Opinion: Musically Mature

Photo credit: Rose de Larrabeiti
Sean Cleaver

By Sean Cleaver

May 17th 2017 at 1:00PM

Sean Cleaver looks at Classic FM’s new show and shares his view on how far video game music has come

This Easter weekend we were treated to a new show on national radio station Classic FM. High Score is a radio show dedicated to video game music every Saturday presented by BAFTA winning composer Jessica Curry. This is excellent. 

I won’t use the word ‘validation’ but it’s great that we are now in a position where games music is now in the mainstream. Classic FM has been incredibly supportive of game music and if you look at the comments on the stations social media during the shows, you’ll see how well received it has been.

Game music can be iconic of course, but there’s maturity around the genre now. The technology has improved so much in both games and music production and with that has come amazing advances in how developers approach music.

I wonder how many people know songs from the 80s thanks to Grand Theft Auto

Many people have fun, nostalgic memories of 8 and 16-bit music, but we often forget how much of a part the compact disc had to play in the evolution of what we listen to.

One of my first memories of great music in video games was Dune, the 1992 game by Cryo Interactive. It was a deep, rich soundtrack that had amazing audio quality both on PC and the Sega Mega-CD release.

Five years later, and as electronic music technology grew, Final Fantasy VII would bring us Aerith’s Theme by legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu. The increase in available sound channels on PlayStation paved the way for CD quality music. The soundtrack’s 2004 re-release hit number 3 on Japan’s Oricon charts and the Final Fantasy Distant Worlds tour is currently underway, celebrating 30 years of the series’ iconic music.

Budgets have increased, allowing for games to license tracks from record companies, alongside original composition. Whenever I bring this up in conversation, FIFA 98 is often cited for using Blur’s Song 2 as its title music, along with the collections on various Grand Theft Auto releases and critics praised Mafia 3 for its 1960s popular music soundtrack.

If there’s one thing people will do when you mention the cultural importance of games and video gaming, it’s to question the idea of relevance and that notion of culture. ‘If games are so important, what have they ever given for our culture,’ for example. I would argue that video games heavily contributed to the nostalgia for late 20th Century music that all generations currently enjoy.

I wonder how many people know songs from the 80s thanks to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, who otherwise would not have cared? Reinventing and rebooting has been a bit of a theme for creative industries.

But what of the original music composed for games? This too has expanded exponentially. You only have to look at the list of names to see the incredible talent working in games. Names like Clint Mansell, Michael Giacchino, Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer help to popularise it, but it opens the door for composers like Austin Wintory, Jason Graves, Mick Gordon, Akira Yamaoka and many others to create incredible music.

Jessica Curry’s score for Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture is an excellent example.

(spoilers ahead)

There’s a scene where Lizzy is at a train station and leaving a phone message for Steve, the astronomer who discovered a mysterious signal which is spreading throughout the village of Yaughton and killing its residents. She’s about to leave, pregnant with his child and saying her goodbyes, explaining that she’s ready to start a new life, only to end the conversation by noticing the planes that Steve has ordered in an attempt to gas the valley and stop the signal spreading.The musical cue that follows is not a dramatic sombre piece but a positive motif in a major key that celebrates the fact that Lizzy finally chooses a new life. The effect is bittersweet, though, and your heart leaps out of your chest, streaming tears from your eyes.

(spoilers end)

It’s a moment that shows that the music doesn’t need to match the visuals on screen, like film, but to reflect the journey and the interaction a player has had with this virtual world. That’s an incredible thing.

I spoke with Jessica Curry back in January and she told me one of her favourite pieces of game music is Clint Mansell’s Leaving Earth from Mass Effect 3. It’s a great piece and it demonstrates where the genre is now. It’s not the unwanted electronic brother of film. At times it can do things that film cannot, combining what you see and hear with player agency. And now, we get to hear the best examples of this every week on the radio – how far we have come. 

(Photo credit: Rose de Larrabeiti.)