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The best classical music in videogames

Features - Classical Music

The best classical music in videogames

by Melissa Lesnie on November 17, 2011 (November 17, 2011) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
These 12 games demonstrate why music for Xbox has bested the Hollywood film score.

Videogames might have started out as fodder for overexcitable kids with short attention spans (or did they erode our attention spans?) but the children who spent countless hours with the genial, moustachio'd Italian babysitter named Mario have grown up... And they still love their videogames. 

Like it or not, videogame culture isn't the sole domain of Comic Con enthusiasts and twentysomethings who never leave their parents' basement: it has hit the mainstream. Just think of the ubiquitous, annoying but instantly recognisable Mario Bros ringtone you might hear on the train every morning.

Since the 1980s, the game industry has become a multi-billion dollar market pumping out products not only for kids, but also for young professionals with plenty of disposable income. The technology, too, has grown up, advancing at an almost inconceivable rate alongside developments in special effects for cinema (indeed, movies in the James Bond and Batman series, among others, have spawned interactive versions) so that videogames have matured into immersive, hyper-real worlds: no wonder adults don't want to give them up.

Sophisticated, hi-tech entertainment requires big budgets with all the trimmings. As in film, sound is one of the most important elements of creating atmosphere within a game: big-name actors are hired to voice characters – John Cleese has appeared in several, notably as a butler – and the music often gives the overblown Hollywood score a run for its money. Major film composers are getting in on the action, including Hans Zimmer of Gladiator and Inception fame. And, accordingly, major orchestras and arts organisations are playing along. The Royal Opera House has just launched its own game for iPad/iPhone, The Show Must Go On, in which players stage their own opera or ballet. The London Philharmonic this month released an album of the greatest videogame tunes. Orchestras around the world, including the Sydney Symphony, have performed music from Final Fantasy against a projected backdrop of game sequences as vivid and thrilling as the Lord of the Rings Films (also a popular concert favourite). It has become a surefire way for orchestras and promoters to connect with a younger audience. But if you're wondering whether the quality of the scores befits a concert setting, just remember that it's come a long way since 8-bit Tchaikovsky in Tetris.

Andrew Skeet, who conducted and arranged the music on the LPO album, sees the project not so much as a drive to attract younger audiences to the symphony but as "responding to new media and new expressive opportunities."

"I see no real difference between doing this and a recording of film music or ballet music," he says. "I treat it as if it is Brahms or Stravinsky or any of the big icons of Western music. It is not always for us to make value judgements about what we play; we must play it with the same conviction as we would play the classics and give new music a chance. We had great fun with this album – the LPO were tremendous."

West Australian Symphony Orchestra principal conductor Paul Daniel believes that the best videogame scores "reference great symphonic composers like Wagner, Mahler, Shostakovich, Holst and John Williams". He admits, however, that "hearing music as a background to another activity like computer gaming is a very different experience from hearing and seeing a hundred musicians performing live. The video composers play with that world in a different way – short-spanned, impact-heavy, little development – and that can be very shallow in a concert environment.

"Of course they belong inside the concert hall, just as much as symphonies belong outside them: making walls into barriers is the death of any music. I really admire the barrier-busting in this new school of live performance: lighting, sound, real theatre... Wagner would have loved all that, I'm sure!"

The pages that follow offer a selection of some of the finest classical and orchestral music composed for videogames in recent years.

 

Eternal Sonata

This Japanese classical music-themed RPG takes as its premise a fictional retelling of the life of Chopin's death: the action unfolds in the composer's mind in the final moments before he succumbs to tuberculosis. In this dreamstate he joins a cast of characters including a female companion, Polka (who, unlike George Sand, opts for frilly dresses) and the Andantinos, freedom fighters led by a spirited youth named... Jazz! Together the strive to free the land from the tyrannical rule of Count Waltz – a strange name for a villain given the charm and effervescence of Chopin's compositions in that form. Between battling monsters and wandering through towns, Chopin is prone to bittersweet existential musings on life and love. 

The light chamber score bears little relation to his original music, but players can roam the landscape searching for fragments of Chopin's melodies called "score pieces" to perform with strangers encountered on their quest.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

It's easy to see why the epic combat scenes and gritty realism of this first-person shooter would fire the imagination of a film composer like Hans Zimmer, whose credits include The Dark Knight and Inception. Although the punchy bass and majestic horns might sit uncomfortably with those who think war shouldn't be glorified in videogames...

Dante’s Inferno

The Divine Comedy has served as inspiration to composers for centuries; just think of Franz Liszt's Dante Symphony and Dante Sonata. It gave Garry Schyman plenty of dramatic material to work with for the score of this action-adventure game, which traces the journey of Dante (reimagined as a buff Templar knight) through the nine circles of Hell to reclaim the soul of his beloved Beatrice from Lucifer. In this clip, Schyman conducts his string-laden, dissonant score (listen out for hints of Penderecki!) with the Philharmonia Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios in London.

Echochrome

Not all videogame scores these days have to be big-budget orchestral bombast to be effective – innovative games call for innovative musical solutions. This stripped-back puzzle game allows players to navigate an MC Escher-styled landscape of optical illusions. The simple but immensely rewarding gaming mechanic is met with elegant, Haydnesque music for string quartet composed by Hideki Sakamoto, the ideal counterpoint to the logic of Echochrome (perhaps Bach Preludes and Fugues would have worked well, too).

 

Halo 3

Recorded with a 60-piece orchestra and 24-voice chorus, the music to Halo 3 mixes medieval-styled chant, Celtic and tribal themes and piano motifs to accompany the Master Chief, a cybernet super-soldier, as he works to bring down the Covenant. Halo is one of the most successful game franchises of all time and sales of the soundtrack reflect that popularity: it reached the Billboard 200 chart and broke the Top 20 best-selling soundtracks and independent albums listings. 

Dead Space

Just like the horror genre in film, survival shooter games pitting players against zombies are full of opportunities for composers to explore chilling strings and suspenseful percussion, working up to the downright terrifying. Composer Jason Graves picked up the 2009 BAFTA awards for Best Audio and Best Original Score.

Bioshock

Garry Schyman is one of the top composers working in gaming, with a style and technique that encompasses classic film scores to the most avant-garde effects. The introduction to the dark thriller Bioshock is pure Bernard Herrmann:

Bioshock also features something more videogames need: a mad composer as villain. In one horrific sequence, Sander Cohen terrorises a hapless pianist he has forced to play his Rachmaninov-like composition. When he's not satisfied with the response to his called-out tempi ("Allegro, Allegro! Presto!), he simply blows up the piano, and the pianist along with it. It brings to mind the final scene of the classic film Hangover Square, in which George Harvey Bone plays his own piano concerto (actually composed by Bernard Herrmann) while a fire rages around him.

The Legend of Zelda

An entire generation of gamers has grown up with Nintendo's Zelda fantasy series and has come to know its epic themes intimately; spending hundreds of hours of one's life playing the various games tends to ingrain the music in one's consciousness. It also helps that the main character, the elfin Link, is musical himself and plays the ocarina. Koji Kondo has been the franchise's resident composer for 25 years.

 

Final Fantasy

This sprawling, 14-game RPG series is brimming with some of the most beloved themes in videogame music, from sentimental solo piano to full-blown orchestra for battle sequences. There are leitmotifs for the various characters, too. The orchestral and choral arrangement in this clip has more than a whiff of Carl Orff about it.

Flow

This fascinating, abstract creation has been hailed an indie triumph in the international gaming community. Players float and drift through an aquatic environment as an unidentified microorganism, more like an interactive art installation than a game. Austin Wintory's delicate, ambient music, here arranged for chamber orchestra, perfectly captures and enriches Flow's sense of wonder at the vastness of the universe.

LAIR

Composer John Debney scored Hollywood blockbusters like Sin City and Passion of the Christ (worlds apart!) before turning his hand to videogames. He describes the music accompanying LAIR's dragon-riding knight on various adventures as a "large scale symphony in three acts", "operatic, ethnically rich, lyrical, elegant and, at the same time, tragic". That's a lot for one score to live up to, but the London and Royal Symphony orchestras do the music proud.

Super Mario Galaxy 2

Ending on a high note: the videogame world's most lovable and universally known mascot, Mario has inspired some of the most memorable and annoyingly catchy music composed in the past century. It's impossible not to smile when listening to this bright orchestral anthem.