Video Game Music: An Underappreciated Art Form
The lights dim and the crowd grows silent. You can feel the anticipation in the room; it’s buzzing; it’s as if you’re about to fight the final boss and you just ran out of potions. The silence sits until, suddenly, a screen flickers to light on stage, the audience’s faces illuminated by the mysterious glow. Only one word appears, a word filled with so much promise and potential but is held with so much resentment and eagerness from the populace: Loading. Then, as if electrocuted, the music crescendos to life, the crowd screams, colorful flashes relentlessly attack the stage, and the concert hall transforms from its previous timid state into an eruption of lights, music, and adventure. This is how my first Video Games Live! experience began when I was one of those silent audience members at the unaware age of fifteen. The night was filled with so much amazing music, unforgettable performances, and jaw-dropping effects, I returned to see it again two years later. And the year after that. Each performance was just as distinguishable and thrilling as the last and, as I began packing for college, I hoped that VGL would come to a concert hall near my school so I could go see it again.
For those who have never heard of it, Video Games Live! is an interactive concert/lightshow extravaganza which showcases video game scores played by a live orchestras. It allows people to hear some of their favorite game tunes live while letting some lucky fans to play along with the music. It is a classical music concert, but the first one of its kind. Its creator, Tommy Tallarico, runs on stage and prompts the audience that this is not your average symphonic concert. “If you hear something you like, I want to hear you scream for it. I want you to scream so loud you can barely hear us.” VGL is an unforgettable concert experience with great scores like Mega Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, and Uncharted being performed at its pinnacle and portrays the music in a new light.
However, that was not the last time I encountered VGL. The next time was two years later, as I sat down in my place as third seat flute in MU-136 University Concert Band and looked at the new music on my stand. I was rendered speechless, reverted back to unaware, ecstatic fifteen-year-old I once was. On my stand staring back at me was Video Games Live! Movement II: Civilization IV and Movement III: Kingdom Hearts. I ran up to my band director in uncontrollable joy and asked what made him choose such amazing music. He said, “I never realized that video game music had so many layers until I heard these arrangements. This music is great stuff and people deserve to hear it.”
But the question is not about the sheer epicness of One-Winged Angel nor is it about the nostalgia the music elicits with gamers and fans alike. The question is how this music got from the PS2 in our childhood basements to a university level performance class. It was reviewed and chosen by someone who has never played the games before with no chance to experience the epicness of the moment where the music premiered or the nostalgia. It was chosen on a fair basis that speaks for all great video game music, cementing its position as a respectable art form and an amazing outlet of expression; it was chosen for its quality and for the fact that, overall, it’s “great stuff and people deserve to hear it.”
There is one thing that is a known fact; video game scores are great. They take both the audience member and the musician places where only the best music can take someone. And they’re difficult pieces of music, packed with crazy runs, precise technicalities and a multitude of dynamics that need to be executed in order for it to be played successfully. It takes top-tier composers and musicians to make this music as lively and electric as it is. Not any garage band can create the amazing music found on the Dragon Age title screen, which basically describes the majesty of the game. But still, although it is created by talented people and full of wonderful melodies and arrangements, it is a hidden musical art form that can only be revealed through the video gaming experience.
The music is engaging; it moves. It takes you from the solemn ruins of Zanarkand to an impossible boss battle with Sin in a key change, from battling against Mother Brain to a revolutionary reveal of a character’s true identity with a fanfare. These orchestrated musical masterpieces are what make memorable moments and illustrate momentous victories and heart crushing defeats. The way players get chills while killing monsters in Gears of War 2 is not an accident. It is not a coincidence that gamers get pumped when they hear the Pokemon battle music (which, although 8-bit, is still awesome). The music is pulling these reactions out of the player. These scores deserve to be lauded for their amazing ability to elicit emotion, transform the atmosphere, and define the empathic capacity music has always inherently possessed.
But, back to the question at hand. How did this music become a part of a college curriculum if it is such underappreciated art form?
First we need to answer the question of whether or not this music is underappreciated. And the short answer is yes. If you aren’t involved with games, you have probably never heard Utada Hikaru’s “Simple and Clean” or GLaDOS’ “Still Alive.” It can even be said that the music is underappreciated in its own field. Spike hosts the Video Game Awards every December to congratulate the year’s best games and the music category was never been won by an original video game accompaniment. It always goes to Rock Band, DJ Hero or other games that use popular music instead of ones with unique scores. But this may not be the case soon. As video games are growing in popularity, so are their scores. These popularity boosts along with showcases like VGL and websites like YouTube are opening the music to a larger audience. As it rises from the underground, it is starting to get some of the appreciation it deserves by not only its fans but by others who have never played the games but are still impacted by the music.
Is video game music rising from the depths of unseen art? The answer is still unknown. Maybe this is the start of a sudden wave of appreciation for video game music. Or it could be just the rise of another trend, which will fade like the others of its kind. But one way or another, video game music is an incredible art form that may be on its way to gaining some of the praise it has been entitled to for a long time.
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