Somewhere between Lady Gaga’s red carpet egg-cellence, a TV anchor epilepsy scare and everyone on Twitter asking who the F is The Arcade Fire, an unlikely group found cause for celebration at this year’s Grammy Awards: Gamers. “Baba Yetu,” a song composed by Christopher Tin for the half-decade old PC strategy game Civilization IV won for ‘Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists’ last Sunday, marking the first time a song from a videogame was recognized at the awards.
Before the evening was out, hordes of eager game bloggers had already turned the spotlight on Tin, touting the win as a triumph for videogame music in the mainstream; the planted flag in a collective assertion that game music had finally “made it.” The non-game press too began to speak of the newly “legitimate” field of game music, positing modern game composers as underdogs who had finally seen a glimpse of the big-time. But in a period when hardware and budgets no longer limit game soundtracks in production quality or scale, does “videogame music,” as the Grammys would understand it, actually mean anything? Or is it simply a label that either interests or repels through its association with popular entertainment?
The Grammys isn’t ready for videogame music, and videogame music isn’t ready for the Grammys either.
The idea of videogame soundtracks as a category of music has caused an identity crisis of sorts. On the one hand — the literal side — videogame music is exactly that: music that is composed for, or otherwise heard in, videogames. But if that’s the case, so what? What distinguishes a modern blockbuster videogame soundtrack with all it’s symphonic shine & polish from a film score, a rock opera, or anything else for that matter? “Baba Yetu” may have been originally written for a videogame, but its presence at the Grammys seemed to have more to do with attention it garnered as it was performed in concert around the world, not at all unlike the other Grammy recipients. If the song stands on its own, why is the videogame context necessary? Isn’t music just music?
On the other hand — the functional side — videogame music is described as such because, unlike Tin’s piece, it can not be separated from the context for which it was written — it is a layer of a larger creative work that amplifies the unique interactive qualities that videogames offer. I would say that if anything, this definition falls in line much more neatly with what most videogame music is aiming to be. The problem is that sometimes, it doesn’t. And what the mainstream winds up wanting is the videogame equivalent of a Lady Gaga single. Bear with me for a moment on that one.
In their infancy, videogames had their own language. They spoke to us in square waves and signed to us in pixelated abstractions. Over time, that language dissipated and began to slowly blend with the language of film, from which many of today’s most successful game franchises take their visual and gameplay cues as well. This homogenization has done a great deal to muddy our perception of what videogame music is, was and should be. Much like the games themselves, we get a sense that game soundtracks have leisurely situated themselves in a place where millions of film scores have been before.
That’s not to say games that score themselves like movies are bad. In some cases, the grand symphonic flourishes and carefully-placed ambience dreamed up by game composers like Nobuo Uematsu and Akira Yamaoka pack more emotional punch than their film counterparts. Ever since piano rags accompanied the earliest silent pictures, film soundtracks have been indispensable in communicating character mood, hinting at danger and so on. In games, just like in films, sometimes the right musical cue at the right moment can mean all the difference.
The fact that game audio can go toe-to-toe with a movie soundtrack is lost to the non-playing masses, however. Instead, there’s this persistent idea of videogame “tunes.” Say the words “videogame music” and 8 out of 10 Joe/Jane Schmo’s on the street will immediately associate with the simplicity of Koji Kondo’s iconic Super Mario theme. Back when game music was composed on 4-channel 8-bit microprocessors, having a couple of memorable themes was enough. In fact most software companies would be satisfied if the music just fit in the cartridge memory.
But “tunes” won’t cut it anymore. Lady Gaga makes tunes. Shouldn’t videogames, a 2-way medium, be striving for something more? As we slowly but surely realize videogames’ potential, so too do we realize the potential of their music. A dynamic, interactive medium requires dynamic, interactive audio. And the kind of thing the Grammys expects from videogame music — “tunes” — is the furthest thing from that.
The tendency towards pop music, which events like the Grammys celebrate almost exclusively, has always been symbolic of our need for this kind of quick-fix musical stimulation. Lady Gaga is the perfect example — Confident in her role as the momentary master of the musical zeitgeist, she proceeds just as millions have before her: Churning out hit after hit, riding waves of fame all the way to the bank and back. Every tune is like a piece of gum; something for us to chew on for while we wait for another, more flavorful stick of gum.
Perhaps part of the reason this unfortunate pop paradigm fits so snugly with videogame music is due in part to the nature of its audience. Events like Videogames Live feed off nostalgia highs in a way strikingly similar to pop concerts, turning the history of game music into a 3 ring circus of costumes, props and gimmicks. Everyone wants to hear their favorite videogame ‘hits,’ and they’ll beam with delight when the orchestra rings out a familiar melody.
Videogames today are different. Their engrossing nature requires something more nourishing. Their complexity as interactive systems and the increasingly diverse ways we manipulate these systems demands the musical opposite of the single-serving pop hit. Yet to the uninitiated, that is their only reference point — The fanfare that plays as Mario tears down the flag at the end of the level. The bouncy 8-bit 80’s metal progressions that play in the background of a Mega Man stage. And even today, the pop diva single that gets shuffled in amongst an otherwise gorgeous orchestral score to generate wider appeal.
If the Grammys’ version of videogame music is going to be composed by a generation of Lady Gagas, I’m not certain I want any part in it. But up to now, game music has done just fine on its own, if a little confused. Game composers aren’t magical beings or downtrodden pariahs as far as their work is concerned. They’re studying at the same academies, training under the same professionals and fluent in the same language as the folks composing music for film, theatre and everything else.
So then why should it matter what they compose for? I think it can matter. I want it to matter. Baba Yetu was a symbolic step forward, but in order for videogame music to truly come into its own it needs to have a language of its own, one which capitalizes on the unique qualities of games and brings them into plain sight. Music has been a passive experience for too long — it’s time to stop hearing what we play and start playing what we hear.