Chapter 9: Influence of Cultural Music on Video Game Composers

Chapter 9: Influence of Cultural Music on Video Game Composers

Video game music is incredible diverse, consisting of nearly every genre of music, as well as syntheses of such. Additionally, video game music composers are often influenced and inspired by music from various cultures, such as pop, rock, folk music, and world music. Such diversity is present in film music as well, but this is considerably more expansive in video game music, especially as the origins of video game music are so substantially different (including popular music, electronic music production, and programming). Film music does serve many of the same purposes as video game music, such as setting the overall tone, conveying emotion, and following the dramatic narrative. However, video games can be substantially larger in scope than films, consisting of tens of hours of gameplay, and involving characters experiencing every part of an entirely new world (some films involve new planets or world, but due to the short runtime, not every single location is experienced with the same detail as in games). Therefore, while cultural influences in film music are present, they are even more pronounced in game music. Additionally, most westerners are primarily exposed to films produced in a small region of North America (Hollywood), with other large film centres growing (such as Vancouver), but all generally situated in the far northeast or west coast of North America. In contrast, game development originally was situated in both North America and Japan (i.e., Nintendo and Atari), with various other companies appearing all over the world. While the major companies are still based in Japan and North America, this is a greater diversity than in film (Bollywood, for example, represents film in India, but this has yet to take up a major share of the North American film market). The games themselves also tend to be more culturally diverse in their musical selection due to the fact that the locations in the game are very frequently fantasy-based or locations that don’t really exist. Fantasy does exist in film, but video games present a different challenge: since the player is interacting with the terrain, the entire world bust be designed carefully. The game designer does not have complete control over where the player goes and what they interact with at each specific moment. There is much more control in film because what the audience sees at any given moment is controlled entirely by the director. Therefore, music presents an additional element that can aid the creation of the game atmosphere, making these fabricated locations more relatable. This chapter contains a discussion of some of the cultural influences of music on composers, and some of the ways composers use cultural references in games. The function of such references is discussed, as well as the type and origin of the references.

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Identify several types of cultural music reference,
  • Identify three functions of cultural music reference, and
  • Identify three classifications of cultural music influence.

9.1 Video games and Music Diversity

Video games contain an extremely diverse selection of music, spanning multiple genres with multiple influences. Part of this is due to the fact that there is such a diverse body of games, but the overall design of games and the early technological limitations also likely play a factor, as mentioned above in the chapter introduction. For example, composers often need to create music that fits locations and settings that we have no association with, in completely fabricated worlds. Music that draws from one or many cultural inspirations often is successful in creating a setting that is rooted in (or draws from) a culture or location we are familiar with on earth. However, if the cultural inspirations are very diverse, the resultant setting may be one that we are not familiar with. There is a considerably large amount of world music references in video game soundtracks. Such references will be discussed at length in this chapter, and the purpose of their use will be analysed. We will also examine the overt and potential influences that specific cultural music had on composers. Technological limitations have also contributed to the styles of video game music, as a large amount of early employees in charge of music had backgrounds as programmers (rather than classically-trained composers) and many other composers drew more influences from rock and pop music than from contemporary classical or film music. As the pool of composers shifts, more and more are inspired by classical and film music. However, it is apparent that the influences on game music remain very diverse, resulting in a rich body of music.

9.2 What is Cultural Reference?

For the purposes of this text, we will define a cultural association or cultural reference as a musical device that somehow invokes the idea of a music belonging to a specific location, historical period, or culture. Technically, there is some subjectivity to this concept, as the same musical devices may not invoke the same associations for all people. There are three primary musical reference types that we will discuss in this text: instrumental references, references to harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic models, and thematic references.

9.2.1 Instrumental Reference

An instrumental reference is a cultural music reference that intentionally makes use of a particular instrument that is generally accepted to be associated with a particular time period, place, or culture. There are many examples of this, such as the accordion being evocative of a specific type of music played within Paris, or the recorder being associated with the Baroque period. The uses of instrumental references in video games can be singular (reference using one culturally associated instrument against a backdrop of non-associated instruments) or multiple; composers can use a collection of several culturally referential instruments, which may or may not come from the same culture. An example of the intentional use of a culturally associated instrument in a game is present in Yasunori Mitsuda’s soundtrack to Chrono Cross. The composer himself stated that he used Fado guitar sounds (Portuguese guitar) to invoke a Mediterranean atmosphere in the soundtrack.[1] While this example was not the only cultural reference used by the composer in the game, this is a clear example of the intentional inclusion of a specific instrument to evoke a specific culture. This technique of instrumental reference does not apply solely to world music, and references can include historical instruments, such as recorders, church organ, harpsichord, or other historical instruments that may be used in game soundtracks to invoke historical periods. Historical instrumental references are potentially more complicated than world music instruments to incorporate because most instruments endure several generations. Therefore, historical instrumental references are often combined with other types of cultural references, such as musical models (discussed below). Instruments represent one of the simplest and most straightforward means of cultural reference, as they are immediately identifiable and do not necessarily require knowledge on part of the player – some melodic and harmonic references, for example, may be difficult to determine as such when performed on standard concert instruments.

9.2.2 Reference to Musical Model

We will describe a reference to a musical model as any reference that somehow evokes a particular musical paradigm from a specific culture or time period. This can include harmonic sequences, melodic fragments, scales, rhythmic patterns, and even idiomatic playing techniques. These types of references are often used to great effect in video games, although their identification can be much more difficult, especially if the references do not coincide with instrumental references (making them slightly out of context). Once again, Yasunori Mitsuda’s music becomes an example – he described that in Chrono Cross, he used African-inspired rhythms.[2] This is apparent in the score, and interlocking rhythms occur in instruments other than drums as well, which perhaps makes this particular feature difficult to identify without paying close attention. Harmonic and melodic models are also present most often in use of musical scales. Scalar models that reference world music and historical music are very common in video games, especially those that are set in a particular time period or culture. Several games use these techniques, and they are often accompanied with instrumental references, but not always. Some composers are able to create extremely diverse music by mixing cultural music references to create hybrid music (such as using a scalar model from one cultural music and an instrumental reference from another).

9.2.3 Thematic Reference

Thematic references are the most general of the cultural music references. The term thematic reference refers to the use of a thematic concept that is associated with a particular cultural music. In general this applies to music that uses broad and stylistic traits to create cultural association, rather than very specific ones (such as an instrument or musical scale). Often thematic references are combinations of both musical models and instruments that only when together are referential. An example of this would be the opening to the Halo theme, in which Gregorian chant-style melody is used. The melody is both idiomatic for medieval church song, and also incorporates the typical instrumentation (monophonic vocal line) of such music. Additionally, the composer has added an electronic effect: reverberation that evokes a large, empty space, much like the churches Gregorian chant would have been originally performed in. Thematic references can also involve a style of playing, such as using pitch bends on Chinese instruments, like the erhu. Once again, such references would only be made possible by using the combination of the instrument and the technique; pitch bends made on the erhu are associated with a very specific performance practice. Such associations would not be present if, for example, the same pitch bend was performed on a western concert flute. Thematic references are the most holistic in their cultural association because they are not singular dimensional references like instrumental or musical model references, which can be divorced from other elements. Therefore they are relatively easy to both identify and associate when listening very consciously. However, because they are so holistic they may not stand out as blatantly as a musical instrument, for example, and therefore their identification is not necessarily as easy as instrumental references.

9.3 How Are Cultural References Used in Game Music?

There are three primary functions of which cultural musical references can be used in video games. These are: 1) direct cultural reference, 2) indirect cultural or multi-cultural reference, and 3) cultural reference integral to narrative or setting. As you may presume, these uses are dependent upon the style of the game, gameplay mechanics, and overall game design and setting. For example, if a game is set in a particular location, references to a culture of the same (or similar) location may exist. Composers may opt to use indirect or multicultural references to create a type of music that is very far removed from anything that we experience on our planet, or to create the sense of a cultural or folk music without evoking a specific place. Narrative references are the most complex of the three, and refer only to those times when a composer is using references to aid the telling of the story, or to illuminate a portion of the story that is very culturally driven. Narrative references are the most difficult to classify because often we do not know the composer’s intention, and therefore composer interviews and liner notes provide valuable insight in the classification of musical reference as narrative.

9.3.1 Direct Cultural Reference

A direct cultural reference is a reference in which a singular culture is directly referenced via an instrumental, musical, or thematic reference. These references are fairly straightforward, and may include a singular reference, such as one referential instrument against a non-referential ensemble, or they may include mixes of various references. However, in order for it to be classified as a direct cultural reference, these various references must all be derived from the same culture – otherwise it becomes an indirect or multi-cultural reference, which is discussed later. Direct cultural references are not necessarily integral to the story line, but are often used in location themes, especially in cities and towns that are intended to be similar in culture to those on Earth. Examples of direct cultural references can be seen in some of the location themes in Final Fantasy VII. In “Costa del Sol”, for example, which plays when the characters are at a resort town, Mediterranean and Caribbean (beach-themed) cultural references are present, including instruments such as vibraphone, shakers, ukulele, and congas drums. Additionally, the music contains thematic references; the rhythmic structure in particular is referential to Latin jazz, as are the instruments, combining to create a thematic reference. This use of cultural reference in location themes in the game continues in the track “Valley of the Fallen Star,” the location theme for the town of Cosmo Canyon. The track contains many references to aboriginal music, including the pentatonic scales played on the pan flute, which combine to form thematic reference, the drum type and rhythm, and several other rhythmic and melodic elements. Another location theme in Final Fantasy VII that makes extensive use of cultural reference is “Wutai”, the theme for a city of the same name. The town Wutai appears to have a culture that is similar in architecture, politics, and geographical terrain to Shogun era Japan. Traditional Japanese instruments such as Taiko drums, Shamisen, and Shakahuchi are present in the track, and techniques including pitch bend and other performance-related references are used. Once again, many of the musical models and instruments used are combined to create thematic references. While all of the above-described tracks are very different in their sound and particular implementation of references, what remains consistent is the reference to a specific and singular culture.

9.3.2 Indirect Cultural or Multi-Cultural Reference

Indirect cultural or multicultural references include those in which the composer uses some element of music from a specific culture or cultures, but it is somehow blended with other cultural music references (so that a singular cultural music cannot be determined). There are two ways that this can be achieved: 1) the use of many different references of any type simultaneously (truly multicultural), or 2) the use of a reference from one culture coupled with a reference from another culture (indirect). An example of the latter would be the referencing of an instrument, with the pitch and harmonic elements from a different culture than the instrument. This technique is common in the Chrono Cross soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda. We already discussed the multitude of cultural influences upon Mitsuda, as well as some of his referential choices (such as the Fado guitar). In addition to spefici references such as that, Mistuda combined and synthesized many of his cultural influences, to create tracks that had indirect and multi-cultural references. For example, the track “Time’s Grasslands” makes use of African interlocking rhythms, Fado guitar sound, sitar (which is performing the original Chrono Trigger theme), and many other elements. The three mentioned references alone demonstrate that Mitsuda was referencing music from three different continents (African rhythm, Southern European instrument, and Asian string instrument). The end result is a track that has threads of cultural influence, but enough diversity that it does not evoke a specific culture. “Time’s Grasslands” is a location theme, specifically it is a type of field or overworld music. Therefore, the diversity of the cultural references could be perceived as yet another strategy that can be used to create the illusion of expansiveness – Mitsuda’s references are so diverse that they span three continents. These cultural references persist throughout the soundtrack, with “Time’s Scar” demonstrating more use of indirect and multicultural reference. Some of these include western concert violins performing a Celtic folk rhythm, a thematic reference to Celtic flute, and also Western classical violin lines, all accompanied by African drum sounds. Much like “Time’s Grasslands”, “Time’s Scar” also maintains a culturally derived or world music sound without evoking specific cultural identity.

9.3.3 Cultural Reference Integral to Narrative

Cultural references integral to the narrative or setting are those in which the cultural musical reference is in some way related to the narrative. Unlike direct references, which may be used to set a particular location or event in the game, narrative references often persist throughout the game, and are used to illustrate deeper narrative and setting elements. This is different from the examples we examined from Final Fantasy VII; Wutai, for example, was a location theme, but the cultural backdrop of the city was not necessarily integral to the plot of the game. A demonstrative contrast can be observed in Jesper Kyd’s approach to the soundtracks for Assassin’s Creed I and II. Kyd himself stated that he used a blend of Eastern and Western instrumentation to illustrate the concept of culture clashing during the crusades, for example, in the first Assassin’s Creed.[3] Another key component of the storyline is that it is not set in the past; instead, the main character travelled to the past in his mind, experiencing the memory of his ancestors.[4] Kyd also makes use of modern instruments, and modern compositional techniques (such as those derived from electroacoustic music). These subtle references to the present also serve to highlight a narrative concept, and to remind the player that the main character is merely experiencing the past, not existing within it. The clashing of cultures via musical cultural references is extremely apparent in the track “City of Jerusalem”. This track contains references to both world and historical music, including Gregorian chant (which includes chant sung in the original Latin) occurring against a backdrop of eastern-style guitar. Some of the music incorporates references to cultural melodies, rhythms, and harmonies, and the chant and guitar represent thematic references: both portray a type of performance associated with specific cultures. However, the piano melodies and much of the string melodies contain no such reference, and are written in modern style. The result is a juxtaposition of styles that combine to create an incredibly culturally diverse soundtrack. This can also be seen in the soundtrack to Assassin’s Creed II, and especially in tracks such as “Earth”. Assasin’s Creed II still has a historical setting, but takes place in 15th and 16th century Renaissance Italy. The most marked representation of this in the track “Earth” is in the vocal performance: this performance contains a boy soprano solo, with Renaissance style vocalisations and melody. Additionally, there are also Mediterranean guitars in this piece, as well as (once again) very modern instrumentation, such as electric and overdriven guitars. Each of these examples represents narrative association because the use of cultural reference is integral to the setting and storyline.

9.4 What is Cultural Influence?

In this chapter we discuss two types of culturally related composition: cultural musical reference, and cultural musical influence. These two terms may seem to be the same although they do have difference primarily in function. Earlier we described a cultural reference as: a musical device that somehow invokes the idea of a location, historical period, or musical culture. We will define cultural music influence as an instance when a type of cultural music has in some way inspired a composer’s current and future musical decisions. These influences are much less tangible than cultural reference; most literature surrounding these influences is limited to interviews with composers, liner notes, and video interviews. These materials will be used to determine influence; however, just like cultural reference, we will make large use of soundtrack study to determine cultural influence. Following the discussion of influence classifications, we will examine several soundtracks that contain such influences, but note that this music also provides cultural reference in some regards as well. This text aims as much as possible to mention those soundtracks that contain literary (or other material) reference by the composer to cultural influence. However, some other works that may be referential without proven influence will be cited also.

9.5 Cultural Influence Classifications

Video game music, being incredibly diverse, draws influence from a multitude of cultural sources. Many of the composers described in the first couple of chapters mentioned influences such as pop and rock music, and world music. Part of the reason for diversity of game music is because video game music is relatively new, and especially in the 1980s and 1990s, there were no determined paradigms for game music. Popular music and Western concert classical music both have long histories, traditions, and associated styles, and the time had simply not passed for video game music to possess such paradigms when video game music was emerging as a musical genre – this date has been determined to be between the 80s and the early 1990s.[5] The study of video game music is relatively new, and most academic research has been published in the past decade or less. Therefore, game music has been allowed to develop its own styles and paradigms from a wide variety of influences, mostly dependent on composer background (and also desires of the game production team). Video game composers have considerably diverse backgrounds, with some composers classically trained, and some not trained at all, or only experienced in popular or rock music. Composers early in the history of game music would often also be programmers, and would therefore have more technical than musical expertise. However, as video game music became more involved, and the graphics improved, more game music became influenced by cinematic styles. Additionally, with so many trajectories in trends and many different genres of gameplay, as well as diverse company structures, music for games has become incredibly diverse, and there is no typical background of a video game music composer. Therefore, cultural influence on video game music composers encompasses many different genres and styles. We will discuss three primary types of cultural music influences in this text: 1) world music influences, 2) historical music influences, and 3) popular music influences. Cultural influences represent the inspirations that a composer may have been given due to a certain type of music; these influences then result in the incorporation of cultural references. These will be discussed below, as well as how they have been integrated with references in games.

9.6 World Music

World music influence is defined in this text to consist of any influence from or use of a music associated with a culture other than that of the composer’s. This can include folk music, popular music, or concert music that is specific to culture or location. While these influences can result in the use all three types of references, including instrumental references, references using musical devices, and thematic references, the most common type of world music reference is instrumental. This is likely because instruments are easily identified (timbre), and even non-musicians are aware of the origin of certain instruments. Musical devices such as scales are more difficult to identify when not played on their associated instruments (for example, playing a Chinese pentatonic scale on a piano does not immediately provide the listener with a reference to Chinese music), but such devices are used to great effect in the synthesis of various cultural music references.=

9.6.1 Yasunori Mitsuda, “Drowning Valley”, Chrono Cross (1999)

Yasunori Mitsuda has stated himself that one of the largest influences on him in the writing of this soundtrack was 20th century minimalist music.[6] This influence can be heard in the opening of the piece, which contains a repetitive passage on a mallet percussion instrument. Previously discussed was Mitsuda’s choice of using Fado guitar; this is also present in the majority of this track, and provides a steady and consistent rhythmic backdrop. Another instrument that appears several times throughout the soundtrack, including following the opening to this piece, is the Celtic flute. Mitsuda has also stated that Celtic music has been one of his greatest influences, in addition to other world music, for all of his soundtracks.[7] These documented influences result in the use of references that are important for the overall setting of the game and soundtrack. The references used are primarily instrumental: the mallet percussion and Portuguese fado guitar are both instruments associated with warm coastal regions (the vibraphone with the Caribbean and the fado guitar with the Mediterranean). The playing styles are not reflective of the regions that the instruments come from – Mitsuda blends the instrumental references with the influence of the 20th century minimalistic style. The one exception to this, at least in this track, is in the Celtic flute, which frequently uses traditional Celtic techniques. As in much of Mitsuda’s other music, this track therefore blends elements of several different cultures and musical styles, while maintaining his personal, modern style.

9.6.2 Yasunori Mitsuda, “Home Arni”, Chrono Cross

“Home Arni” is a village location theme, and therefore a type of safe zone music. The qualities of the track reflect this, as it is lightly orchestrated, very calm, and contains a steady walking tempo. Once again, Mistuda makes use of fado guitar, including a solo in the introduction. This solo actually reflects some of the idiomatic playing style of the Portuguese guitar, demonstrating an instrumental and thematic reference. There are also some strings in the back, which provide a sustained chordal pad, a plucked bass instrument, and also flute later on in the track. While this track begins with a traditional plucked riff in the fado guitar, it develops once again into a more individual style by the end. Therefore, cultural influences were heavily present at the beginning of the track, but they evolved as the track progressed.

9.6.3 Yasunori Mitsuda, “The Big Splendid Astonishing Magic Group”, Chrono Cross

This track contains some of the most direct references in Mitsuda’s writing, combining instrumental references with thematic and musical ones. The piece contains a gong and a type of bass drum throughout, as well as some Chinese percussion instruments. The track contains the erhu as one of the foregrounded instruments, playing a Chinese pentatonic scale. The erhu is also using very traditional performance techniques, including pitch bends. The ensemble also included a plucked string instrument; this instrument also uses a tremolo technique that is very traditional. Therefore, this track actually differs from many of the other tracks in its use of direct cultural references and stylistically consistent instrumental lines. However, there is a recording of a person saying “crazy!” in the background. Other than this element, the track is very evocative of a traditional Chinese ensemble in instrumentation and musical elements.

9.6.4 Yasunori Mitsuda, “Home Termina”, Chrono Cross

“Home Termina” also contains more direct cultural references than some of the other examples from Chrono Cross that have been discussed thus far. The track opens with a melodic line played by a Celtic flute. “Home Termina is written in a 6/8 metre, representative of a Jig, a type of Celtic dance. There are also other examples of instrumental representations of Celtic music, including the use bagpipes. The work consistently remains in the same dance metre throughout, and the flutes eventually begin to add ornamentation. However, there are some other instruments that are not Celtic, such as castanets and other hand percussion instruments. Therefore, some elements of the “Home Termina” are not referential to Celtic music, but these are overshadowed by the prominent and foregrounded use of such direct references. The largest departure from Celtic music is observed in the second half of the track, in which the flute stops performing the Celtic-inspired melody and performs a melody much more evocative of Mitsuda’s style. The track promptly loops following this.

9.7 Historical Music

Historical musical influcnes are those drawn from a specific time period; this can be in addition to location (i.e., world music), or time period only. This is unlike world music influences, which draw from location only. Erhu playing may be associated with Chinese music, for example, but the instrument is present in numerous historical periods. Gregorian chant, however, is not only associated with Europe, but with a very particular period in European history. Therefore, Gregorian chant music is a historical influence (or influence), not one coming from world music – the use of Gregorian chant-inspired music would represent a historical cultural reference. There are many reasons why composers may choose to use a historically influenced music in the game, including some associations we tend to give historical music (for example: Baroque harpsichord and organ music is frequently associated, as a result of film scores such as the one from Interview with a Vampire, with vampires and the Dracula mythos),[8] as well as composers’ personal influences, and game style and setting. A game set in a medieval time period, for example, may benefit from music that makes use of medieval characteristics, instruments, and forms. Historical references can also be extremely useful in games that are set in fantastical worlds, to depict what stage of technology the game may be set in.

9.7.1 “Greco-Roman”, Civilization III (2001)

The Civilization Series includes several turn-based strategy games in which the objective is to “build an empire that stands the test of time.”[9] Gameplay involves a progression in time from about 4000BCE all the way through (potentially) 2100 AD. This large scope of time may encourage the use of historically inspired music and historical references, of which “Greco-Roman” is an example. This track contains many sounds and musical elements that we associate with ancient Roman music, including horns that are playing overtones (Roman horns did not have valves, which were added in the early 19th-century), drums, and various shouting and war calls heard in the background.[10] This beginning is very bare in orchestration and demonstrates some historical inspiration, however, as the piece goes on, the horn part becomes more difficult, including more melodic motion by smaller musical intervals, which would have been unplayable on a trumpet without valves.

9.7.2 “Mesoamerican 1”, Civilization III

Also part of the soundtrack to Civilization III, “Mesoamerican 1” provides some of the same sounds that we associate with very ancient music. However, there are differences between this and “Greco-Roman” that make it apparent they are intended to depict different historical periods and locations. Once again, there are some horn sounds, with very minimal pitch change, but pan flutes and a wooden pitched percussion instrument are also present. Just as in “Greco-Roman”, it begins with themes and musical devices associated with ancient music and then gets gradually more intense and modern. The wooden percussion instrument, for example, becomes at some points so fast it would be unrealistic to play, even by modern performers. There are also references to primitivism in the track, including chant-like utterances that are often associated in popular culture with ancient, pre-speech humans (even though this is likely an inaccurate association).

9.7.3 Michiru Yamane, “Requiem for the Gods”, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

The most obvious use of historically influenced music in “Requiem For The Gods” is in the middle of the track, when a church organ plays very distinctly a chorale (clearly inspired by Baroque Lutheran chorales). The movement of individual voices within the chords and the overall harmonic motion of this excerpt both follow the conventions of these chorales. The melody, which in the track is performed by a MIDI choir voice, also contains melodic elements and harmonies that would have been present in the Baroque period as well – the cadences (ends of musical sentences, musical “punctuation”) are similar to cadences heard in church music, especially in the Baroque period. Therefore, there are many elements of this track that are associated with Baroque music: instrumental (organ), melodic/harmonic devices (cadences and harmonic progressions), and themes (the organ playing a chorale). However, the structure of the track is not by any means a Baroque form and the choir melody is considerably slower most Baroque melodies, which tend to be fast and include counterpoint. Therefore, while some of the elements of this track are representative of Baroque music, not all of the music is referential to this time period. This allows the music to have some Baroque features, but still maintain a sound separate from simply a historical replica.

9.7.4 Michiru Yamane, “Final Tocatta”, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

This track contains many overt references to the Baroque era, including the instrumentation (primarily a church organ), and the title. A toccata, or “touch piece”, is a musical composition for a keyboard instrument designed to exhibit the performer’s technique and touch, and was popular during the Baroque period.[11] The form and style of the track is primarily a baroque style contrapuntal piece. The same stylistic traits, especially in the melodic motives and their development, can be observed in the music of Baroque keyboard composers such as Bach and Telemann. A brief section in the middle even contains chordal passages typical of Baroque church music. However, there is also a choir (MIDI) sound that “interrupts” the organ music at irregular intervals. This rhythmic irregularity is not present in Baroque music, and its addition prevents the piece from being a stylistic replica. Michiru Yamane is therefore is able to evoke the Baroque ideal so frequently used in Gothic musical settings as discussed above, while maintaining modern sound. 

9.7.5 Nobuo Uemastu, “Dark City Treno”, Final Fantasy IX

Treno is a city In Final Fantasy IX once claimed to have been a “city of nobles” but, due to wealth of its citizens, has also attracted thieves and gamblers.[12] The background track to this location consists of a solo piano only throughout. This in itself is not associated with a historical period, as its characteristic usage spans many eras; however, the style of the piano music is one that is very specifically associated with a particular time and place: Ragtime music. This music, known for its “ragged” time, consisted of a syncopated rhythmic interaction between the melody and the baseline.[13] Ragtime was at its peak popularity at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries in southern United States. The use of ragtime to depict cons and cheats was notably used in the 1970s American film The Sting (ragtime was so heavily used that the success of the film inspired renewed interest in the music of Scott Joplin). The presence of gamblers, con artists, and thieves in Treno may have influenced Uematsu to use a similar musical setting as in The Sting.

9.8 Popular Music

It is also important to discuss the many ways in which popular culture associated music has influenced music in video games. Popular music still remains one of the most prominent influences on composers of video game music, which is most markedly apparent in their personal statements and backgrounds. Earlier composers, such as Koji Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu, cite rock and popular influences; recent composers, including Jesper Kyd and Kevin Riepl, among others, write music for both film or TV and video games and do cite TV/film scores as inspirations. Additionally, video games represent a portion of popular music culture, and most video game consumers also tend to be consumers of popular music and film. Therefore, it is unsurprising that pop influences and references would be present in video game music. In section 1 we learned that early game composers were frequently influenced to be popular and rock music, and many of these composers also played in bands (or performed in bands later, i.e., Nobuo Uematsu). Film music influences are becoming more common (in addition to pop), especially as there are more composers who write music in both industries. Film music has its own idiomatic writing and orchestration, which is becoming increasingly common in some game music. Film influences and references are especially apparent in recent music for AAA games.

9.8.1 Popular Music: Industrial Pop Music

Some game music is influenced by commercial pop music; this trend is observed as beginning in earlier JRPG games, such as Tales of Phantasia, and extending through others, such as the Final Fantasy games. However, since this has been quite common in Japan for some time I will actually discuss a North American approach to this concept. The song “Still Alive”, performed by GLaDOS in Portal, represents a piece of music within a game that is not a popular music song in the conventional sense, but takes inspiration from the stylistic traits of pop music. A character in the game, GLaDOS, performs the song. This character is an artificial intelligence with a robotic voice that instructs the player character to complete objectives throughout the game for the promise of “cake” at the end.[14] Therefore, the vocals in the song are actually performed by a “robot”, rather than commercial pop singer. The instrumentation and production, however, sounds no different from any other pop song one may hear on the radio, including guitars, drums, and some synth elements. Additionally, the chord progressions, style of lyrical rhyme and metre, and overall form are illustrative of pop music as well. However, it is important to remember that this is not a pop song that is previously recorded and used in the game; this song was actually written specifically for the game, starring one of the game’s characters as the main singer. Tracks that are inspired by popular music remain distinct from licensed music, which will be discussed later.

9.8.2 Popular Music: Film Music in Video Games

Currently it is not out of the ordinary for us to hear film-inspired music in video games, so for many new gamers it may seem as if all video game music is inspired by film techniques (especially for some of the AAA games). When we examine some of the earlier soundtracks to video games, however, this cinematic influence was not present, and soundtracks were frequently inspired by rock and pop music. Additionally, as early game soundtracks had to be programmed on chips rather than composed away from the game, sequenced, and then added, early game music made heavy use of devices such as arpeggiated figures and quick passages, which were not common in film music. Film and game music differed in orchestration as well, with early game music containing primarily synthesized sounds, while film music has traditionally used live orchestra. Modern film music has developed idiomatic orchestration techniques in the 21st century, including slow strings, low brass, percussion, and economic use of woodwinds. Video game music adopted some of the techniques and styles of film music following the 64-bit generation. Orchestral sound in video games became more and more common with the increased storage space afforded by the DVD-ROM generation of game consoles, primarily because composers could use live orchestra, and the samples were beginning to sound more realistic. This resulted in more cinematic sounding scores, and one such franchise that is known for its very cinematic sound is the Elder Scrolls. The title song for Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, for example, contains low strings, sometimes doubled with brass, a very clear and memorable theme played by the strings, and a secondary section that contained lighter orchestration, including some flutes and pizzicato. These are all elements that are present in film scores, and continue to be more present in video game scores, especially as graphics become more realistic (and therefore, the music often follows suit).

9.8.3 Popular Music: Music Licensing

It is also common for games, especially sports games, racing games, and fighting games, to include licensed music. Sometimes this will be, as described in an earlier chapter, an attempt to create a stronger association between the music and the character demographic (as in Tony Hawk), but it may also be an attempt to create a type of realism (as in some of the FIFA and other sports games, in which there is diegetic pop music played at the sporting events). Occasionally music will be licensed for atmospheric reasons, or simply because that particular song works the best in the soundtrack. Licensed music is also used to add realism to open world games (an example of this would be in Grand Theft Auto). It will be discussed in the following chapter, but licensed music can also represent advertising in games, when a group will market their song in a video game to gain popularity. This is discussed in greater detail in chapter 10, regarding the reception of video game music.

9.9 Conclusion

Cultural references can be observed with considerable frequency in video games, and composers have stated many times the influence that music of various cultures has had on them. Part of this is due to the origins of game music, including diverse influences on composers, no previous paradigm for scores, and the need to score an unfamiliar and continuously developing media. This is also because video games require worlds designed completely from scratch, often including unrealistic locations, characters, and plots. More realistic games (in terms of graphics and setting) tend to use music that is more cinematically influenced, deriving stylistic paradigms from film. Yet other games use styles of music that are inspired by or referential to pop music. This diverse body of influences is also part of what makes video game music so unique and effective, and is especially apparent in those works that blend music from multiple cultures and time periods, resulting in novel stylistic traits. Games like Assassin’s Creed and Chrono Cross combine music of different cultures and music of different time periods to create a unique fusion within. These elements all contribute to the diversity of individualism of video game music, which are characteristics that make the genre so successful and appealing to so many consumers.

[1] Mitsuda, Yasunori, Chrono Chross OST, liner notes.
[2] Mitsuda, Yasunori, Chrono Chross OST, liner notes.
[4] Assassin’s Creed series, Ubisoft, 2007-present.
[5] Newcomb, David Lawrence. The Fundamentals of the Video Game Music Genre. James Madison University, 2012.
[6] Mistuda, Yasunori, Chrono Chross OST, liner notes.
[8] Examples of this use include the Interview With The Vampire Soundtrack, as well as the Castlevania series.
[9] See official website,
[10] Koehler, Elisa. Fanfares and Finesse: A Performer’s Guide to Trumpet History and Literature. Indiana University Press, 2014, p. 46.
[11] Grout, Donald Jay, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music, seventh edition, New York: Norton, 2006, p. 279.
[12] Final Fantasy IX, Square, 2000.
[13] Grout, Donald Jay, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music, seventh edition, New York: Norton, 2006, p. 768-69.
[14] Portal, Valve Corporation, 2007.