Music is one hell of a thing. Of all the entertainment mediums, none are quite as vast and expansive as the song. There are hundreds of genres that can be used to classify a particular style around the world. Of all forms of entertainment, it is the one that does not have the same stringent and off-putting barriers others do. A song will remain the same in any region and the impact is never lessened due to language barriers. With music being such a big part of all of our lives, it is amazing to think just how musical tastes develop. Often from parents, friends, film and most common of all the radio, the musical palate is a constantly moulding and shifting thing.
Video games can teach us a lot about the world and influence us in odd ways. Yet one of the most overlooked influences from video games come from how they impact the music we listen to. The medium can at times force players to take a listen to something they usually never would. The comfort of the charts is ripped away quickly, leading players to try some new treats for the ears whether they are willing to or not.
In this way, video games have had a significant impact on me as a music lover. If anything, my entire musical passion stems from my years of playing video games. I would have been like most people: a top 40’s only kind of man with no need to go exploring. Gaming was able to provide an avenue for me to not only learn about new acts but how to appreciate new genres and styles from across the globe. Over the years, almost every one of my favourite bands, songs and genres can all be traced back to a video game in some form. This realisation made me consider that if gaming could have such an amazing impact on my music playlist, how has it impacted others?
When a soundtrack becomes daily rotation
Sometimes, a game’s soundtrack can just become something magical. For most games, music scores often only work within the context of the scene. To drum up emotion, make the grinding or exploring more bearable and finally just because silence is awful, music is there to breathe some extra life into the presentation.
Yet some soundtracks cannot be restrained by the media it is delivered through. Sometimes, a song or entire soundtrack is too good to leave within the game itself, with a nagging need to go listen to that one track again. While they obviously still work within context, hearing them on a drive or just while lounging becomes an immensely enjoyable experience. The music is able to transcend the game and become more.
The first game where the soundtrack became a constant feature on my playlists was Final Fantasy X. While there had been amazing video game music I heard before, FFX was the most mesmerising. Scrounging for MP3 files, when all other music was shifting through my phone, the Official Soundtrack of Final Fantasy X remained. In a weird way, the composition of longtime series composer Nobuo Uematsu alongside Junya Nakano and Masashi Hamauzu taught me to appreciate music. I listened to the songs over and over for my own amusement and not because I was trapped in a car with a shock-jock choosing the next hit to play.
For a recent example, no soundtrack ever made me hit the repeat button quite like VA-11 HALL-A. A game set in a Cyber-Punk dive bar would, of course, have to have some killer backing tunes, and developer Sukeban Games with composer Garoad delivered. It is not uncommon to blast some “Every Day is Night” while enjoying a hard drink. The soundtrack was too spectacular to only have on while playing. It stuck with me even as I made that final click upon finishing the game. That is the power of how a soundtrack and turn a game from great to incredible. I can again list off so many games where the soundtrack had a noteworthy impact on the entire game but we could be here forever.
Just having to listen to it for this article has already forced me to put on the entire playlist. I was very much a record pusher when it came to VA-11 Hall-A’s soundtrack screaming its praises to whoever was around me.
Even composers break away from the games to become their own form of rockstars. In the video game industry, their names become a massive selling point due to their previous work. Uematsu has already been mentioned but his impact on music on a cultural sense cannot be overlooked. For instance, in Japanese schools children were taught to play Final Fantasy IV‘s Theme of Love as part of the curriculum, a song composed by Uematsu. Video game music in Japan has already moved beyond a novelty. In the western sense, it is more common for video game tracks to get sampled to create some killer beats. Soundtracks are no longer just for the nerds.
There was no way to get through this feature without mentioning Shoji Meguro. The man’s work on the Persona Team is outstanding and makes him one of the best in the industry right now.
Finally, we have the weirder example of how a game’s music might actually be the first interaction. With the internet becoming a bigger place for gamers and nerds alike, the music of video games gets new appreciation. So there is a likely chance that while skulking around Youtube, a video may feature a song that piques interest. In some cases, a soundtrack becomes more popular than the game itself serving as a self-promoting marketing tool. One game that forced my hand on a purchase just by music alone was 2015’s Undertale. Despite some rumblings, what finally had me cave on a purchase was the soundtrack being on a constant loop on popular YouTube series Botchamania. Hearing these weirdly stunning songs created a need for me to go experience how they work first hand in context. It led me to try what would be a GOTY contender that I likely would have overlooked.
Introducing artists both old and new
While in-game composition always deserves recognition, there is no denying how a well-placed licensed song can bring a needed flair. With video game genres and styles being so vast, there is no escaping some licensed tracks. This is where video games can serve as a stepping stone for appreciating new music and styles.
There are of course those games that use licensed songs to create a sense of time and place. Sometimes a set piece needs that little bit of edge with a radio station playing classics. No game quite excels at this in the same way the Grand Theft Auto series does. Since GTA 3, the radio in the franchise has served many a gamer as an incredible bank of music for those unfamiliar with certain bands, singers and entire categories.
The very first car players enter in GTA Vice City will always be playing Micheal Jackson’s Billie Jean. For many, this was an incredible and impactful moment throwing players right into the 80s.
More likely than not, Grand Theft Auto has provided players with a taste of new genres that get them jazzed up. Nobody quite calls out the songs, but the radio stations themselves as the key area of shifting musical sensibilities. For me, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ Bounce FM was a mind-blowing thing to behold when I was younger. Funk was a genre I saw mocked endlessly through old “disco is dead” sentiments but San Andreas finally gave me a chance to listen. These days, not a day goes by that some funk creeps into my car ride.
We could be here almost an entire day with me noting off all the songs that hit my library through games. Of course every other open-world sandbox will feature their radio selections and of course the mix will be eclectic. It is almost impossible to walk away from a GTA clone without a new taste of music. From the Mafia series all featuring very era distinct music choices to Saint’s Row using licensed music as an additional manner of excitement.
Much like the Vice City example, it is hard not to get giddy when Kanye West’s Power starts playing before storming your old penthouse in Saints Row: The Third.
Yet we can move beyond just the old tried and true radio. Games like Guitar Hero used licensed music as a gameplay tool, allowing many to get a new taste of rock and metal across time. There was also a deeper appreciation for many to play it first hand. From there we can look at unabashed love letters to musical genres like 2009’s Brutal Legend which was Metal as a genre materialised as a world to explore. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series was for many their first taste of Ska-Punk. Def Jam fighting series not only had rappers beating the hell out of each other, but their tracks littered the grimy fight clubs. So many games have used music to create a sense of their world even through licensed songs.
The greatest influence?
So of all the examples I have listed, there was one game that deserves a special mention. Last generation, almost every household with a console was coupled with a plastic instrument. The success of Guitar Hero cannot be overlooked by any means being one of the highest grossing games ever. For me, it served as an crucial life moment by introducing me to my favourite band ever.
My cousin had just gotten Guitar Hero 2 for the PlayStation 2. He invited me over to test it out and see how fun it was. While scrolling through the songs (most of which I had no idea what they were), one name stood out: a song called “War Pigs” by the band Black Sabbath. I thought: “that sounds cool!” and selected it. I cannot fully explain the shiver that went through my spine as that first riff came coursing through the busted CRT speakers. I was entranced by this new and heavy style I never thought I could get into. Yet here I was with the dumbest smile on my face. Following that, I ran home to scour MP3 sharing websites to learn more about this mystical band. While there have been a lot of musical influences from video games, learning of Sabbath still stands as one of the fondest and most important introductions.
So how have games impacted your musical taste? Was there a soundtrack that left the confines of the disc or cartridge? Maybe a song appeared that opened up a new genre to explore after giving that tantalising taste of something dope. Leave a comment below and let us know what that game was and how the music love grew.