Music, more than any other art form, has the power to move us in unexpected and powerful ways. A single melody can freeze a moment in time, and resonate down the years. There’s nothing like the strains of a near-forgotten song to transport us, emotionally, to a different time and place. Music is one of the biggest ways we make sense of the world, and of how it makes us feel. We use it not only to define ourselves, but to define an era, a culture – or just a secret, passing moment between two people.
If you are to create a brand new world, then, it follows that music is key. Enter the composers…
We may not consciously realise it, but we form an inextricable link between games and their music. The memory of the latter can long outlast any of the smaller details of the gameplay. For example, I have only the merest recollection of playing some strange little platformer, many moons ago, on the Master System – a game called Alex The Kid. I must have been about 4 or 5 when I had it, and I can’t remember what the main character looked like, or what the story was. To this day, however, I could hum you the theme song in it’s entirety.
Videogame composers are the unsung heroes of the industry. They are arguably more responsible for the feel of the game than any other single member of the team, and certainly, they play a huge part in a products enduring success down the years. Here then, is a collection of my personal top five, and why I think they deserve to be mentioned:
Ko is a little known name in the West. After graduating university, he carved out a living for himself composing dozens of scores for anime and films in the East. His forays into the videogame industry remained limited to a couple of small titles, Philosoma and Sky Odyssey, which never gained much traction. Then, out of the blue, he wrote what has become one of the most critically-acclaimed videogame soundtracks of all time, a near flawless masterpiece which few others have even approached in terms of subtlety and emotion. Ko Otani is the man who wrote the devastating score to Shadow Of The Colossus, a game revered for its emotional power. Full of awe and majesty, his music conveyed the scale and grace of the Colossi perfectly. He had the rare restraint to not over-compose the game, too. Large parts of the game are left with no soundtrack at all, save for the footsteps of the main hero, Wander, and the few sparse sounds of the barren natural environment. This helped to create a pervading sense of loneliness in the game, and heightened the emotional impact of the battles with the Colussi. A truly unique experience, SOTC is worth picking up just to experience Otani’s visionary soundscape.
Harry Gregson-Williams is as inseparable from the Metal Gear Solid universe as David Hayter. The pair of them absolutely define the game, and it could be argued that without either of them, the magic would be lost. HGW’s sweeping orchestral scores and mix of classical and electronic influences have come to define the modern era of action / shooter games. The tension and drama he brought to the Metal Gear series was unprecedented, and he helped turn the game into a masterpiece. Gamers are not necessarily known for their huge attention spans, and Hideo Kojima is fond of pushing that weakness to its limits, with his cutscenes of up to 90 minutes. Therefore, it’s a testamanet to HGW’s genius that he managed to keep us hooked on every last line of dialogue with his swelling scores. He showed a deft touch, being able to move from moments of heartbreaking emotion to all-out cataclysmic warfare at the flick of a switch.
He also wrote the theme to a little known game called Call Of Duty 4, which explains an awful lot.
The Bafta-nominated Jeremy Soule can be seen as the man who dragged RPG music, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. As the man responsible for the music of Guild Wars and the entire Elder Scrolls trilogy, he has shown how modern technology allows composers to accomplish things, musically, that were impossible before. Ironically, he has helped to modernise the genre by going back in time with his music. He takes his influences from a range of places – he names the greats such as Debussy and Wagner, for example, but also utilises more esoteric sources. A great example is the already legendary soundtrack to Skyrim. Instead of opting for the traditional orchestral route for the main theme, he chose to use drum based, tribal influenced music. He managed to evoke the sounds of a Viking war-band perfectly, so that it feels as though you really are standing on the shores of that icy wasteland. The shouts and roars of the warriors evoke images of the sword and the axe, of roving wolves and snow-blasted forts. It doesn’t just fit the game world, you see, it helps to shape it. Jeremy Soule has been called ‘the John Williams of games’ because of his affinity for epic-sounding soundtracks befitting of a Hollywood blockbuster. Here is his classic theme from Oblivion:
That opening arpeggio of the FF7 credits is etched into the memory of every single gamer of this generation. For me, to hear that lilting melody is to be instantly transported back to 1997 – cross legged on my bedroom floor, totally rapt – and aware, subconsciously at least, that a whole new era of gaming was dawning.
Uematsu, single-handedly, elevated game music to the height of art.
His music probably needs no introduction. The man wrote hundreds of masterpieces, and any gamer worth his salt will recognise and love them instantly. Final Fantasy 7 alone contained innumerable classics – from the electro-guitar boss theme, to the fan favourite One-Winged Angel. The scope of influences he showed was staggering – you need only to look at the difference in soundtracks to FF7 and FF8 to understand he knew music from the inside-out. He displayed his affinity for electronic music in the former, and painted a grimy, buzzing picture of rebellion, machines and magic. In the latter, he showed off his flair for fusing European influences with his very Japanese fondness for cheesy pop music. Personally, ‘The Landing’ from FF8 is one of my all-time favourite pieces of game music.
Every RPG since owes some of their inspiration to his work. Nobuo Uematsu will go down in history as one of the most-loved game composers of all time.
Oh, and every time I complete some minor achievement in life, I still hear the victory theme from FF7.
Here is ‘The Landing’ from FF8, remastered by DJ Poochies into something truly extraordinary:
Arguably the Final Boss of all videogame composers. The granddaddy, the big cheese, the pioneer who forged the way into this brave new digital world. Koji Kondo is the irrepressible genius behind just about every major hit Nintendo ever put out, which makes him pretty much the founder of modern videogame music. We’re talking Legend Of Zelda, Super Mario, Star Fox, Super Smash Bros….
….I mean, come on – frickin’ Super Mario, man!
It’s a list of achievements that no-one can come close to. Probably the most memorable piece of theme music ever written, the main theme to Super Mario, came out of his brain. It is still synonymous with gaming as a whole, over 25 years later. You’re thinking of it right now, aren’t you?! I actually think Kondo must be top of the list when it comes to ‘people who know a song but couldn’t tell you who wrote it’. It’s hard to imagine someone, who in this day and age, couldn’t sing you ‘the Mario tune’. It’s gone right to the very heart of the culture.
Koji Kondo’s legacy will be remembered long after he is gone. The mans music represents the era when games invaded the mainstream, when digital technology started to become entwined in the everyday lives of the people, forever. Kondo wrote the music to the Digital Revolution, and that’s why he deserves to be at No. 1.
That, and the Temple of Time song from Ocarina was boss, man.
Disagree with the choices? Feel we have missed anyone out? Let us know in the comments!