Inside the video game music revolution: ‘The whole world has changed enormously’

·8-min read
 (© Camille Blake)
(© Camille Blake)

Picture it: a stuffy summer night in August. People crowd into the Royal Albert Hall for the latest performance in the Proms’ packed summer schedule.

But when the audience quietens down and the orchestra strike up, those in the crowd will not be listening to the dulcet strains of Bach or Beethoven. No: instead they will be listening to music from the Pokémon franchise. Pokémon Red and Blue, to be exact.

For those who think that classical music and video games are worlds apart, think again. From the dinky 8 Bit music of Donkey Kong to the soaring strings of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, music has always been a vital (and fast-evolving) part of the gaming experience.

This year’s Gaming Prom will see the European orchestral premiere of award-winning musician Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score for the first-person shooter game Battlefield 2042 - quite the feat, considering that the original soundtrack is composed of primarily natural sounds that have been put through several filters.

Best known for her work on the award-winning soundtrack for Joaquin Phoenix’s critical darling Joker, as well as composing the score for TV series Chernobyl, Guðnadóttir and her husband Sam Slater (with whom she co-wrote the score) are at the forefront of video gaming’s inexorable shift to mainstream appeal.

Robert Ames will be directing the Gaming Prom on the night (Mark Allen)
Robert Ames will be directing the Gaming Prom on the night (Mark Allen)

“Video games are just such a huge part of so many people’s lives,” she tells me over Zoom.

“It’s a bigger part of people’s upbringing today than it is when I was growing [up] and I basically had access to Tetris, and that was it. They’re becoming something so complex, and people are very invested in a lot of these games. So much content is being made on TV, on films and computer games, and also in the music industry.

“We also have more access to so much more technology, so it’s pretty easy for musicians to explore a broader variety of sounds and processes across genres,” she adds. “And I really welcome that, because I’m a big fan of experimentation. It’s nice when you are given the freedom to be able to explore different worlds.”

That freedom, as it turns out, has resulted in a suite that eschews traditional instruments in favour of the items that the player sees on the screen in front of them while they are playing.

“There’s no instruments that you find in an orchestra or a band or anything like that,” Slater explains. “Everything is tethered in these materials that were very apparent in front of you on the screen.”

In this case, that involved making sound from metal, sand and other materials, before running them through a filter that edited it to create what Guðnadóttir calls “musical clay”.

So far, so avant-garde. But the pair are adamant that video games are a natural home for Guðnadóttir’s talents, allowing her to experiment with unique sounds in a new, digital space - unlike film or TV scores, which have to adhere to a linear narrative, game scores are necessarily more varied and expansive as no player’s experience will be the same.

Guðnadóttir’s score for the first person shooter Battlefield 2042 will premiere at the Gaming Prom (PS5)
Guðnadóttir’s score for the first person shooter Battlefield 2042 will premiere at the Gaming Prom (PS5)

She’s not alone. These days, composers of all stripes are getting in on the game - both literally and figuratively. Indeed, one of the impressive aspects of the video game prom is the sheer variety of music the audience will be listening to on the night.

“We actually planned this prom a couple of years ago, for 2020,” says the Proms’ director, David Pickard. “What was interesting to me was that the people writing for video games was really expanding and growing. We did quite an interesting sci-fi music prom in 2018, and I was so struck by the fact we had a very different kind of audience coming out to hear this music.

“We also had a lot of people say to us, ‘Come on, gaming music is now happening in a big way.’ And I think we just felt the time was right to do one ourselves.”

It’s been a moment decades in the making. Springing to life in 1958 (the first ever video game was a rudimentary version of Pong), the industry has ridden the wave of the technological revolution to balloon in size in recent years, giving us open-world RPGs, multi-player battle simulators and intricate puzzle-solving games to while away hours.

Today, it is a sprawling monolith, pulling in billions of pounds in revenue annually; this year, the global video game industry is expected to earn £10bn in the UK alone, making it a bigger source of revenue than both the film and music industries, separately. And with games regularly wielding multi-million-pound budgets, it’s no surprise that the music we hear when we play them has also evolved into something highly sophisticated. In 2019 BBC Radio 3 launched its weekly Saturday afternoon show Sound of Gaming (its presenter, Bafta-winning composer Jessica Curry, had already created and presented Classic FM’s games music show, High Score - evidently the BBC wanted to get in on the act).

As well as the rich, complex scores that will be getting their due at this prom – conductor Robert Ames will pay tribute to games like Final Fantasy, adventure game Dear Esther and the Disney crossover role-player Kingdom Hearts in his programme, as well as Battlefield 2042 – the evening will also pay tribute to the early days of gaming.

Old school: An early Pokémon game (Pokémon / Nintendo)
Old school: An early Pokémon game (Pokémon / Nintendo)

“The history of video games music is about these composers that are struggling with the technological kind of resource limits of early consoles,” Slater explains, when I make the mistake of suggesting that 8 Bit music is simple to create.

“There’s all these composers running around being like, ‘Oh my God, if we if we like hack a specific cartridge in this Atari console in this way, we can have access to one more voice, which means that we can put a snare drum in there.’

“It required so much thought to deal with the resource limitation, which we have such an abundance of now,” he goes on. “There’s so much memory now that you can just really go wild. So I don’t think early video game scores should be characterised as simple. I have a lot of respect for that, I think it’s amazing.”

Today, video game composers have the freedom to experiment in brand new ways, with brand new sounds due to the extraordinarily sophisticated technology available, but that sense of innovation and ingenuity remains.

“I personally think that electronic music is particularly well suited, because it invites you to use a whole variety of sounds, and opens up what you might do in terms of genre. So it’s like having a massive box of toys, essentially,” electronic musician and composer CHaines tells me.

CHaines (their real name is Cee Haines) has dabbled in video game music before, creating soundtracks with LGBTQ+ organisation Rainbow Game Jam, for games that include Prism Break and The Curious Case of Timmy McRover.

For them, the importance of video game music cannot be overstated, not only in its genre-crossing potential but in its growing influence.

“I think we’re the most innovative genre,” they say. “I think personally, a lot of my inspiration comes from people like Darren Korb, writing for Supergiant Games; disasterpiece who did the soundtrack for Fez as well as a lot of film music; Thomas Dvorak and DVA for Amanita’s games.

“There’s a lot of incredibly rich work. And in a sense, I think studios that pick musicians who have a well-rounded life in gigs or concert music: it’s kind of a nice pairing of the artist’s voice with the game’s artistic vision. That’s what I think makes the best pairing.”

Cee Haines, an electronic musician and video game composer (CHaines)
Cee Haines, an electronic musician and video game composer (CHaines)

One thing’s for sure: with a growing number of composers dabbling in the video game arena, the traditional gap between video gaming and the rest of the musical industry is slowly disappearing.

“I absolutely think video gaming music should be taken seriously,” Slater tells me from his studio.

“It’s a strange kind of snobbery to create a hierarchy between film and TV; film composers then TV composers and then games. Good music only comes from industries that are respected, so respect it and you’ll get a lot of great music out of it.”

David Pickard agrees. “It’s impossible as a musician not to be affected by it by what is around you if you engage with it,” he says.

“This whole world has changed enormously and the people writing for it have changed. I think composers generally are interested in exploring different ways that give them different emphases, and I think that is exactly what’s happening with gaming.

“People who might not have thought about it before are now thinking this is interesting territory.”

From 8 Bit to the Proms, the gaming revolution is here to stay.

Gaming Prom - 8 Bit to Infinity is at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday August 1 at 7.30pm. Book tickets here