Game On: It’s time video game music got the recognition it deserves

Sephiroth

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Gaming has produced some of the greatest classical and electronic compositions of the last 20 years. And yet many of its masterpieces remain largely unknown and unappreciated. Having recently revisited some old favourites, Mark Butler argues that the best video game music deserves much wider recognition.

Sephiroth
[This guy had the best theme in the business]

When I was 13 years old, I found myself locked in the most epic of final battles – with the soundtrack to match.

Choirs wailed ominously, drums boomed like thunder, and trumpets blared fanfares of impending doom.

The game was Final Fantasy VII, the epic struggle was against a God-like Sephiroth, and the extraordinary accompanying music by Nobuo Uematsu was so dramatic and breathtaking it actually lured my game-cynical parents to the room in astonishment.

‘What is that?’ they asked, mouths agape. It had simply never occurred to them that a humble video game could boast such an incredible orchestral composition.

More than 15 years later, little has changed. This weekend I revisited some of my all-time favourite gaming soundtracks, and it occurred to me that despite the likes of Uematsu winning a devoted following within the fold, their staggering work remains criminally under-appreciated by the public at large.

In my view, tracks like ‘One Winged Angel’ and the beautiful, poignant ‘Aeris Theme’ are every bit as impressive as the ‘Imperial March’ or the theme from Braveheart – if not more so - yet the moment you urge someone who has little interest in games to check out such masterpieces, it’s not uncommon for them to scoff in response.

Video game music deserves much greater recognition. And it’s about time it received it.

On Saturday, I revisited Garry Schyman’s majestic, haunting and utterly beautiful soundtracks to both BioShock and BioShock Infinite, marveling at their sheer power and emotive resonance as I did so. Think of the awe-inspiring openings of those experiences, and you instantly recall the spine-tingling strings of the former and the bittersweet piano trills of the latter.

Varying wildly in mood but not in impact-which remains as sky-high as Columbia throughout – they play a huge part in creating the considerable atmosphere of those two great games. And I reckon they should place Schyman in exalted company.

Another seminal game composer deserving of wider recognition is Silent Hill’s amazing Akira Yamaoka, whose unbearably dark, unconventional soundscapes played a central role in inducing and driving the sanity-shattering terror of those horror titles.

The audio for the original was a revelation back in the 1999: shifting between chilling moodiness and loud, alarming bursts of heavy, industrial percussion, blended with distorted synth and outlandish sound effects. The result was an appropriately head-spinning and alarming concoction, adding to the sense of deep panic that frequently prevailed.

When Hollywood came a-calling, it’s telling that probably the best thing about the Silent Hill movies was the smart use of Yamaoka’s nightmarish efforts, when so much else was lost in the translation from game to film.

And if we’re talking about great genre creations, I’d wager John Carpenter’s instantly recognisable Halloween theme is easily matched in the creepy stakes by X-Com: Terror From The Deep’s dramatic, brooding score.

In a world where video games are surprisingly still so sidelined in the popular consciousness, it’s infuriating that the sheer imagination of gaming music both past and present is dismissed or unacknowledged by the world at large.

You only have to look at the genius of Hans Zimmer and Clint Mansell, whose film work has deservedly become something of a pop culture phenomenon, yet whose work in video games such as Modern Warfare 2 and Mass Effect 3 remains largely anonymous.

At a time when Hollywood is starting to gain an impressive reputation for its electronic soundtracks too, it seems unfair that gaming’s own synth-based sensations are flying somewhat under the radar.

The phenomenal backing for top-down mash ‘em up Hotline Miami was inspired by Drive, and arguably matches if not surpasses that film’s irresistible blend of stylish synths in the process. It’s a head-spinning assault of foot-stomping beats, pleasing beeps and ambient, spacey chimes, which perfectly sum up both the brutal and dream-like nature of the ingenious indie.

And yet, M.O.O.N’s ‘Hydrogen’ and Jasper Byrne’s ‘Hotline’ have had barely a flicker of the attention that Kavinsky or The Chromatics received in the wake of Drive. Don’t get me wrong. The latter deserve to be thrust into the spotlight – but so do M.O.O.N and Byrne.

While we’re on the subject of electronic gems, I urge you to check out the awesome music for brick-busting Breakout clone Shatter. It’s a feast of intoxicating electro so delicious it’s been taking pride of place on my iPod for over a year now.

Seriously: check out ‘Kinetic Harvest’ and ‘Argon Refinery’ and tell me it’s not the best thing you’ve heard since Daft Punk’s Discovery. Drawing on a love of retro soundtracks but imbuing old-school sounds with modern, ultra-slick influences, the toe-tapping basslines, trance shimmers and soaring guitar solos add-up to something truly special.

If there was any justice in the world, composer Module would be a superstar by now. And that’s kind of my point.

The best film composers have become household names in their own right, with their work often as popular and famed as the images they accompany. That video game music, and those behind it, still has such a relatively limited appreciation, is an injustice that I’d love to see corrected.

So let’s hear it for Uematsu, Yamaoka, Schyman and the like. If you’ll excuse me, I’m just off to hammer my ears with ‘One Winged Angel’ again…

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Mark is the content manager for WOW247 in Leeds. When he isn't waxing lyrical about Ben Wheatley and Caravan Palace, he's landing news, assembling guides and penning features.