A great game is the coming together of various elements. Most notably gameplay mechanics, visual style, music and most of the time, story. Each of these elements are important in their own right, but what I’d like to touch on is how music can immensely enrich the gaming experience.
From the soft opening notes of Chrono Trigger to the chanting space monks in Halo, I’m sure we can all recall a piece of music which has helped define a magnificent gaming experience in our lives. There are many composers who do their job magnificently and have provided us with the most magnificent scores to some of the best games of all time, just take Koji Kondo or Nobuo Uematsu as examples. When you hear someone humming the Super Mario Bros. Theme, or One-Winged Angel (though that one may be hard to hum), it’s hard to deny that many great memories come flooding back of battles fought and won, or levels beaten at breakneck speeds. This is a sign that the composer has done their job. Their music has helped create an atmosphere which has absorbed you in to the gameplay experience, it’s something which makes you never want to quit the game.
Just like in many great movies, an amazing score is almost essential in creating what many would consider a masterpiece of a game. A few recent examples are the Katamari Damacy series and Shadow of the Colossus. These two games have very different soundtracks, but both are considered to be absolutely fantastic. Katamari’s music is a very odd mix of… well, just about everything, its quirkiness perfectly complements the game’s style, and it’s hard to not have a smile on your face while listening to the catchy, upbeat and yet extremely odd music and rolling things up to recreate the stars. On the other hand, Shadow of the Colossus’ soundtrack consists of grand orchestral scores which help convey the epic scope of the game, I can imagine it would be very hard to kill Colossi to the tune of some J-Pop or Death Metal.
As a counter-example, I must express that I have a particular disdain for many EA games, with one of the reasons being this “EA Trax” nonsense. Don’t get me wrong, I feel that licensed music has its place in the gaming industry, but just not in nearly every game that EA publishes (EA is not the only culprit of the over-use of licensed music, just one). To be perfectly honest, the inclusion of some of the music in their games actually pushes me away from purchasing their products (“It’s tricky!”, for example). I know this does not apply to most people, but it is something that irks me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who had a bad vision or two of EA Trax appearing in Half-Life 2 once EA took over the publishing from Vivendi Universal.
Some may see that in this analysis, we can again show the differences between the Japanese and North American gaming culture. One can argue that the music which emerges with Japanese games is more creative and more fitting of their games than the music created for North American games, but this is not always the case. In fact, music created for many North American-made games can be just as epic in scope as their Japanese counterparts. It only seems that licensed music is slightly more prevalent here, and we hardly get music as crazy (yet well done) as the music of the Katamari series.
All that aside, I believe that composers don’t get enough recognition for their integral role in bringing the game together, and they really deserve more attention. Some of their work is right up there with the greats, including John Williams.
All in all though, it’s almost impossible to deny that music has a great impact on the gaming experience as a whole, and I would simply like to offer my praise to the composers who have filled my childhood and adolescence with such joyous melodies which are able to recall hours of gaming bliss upon hearing only a few notes of a theme.
Keep up the good work, composers and musicians of the gaming world.