Concerts, box sets and popstars: how video game soundtracks went mainstream

Gaming music has come a long way from the 8-bit Mario theme. 

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The Super Mario Bros. music drilled its way into our collective consciousness, but did you rush out to buy the soundtrack? Or feel compelled to hear it recreated by an orchestra? The answer is probably no. So why are tons of adults doing just that with game scores new and old?

Gamers and non-gamers alike are paying to watch their favourite musical accompaniments live -- with the proceeds even going to charity in the case of War Child’s upcoming UK gig featuring the music of mega-RPGs, Skyrim and Fallout. Suddenly it seems there’s a market for a five-disc boxset of music from the latest Zelda, while the vinyl boom has made space for the Doom and Skyrim soundtracks. And pop stars like Paul McCartney are contributing songs to best-selling games in exchange for good ol’ exposure. Well, it’s not like Macca needs the cash, anyway.

Video game soundtracks are officially having a moment – is it time you started tuning in? If you’ve put down the joypad, or never picked one up, you’ve got catching up to do. The medium has undergone a dramatic transformation since the 8-bit, chiptune days of the Nintendo Entertainment System, where Mario got his start.

It’s all down to technological advancements in memory, storage, and audio equipment, says composer Jessica Curry, who won a Bafta for her haunting work on indie title Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. “There have been huge [technological] advances in games music,” said Curry, who also hosts Classic FM’s video game music show, High Score. “[In the past] you couldn’t put orchestral music into a game because it didn’t have the capacity to take that in terms of memory or streaming. But as games have gotten bigger and the download sizes have increased so exponentially, there’s room for more music.”

That’s not to undermine the influence of the Mario theme tune – its calypso-bop has seeped into genres as disparate as hip-hop and pop-punk. But these days you’re more likely to hear a classical score by a Hollywood composer in a blockbuster video game. Take God of War’s thunderous soundtrack – it was written by Bear McCreary, who also wrote the score for the hit movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane. The opposite has also happened: Michael Giacchino (responsible for a string of Pixar scores, including The Incredibles and its sequel) cut his teeth on video games like the Medal of Honor series.

But it’s still tempting to try and pinpoint that epochal moment – whether it be the technological shift brought about by the advent of the CD-Rom (with more powerful PCs handling bigger music tracks). Or mainstream recognition, which can be traced back to 2011 and the first ever Grammy win for a game, when composer Christopher Tin's Baba Yetu, originally from Civilization IV, took home the Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) award. The following year, Austin Wintory received a Grammy nod for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media for his work on Sony’s Journey (losing out to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

Tomb Raider composer Nathan McCree describes a “natural progression” toward critical and commercial recognition for a medium that’s much younger than cinema -- though it easily outgrosses Hollywood these days. It also fits into the wider acceptance of video games as art.

“As these forms of entertainment become more and more popular, people’s interest grows and they want to dig deeper into the project,” said McCree, whose Tomb Raider in Concert event has had pit-stops in the UK and Australia. He added: “And it’s not just soundtracks but people looking to costumes...there’s a big cosplay movement going on right now.”

Sure enough, fans have turned up to McCree’s performances dressed as Lara Croft, which can sometimes lead to health and safety hurdles. “I remember at the [Eventim] Apollo it was an absolutely no guns, no weapons policy. So instead of fake guns, people were turning up in Lara Croft outfits with bananas in their holsters, which was quite fun,” recalls the composer.

But aside from seeing fans dressed as their favourite characters, what’s it like to attend a video game concert? “Gamers like to see more than just a live [show]. They like to see gameplay footage, they like to see a bit of live action,” explained McCree. His performances have integrated those elements, along with appearances from the original Lara Croft, Alison Carroll. The idea of watching games is no longer alien: the (soon-to-be) billion-dollar eSports industry and video game streaming, via Twitch and YouTube, changed all that.

Still, Curry is of the view that a game’s music can stand alone from its gameplay on the big stage. “At Sony’s [PlayStation in Concert] event at the Royal Albert Hall, they didn’t have any visuals,  they just had the music,” she said. “I think everyone was a bit nervous in the lead-up as to whether people were going to sit still and be engaged. But you heard a pin drop... it was absolute focus... to me it was proof that it can be pulled apart.”

So where would a non-gamer begin? Curry recommends hunting down fellow Bafta-winner Jason Graves’ original soundtrack for virtual reality adventure Moss. Or you could dive into one of the live concerts happening in London this year. And, if you’re a classical music noob, don’t let the air of exclusivity that comes with the genre put you off either, says Curry.

“I’ve always been fascinated by a crossover audience. I don’t come from a classical background myself and I’ve always felt [classical music] has had, sometimes, an air of elitism, sometimes exclusion,” she said. “But at the Royal Albert Hall... the audience just went crazy for the music... because they really love it… [and] understood that they could own that space. It [was] a completely new crowd going ‘this isn’t just for an elite, it isn’t just for a specific type of person.’ I think that’s really exciting.”