The Evolution of Video Game Music

To this day, the first Mario Bros. theme song is still finding its way into both music and video game culture, being reinvented over and over. I’ve heard it performed live in an orchestral setting, experienced it over the years in gaming, and heard countless piano remakes by both former roommates and strangers on YouTube. Music in video games has evolved into something much more than when it first started, finding its way into popular culture and grabbing hold.

Video game music started as a filler of sorts, basically just adding to the core of what made a video game – the gameplay. No one really took the 8 bit compositions too seriously, and didn’t give it much notice other than a catchy tune that might pop up in the gamer’s mind sometime later. And, to be honest, that was good enough then. But what about now? Is music still in that niche where it is simply an addition to a game, rather than part of the game core?

I have been listening (almost non-stop) to the Super Mario 3D World soundtrack recently, and this is when it hit me: this is a Mario game soundtrack. Not some artistic dive into the inner workings of human emotions and relationships, or a story-filled masterpiece of interactive literature made complete in the form of a game. This is simply a Mario game. The music in this soundtrack is, quite simply, amazingly performed and lovingly composed. The mix between orchestral, big band, and midi instruments is astounding to me; how could someone come up with this genius work of art? Another prime example is the Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze soundtrack by David Wise (still waiting for that release, Nintendo!) If this quality of music has been done for a Mario and Donkey Kong game, what about games the likes of The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, Titanfall, and inFamous: Second Son? Or what about future releases like The Order: 1887, Destiny, or Halo? Music has become so intertwined with the core gameplay that I believe it is a part of each game that completes the finished product, just as the control mechanics and visuals do. It is no longer a simple addition to a game to fill space within each level.

This evolution and change with the music being an integral part to a game started with the Playstation and Nintendo 64. Up until the release of the PS1 and N64, music seemed to still be an addition to the game, rather than a core part of it (keep in mind, much of this music is still terrific to this day, so I’m not saying it was bad music at all). I vividly remember playing Metal Gear Solid and Zelda: Ocarina of Time and realizing that the music actually effected my experience and how the game was played. The different music for each area gave depth to an already immersive world in Ocarina of Time, and the frenetic music that began when I was discovered by the enemy in MGS caused me to frantically search for a hiding spot to run to, hoping I wouldn’t get shot before I made it. These games changed my perspective on video game music, and were some of the front runners in changing how music within the gaming world was generally viewed.

Since then, music has moved from midi instruments into fully orchestrated compositions that have been carefully crafted for each game, adding to the overall gaming experience. Even indie games are critiqued on their music as well as the gameplay and polish of the finished product. But how can you be sure what I’ve observed is true? Try this: pick up or play (if you already own it) one of these games:

The Last of Us
Super Mario Galaxy (1 or 2)
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
Bioshock Infinite
Gears of War

Then, turn the music off and play the game. Tell me that your experience doesn’t completely change, and that the game seems to be less enjoyable to play (not to say you can’t still enjoy it, but just that it isn’t quite up to par). Video game music has become its own entity, even separate from the game it was created for – the fact we can purchase game soundtracks proves this point. About a third of my music library consists of video game music spanning about 15 years (From MGS, to Final Fantasy, all the way to the previously mentioned Super Mario 3D World). I can’t wait to see how else music will be used in video games, especially after games like the Just Dance and Theatrhythm series. Video game music will continue to evolve in the upcoming decades, and I can’t wait to hear the creativity that flourishes within the gaming industry.

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