I recently attended the London-based Japanese culture event, Hyper Japan, and as is always the case at the popular semi-annual event, Nintendo UK held a sizeable portion of the show floor to promote a few of their new games. This time the focus was primarily on Monster Hunter Generations and Level-5’s Yo-Kai Watch. This involved blaring the ending theme to the anime adaptation of the latter game, Yo-Kai Exercise Number One, non-stop for the entire event. By the end of my full twelve hours at the show I was both sick of and in love with that awkward English translation, and it got me thinking about how far the relationship between music and video games as a medium has come since the tuneless bleeps that served as the sole audio feedback for Pong, and how just as the rise of indie games has opened the medium to creative minds that otherwise may never had made it into the AAA industry, indie games have also led to a wealth of new and interesting soundtracks and musical talent.

maxresdefault (1)

First though, let’s consider how we got to a stage where I can be subjected to the same song from an anime adaptation of a game for 12 hours straight. The very existence of such a song is an indication of the complexity and mainstream appeal modern games have garnered. The beginning of the road lies during the NES era, with games like Super Mario and the Legend of Zelda forming some of the first truly recognisable characters and stories in the medium. They were ripe with potential for Saturday morning exploitation and inevitably had some rather… interesting American cartoon adaptations which had their own soundtracks, primarily consisting of versions of music from the games reworked to fit with the style of the shows. Not only were the characters recognisable enough to warrant adaptation to other mediums: the music was too. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Koji Kondo is one of the most important and influential figures in the history of video game soundtracks. Kondo, the composer behind the earworm soundtracks Super Mario and the Legend of Zelda of was one of the very first to create video game music that could truly be considered art in its own right.

zoldo

As the years went by, Koji Kondo’s work remained at the forefront of memorable video game music, even as the cheesy American cartoons faded into the past. Meanwhile, other games were beginning to catch up and earn their own pedigree. Nubuo Uomatsu’s Final Fantasy scores were met with particular acclaim, along with the themes from Tetris, adapted from a Russian folk song as well as one of Bach’s suites by Japanese composer and sound designer Hirokazu Tanaka, also known for his work on Earthbound and Super Mario Land.

Nintendo led the charge well into the 90s, when another of their properties made the leap to small screen. Junichi Masuda’s score to Game Freak’s Pokémon was arranged into sweeping, uplifting orchestral pieces. And along with those instantly memorable orchestrations came the true progenitor to Yo-kai Exercise Number One: the anime’s original themes in Japan and the West by Rica Matsumoto and Jason Paige respectively. The popularity and synonymy with the branding those songs garnered really cemented the multimedia nature video games would go on to possess, as well as the strong link between the worlds of music and interactive entertainment. It’s difficult to mention Pokémon as a franchise without some recollection of that classic theme, and that’s exactly what Nintendo and Level 5 are going for: cross-brand recognisability through the means of a catchy theme song, just as Pokémon achieved all those years ago.

Which brings us to the present, and while AAA video game music retains its popularity and influence in popular culture and the multimedia space, indie game music is really beginning to get the attention it deserves. Danny Baranowski’s critically acclaimed soundtrack for Crypt of the Necrodancer had sold in excess of 23,000 copies prior to being picked up by record label Ghost Ramp. Other indie soundtracks have been experiencing radical acclaim from both critics and consumers, such as Undertale, whose music was composed by Toby Fox in addition to writing and developing the entire game himself, and previously known for leading the highly popular music team for video game based webcomic Homestuck. Austin Wintory’s soundtrack to thatgamecompany’s indie darling Journey is also widely considered one of the best game soundtracks of all time. Wikipedia’s list of video game soundtracks considered the best, derived from a cross comparison of critic lists of best video game music spanning from 1985 to the present, lists Journey, Undertale, Fez and Bastion alongside some of the most influential AAA soundtracks of the last 30 years. As of June, Jim Guthrie’s soundtrack to Sword and Sworcery had sold over 30,000 digital copies and 5000 vinyl records according to Bandcamp’s Casey Jarman. It would seem that indie game soundtracks occupy a higher position in pop culture and public consciousness than much of the recent AAA fair, but why is that? There is a simple answer: Originality.

journey-game-screenshot-1-b

The indie music scene succeeds at filling niches not covered by the mainstream music industry for fear of losing mass-market appeal, and indie game soundtracks are no different. Be they the Earthbound-inspired blend of chiptune and piano that characterises Undertale’s part-jaunty, part-mellow, part-epic soundscape or Journey’s sweeping mix of joyous arrangements and sombre reflection, what they share in common is their willingness to be bold, to be art in and of themselves whilst capturing and enhancing the mood and atmosphere of the interactive media they’re tied to. We’re in the midst of a second indie revolution right now, but unlike the homebrew games that characterised the likes of the Commodore 64, modern Indie developers and composers have the means by which to pursue their artistic vision and bring about a new era just as Koji Kondo and Nintendo did all those years ago. And perhaps the future will bring an increasingly multimedia approach to the indie market, just as the AAA space has occupied. It’s an exciting time to be part of the community, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for video game soundtracks, as well as for the medium as a whole as it matures into a market just as varied as that of music or television.

  • I’ve always thought that a good future would be to end music licensing, by having software play music out of the player’s personal library, and buy the piece automatically if it’s not already in the library.

    Music made by musicians just to make the music, and not to fit a scenario, tends to be much better music than music made for a purpose. Choosing the right music is like casting parts, versus making a person/character for a part. This is a crazy way to do things, but it’s what we expect. It’s hard to have good chemistry on screen when you are stuck with whatever you can make from scratch in a limited amount of time.

    I hope the future of these things is more and more reuse and sharing, more casting, scouting, and tailoring, and less creation ex nihilo. Music is the easiest part to do, because it’s intrinsically surreal (nothing actually has a soundtrack) and it’s actually better when not consonant to the setting, because it’s by nature surreal, and so should be played as the pure fantasy it is. We have personal libraries, but artists do not have the freedom to use the vast reserves of music we have freely without going through middlemen, I do not understand why this hasn’t already come about. It’s something I intend to work on eventually. (I know this doesn’t speak to this article, but it’s an answer to the headline!)