Monday, June 13, 2016

Borrowed Emotions

The following is a short (ish) essay I wrote to explain to an outsider about modern video game music and the fan community that enjoys listening to and performing it.

Borrowed Emotions

Video Games — like the movies and television — have always leaned on music to build a stronger and more nuanced emotional response. What has changed is that the music created for games can now look backwards and leverage the excitement and/or nostalgia generated by the game.

This is not to say there is nothing inherent in any piece of game music that makes it a delight to listen to or to play. To understand the spread and the impact, however, one needs to look at the context.

People are recreating the music of games old and new. Some do it as part of the creation and advertisement of games, and the support of the gaming industry as a whole. Some do it for private commercial interest; for sales and donations and job offers, and for the less tangible (but no less valuable) currency of recognition within the sprawling and pervasive social media. And some do it for their own pleasure, for the simple joys of recreating both the play and the listening experience.

The Venn Diagram above must be understood to be mostly intersection. Even the high school violinist teaching herself a theme from Skyrim by ear and posting a camera-phone recording of her attempting it is simultaneously playing for pleasure and earning social credit. From such beginnings some go on, through donations and album sales, to eventually become part of the team creating the next generation of games. But such should not be understood as the goal of all!

Fans have always been with us, writing fiction, creating costumes, building props from the stories they love. As far back as oral history stretches people have been leveraging the emotional impact of the familiar tale to grasp and hold their own audience. “Let me tell a tale of the Trojan War,” the story teller says, and his audience quiets down to listen.

But games, too, are part of the Nerd Singularity. The people who played and play them have grown up, gained disposable income, and moved into the workplace where they can guide what is created today. So there is money, now, for games to hire full orchestras to create their scores. And for trade shows to hire professionals to recreate the scores of old favorites, and for symphony orchestras to try to pull in new audiences with their own interpretations. The path goes both ways; in a nostalgic quest, a few intrepid souls are re-interpreting those same modern scores in the most authentic old-school beeps and boops possible!

So modern game music has the same variety of Music, capitalized. The technical limitations are essentially gone (although certain structural constraints remain — just as the opera requires different approaches than does the concerto). And so does the fan work in response. So in this collection you will hear a gamut; church choirs, high school bands, professional musicians, new learners. I admit to a bias towards efforts featuring the piano, and also made sure that some themes would appear again in new guises as different artists approached them. I also intentionally left out the polished performances by hired orchestras that appear at certain conventions and concert halls, in order to focus better on the people who are performing to share the love and excitement of the music and of the game behind it.

Sing, Oh Goddess, of the wrath of Megaman….

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