Videogame music: off the screen and onto my iPod

Context is important to video game music, but what happens when you switch off the system and the music continues playing? I have been listening to a lot of game music recently, independently of gaming. It’s the first time I’ve seriously dabbled in music from games, much of it from games I’ve known for many years. Other game soundtracks are recent discoveries, while some soundtracks are from games I’ve never even heard of, let alone played. This has made me reflect on the role of music in games and the impact of listening to videogame music independently of games.

Castlevania is a series I was barely familiar with in gameplay terms, but I’d heard some music. Pretty decent, I thought, but no need to investigate further. However, I’ve been on a Castlevania kick, starting with Rondo of Blood on the Turbo-CD through to the original NES Castlevania and Castlevania III. Suddenly, hearing the music in context, it all made sense. The combination of action platforming with the classical rock sound is perfect, splendid, stupendous *mwah mwah kissing sound*. Now I’m listening to music from other entries in the series that I haven’t played, games like Castlevania: Bloodlines and the Castlevania games for GBA and DS. I’m enjoying the tracks a hell of a lot more because now I understand broadly the style of the series as a whole, and the type of gameplay the music is complementing.

However, sometimes gaining experience with a particular game can have the opposite effect when it comes to music. Definitely for me, repetition is a big culprit. In a genre like RPGs which require large time investments, you often find only a few pieces of music scoring battles, the world map, towns, etc. And more often than not those pieces will be so seared into your brain by the end of the game that the prospect of listening to them independently is just… no.

Persona 4, for example, has an excellent soundtrack and a great many hours of gameplay to hear it in. There are only so many times you can hear a piece like Your Affection before it loses all meaning and becomes mere background noise – the best I can say for it now is that it’s not annoying. (By the way, judging from the Youtube comments I’m not the only person unable to make out the lyrics to this song. Personally, I hear “oppression” – sung with irony obviously because the song is so darn happy.)

Persona 4 is not alone in this; many games have music which over the course of a playthrough goes downhill from great to merely tolerable. In extreme cases music that starts off decent can become ear-gratingly annoying with extended repetition. With games and series I’m overly familiar with, I’m far more likely to listen to the rarely repeated, or one-off pieces: music that plays during a specific cutscene, a final boss or the end credits. Those are the kinds of pieces far more likely to do well out of context for someone intimate with a game or series.

Those are just a few quick observations about listening to game music outside of gaming, hope you enjoyed them! I’m hoping to introduce some more posts and ideas about videogame music over time as it’s not something we discuss very much on the blog! Do you listen to game music? If so, how much? Do you tend to prefer music from games you’ve not played, or games you know well?

game music concert cover

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21 comments

  1. themancalledscott

    I listen to video game music all the time! I feel a problem with a lot of modern gaming soundtracks is that they’re often entirely in context, and don’t hold up well when listening to them on their own (there are some shining exceptions, like Ni no Kuni). Classic video game music is insanely addictive though, since they often both created the atmosphere for every moment in their respective games, and provided catchy melodies. Castlevania, Mario, Mega Man and especially Donkey Kong have provided consistently amazing tracks through the years.

    • veryverygaming

      I know what you mean about modern soundtracks – less melodic and more atmospheric is the trend. That makes it all the more special when a modern soundtrack is super melodic and sounds great technically, it’s the best of both worlds! That reminds me, I’ve heard great things about the DK: Tropical Freeze soundtrack but since I haven’t played the game I don’t know where to start. Do you have any recommendations? With Ni No Kuni, I own the game but haven’t played it yet so I’ve held off on the soundtrack. In general I’d rather hear music in context first, although being an RPG there could well be a “Persona effect”!

      • themancalledscott

        I agree some times it benefits to hear the music in-game first.

        Oh boy, the Tropical Freeze soundtrack is sublime! I recommend the whole thing! But some favorites include Seashore War, Amiss Abyss, Sawmill Thrill, Homecoming Hijinx, Frosty Fruits (In a Now-Bound Land remix), Punch Bowl, Scorch N Torch, I could go on.

  2. Sir Gaulian

    My introduction to buying video game soundtracks was Space Channel 5 (which is insanely good) – but i fell in love with them with an import of the Biohazard Outbreak soundtrack, the theme for which is still one of my favourite pieces of music. In the years since i fell off listening to video game music, sadly.

    I did recently but the Talos Principle soundtrack though, which is great, although does fall squarely within the “atmospheric” category the previous commenter wrote about.

    A couple of recommendations if i may: the Deus Ex Invisible War and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory soundtracks are stellar listening (even if you’re not a fan of either game)

  3. Aether

    I used to listen to game music all the time at work. It’s often designed to deliver a good atmosphere without drawing too much attention away from what you were focusing on, so the same thing that made these songs great for games made them good for working around them, too.

    I’ve tended to stay away from listening to soundtracks of games I haven’t played before, however. Music is really strongly tied to memory, and for particularly plot-based or atmospheric games, I like to mentally attach those songs to their proper context first before taking them outside of it. I used to listen to Xenoblade Chronicles soundtrack all the time before I got very far into it. There’s one song that comes at a very powerful moment, matched up incredibly well to the cutscene it was put into, but I was finding that, having listened to it outside of that scene first, it just wasn’t having the impact on me it should have. I’ve been really avoiding going through that again, since.

    • veryverygaming

      Yes, funnily enough I also listen to game music predominantly while working for the same reason. Music with vocals is too intrusive, it’s distracting, whereas game music usually is more of a backseat kind of thing. There are some attention grabbing exceptions though and I think you’re right that with some pieces of music there’s a case to be made that they constitute spoilers! I’m a big Xenoblade fan so I’m curious to know which moment you’re referring to…? There is just so much in that game to spoil – such a nutty plot, I love it 🙂

      • Aether

        The music doesn’t really sync up until later in the cutscene, but I was referring to the character death during the first encounter with Metal Face.

        Which is kind of interesting, as the Engage the Enemy track get thrown in a few times throughout the game, but that first time was such a moment for me. And I could tell, I’d be feeling it so much more, if that were the first time I was bringing in that track, the first memories I was building up around it. But no, just by listening before hand, I had already built a whole lot of other associations in there.

        • veryverygaming

          I see what you mean with this scene in particular. God, I love Xenoblade Chronicles. The music, the voice acting, the dialogue, the action… so cheesy, and yet incredibly endearing! We recorded a podcast recently on Xenoblade but due to technical issues it had to be scrapped and needs to be redone. That would be a bad thing, except it’s impossible to be upset at the prospect of doing more impersonations of Xenoblade’s voice acting. Speaking of which, was “I’d be feeling it” intentional? 😀

  4. moresleepneeded

    I do not really listen to music from computer games outside of gaming. I agree with the comments about the music enhancing the experience of playing the game, with certain music adding a specific sense to the level. I remember enjoying the rock music for a racing game because the energetic music fitted with the high speed of the game. I also felt my appreciation for songs, previously I have only slightly enjoyed, increase because of when they played during a Grand Theft Auto game and seemed to add to the action (I have always felt some of the music in Grand Theft Auto 3 and Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, which felt optimistic yet sad, were suitable for the grimy setting of Liberty City. I also liked the music from the first Sonic game on the Game Gear, particularly the Jungle Zone.
    I could see how repeating music can be annoying, but I still enjoyed hearing the same music when Link entered locations in the Legend of Zelda games (hearing the grandiose rhythm when Link enters Hylian Field and the sad, low key music of Kakariko Village). I might feel this way because the music fits with the surroundings so well.

    • veryverygaming

      Grand Theft Auto games are great for that, aren’t they? I laughed out loud playing GTA V when Misteeq’s Scandalous came on the radio… and then I realised how good that song really is. Really fits the setting, as you say. You’ve also mentioned some of the best game music ever with the Sonic and Zelda series. Truly, some of that music never gets old, whether in or out of context.

      If you haven’t tried it, I would recommend listening to some stuff outside of games to find out if you like it! For instance, if you appreciate Michael Jackson music, Sonic 3’s soundtrack is brilliant – MJ did write some of the songs, but even the stuff he didn’t write sounds like him 😛

      • moresleepneeded

        Is that true about Michael Jackson writing the music to Sonic 3? I remember hearing it as a rumour, but I was not sure if it was true. I have heard the theme to one level (I think it was the Carnival Night Zone) is similar to a Michael Jackson song (I think it was Smooth Criminal).

  5. Nick the Gent

    Great article. I’ve always been a fan of music in video games. I used to create mix tapes from the intros to Bitmap Brothers games – Speedball 2, Gods, The Chaos Engine – on my old Atari ST when I was a kid.

    One great part of growing up with games is how the music has expanded and deepened – Zelda: Ocarina of Time wouldn’t have been the same without all the amazing soaring music. And of course now we have full orchestral scores, movie-quality soundtracks. Some recent favorites: the scores to Batman: Arkham games, and The Last of Us (by Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla!). These scores aren’t just great in their own right, they are key to building the atmosphere.

    • veryverygaming

      Thanks for commenting, and I’m sorry it’s taken me a while to respond. That’s awesome about the mixtapes. There was often really good music on the Amiga games I grew up with too but it never even occurred to me to try and record them! Ocarina of Time is just about the best example I can think of (apart from the obvious rhythm/music games) of the music being integral to the game. I remember trying to work out how to play songs like Happy Birthday on the in-game ocarina using the pitch bend, such a cool toy to mess around with. It’s a shame that the music has become progressively less integrated in the Zelda series since.

      I still have to play The Last of Us (it’s on my shelf with the rest of my backlog- er sorry game library), and I hope to get round to the Batman games at some point too. I’m certainly excited to try more games that put a full orchestra to good use – the Mario Galaxy games are the best examples I’ve seen so far.

  6. Van Rockingham

    I probably listen to Final Fantasy soundtracks more than any other music. I have a few orchestral video game music albums too, where it is a greatest hits of whatever, so Tetris/Sonic/Mario stuff all on one CD.

  7. ambigaming

    Awesome topic!!
    Late to the party as usual, but I usually listen to video game music when I’m doing work for school (or writing for my thesis…). Like movie soundtracks, video game soundtracks are specifically composed to create a certain mood in the listener/player, but not be intrusive, the way songs with lyrics can be sometimes. As a music major, I’ve had a lot of fun looking at soundtracks and comparing them to other instrumental pieces, so if you’re looking for a recommendation (although I’m sure you don’t need any!) let me know!

    Personally, I tend to listen to music from games I have played, because I try hard not to spoil the experience of playing the game for the first time. For me, being previously familiar with the music sometimes ruins its intended emotional impact within the game. Plus, if I liked playing the game, when I listen to the music I get those same “good feelings.” Like Dragon Age: Origins. When the title screen music comes up on my playlist, I find myself smiling, even if I hadn’t been “actively” listening for it, simply because of its associated memories.

    • veryverygaming

      Thanks for the comment. You mentioned your thesis, is that for a PhD? It’s really taken me by surprise just how many of us videogame bloggers out there are also doing/have done higher degrees! I’m the same by the way, I tend to listen to videogame music while working for the same reasons – vocals, especially lyrics, are distracting I find. And of course, any recommendations would be much appreciated! I’d like to hear them.

      I understand how music can be a spoiler in some ways, so I tend to avoid soundtracks for games I plan on playing in the future… but for instance just in this comment thread Sir Gaulian recommended the soundtrack to Resident Evil Outbreak, which is a game I’m probably never going to play. Also if it’s just one or two pieces of music from a game, they’re probably not going to add up to much of the total game’s music so I don’t generally mind. I’d see it as a bit like watching a trailer.

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