“But that isn’t REAL music!” says the impertinent individual to the gamer. “REAL music has words and progression, but all game music is tuneless and repetitive!”
These derisive comments are an occasional occurrence for those who make game soundtracks a prominent part of their music playlists. A possible argument could be made if we were still in the era of burgeoning console development but this is just not true anymore. In a modern world where soundtracks can be composed by one person or a full orchestra, to disregard all video game music as irrelevant is to overlook the immense beauty, creativity and power that comes with it.
To further that notion, video game music is similar in its creation to film soundtracks in that they are focused on being more than just a background musical accompaniment. Ideas of tone, rhythm, emotion, pace and feeling are thrown about, then put to construction with a multitude of instruments and motifs. When done well, it can make a scene become famous through pop-cultural osmosis, like the shrill strings from Psycho or the oscillating double bass accompanying the shark in Jaws. Gaming experiences, however, have the added immersion level of playing through the story in an active role as opposed to passively watching it. One genre of game that blurs the line between the two is the environmental narrative game (also known as the “walking simulator”).
What Remains of Edith Finch and Journey are prime examples of this genre’s storytelling being enhanced by the soundtrack. The former tells the tale of a girl reliving the memories of her family, with an unusual demise at every turn. Themes of mental health, family, loss, innocence and random chance all come into play, and this is expertly reflected by the variation of soundtracks. Compare and contrast the frisson tone from Journey, where the environment plays a larger role in the audiophilic creation, ranging from glistening deserts to deep dank caverns and elevating mountain vistas.
These games would still be playable without a soundtrack, but a player wouldn’t enjoy them in the same way. Carefully calibrated music is integral to the adventures a player undergoes; when listened to in isolation the same emotions and mental pictures are conjured up instantly, establishing a connection in the mind that can boost a positive mood or soothe a negative one. The beauty of having your mental state improved and strengthened from hearing a few musical pieces is the hallmark of why game music no longer fits under the outdated bracket of ‘tuneless and repetitive’.
Another facet of certain musical genres is their ability to help the mind focus and/or relax, a benefit to the neurotypical and neurodivergent alike. The ever-growing interest in lo-fi musicians and playlists is testament to how much of an audience there is for soft, unobtrusive, ambient sounds to accompany both study sessions and chilled moments. But it’s not just indie musicians that excel at these compositions! Plenty of games, be they best sellers or niche, come equipped with beautifully subdued and ambient soundtracks that even non-gamers may find themselves listening to.
Perhaps the best known example would be Minecraft, whose Alpha soundtrack is made up of beautiful piano ballads, soft synth pad effects and echoing strings. Composed by C418, very few tracks have any percussion or ‘beat’, allowing for the moods and textures conveyed to take pride of place in the player’s mind. Its inception has inspired many other world-building/simulation games to take on a similar creative outlook, one such example being Spiritfarer. The beautifully idyllic and dream-like state of exploration and play is perfectly encapsulated just by listening to the title track alone, with many more gems gradually unearthed as you play.
Beautiful soundtracks are not just in these limited genres, however. Plenty of critically acclaimed award-winning soundtracks cover the breadth of gaming history. The ICO trilogy balances puzzles and platforming with action, and the use of a grand symphony ensemble to accompany gameplay. Using your character in Shadow of the Colossus battling atop a mighty beast with the swelling of horns, pounding drums and an entire string symphony behind it has led to many gamers and non-gamers alike being spellbound. Many action RPGs like Skyrim or the ‘SoulsBorne’ series tend to vary each time depending on individual playstyles, but one thing that unites all gamers is the structural variation in music, often utilising every section of orchestras that would typically be seen used for classical performances. Even Super Smash Bros Ultimate brings together so many historical and beloved musical selections for old and young players alike.
This may seem like pandering to the younger generation, who are most commonly associated with the world of gaming. However, tuneful beauty can still be found via reminiscing of retro worlds amongst all the chiptune and Tetris soundalikes. Undertale’s liberal use of faux 8-bit pieces with recurring leitmotifs surrounding famous characters like Sans and Toriel evokes a similar sensation to the arcade games a lot of us gamers grew up with. Someone who’s never played the game before would be forgiven for thinking a battle theme came directly from the 1980s, which can in turn elicit a comforting sense of nostalgia for many. As such, when Undertale celebrated its 5th anniversary in 2020, the occasion was marked by a three-hour-long concert! Clearly, many fans of the game had been won over by the composition’s power, so there was no better way to pay tribute to a beloved game.
Start scratching away at the surface of game soundtracks and you’ll find a treasure trove of sounds that befit every mood, setting, temperament and activity you could wish for. Hearing the love that is put into the musical accompaniment for game worlds is a surefire delight to many, and remains as valid and uplifting a music choice as ever. Perhaps next time you catch someone deriding the game soundtrack you’re listening to, politely introducing them to it could open up a new world for them, both literally and musically.
Ruby Modica is an independent content creator, editor and writer.
She loves sharing insight into video games and discovering new things, with a desire to work in the media/gaming industry full time. Most days she is busy at her computer working on her next big project.