Up until recently, the title of this article represented what a lot of people thought about soundtracks for video games. It’s just bleeps and bloops, right? Hell, even Inon Zur, who is now one of the top composers in the industry with some amazing soundtracks under his belt, originally thought it was just a bunch of cheesy digital tones without much substance. And this guy wrote music for Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, so I’m pretty sure he has experience with cheesy subject matter.
But we’re kind of over that now. I’m not saying that the argument about whether or not video games are art has been completely decided on by all of society, but as game playing kids from the 80s and 90s continue to grow into game playing adults and have gamer kids of their own, the prevailing opinion is that, just like films or books, video games are a form of artistic expression. And just like with movies and literature, there are occasionally entries that, erm, don’t quite rate as high on the artistic spectrum, but that doesn’t mean they don’t count as art. In my opinion, you can’t have it both ways; either all of a given medium counts as art, or none of it does.
So if video games are art, then game music itself is art too, right? You know my opinion on the subject. Game music has just as much power as a symphony, a dance mix, or a great film score when it comes to changing the listener’s mood and experience. Some might argue (me included) that at times, it can do this more powerfully than music in any other medium, because the player can directly affect what they are hearing; they’re an interactive part of the experience, rather than just a passive listener.
Though there are a lot of people who don’t think of game music as art, most of the doubters I’ve met have admitted that they do in fact count it as a serious art form. What I’ve gotten into debates with people on is just how good of an art form it is. I’ve heard a lot of people say that game soundtracks don’t have anything to compare to Beethoven’s 9th, or the soundtrack to Laurence of Arabia or Star Wars. And while video games may still be a relatively new form of expression when compared to film and concert music, there are a lot of very artistic games already present in the medium, and more on the way every day.
Rather than go on about it, I’d rather give you a few examples and let you be the judge.
This game might look like a straight up shooter to the uninitiated. But for those who’ve played it, it’s a lot more than that. Your character ends up marooned in the underwater art deco city of Rapture, built by entrepreneur Andrew Ryan as a place for the greatest minds mankind has to offer to live and work, without the fruits of their labors being trifled with by church or government. Science has even progressed to the point where the city’s citizens can modify themselves genetically at will, changing everything from their looks, to their skills, to imbuing themselves with superpowers. When you arrive, however, the city is in ruins, overrun by psychotics who have taken their modifications to the point of insanity. The story unfolds into a comment on society, isolation, and eventually, free will. The music takes the art deco aesthetic and lends it a sad twist that’s perfect for the setting: scratchy jazz recordings and lonely, old world fiddle gives the city of Rapture a life all its own.
Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2’s greatest artistic strength is its characters. Where other RPGs have a bunch of different one dimensional people join your team for transparent or shallow reasons, the characters in this game all have their own motives for joining you on your quest to save the galaxy from the insidious alien race known as the Collectors. Throughout the game, between missions and exploration, you have plenty of opportunity to have conversations with these characters-conversations where you control your own dialogue-and if you spend enough time with these virtual people, you actually end up caring about them. You find out about their fears, their hopes for when this mission is over. You can even start a relationship with some of them if you like, but their personalities are (for the most part) so unique and fleshed out that, if you take the effort to discover them on your own, you feel like you’re leading a team of real people by the end of the game, rather than disposable AIs.
SPOILERS The heaviest part is that, throughout the game you’re told that your final assault on the collectors is a suicide mission. Based on decisions that you make throughout the story and during the final moments, many of these characters (and possibly even your own) don’t survive the experience, and it’s made all the more real because by then, you’re as attached to these virtual team members as you would be to a beloved book or film character. Below is the music that accompanies that final mission, and it definitely taps into the emotions and gravity of the story’s finale to elevate the experience. SPOILERS END
Shadow of the Colossus
In this game, you play as Wander, a man who, at the start of the story, brings the body of a dead woman named Mono to a temple in a far off, forbidden land. There, he seeks the aid of Dormin, a god-like entity said to have the power to bring the dead back to life. Dormin requires you to travel further into the forbidden lands and slay the sixteen gigantic creatures known as the colossi, claiming that his power was sealed away within them long ago and that he can not help you until they are destroyed.
SPOILERS As you undergo this task, you begin to doubt your actions. The colossi are massive, majestic creatures, many the size of small mountains. As you approach, some of them attack you on sight, but many of them are peaceful, and only become aggressive once you’ve made your intentions clear. In addition, your character becomes more haggard and lifeless with each colossus you destroy, as if his own life force is connected to theirs in some way. So often in video games, the player just accepts whatever tasks are asked of him or her without thinking, because it is the only way to progress the story. This game actually made you question whether what you were doing, even in a virtual context, was right, and if you chose to continue, you were confronted with the full consequences of your actions. The score was an appropriate mix of epic orchestral pieces and sad string and woodwind solos, and highlighted the emotions on display perfectly.
That’s it for this week. Most the people who read this site regularly (or at least most of you who comment) seem to already agree with me that game music is indeed art. And while I’d like to hear your thoughts, I’d also like to hear from any of you who disagree. If you don’t think game music can attain the same level of artistic expression as film, concert music or music for theater, why not? What do you believe constitutes art? I’d love to see some discussion taking place, but no fighting! This ain’t no YouTube comment thread (thank god).