Video game music really plays our emotions. Its impact and growing sophistication has inspired a growing number of academic studies (in a field sometimes labeled “ludomusicology”); in their 2006 essay The Role of Music in Videogames, Sean M Zehnder and Scott D Lipscomb noted the multifunctionality of game soundtracks; they “reinforce a sense of immersion, signal changes in narrative or plot, act as an emotional signifier, reinforce a sense of aesthetic continuity, and cultivate the thematic unity of a video game”.
Ontario scholar and filmmaker Karen Collins is an associate professor at the University of Waterloo and her excellent book Game Sound (2008) explores the history, theory and practice of video game music and sound design. As Collins observes, the player is not a passive listener, but can actively trigger in-game music, as well as react to it unconsciously; she writes that “mood induction and physiological responses are usually most evident when the player character is at significant risk, as in the chaotic, fast-paced music of the boss…sound works to control or manipulating the player’s emotions, guiding responses to the game.” She points out that silence is additionally used to powerful effect, whether it’s increasing tension or when the player is inactive (a musical fade that she describes as the “boredom switch”), prompting us to complete the task so the game can progress.
Video game music is a global expression, both in its international studio collaborations and in its audience reach. Earlier this year, the Poland-based Game Music Festival presented a concert in London, including a Polish big band performing the jazzy, Latin-inspired grooves of the much-loved adventure Cuphead (2017), composed by the Canadian artist Kristoffer Madigan. The concert finale focused on LA-based British composer Gareth Coker’s enchanting (and devastatingly beautiful) scores for the games Ori and the Blind Forest (2015) and Ori and the Will of the Wisps (2020). ).
Coker first studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music, then lived in Japan; his musical range is vast, including scores for film and television – but his love of video games runs particularly deep. “Growing up, I have the fondest memories of playing video games with my parents,” he explains. “These memories I made with my own family, I wish I could give to someone else.”
For the Ori games, Coker spent several years with the development team, creating music that felt distinctly attuned to the main character/player role (a childish forest spirit) and supernatural surroundings. “I react strongly to visuals when I’m working on a game; so I can really get inside by creating a sound world for them,” he says. “Ori’s visuals allow me to create this tapestry with the music, because we’re asking people to expand their imaginations.