Sometimes the effect of music is so powerful, it almost feels violent — melodies can hurl you into the past, submerging you in a flood of sense memory and details you thought long-forgotten. For me, my musical madeleine is Nobuo Uematsu’s sweeping soundtrack to the game Final Fantasy IX, which once beckoned my 10-year-old self to a glorious world of enchantment, melodrama and adventure.
Every gamer has a foundational soundtrack which can reawaken their inner child with a single refrain. We spend dozens of hours with games and often get to know their music intimately, associating them with relationships and memories forged in virtual worlds. Today fans are increasingly able to listen to these nostalgic tracks in a grander setting. Classic music from The Legend of Zelda, Pokémon, Assassin’s Creed and more have been performed by professional orchestras around the world as the market for game concerts continues to grow.
On Monday the BBC Proms hosted their first concert dedicated to video game soundtracks in an evening that traced the history of game music from glitchy bleep-bloops all the way to lush orchestral suites. The performances drew from games such as Final Fantasy VIII, Shadow of the Colossus, Dear Esther, Journey, Kingdom Hearts and Battlefield 2042.
Composing music for games is not just an art, it’s also a science. Modern gaming soundtracks are non-linear, meaning they adapt in response to player behaviour. If a player suddenly decides to leave the path and get into a fight or dive underwater, the score needs to shape-shift seamlessly. “The soundtrack needs to be tightly woven with the player’s experience,” says Austin Wintory, Bafta-winning composer of the Journey soundtrack. “It’s like I’m writing music for a future anonymous dance partner in the form of the player. I don’t know what steps they’re going to make but I want to ensure I’ve accounted for everything.”
Wintory’s first step is to analyse the gameplay and map out the “spider web of possibilities” of player behaviour. In his score for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, an open-world adventure game, he accommodated not only whether a player was fighting or exploring, but also which part of the Victorian London setting they were in, writing musical themes inspired by boroughs such as Whitechapel and Westminster which played as they crossed those particular rooftops. There would be alternate versions of the score with additional instruments and vocal layers, depending on whether it was day or night on the in-game clock, whether the player had completed specific missions and even which of the game’s two protagonists they were controlling at the time.
What makes one game soundtrack rise above the rest in popularity? It could be the nostalgia factor, or the marriage of a memorable gameplay moment with the perfect musical accompaniment. Wintory suspects that it might simply be the undeniable appeal of a great melody. “Humans are fundamentally melodic instruments.” he says. “We can’t strum a chord with our vocal cords or simulate a choir on our own. We sing one note at a time, so it’s not a shock that the music we hold on to is the stuff we can sing back. Melody has always been the thing that unites the classics.”
Just as the Gaming Proms gave classical music fans an opportunity to explore gaming culture, concerts can also be a gateway into the orchestral world for gamers. “Nothing pleases me more than when someone comes up to me and says it’s the first time they’ve ever seen a live orchestra,” says Wintory, “because Beethoven, Mahler or Stravinsky won’t pull them in, but if it says Nobuo Uematsu, they’ll go. They’re still seeing the wondrousness of these concert halls and the brilliant orchestral musicians showcasing the powerful talent they’ve honed.”
It also helps usher a younger demographic into concert halls. “It’s important for the Proms not to be a museum,” says Matt Rogers, who was commissioned to compose the show’s opening piece. The programme often includes a few leftfield offerings, including previous Proms dedicated to Dr Who and Horrible Histories. “But this isn’t about the Proms legitimising video games,” adds Rogers, “they’re already super legit, to anyone that didn’t know.”
I ask the evening’s conductor, Robert Ames, whether we can expect to see a gaming presence at the Proms every year, or if this is just a one-off. “I hope that they will just get consumed into general music culture,” he says. “There will be a piece of game music programmed alongside classical works as part of an orchestral concert. And it’ll be there just because it’s a great piece of music.”