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Video games are a multi-sensory experience – that’s probably why they are so immersive. It may not be obvious at first glance, but music plays a huge part in the success of a video game and has become as important as movie soundtracks. As early as in the 90’s, games like Silent Hill or Grand Theft Auto were loved and famous not only because of their gameplay or their storyline, but also thanks to their soundtracks. For millions of people, video games have been a way to discover new bands or  musical genres they would never have heard otherwise.

Music is particularly powerful to create atmospheres, tell an epic story about fantastic imaginary worlds. Discovering music while immersed in a game you love – often alone, in the dark – is a unique, engaging and memorable experience.

Nowadays, game soundtracks are fully part of the gamers’ universe and imagination. Video game companies are fully aware of this phenomenon, and they treat it seriously. Let us take you on a historical tour of music in video games, before taking a look at a few contemporary developments.

Pong: the origins

In the 70’s, the first arcade machines were equipped with speakers – originally to draw the attention of visitors to this new activity. The first game with sound was the famous Pong, which marked the beginning of music in video games. These little “beeps”, which seem simplistic to us today, were in fact a real revolution: they announced the arrival of music as a tool for creating atmosphere in this emerging leisure activity. 

8-bits, more creative than it seems

In the 1980s, technical progress made it possible to store more elaborate music – but just slightly. The 8-bit and then 16-bit music had to be memorable and pleasant despite hundreds of repetitions – the technical limitations did not allow for long and diversified pieces. It was therefore necessary to create atmospheres with very few notes, and the first composers were studying closely the works of J.S. Bach to fuel their creativity in order to design these very simple, but not simplistic themes. 

In the mid-1980s Nintendo recruited its first official composer, Kenji Kondo. This is when the music of games like Mario Bros or Zelda became famous  –  almost as successful as the games themselves. It was also Kenji Kondo who organized the very first concert combining classical music and video games in Tokyo. A true composer and conductor, he is a key figure in video game music.

Koji Kondo performing Mario theme

In the 1990s, the arrival of CDs and the democratization of PCs and consoles allowed games to incorporate the sounds of real instruments. The video game industry therefore needed composers capable of enriching the increasingly elaborate fantasy worlds of video games with sound atmospheres that were equally elaborate.

It was once again in Japan that Konami’s artist Michiru Yamane created the famous music for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night in 1997. A graduate of one of the most prestigious music academies in Japan, she composed 44 pieces for this innovative exploration video game and its baroque, fantastic and slightly offbeat universe. The composer’s influences are eclectic and bold – ranging from metal to classical music, with occasional detours into pop and jazz.  

Considered one of the best video game soundtracks of all time, this timeless music has lost none of its power today. 

Zelda: when the player becomes a musician

But it is the Legend of Zelda series that marks a true revolution in video game music – by inviting the player directly into its soundtrack.  The music of this part is inspired by themes already used in A Link to the Past and in the original version of Legend of Zelda. The world of Hyrule acquires here a more modern aspect, but still familiar for the series’ regulars. 

But the soundtrack of the 1998 Ocarina of Time game – composed like the rest of the music in the series by Kenji Kondo – is not just there to create an atmosphere – it is now an integral part of the gameplay itself.

Screenshot from the game Zelda, Ocarina of Time

To progress through the game, you literally have to play an instrument, the title’s ocarina, to unlock entire sections of the story, progress through the quest, discover secrets, and even cast spells.

In 2012, the video game music industry received its first major award: composer Austin Wintory won a Grammy Award for Best Soundtrack for the music of the game Journey.

For such a recent art form, this is an extraordinary achievement.

In July, we will discover some particularly memorable soundtracks, and new practices, which might revolutionize the video game industry and even the music world.