes, the creation and inspiration process goes around full circle: Tee Lopes, a particularly talented Sonic the Hedgehog remixer (and well-known by the Sonic fan community) was hired by SEGA to create music for an official Sonic game!

Video game music has even extended beyond the traditional boundaries of developers and players, finding new audiences in concert halls across the world.  The first video game concert took place in Japan in the late 1980’s, and since then they have spread to Europe and the U.S., with groups as well renowned as the London Philharmonic Orchestra performing and creating whole albums of video game themed music for people to enjoy.

All the songs I’ve listed in this article are just a small taste of the incredible video game music that has been created over the years; indeed, there are whole franchises with fantastic music that I haven’t discussed in any detail here.  Nonetheless, I hope this gives you a little better understanding of the one of the most diverse and fascinating parts of gamer culture!

Gamer Motivations: Challenge

By Michael Mendis

This is part two of a three-part series on gamer motivations.  Click here to the read part one, on escapism.

Overcoming challenges can often be some of the most exciting moments in our lives.  Sometimes these challenges are physical, like scaling a tall mountain.  Other times they are psychological, such as conquering a deep-seated fear or insecurity.  They may be professional (securing a lucrative and/or influential position in your career) or relational (hearing the words “I do” from your fiancé on your wedding day).  The big challenges in our lives can look different for different people, but no matter what they are, they take a lot of time, dedication, study, and practice in order to complete them, and when you finally do complete them, you feel like you’ve conquered the world.

Many games tap into this innate desire to overcome incredible odds, to push ourselves past what we thought we were capable of, to do things that few (or in some cases, none) have done before.  Gamers find themselves motivated to play these games because of the challenges provided to the player, and the reward at the end for completing those challenges.

Shadow of the Colossous boss 3.jpg

Game developers have created a variety of ways to provide challenging experiences to players who seek them.  Perhaps the most common way of accomplishing this is through a simple selection of several difficulty modes, with the harder modes featuring tougher enemies or puzzles.  This approach doesn’t require a developer to dramatically change the content of their game in order to satisfy a wide range of gamers.

Other games use challenge as a selling point, essentially daring the player to try to beat it; no matter what difficulty mode you choose, the enemies are relentless, punishing your mistakes almost instantly (the Dark Souls series is perhaps the most well-known example of this approach).  The player will often find themselves banging their head against a wall time and time again as they struggle to figure out how to make it through a tough area or topple a particularly nasty boss.  Why would someone put themselves through that?  Because when they do finally beat that boss, the sense of success is practically palpable, and they can expect a reward at the end (treasure, armor, etc.) that will make them stronger and ready for the next set of obstacles.

Dark-Souls-3 Dancer of the Boreal Valley.jpg

Still other games find creative ways to introduce challenge.  For example, some games contain a feature commonly referred to as “permadeath”, in which a character, once they have been killed anywhere in the game, are no longer present; they don’t respawn or reappear elsewhere, but are gone for good.  Suddenly, the stakes in every battle have been raised significantly.  In a game like Spelunky, this means that anytime you die, you have to start the whole game from the beginning.  In the strategy role-playing series Fire Emblem, it means that characters that you spend time interacting with, leveling up, and growing attached to are now dead, and you are now left to finish the rest of the game without them or any of the benefits they would have been able to provide.

Some gamers even go out of their way to create challenge in games that aren’t primarily designed to be that challenging. For instance, unofficial “Nuzlocke” rules are used by people who want to introduce new mechanics to Pokémon games; players who follow these rules are severely limited in the Pokémon they are allowed to capture and have to set them free if they ever faint in battle. Speedrunning is another great example; this is when you play a game with the sole intent of completing it (or sections within it) as fast as possible.  Whole communities of people have sprung up around speedrunning through their favorite games, and the best speedrunners attract large audiences on Twitch as they chase after world record times.

Super Mario 64 speedrun.png

So how then does this information help us, as Christians, as we seek to understand gamers and share Christ’s love with them? All people have been instilled by God, the ultimate creator, with a creative and industrious spirit that yearns to tap into our abilities and accomplish new and exciting things with them.  When we meet someone who seeks out challenging experiences in games, we have a starting point for asking questions and getting to know that person better.  What is it about the challenge that attracts them?  Do they crave a sense of accomplishment, or do they perhaps really enjoy finding creative and/or strategic solutions to tough problems?  It may also open a window into other aspects of this person’s life.  Do they regularly seek out challenges in their career or other activities, for example?  Or does work/family life seem stale or boring to them, and games act as their creative/challenging outlet?  Getting the answers to these questions helps us make a connection to these types of gamers, finding common ground and laying the foundation for relationships as we identify the ways in which we ourselves seek challenge and accomplishment, and where we find our sense of worth.

Spirituality in Japanese Video Games

By Michael Morejon

As a gamer, I have noticed that most of the games I enjoy playing come from Japan. I'm not just talking about Super Mario or other Shigeru Miyamoto creations, but most of them in general. It can be a scrolling shooting game like Raiden Trad or JRPGs that nobody has heard of. Visual Novels aren't up my alley as the action just isn't there, nor are dating sims, but these beautifully animated and story driven games always draw me in.

Ikaruga, a VERY difficult shooting game. Don't believe me? Give it a try :)

Ikaruga, a VERY difficult shooting game. Don't believe me? Give it a try :)

Japan has been a country that has interested me for a long time, even though I have yet to visit. I believe it all started with playing JRPGs and watching anime when I was younger. Who knew that all this amazing entertainment came from a place far, far away from me! I just thought someone in the USA made these games and shows! As I learned more about the culture, language, spirituality, and overall geeky side of the Land of the Rising Sun, I felt like I understood more of why they do what they do.

Some games that I have played have had strange references, artwork, tropes, and symbols that let you know this was made for a Japanese audience. That is what I love about the Japanese: they do not try to lower the culture level when they make something. As many countries like to do, it's fun and patriotic to put some of the essence of your nation into what you are doing. Similarly, when I write, I prefer to write with a Christian perspective, because I'm a believer in Christ and my faith pours out into everything I do!

Role-playing games have the most obvious Japanese ideas going on, from the anime-style characters like the blue-haired hero from Breath of Fire to the Japanese foods that characters eat. It can also include the religious references to Shintoism like in Okami or Yomawari. Finding a Christian perspective can be tricky sometimes when I go through these games, since they are not portrayed from a biblical view.

Beautiful game where you star as a Shinto deity.

Beautiful game where you star as a Shinto deity.

What I do find interesting is that God will show me a reflection of Himself as I play. It is not something I particularly look for, but just jumps out at me, such as how in many JRPGs you must fight against some form of deity that represents God Himself. It doesn't really matter what I am doing, I see God everywhere because He is the Creator of everything. My eyes and ears are open to see or hear Him in all aspects of my life. I just make sure I am listening, because God is always talking. 

Humanity is made in the image of God, so whatever we create will have His fingerprints on them. A lot of times what seems "secular" or apart from God, in fact can help someone find Him. The Japanese, though not a nation with many followers of Christ, still demonstrate that hunger to know who God is, and that can be seen in the games they make (as well as in other aspects of their culture, such as anime).

To explain my point a little more, one theme that is showcased a lot in their games is that of the light beating back the darkness, like in Castlevania or Kingdom Hearts. Even if the game has mature themes or is rather graphic, good always triumphs over evil and usually by a lot! There is a struggle to beat that final boss, but I've noticed that the world remains at peace even if the main character has to sacrifice themselves. The Bible says that blessed are the peacemakers, and this can be seen heavily while playing most Japanese games. Even in old school games like Super Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog, the good guys always win.

I believe that as people, God has placed a sense of justice in all of our hearts. If they were living their best in terms of morality, and something bad happens, they seek restitution for living upright lives. It's the same concept that is shown in video games, like Lightning Returns, where the main character is considered the messiah that will save the world from evil. Everyone is looking for an answer from someone or something. That innate longing will spill out in different ways, even through creative forms like video games. 

Ecclesiastes 3:11

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

The Japanese, just like any culture, express their want for answers in this life and the one after in various ways. The main reason I even play games is because of the experiences I go through when I do, since they have become so much more than the little pixels of the Atari days. I look forward to playing more of these carefully crafted works and explore new, digital worlds that come to life for me.

 

Michael Morejon is a volunteer contributor with Gospel & Gaming.