Updated: Feb 19
A window into my love affair with video game soundtracks
Like many of us at the moment I am spending a lot of time on Zoom, Skype or one of several other video conferencing apps. A few days ago I logged on to play a weekly Dungeons & Dragons game with some friends and as usual my partner logged on to play The Sims at the same time. A few moments later almost as if it was planned everyone in the Zoom chat asked if someone was playing The Sims. Based on the theme music alone they could all recognise the game. Which got me thinking about video game soundtracks and how they impact people, the overall feel of a game, gameplay mechanics and help with emotional storytelling. It also got me thinking about my own history with music in video games and the memories I have tied to them.
Studies have shown that listening to video game soundtracks can be helpful for concentration as they are designed to be heard but not to distract your brain from actually playing the game. So, how was it that The Sims instantly distracted our entire party from playing D&D you might ask? Well I think the answer is that just like any other form of media players connect the soundtracks of the games they play to emotional memories from their gaming history. Many of us have happy memories of hours spent messing with the lives of Sims like some sort of tyrannical God and when you hear the theme those memories come flooding back and make the game instantly recognisable. This might sound like I am here to talk about video game music on a game design level but I am not. This article is my love letter to music that connects to all of our gaming memories and for most of us shaped our future musical tastes.
The original Gangsters.
Before I get into some musical memories that resonate with me I would be remiss if I didn't mention those who started it all and depending on your age the soundtrack to your gaming childhood. I am of course talking about the 8 and 16 bit master pieces of the NES, SNES, Master System and Mega Drive. Yes, there are people out there who will say that the first ever game to have music was XYZ. However, we are not here for a history lesson. We are here to talk about memories and to me these memories start with everyone's favorite Italian plumber, the mac daddy of recognisable video game music Super Mario. Every kid of my generation whether you were a gamer or not either owned Super Mario or spent hours at friends house hogging the gamepad (I was the latter). The theme of Mario is so iconic that if you turned to your granny and asked her to hum it she probably could. Not only that but there was different music for different levels. I remember as a kid hearing the dungeon theme and thinking oh this is the scary level I better move quick. There are so many more themes from the 8-bit era that stand out like, Mega Man, Castlevania, Zelda, Sonic and Contra. The list is so long that it would be an article in itself.
This is where my memories of gaming music from childhood get a little hazy. While I know I played a ton of games from the 16-bit era their music just didn't impact me as much. Unlike 8-bit which I recalled as easy as breathing I found that for 16-bit I had to take a trip to Youtube and Spotify to help dust off the mental cobwebs. I am sure by now most of you are screaming internally saying things like, how can you not remember the theme to Super Mario World, Earthbound, Donkey Kong Country and so on. The answer is I do remember them just not as fondly as others. That's not to say I don't love them, I do. It's just that when I reach into the treasure chest of gaming music memories all I seem to pull out from when I was a child are gold coins with pictures of all our favorite 8-bit heroes.
Sick tricks & sick beats.
When it came to the PS1 and PS2 generations I really hit my stride playing games. I had my own consoles so no more hogging my friends and I could really sink sometime into games. This of course meant I was hearing all the wonderful soundtracks on repeat. The intense battle music of Metal Gear Solid, the playful upbeat songs of Crash and Spyro or the tasty beats of Parappa the Rapper. During this generation GTA 2 introduced us to the notion of radio stations which was an absolute game changer in terms of how we listened to music in games. With PS2 we got games like Singstar that not only allowed us to listen to loads of our favourite pop hits but sing along to (awfully in my case). Of course we still got beautiful emotional tracks from games like Final Fantasy and Shadow Of The Colossus. There was the gothic electro rock stylings of Devil May Cry or the tension setting horror that was the Resident Evil OST. However, in my opinion and pulling from my own gaming memories, just like the 8-bit era one man stood out against the rest, a young man by the Name of Tony Hawk.
I am sure many of you like me put a lot of your gaming youth into playing Tony Hawks. Those games were perfect in that you could turn them on for half an hour, play a bit and then go about your business kind of like what online shooters have become today. What makes Tony Hawk truly special is that just like skate culture it was about going against the norm which was greatly reflected in the all the games soundtracks. Tony Hawk for me was an introduction to so much music I had never heard before. They had punk, rock, electro, hip-hop, gangster rap, metal and so much more. Playing Tony Hawk felt like finding your dad's old record collection and discovering all this amazing music from before your time. Except with these games all the music was not before your time it was current. It was on MTV, in the new release sections of music stores. You could look in the menus of the game, find out all these great artists' names and buy their music and that is for sure what I did. Artists like Dead Kennedys, Primus, CKY, Xzibit, Goldfinger, N.W.A, and so many more that would warrant its own article. Without Tony Hawk I can guarantee that I would not have the same taste in music that I do today. Even better is the fact that releasing this year is a full remaster of Tony Hawk 1&2 and from what I understand they will be returning with most of the original songs. This means on September 4th I will be able to boot up the game and relive all those wonderful hours or cranking up the TV to listen to all these songs that at the time were so new, exciting and different.
Sex, drugs & plastic guitars.
In the later days of the PS2 and the early days of PS3 and Xbox 360 we saw a decline in the games like Tony Hawk not that new games were not coming out. Skating had left the zeitgeist and people wanted new gaming experiences. The same as any other gaming generation, the long spanning PS3/360 era gave us some great games and sound tracks along with it. Like the previous generation Metal Gear gave us a stunning soundtrack in Sons of the Patriots. We had the sci-fi sounds of Deus Ex Human Revolution. There were even big Hollywood music composers getting involved with games like Hanns Zimmer working on Beyond Two Souls. Even though I was never a big lover of the games there is the OST of the Halo series. If we're talking about the PS3 I have to mention Gustavo Santaolalla’s beautiful score of The Last of Us. A score that was so simple yet was able to capture both the beauty and horror that existed in the game. I remember playing The Last of Us and anytime I heard the score I could never tell whether something good or bad was about to happen. Which is the beauty of The Last of Us, it didn't matter if something good or bad was going to happen to score was so well written it works to build tension and to add heart to the emotional moments. While these are all wonderfully crafted soundtracks so packed full of emotion who would fill the gap left by the Tony Hawk franchise? Enter Guitar Hero.
For many people Guitar Hero was silly. Why would you pay good money for a plastic guitar to play along to your favorite rock songs when you could just learn guitar for real. To those people I would say that's never what Guitar Hero was about. It was about being a literal guitar hero. The game managed to capture the journey from music nobody to rock icon in just a few short hours. All the while getting to listen to and discover some truly excellent music. Guitar Hero used a love for music to bring people together. During my early 20’s I can't recall a single house party where someone was not playing Guitar Hero. It was the soundtrack to all our weekends. To this day there are songs from that game that I sing all the words to even though I don't follow the work of the artists. There was a sense of comradery when your friend said he was going to try to beat Dragon Force on the hardest difficulty. You all sat on the edge of your seats watching as his/her fingers furiously tapped the buttons and the collective roar of celebration when they did it. I know some people reading this might say they preferred Rock Band. That is also a great game but it just doesn't conjure the same memories for me as all those weekends spent with friends having guitar battles and screaming iconic songs at the top of our lungs.
Past, present & future.
After everything I have said up to this point I think it's clear to see that the music of video games has had a huge impact on mine and so many others lives. That has not changed either. My love affair with game soundtracks is still continuing on as I get older. It's even impacting the lives of people close to me. Much like The Sims incident I mentioned at the start there was another event that got me thinking about this topic. I recently reviewed Nioh 2 so naturally I was playing it alot. One day as I was playing I noticed my partner was humming the music from the map screen for a game they have never played. It got me thinking that even when you don't realise it music can be having an effect on you. Just yesterday as I was looking for something to listen to on Spotify I noticed the soundtrack to a game called Furi. Furi was a Playstation Plus game I played around 2 years ago. When I looked at the track list I thought to myself wow so many great artists and tracks on here. Then it hit me, it was because of this soundtrack that I discovered the synthwave genre of music. A genre that I now listen to almost everyday.
We are now even starting to see artists who are taking the video game music that inspires them and using it to forge music careers of their own. Rapper Mega Ran uses sound cards from old gaming systems to create samples for his songs bringing the old sounds of 8/16-bit back to life in new and interesting ways. Even when I play the aforementioned D&D games with friends we find ourselves opening up 20 different Youtube tabs each with different songs from fantasy games like The Witcher or Monster Hunter to be the soundtrack to our adventuring.
I hope I never lose this love of the music that’s a backdrop to all my gaming memories and that in the future video games continue to help me discover new amazing artists that create more wonderful memories.
Image one taken from here
All other images taken from here
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