Research in Game Music- A reaction to Andrew High’s Gamasutra article: “Is Game Music All It Can Be?”

Perhaps adding to what I wrote about a couple weeks ago, Gamasutra’s Andrew High writes about how the game music industry could do well to learn from film scoring.  It is an interesting read, for sure.  However, I really do not agree with most of his points and criticisms of the game industry and thus, this research article is a response.  Enjoy!

Games and films are different and must be treated as such: a reaction to Andrew High’s “Is Game Music All It Can Be?”

High states that he wants composers to approach game music with more subtlety and really think about how music interacts with how the game works.  As far as I’m concerned, this has always been a bit of how game music works.  To state that we need “film score study” to really construct music for video games is an over-simplification:  what works for a game doesn’t necessarily work for a film and vice versa.  As far as I’m concerned, game music construction is a completely different genre altogether and should be treated as such.  There is an interactive element that is present in gaming that is not present in film and while film score study would surely help in game music construction, it should not dictate the exact methods of compositions.   Here’s a snippet of what High stated:

“Video games typically have long segments of player-controlled action that require atmospheric background music on endless loop. This is certainly something that’s unique to video games, and presents its own difficulties. The composer must create audio that (a) tells the story of the area or level, (b) has enough interest to avoid fading out of the player’s notice entirely, (c) can be listened to ad nauseum without driving the player insane, and (d) stays cohesive with the rest of the music in the game. Game composers in general seem not to struggle too much with B, but A, C, and D can present serious hurdles.”

First, in order to respond to this, we’ll need to do a bit of comparison between film elements and game elements so that we have this clearly defined.

In a film, the director sets up and records a complete tapestry of scenes to be displayed for viewing.  The composer’s responsibility is to create a film score, usually through-composed, that expresses how the actors and the scenes are displayed.  These scenes play back without any variation in a set order every single time the movie is queued up.  A director would say:  Okay, I need this melody to linger a bit and then become dark because the main character is about to try to commit suicide.  Hans Zimmer or whoever would then make sure that the music, which repeats in the same order every single time, lines up with the scene.  The finished result is music that is interwoven into static viewership.  It occurs at the same time, every time.

High and I agree that video games have an interactive element that makes them different from movies.  While movies and games are essentially completed pieces of art that we view and observe, only video games allow the user to make the decisions for content.  For example, in Super Mario Bros., there are no pre-set deaths.  Death occurs ONLY when the player makes a mistake.  This, as I’ve said before, stops the current music and cues the death music.  We can assume Koji Kondo, much like a film score composer, would be told how to score the music:  When Mario dies, we want a jingle to play.  The difference is that Kondo would NOT be told when and where this music would be used- only that it needs to indicate to the player that they have died.  Kondo would write a small jingle, interrupting in nature, that indicates to the player that they’ve died.  This HAS to be abrupt and interrupt the flow of gameplay.  Subtlety MUST be ignored and this game “event” must NOT be seamless.

We should know that we suck at Super Mario Bros. The death music must play, even if it interrupts our “immersion”.

With Super Mario Bros‘s average levels being less than 30 seconds long and the music looping in varying orders depending on levels, explain to me why Super Mario Bros. is littered with boring, cliché, and just plain bad level music.”  It isn’t.  And did Koji Kondo sit there and say, “Oh yes, this is the sunny outside level so let’s make it sunny and outside.  And here’s the DARK UNDERGROUND CAVE.  I need music that captures this mood.”  I can assure you that while he did think of the game construction, he didn’t think that anyone would listen to the music outside the game and judge it on it’s ability to convey emotion or the scenes…

High continues to bolster this argument with his example from Nier.  Video game music, much like film music, is completely dependent on the entire art form.  That is, to someone who has seen a film, the score should invoke the images of the film.  Examples from Nier in which the interpretation of the music lines up with the gameplay is most likely based on the bias of actually playing the game.  He also uses Persona 4‘s music to show how a game may not have cohesion… yet the music describes to him the entire scene.  The music reminds him about what happened in the game and that’s the goal of game music.

Ask someone to listen to John Williams’ Star Wars for the first time and see what they think the movie is about.  Do they get action and space?  Do they get “a plot about Rebels or Imperial foes?”  The only reason we know how to interpret this music is our own visual recall of the opening scenes.  Unless music has a story behind it that is completely defined and mentioned to the audience before listening (program music), the audience is completely free to interpret what they hear.  The practice of saying that the music must convey an element on its own really only applies to music outside the realm of film and video games.  It is a primary consideration when composing, don’t get me wrong, but it is not the reason why some music is great and some music is awful.  The complete package (audio + visual) ultimately enhances our lasting interpretation.

A lot of High’s article focuses squarely on games that have cinematic elements where the player sits back, watches, and cannot interact.  This this is relatively new to the game industry.  In 1985, Koji Kondo was not required to write a :45 second through-composed track that plays when, say, Bowser steals the Princess and Mario angrily shakes his fist.  Older games had these stories printed in the instruction manuals or during introductions.  Today, however, a game music composer must write music that is both dynamic AND static.  The dynamic music would be for levels and interactive gameplay.  The static music would be for such cutscenes mentioned above.  This has been going on for some time, not just in the 2000s:

Composer Nobuo Uematsu and the game developers line up the music perfectly to create this cutscene… and this occurred way before the Halo series or today’s modern games.  This may look primitive by comparison, but it has all the elements that make it great from a film perspective.  Furthermore, if High wants an example of “hard transitions and visual beats“, he only look above.

We can also go back a lot further than this if we want to show Uematsu again successfully creating an cutscene with even less:

While this is only the Super Nintendo, the technique is purposeful.  Notice how the first flash of light and the first organ sound are perfectly synchronized.  The action and the music are intertwined.  Uematsu was clearly asked to produce something that reminds us of the backstory to Final Fantasy VI and while there’s no “speech” or “voice” here, we get the story and the atmosphere, dare I say, more effectively than a lot of today’s titles.  If High was looking for simplicity, he only needs to quote these older games where simplicity was king.  There’s a few perfectly lined up “beats” here and it’s not overwhelming.  It’s both atmospheric and tonal.  It’s exactly what he was looking for… and it’s 15 years older than the games he complained about.

The last point I’ll make is his article values the skills of film composers while pushing down the accomplishments of game music composers.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of effective scores to games that do NOT fall into the criteria that High discusses.  He also completely ignores any game before about 2005 in his analysis, even citing his own article where he states that Final Fantasy XIII was the first game to use leitmotif.  Not true, by a long margin.  Leitmotif, even OPERATIC SEQUENCE, was used at least as early as Final Fantasy VI.  Each character had their own theme that appeared when the character appeared, each scene had hints of those themes, and the construction of the game was completely intertwined with those themes in mind.

In the end, this articles confuses me.  It says that it loves video game music but also pushes video game music down.  It cites examples of video game music from last 8 years and compares them to films with bigger budgets and legendary scores across the entire 120~ year history of film.  It fails to recognize why video game music is different than film score and that’s what is so troubling.  For video game music to continue as an academic study, we MUST separate it from other types of music.  We wouldn’t talk about counterpoint in an opera class, we wouldn’t discuss sonata-allegro form in a class on Hildegard von Bingen, we wouldn’t talk about hip hop in a rock music class- we cannot compare apples to oranges and ultimately, that’s what this article does.

Comments welcome!  Thanks for reading.

About Classical Gaming

Steve Lakawicz holds an MM in Music Performance from Temple University as well as a BM in Tuba Performance from Rutgers University . His teachers include Paul Scott, Scott Mendoker, and Jay Krush. His love of video game music has lead him to form a blog, Classical Gaming, to promote discussion both casual and academic about the music of video games. He is the co-founder of the video game/nerd music chamber ensemble, Beta Test Music and regularly composes/performs chiptune music as Ap0c. He currently resides in Philadelphia where he teaches college statistics at Temple University. View all posts by Classical Gaming

9 responses to “Research in Game Music- A reaction to Andrew High’s Gamasutra article: “Is Game Music All It Can Be?”

  • Elizabeth Blitz-McGinsky

    …and *you* missed a prime opportunity for a, “He must have been HIGH when he wrote this, heh heh heh… “

  • Mr. Bene

    I find this article very insteresting. I have a question, Have you written music for a videogame?

    • Classical Gaming

      I have, actually. It wasn’t particularly the best game but it was an old Nokia cellphone puzzle game. While I do work on composition, my main focus is analyzing the music from games… though I hope to eventually compose for some game in the future.

  • Chris

    Final fantasy viii was increadibly underrated and highly cinematic in nature.

    • Classical Gaming

      That scene when you storm the rival garden and you’re literally walking through a CGI cutscene of a massive fight is probably one of the best sequences of any game- period.

  • Muuurgh


    Just finished reading High’s article, the comments on it, and your response. I have a couple of points:

    1. I agree with you that game music and film music are (and need to stay) completely separate entities, but I think High makes some good points about these game scores that are trying to be film scores. If in fact that’s what the developer is aiming for, High points out some good things for composers to take note of if they’re unaware of them already. However, I also agree with you that he’s using first-tier film music examples and that he seems to be lumping most film music up with those while avoiding gaming’s masterpieces. It does undervalue VGM, and in quite an unfair way.

    2. One point that High makes well is that some music just doesn’t fit due to the clash of the emotional response that the storywriters want from the gamer and the response that the gamer actually has. His example of ‘Persona 4’ seems like a great fit. I haven’t played it myself, but from the scene he describes and the music I’ve heard, I understand why he’s frustrated.

    I’m a fan of ‘Persona 3’ and as for the music, I have mixed feelings. It’s catchy, it gets me pumped, and I enjoy playing with it on. However, it adds absolutely nothing to the story. In fact, when I first agreed with him on 4’s, I remembered how some intense moments in 3 were nullified by the music. And that’s fine, I guess, if the developer doesn’t really care to make the story and its impact the focus of the game, but if they want enhanced emotional responses, the music needs to back it up.

    His ‘Assassin’s Creed’ example, by the way, I’m mixed on. As a modern game, I understand the direction the composer was going in, but I personally would go for a more temporally relevant sound. That’s just me, though.

    3. You referencing Star Wars is really spot-on. Composers conforming to “what works” or what is “obvious” leads ultimately to uninspired, rather drabs soundtracks and lots of music that just exists in the background. It’s great when someone writes great music that paints a pretty accurate picture of what it represents in the mind of the person listening without that person having listen to it priorly; however, it’s also great – if not more of an accomplishment – for one to score something that doesn’t immediately paint a picture, but falls into place once a picture has been seen. In the latter, the composer has created new associations instead of relying on old ones.

    I can’t say that I haven’t been guilty of relying on old associations, but I strive to garner more creative freedom by breaking away from them. No one should feel constricted in that way.

    • Classical Gaming

      Yeah, that’s basically how I’ve felt after reading the article again and again. My opinion on his writing has changed a bit since I posted this.

      I feel like the one thing he does well is point out those weird cutscenes where there’s talking and the music does not line up. Sonic Adventure comes to mind: <— gross. Still, High is absolutely right. I believe that I really didn't address that in my response. Just as there are MANY MOVIES with awful sound cues, there are many games.

      As for Persona, that series is ALWAYS trying to push artistic limit and the music, though completely bizarre out of context, always bothered me but stuck with me even after I was done playing. It's weird but the composer (Meguro) WANTED that music there. It's deliberate and I believe his intention was to kind of shock the audience. And as you said, he's trying something different, which is also awesome.

      The overall tone of the article was informed and I'm happy that High wrote it because it gets a debate started. I just wish that there was a little more respect for the "game music" than there was. High definitely knows how film scores work and his background (according to the website) makes him look like an arranger-type who does a lot of work in many different fields.

      And I suppose that if you had to tell someone to write video game music and they had no clue and had to pick somewhere to start, Film Score books and study would probably be the place. I just don't think that guys like Jack Wall and Uematsu really need this advice. As you said- this kind of gives a guideline for those who don't know some of these conventions.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful reply and recommendation for critical-distance 🙂

  • Tim Haywood

    Well said. CG! Andrew High should of done a lot more research, and done a lot less writing (4 pages to make 1 bad point…really?). Video Game music has been doing exactly what he thinks it hasn’t since the Commodore 64 days (does he know what one of those is? perhaps not). I’ve replied on Gamasutra, but also noticed his blog was from last year – I really should keep up 🙂

  • Research in Game Music: Silence | Classical Gaming

    […] High and I would agree (though we didn’t here) that loading screens definitely ruin our immersion while playing games.  Many of the older games […]

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