Video Game Music: A world to escape to

Thursday, March 26, 2020 - 5:39pm

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Christine Jegarl

I played video games as much as any other kid growing up in the GameCube era. My earliest memories of video game music come from playing “Sonic Adventure 2” on the Dreamcast, where you could listen to the original soundtrack from an extras menu. I was particularly fond of the hip-hop songs that played during the Knuckles stages; God only knows how many times I listened to the Pumpkin Hill theme song.

I hadn’t thought all that much about video game music since then, until last year. For years I had been a champion of “lo-fi beats to relax and study to” when I needed to wind down, but lo-fi beats just weren’t doing it for me anymore. Still, I craved that sense of comfort lo-fi beats evoked. I started listening to hybrid video-game-lo-fi beats like “Zelda & Chill.” Eventually that turned into straight video game playlists, like “Relaxing and Calming Music from Chrono series.” YouTube’s suggested video algorithm went to work, and before I knew it, I had a beloved rotation of video game soundtracks and music compilations.

To this day I can’t remember a single stand-out song from any of the lo-fi beats playlists I once cherished, but the melodies of numerous video games I’ve never even played somehow managed to fill up filing cabinets in my brain. In past times of stress and anxiety, I’ve turned to video games to escape and I’ve turned to music to escape. But now, in a present time of great stress and anxiety, I turn to a combination of both — I find myself wanting to escape into those filing cabinets of video game music.

Does that make video game music one of the greatest forms of escapism?

Video game music, or VGM, is music found in video games. When people think of VGM, they often think of the chiptune music of the original “Super Mario Bros.” — the song’s Wikipedia page actually cites a 2001 article written by Daily Arts Editors who claimed, “Ask a random student to hum the theme to the classic game and chances are they’ll know every note.” But VGM is also the opening theme to “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” composed by Hans Zimmer himself, and the licensed 3rd-party music for games like Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution.

VGM is not a genre; it’s something bigger than a genre. There’s something about it that sets it apart. One of the most popular videos by YouTube user Seth Everman is “music genre: video game,” in which Everman improvises tunes reminiscent of VGM. “He somehow made this sound like every game and no game at the same time,” one user commented. “why do I feel nostalgic for a game that doesn’t exist” another user commented on a sequel video. So if VGM isn’t a genre, what separates it from other types of music?

I continued exploring video game music on YouTube, looking for an answer to that question. Soon I discovered the website was home to an enormous community of VGM fans. Compilations like the ones I listened to were big; VGM cover artists were even bigger. The first VGM cover to catch my eye was a video of two dudes on the street in Melbourne doing a batshit insane cover of the Gerudo Valley theme from The Legend of Zelda. Equally impressive is the work of full-time cover artists like Smooth McGroove, one of the most well known artists for his acappella rearrangements of VGM classics.

YouTube user Vapidbobcat, who requested anonymity for this article, started making video game music compilations in late 2015, and has since built his channel up to over 30 thousand subscribers. 

“I’ve always had the habit of keeping a copy of my favorite songs from each video game I play, and over the years that has resulted in me having a pretty big library of music,” Vapidbobcat wrote in an email interview with The Michigan Daily. “That is likely a big reason why I’ve been able to do this for so long without running out of ideas.”

Vapidbobcat’s VGM playlists tap into the versatility of video game soundtracks by crafting a specific aesthetic. Often these are seasonally themed, like winter or holiday music; other times they’re more novel, like “Nintendo elevator music.”

“In some cases it is easy, like, if I’m doing a fire-themed compilation, then I just need to go over as many fire levels as I can and see what music plays in them,” Vapidbobcat explained. “But sometimes I like to try my hand at more ‘abstract’ themes, and in this situation I simply take a look at what feelings I’m trying to convey, and what video game songs are good at conveying that feeling (in my opinion).”

A community of fans loves and appreciates the work that Vapidbobcat puts into his VGM compilations. On a relaxing spring-themed collection uploaded last week, many fans expressed gratitude for a moment of peace amid a pandemic. “thank u vapid for making my quarantine as peaceful and beautiful as possible,” one user commented. “In a time of crisis and isolation we need your videos even more,” another said.

Vapidbobcat is in tune with his fans: The words he shared with me only a few days earlier, right before the coronavirus panic dug its claws into Michigan, echoed their sentiments. “A lot of people enjoy video game music because it helps them cope with stressful situations,” Vapidbobcat wrote to me. “It reminds them of a time where they had no worries in life.” I can relate to that.

VGM has the power to transport listeners to another world in a way that’s unique from other types of music. It can transport listeners to the world of a video game, or the world of VGM on YouTube, a world where fans can find community through cool covers and compilations. But the VGM community isn’t just online — it’s right here at the University of Michigan.

At Festifall my sophomore year, before my appreciation for video game music blossomed, I stopped by a booth for Video Game Music Club, or VGMC, and signed up for the mailing list on a whim. I never made it past the mass meeting, but I saw a club buzzing with activity. Topics ranged from breaking down the appeal of Wii menu music to learning to make your own video game music. VGMC is a unique space for VGM appreciation on campus, uniting video game fans, cover artists and even aspiring composers.

The weekend after classes were moved online, I walked into East Quad to the tune of a somber piano echoing through the halls. It was a gorgeous melody, but somewhat sad, a fitting backdrop to the scores of students pushing blue bins and packing cars to leave campus. At the helm of the piano was VGMC president and LSA senior Ajilan Potter. The melancholic tune I caught was “H’aanit’s Theme” from “Octopath Traveler,” transitioning into an original composition that Potter was working on.

VGMC started in Winter 2018, when Potter was trying to get a band together to do VGM covers and jams. In light of complex logistics for starting a band — like finding a rehearsal space on a campus where recreational space is tight — Potter decided to start a club for the time being. But that niche has a growing audience.

“It started out really small, five to ten people every week … now we consistently have between ten, 15, 20 people,” Potter said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “Sometimes the whole room is full depending on what we’re talking about.”

Potter is an artist of many mediums: On top of founding VGMC, he’s a 3D modeler, a writer with two finished manuscripts under his belt and a self-taught musician. Video game music is what led Potter to pick up the piano. 

“When I played ‘Final Fantasy XIII’ … I was just blown away by the soundtrack,” Potter said. “I think that was the first time I was consciously like, ‘I don’t just like this, I love this … I started learning piano from listening to those piano collections … I couldn’t live without at least trying to play it.”

Now, Potter is building a community around video game music at the University through VGMC. The club’s focus has shifted semester to semester based on what the members want; last year was a lot of VGM composition, and this year has been a lot of VGM appreciation. Whether it’s composition or appreciation, a space like this for VGM is hard to find. The University offers a popular class on video game music through the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, but it’s hard to get into, and it’s only a VGM community for  a single semester. That makes VGMC a rare sanctuary for VGM enthusiasts on campus. For some members, the club has even been a launchpad to work on their own VGM projects.

VGM has power that goes beyond nostalgia. Like myself, Potter and Vapidbobcat both appreciate music from games that they’ve never played. What makes this music so sticky, so memorable in a way that ChilledCow’s lo-fi beats never were for me?

One key difference is the compositional brilliance behind game companies like Nintendo. It’s easy to think VGM is just background music; when tied to an interactive experience like a video game, it’s logical to assume music is secondary to the game’s journey. But VGM is it’s own journey. Composers employ musical techniques to build a specific mood or even form a sonic narrative complete with action, climax and resolution.

YouTube content creator 8-bit Music Theory, who requested anonymity for this article, recognizes that brilliance. He’s been explaining how musical techniques drive a musical journey in VGM since starting his channel in 2016.

“I’ve always been a big music theory nerd,”  8-bit Music Theory said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “I love analytical YouTube videos and that kind of stuff but there’s hardly any — or at least when I started there was hardly any — about music. And especially not about music that I was interested in.” 

That’s when he got the idea to start his own channel about music theory.

At first 8-bit toyed with a music theory channel about bands like The Beatles or The Beach Boys, but he saw the devotion of the VGM community on YouTube and the success of cover artists like Smooth McGroove. 

8-bit is making a living with the support of the VGM community — his videos analyze video game music through a music theory lens. Creating high quality content for his over 300 thousand subscribers is a full time job. A classically trained jazz drummer, 8-bit moved to Montreal after college to perform in bands by night. But by day, he dabbled in YouTube as a way to keep busy. 

“I made one video and realized, this is way more fun than trying to get gigs,” 8-bit said.

For a channel that seemingly touches on a very specific topic, there’s no shortage of material to cover. There are new video games coming out all the time, and VGM composers are continuing to innovate. But even if video games stopped being made today, there’s still so much to break down — one saxophone solo from a song in “Mario Kart 8” makes for 13 minutes of thorough analysis. Even simple tunes like the original “Super Mario Bros.” theme are carefully crafted to be as memorable as they are. In his videos, 8-bit exposes numerous elements that are working to drive the journey of deceptively dense video game tracks.

Much of that density is due to history. Video game music has its own pioneers who have continued to inspire VGM today. One such pioneer is Koji Kondo, the composer behind classics like “Super Mario Bros.” and “The Legend of Zelda.” His work is integral to these powerhouse Nintendo franchises that are today some of the most beloved in both VGM and the greater video game community. Kondo and many of his peers in the Japanese video game industry were inspired by jazz music.

“Jazz fusion was big in the states in the ’70s, and then came to Japan in the ’80s,” 8-bit explained. “But then in the ’80s is where you get more technological innovation in music. More synths, that stuff develops more too,” 8-bit continued. “There’s this whole scene of ’80s and ’90s Japanese fusion which is coming out of American jazz, but through this totally different cultural lens … That kind of jazz fusion scene is what informed a ton of early video game music … a ton of Mario (music), Zelda (music).”

In combination with these influences were hardware limitations. Not only did songs and tracklists have to be short due to space limitations, the hardware mandated simplicity. Early video game consoles synthesized sound by programming waveforms in square or triangle patterns at different intensities and frequencies. The sound chips only had room for a small number of channels (imagine playing on a keyboard, but you couldn’t press more than three different keys at time). This is where chiptune music comes from. The Nintendo Entertainment System could only support a small number of melodic voices: two square waves formed the main melody, a triangle wave formed the bass and a white noise channel formed the percussion. There was no capacity for atmospheric, cinematic or orchestral music. But limitation breeds creativity.

These influences and limitations in tandem led to a unique sound behind video games of the “8-bit era,” a time for VGM that 8-bit is fond of (hence the channel name). 

“You’ll have these very traditional jazz harmonies and chord progressions, but then layered on top of ’80s dance beats, but all of that being played by this really really early (equipment),” 8-bit explained. “(The music was) super compressed, the hardware could hardly handle any amount of memory for music.”

Even as early video game consoles slowly creeped closer to emulating real instruments, they still had a unique quality to them — sampled instruments didn’t quite sound like what they were supposed to on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Composers like Kondo experimented with this unique aesthetic, composing tracks with unusual instrument combinations: The catchy theme song from “Super Mario World” features the unlikely combo of banjo, steel drum and tuba.

The purpose VGM had to serve in early games was also key to its style. VGM was often an endlessly looping backdrop, one that had to remain interesting over a long period of time. It also had to work alongside pixel art to immerse players into a totally new world.

Now combine jazz influences, hardware limitations and the role VGM had to serve. Early VGM composers had to be extremely creative out of necessity. That led to music that was rich in melody with a lot of thought put into making it catchy, memorable and interesting to listen to over and over again.

Music rooted in the style of early VGM is undoubtedly the fan-favorite among the VGM community. The cynic in me attributes that to nostalgia, but there is something special about the simplicity of this style. New indie games with pixel-art graphics and chiptune-inspired soundtracks — Undertale, Shovel Knight and Celeste to name a few — are huge with young kids, even though ten-year-olds today are far removed from the 8-bit era.

Nowadays there is no limitation to VGM. Because of an abundance of storage, most modern video games utilize pre-recorded songs, much like playing an MP3 file in the background. This has led to a shift in emphasis throughout the industry away from simple, melody-driven music to more cinematic, movie score-esque soundtracks. This change in VGM is part of a greater trend of video games trying to imitate the cinematic grandeur of film, a trend that’s creeping into television as well. Nonetheless, a lot of modern VGM still retains this emphasis on melody. As composers continue to be influenced by pioneers like Kondo — especially in the indie gaming scene — that emphasis on melody may never die out.

Crafting the perfect mood has become increasingly important to video game designers, and composers have followed suit with soundtracks to fit. One of the most notable examples is the latest installment in The Legend of Zelda series. 2017’s “Breath of the Wild” was the first game to eschew Zelda tradition and adopt a sparse, airy, almost ambient soundtrack. While most can agree that it suits the game’s open-world style, many have struggled to accept this direction away from the blistering rhythms and breathtaking melodies the series is known for. Nintendo has been consistent in keeping the classic VGM spirit alive in its flagship franchises, so for some fans, it was a step backward.

To Potter, it’s a step forward. 

“I don’t see it as a tradition that’s dying, I see it as a tradition that’s reinventing itself almost,” Potter said. “ … We’re just entering an era where all these kinds of styles can be blended now.”

Many modern games still capture the essence of VGM classics by starting with a melody, and then building an ensemble around it that brings that melody to life. He cited “God of War” as an example of this new tradition, a tradition of gorgeous melodies brought out through combination with the cinematic grandeur of movie scores. 

Why do so many fans still feel so attached to the VGM of the 8-bit era? Why are modern soundtracks inspired by this era the most beloved? Why is the aesthetic so popular, even with children who are too young to be nostalgic for it?

Admittedly, I’m no different — the 8-bit aesthetic has become my favorite too, and it even started me on a retro video game kick. There’s something comforting about playing the original “Sonic The Hedgehog” or “The Legend of Zelda.” They’re not realistic or immersive video games, yet those are the worlds I want to dive into most when I’m fed up with life. There’s universal comfort in a world bound by limitation, and maybe there’s comfort in music bound by limitation, too. Is complexity a curse? Is simplicity freedom? Do the ten-year-olds have something figured out here?

One way or another — in cinematic style or classic Nintendo fashion — VGM will always be transporting its listeners to a new world. But what about the world of the VGM community? The world where 8-bit can make music theory fun, where Potter and his club members can chase their passions, where Vapidbobcat listeners can find comfort?

8-bit is optimistic about the future of VGM. He compared the explosion of the VGM cover community to when high-caliber musicians began rearranging covers of show tunes during their heyday, transforming them into more cerebral works of art. The connection between both phenomena is striking: Just look at the success of The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses concert tour or VGM composer Theophany’s Time’s End: Majora’s Mask Remixed albums. It’s easy to see a burgeoning future for the VGM community.

I’ve never known how to play an instrument, so VGM covers are out the door for me. I can enjoy and admire 8-bit’s videos, but never understand them. My interest in Video Game Music Club has rekindled, but coronavirus cut short my opportunity to join late in my college career. So as I struggle to cope with the changes I’ve faced in light of COVID-19, I find myself falling into the camp of a Vapidbobcat listener, escaping to a simpler world, finding comfort in Animal Crossing music against the ambience of a crackling fireplace. But I find just as much solace in this new world I’ve started dipping my toes into, the world of the video game music community.

Video game music is more than just one of the greatest forms of escapism. It’s a medium that has borne melodic masterpieces from the minds of world-class musicians. It’s an artists’ alley uniting an impassioned community. It is a grand avenue for a great escape.