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Making use of the arsenal – orchestras in video game music

Austin Wintory conducting his video game music. Courtesy: Austin Wintory

Music journalist Rebecca Armstrong observed back in 2011 that video game music has come a long way from the sort of music you heard in the early days, ‘a series of bleeps accompanying pixilated figures on screen’. You can believe it when you hear the sort of full-blown orchestral score that is excerpted in video games concerts.

No-one who manages orchestras needs to be told how successful video game concerts are. The administrators have seen the new kind of audience drawn to them: the fans going nuts when they recognise the theme from ‘Zelda’; the rapturous applause from a full house for the second flute who has possibly never before had audience members scream for his/her solo.

Video Games concerts have even had their own evolution. What started out as a concert devoted to the music of one game, say Final Fantasy or The Legend of Zelda, has evolved into a more fluid structure drawing on an ever-increasing pool of excerpts (the beginnings of a repertoire perhaps?) Not that all the music presented in games concerts was originally conceived for orchestra, but this is increasingly the case. Indeed, video game music is a genuine new genre for orchestral composers. What intrigues me though is what it tells us about orchestras and what it might mean for orchestras long-term. Los Angeles is one of the centres of game creation and there is no shortage of people to ask.

Admittedly, I once assumed that video games were just outlets for violence – and you do come across games described as ‘an action-adventure third-person shooter video game’ or ‘containing melee combat’ – but I’d never realised the range of cultural references they might embrace. Assassin’s Creed, for example, is based on a 1938 Slovenian novel by Vladimir Bartol which was dedicated, ironically, to Benito Mussolini. Journey, whose composer Austin Wintory I interviewed for this article, ends with a song whose phrases come from the Aeneid, Iliad, Beowulf, Bashō and Joan of Arc. On a YouTube playthrough of the score, Wintory posts a comment saying he was amazed how much conversation there was on one of the producer company’s forums trying to identify these texts. 

Perhaps I am most struck by how many games are modeled on the hero’s journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Joseph Campbell is a name you hear a lot in Los Angeles. He seems to be cited by every second film worker (and that includes musicians) from one side of Los Angeles to the other and his ‘monomyth’ can be discerned beneath movies as diverse as Star Wars and The Cider-House Rules (or even operas like The Magic Flute and Parsifal). In so many video games, even those that look like nothing more than splatting bad guys, the gamers themselves are often replicating a hero’s journey. Of course, they may ‘die’ and not get to the ‘inmost cave’ to find ‘the elixir’ (to use ‘heroic’ terminology). But I suppose that’s how video games resonate with life.

So might I be proposing a high cultural value for video games? Is this why orchestras have been brought in? Australian conductor Brett Kelly proposes that video game employment of orchestras is trying to draw on a ‘sense of cultural profundity’. I asked Bruce Broughton, the composer of the first video game score conceived for orchestra, how the score for Heart of Darkness (1998) came about:

‘Because Heart of Darkness was an early video game, it was somewhat different from contemporary games.  It contained a 30-minute animated film, the narrative of which was interrupted by game sequences.  In the game/story the hero would come to a crisis, which could be only solved by the gamer.  Once the solution was revealed, the story – the film – continued.  Essentially I was writing music for a 30-minute animated film interspersed with game sequences, the music for which I wasn’t responsible. The game’s producers liked the Disney film The Rescuers Down Under and particularly liked the score, so they contacted me to see whether I would be interested in doing their game.  I had never done a game before, and it sounded like fun.  So, my answer was ‘Of course I would.’

I asked Broughton, whose brother Bill is an Adelaide-based musician, what he thought an orchestra brought to the experience of the game. ‘An orchestra,’ he says, ‘has emotional depth at its heart. I have to think that that quality helped the animation; the story and the game become more involving and entertaining.’

Austin Wintory, composer of Journey, the first game score to be nominated for a Grammy, echoed this view when I phoned him at his studio in Burbank. ‘It’s the expressive depth and potential of the orchestra. The symphony orchestra is one of the greatest artistic achievements in human history. It has an inherent emotional communicability that fits naturally within the vocabulary of most games and most films.’

Actually, Journey was an eye-opener for me. Not violent at all, the player undertakes a mystical journey across desert (and stunningly beautiful graphics) to a mountain. It’s almost a meditative experience, supported by music which is essentially a cello rhapsody accompanied by bass flute, serpent (yes, the old medieval instrument) and strings (in this case, the Macedonian Radio Symphony Orchestra).

Video Games concerts have been such a boon for orchestras that an instinctive doubt creeps in. Will they run their course? Will this good news story come to an end? And, while gamers are currently providing a bump for orchestras at the box office, will they migrate to what orchestras consider their main business: the perpetuation of the classical repertoire?  

There’s no doubting the enthusiasm for video game music. Derek Raycroft runs an online radio program on live365.com ‘dedicated to playing symphonic music of film, video games, television, and more’ (http://www.live365.com/stations/djraycroft). When we meet in North Hollywood he rattles off a new list of Essential Listening for me – Garry Schyman (Bioschock), Brian Tyler (Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag), Michael Giacchino (Medal of Honor: Allied Assault). I’d heard of Giacchino before. He wrote a highly energetic score for the 2004 animated feature The Incredibles. What’s also interesting is that I’m skipping the game and going straight to the music.

But the orchestra’s core business for 100 years plus has been the presentation of music that is to be enjoyed for its own artful elaboration. ‘And what people are mostly looking for in video games concerts,’ says conductor Jeffrey Schindler, ‘is reliving an experience.’ Schindler wonders how tolerant game enthusiasts will be of ‘variations of interpretation, of tempo’. The people who go to these sorts of concerts ‘know how this music goes on the original soundtrack.’ When gamers hear the Halo Suite, says Raycroft, ‘everybody will go nuts for that because it’s so memorable. These video tracks that the concert organisers are choosing are memorable to the players and when they listen to them, it’s instant nostalgia to them.’

There is always, of course, the possibility of video games nurturing an audience that will then follow a composer into the concert hall. Austin Wintory talks of the gamers who came to hear Woven Variations, the fantasia for cello and orchestra that he derived from his music for Journey. They certainly accepted, even enthusiastically, the change of medium. And likewise, he says, ‘I had season ticket subscribers come up and say I’m going to buy this game.’ (Wintory tells of Woven Variations influencing the Journey game: ‘We were struggling at the time with kind of a big, cathartic, grand finale. And it was not landing and we were trying different things, mainly just getting bigger and bigger. Then virtually all the studio attended the premiere of Woven Light and I got a call the next day from the game’s creator Jenova Chen saying, “We think you’ve solved the end of the game”. It kind of metastasized. The ending of the game was inspired by the ending of this piece of music.’)

And what if video games are a new way for composers to enrich their musical palette? Broughton mentions at least one technique that he might incorporate into his other writing. ‘When I worked on the animated series Tiny Toon Adventures, I learned to make very quick transitions and modulations. It’s not a technique I need often, but if I ever do, I know how to do it.’

There are possibly quite a few people invested in the future of classical music who  bemoan the fact that much of the music composed for video games is what could be described as a film composer’s digest of Richard Strauss, Mahler, Wagner, early Stravinsky, Holst of The Planets, or Orff of Carmina burana. The language almost supports mid 20th-century critic Henry Pleasants’ contention that audiences and classical repertoire parted company sometime around Wozzeck’s premiere in 1925. But there is another clue: all the composers cited above take the audience on an adventure. It may not be the sort of participatory adventure you get from playing the game, but perhaps, as Schindler says, even if people ‘aren’t looking for the meaning of life, they’re looking for an experience of living.’

As the music in games increasingly becomes a plot device – and there are signs that it is – will an audience develop that is knowledgeable about video game music in a way that nurtures concert culture? What if there is an orchestral answer to Guitar Hero in which a gamer can make decisions about orchestral performances in such a way that they develop their own opinions of tempo and interpretation? Pie in the sky, perhaps. But somehow I doubt that video games will cease to offer classical music possibilities after games concerts per se have run their course.  

The answer may lie in keeping the channels of communication open and allowing the symbiosis to gather force. ‘Part of the problem,’ says Austin Wintory, ‘is that listeners and musicians alike put everything into categories. I think that orchestral musicians who command the most powerful emotional arsenal in the musical landscape need not limit themselves the way they do. I would love to go to a concert where the first thing on the program is Prelude to the afternoon of a Faun; next, wham, the hunt sequence from Jerry Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes. Then, as soon as the dust is settled, say, Aaron Jay Kernis’s Musica celestis or the Samuel Barber Adagio for Strings and then from that something from Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy VII which hearkens back a little bit to Faun. Here is music, not classical music but music.’

It could be an adventure, too.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2013