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!