Long gone are the days of video games being the sole domain of the quiet adolescent, locked in their bedroom. Nowadays we’re all gaming—be it on our mobiles, on the daily commute, on consoles, laptops or tablets, there’s a game designed for everyone.
Music and video games have for decades enjoyed a close relationship. Cinematic triple A titles tend to opt for a soundtrack approach to their scores—similar to movies, commissioning a composer/producer whose style fits with the tone of the title.
Other games like the popular FIFA franchise of football simulators choose to license a compilation of songs by existing bands and producers. You just have to check the nostalgia infused YouTube comments of any song that was featured on a FIFA game to see how much of an impact it had on gamers’ formative years. Whatever the approach, a good official soundtrack (OST) can elevate a game, and a bad one, significantly mar it.
If the soundtrack isn’t at all to your taste, you might want songs from your own collection to accompany your gaming experience. Consoles and mobile devices allow you to load your own music and once the in-game audio is muted in the settings menu, you can play your latest favourite album or playlist.
If you’re playing casino games, pair the experience with some soft jazz to set the mood. If instead you’re battling your way through a Japanese hack and slash title like Capcom’s Devil May Cry, some high octane, adrenaline fuelled prog metal from the likes of Dream Theatre will likely fit the bill.
- The first video game to feature continuous music was Rally-X, released by Namco in 1980. This came at a time in game development when memory was at a premium and every bit was precious.
- The decision to include music meant sacrificing space that could be used for graphics or more levels. As a result early 8-bit video game music was very simple and very repetitive.
- Soundtracks have come a long way since then and there are some that occupy a place in the video game compositions hall of fame. No article discussing music and video games would be complete without mentioning Super Mario Bros.
- The number of instantly recognisable melodies from the franchise is staggering. Koji Kondo, the composer responsible for much of the Super Mario back catalogue, is the mind behind ‘overworld musical theme’—often cited as the most memorable video game soundtrack.
- The theme for the Nintendo Wii, known as the Mii Song has achieved a viral status especially thanks to a slew of memes and the coinciding dance moves.
- More recently, soundtracks have become increasingly enmeshed in the gameplay experience. The neon pink, 80s drenched look of Dennaton Games’ 2012 release, Hotline Miami boasted an award winning OST that catapulted the contributors to stardom. The licensed tracks featured genres from experimental psychedelic rock to French electro funk and synth wave that fit the ultraviolent backdrop perfectly.
- Ape Out, released in 2019, a top down game that puts the player in control of a gorilla trying to escape a maze of office corridors and city streets is another title further blurring the distinction between visuals and audio. The game’s heavy stylised art direction features splashes of bold colour, reminiscent of the 1960s work of Maurice Binder—think DePatie-Freleng’s Pink Panther opening credits or the more recent pastiche offering of Catch Me If You Can (2002).
- The soundtrack of Ape Out is an extensively percussive 1960s jazz affair and features a ‘reactive music system’. That is to say as you crash your way through humans intent on your recapture, cymbals crash and timpani drums boom out. Your actions in the game have a direct effect on the music and rhythms that you hear.
- 2017’s Cuphead painstakingly hand drew each frame to accurately depict the 1930s aesthetic that they aimed for. The OST features nearly three hours of original big band and ragtime jazz to fully immerse the player in the experience.
The music that accompanies underwater levels, typified by muted tones and elongated pads and strings, also have their own notoriety, aesthetic and cult popularity. Coral Capers, the underwater level from Donkey Kong Country (1994), is supported by a piece of music entitled Aquatic Ambience, composed by David Wise. It’s a blissful slice of chilled out atmosphere and is definitely worth checking out, even when not playing the game.
Ecco the Dolphin, an early 90s game that took place entirely under the ocean has a soundtrack that epitomises the genre. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Metroid Prime, Super Mario 64 and Final Fantasy VII among countless other classics have contributed to the legacy.
The Tetris theme that we know and love today in fact started its life as a 19th century Russian folk song called Korobeiniki. Many early game developers on a budget would choose to use out of copyright folk compositions instead of paying for new music to be written.
Other notable mentions from the genre include the relaxing ambience of the Minecraft OST, the heroic Halo theme and the enthusiasm of Undertale.
Statistics suggest there are now “2.5 billion gamers worldwide”, each with their own tastes and preferences. You might love the curated soundtrack your favourite game has chosen or you may wish to turn it off entirely and have your latest lo-fi playlist provide the backdrop.