Is video game music art? Part 2: The Orchestra

The second part of composer James Hannigan's epic four-parter on the video game music genre looks at the importance of the orchestra in modern soundtracks.

James Hannigan

In Part One I talked briefly about the history of music in games and the technological advances that have allowed for the use of pre-recorded music in them.

One such use has been to deliver live, recorded music and the last decade or so has seen an explosion of activity in the area of orchestral recording for games - a trend, you might think, set to continue as the popularity of such music grows, aided in no small part by Classic FM’s championing of it.

Yet even if orchestral game music has only recently filtered through to a mainstream audience, its existence is by no means new. In fact, orchestral scores have existed in games since the 1990s.  The earliest I became aware of was Jeremy Soule’s inspiring score for Total Annihilation in 1997, but I imagine there are earlier examples out there to be discovered.

My own first foray into orchestral recording for games dates back well over a decade to Freelancer, Republic: The Revolution and Evil Genius – all three having music recorded with orchestras in Central Europe, and the latter two ending up Bafta-nominated.

But when it comes to world-class orchestras and recording studios, there really is no place quite like London. Countless film and television scores old and new have been recorded at locations like Abbey Road and Air Studios, and there’s a wealth of great orchestras in the region ranging from the likes of the LSO, The Philharmonia, LPO and RPO through to superb commercial session orchestras like The Chamber Orchestral Of London (COOL).

Films ranging from the Harry Potter and Star Wars series through to The Lord of the Rings and television such as Downton Abbey have all had their music recorded in the UK, and the same can now be said of many blockbuster games – Halo 4, Killzone and Lair to name only a few.

The UK truly has a great deal to be proud of when it comes to its long history recording for film, television and games.

On a personal level, I know only too well the magic these wonderful musicians, recording studios (and the engineers and technicians who man them) can bring to a production, having recorded some of the Harry Potter and Command and Conquer games scores in the UK, along with titles like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Dead Space 3 and RuneScape. Most recently, I was back at Abbey Road Studio One with Jagex recording for Transformers Universe.


Why orchestral music?

In an era of samples, ‘pseudo-orchestral’ scores and dwindling production budgets, a big question for fans of the genre now looms: For how long will we be treated to fully orchestral music in games? And does it even matter?

The popularity of sample-based and electronic music notwithstanding, I feel it matters a great deal.  But before talking about the merits of recording a live orchestra made up of highly skilled living, breathing human beings, let’s first look at how orchestral music became relevant in games in the first place.

In his 2001 essay, ‘Music For Interactive Moving Pictures’, leading academic and composer Stephen Deutsch offered us a few clues as to why:

“New inventions often mimic the forms available at the time of their inception. The first automobiles did look like ‘horseless carriages’; the first electric light fittings resembled gaslight fixtures; our current computers are a hybrid between the typewriter and television. Similarly, the content of new technological art forms often mimics earlier forms.

Similarly, the content of the new technological artforms often mimic earlier genres. Early films were theatrical performances played to an unmoving camera … and early television was radio with pictures.”

Deutsch’s observations are poignant today, in this era of filmic and ‘cinematic’ blockbuster video games. Game developers have indeed imported the language of cinema into some games, recreating the kind of experiences, storytelling and characterisation often found in Hollywood blockbusters.

Historically speaking, the film scoring paradigm has long been associated with orchestral music as well, so it’s unsurprising many will talk of film music and orchestral music in the same breath.

Come to think of it, it’s unsurprising some also conflate classical music with film music for similar reasons.

One unifying, binding feature of this music – be it ‘classical’ or from films, games or television, is that a large portion of it is ultimately realised in the studio or concert hall using live ensembles or full orchestra. And that makes musicians, orchestras and studios pretty important.

For me personally, I wouldn’t want to work in any industry that didn’t afford me at least some opportunity to realise my music with live musicians when it’s clearly appropriate to do so.  I fully recognize there are styles that don’t benefit from this treatment and for which live recording isn’t relevant, but when there is a clear choice to be made between ‘faking it’ and using the real thing, there’s really no contest in my opinion.

For me, nothing can equal the sheer musicality and ‘once only’ performance delivered by a real orchestra.

Every now and again the possibility emerges that the value of live music will be lost on younger generations, who are perhaps increasingly exposed to sample-based music and consider that normal, or who simply perceive the culture surrounding classical and orchestral music as being too stuffy and serious for them.

I’m no expert in such matters, but it occurs to me that for a musical paradigm to survive it needs to stay culturally relevant, and the context in which music is heard is vitally important if it is to engage each new generation of listeners and speak to them directly.

With the growing popularity of game music I feel there’s an opportunity to bring orchestral music to a wider audience, and my hope is that that the games industry will respond to this and elect to give listeners more of what they apparently want from games –- at least if the Classic FM Hall of Fame is anything to go by.

In part three, I will be talking a little more about the role music plays in games and how games can differ from films, complete with examples of interactive music. I’ll also be offering my own answer to the question: is it art?

Read part one of James Hannigan's essay

Read part three of James Hannigan's essay


James Hannigan is a BAFTA Award winning composer with credits in the Harry Potter, Command and Conquer, The Lord of the Rings, Theme Park and Warhammer game series’, Dead Space 3, Transformers Universe, Runescape, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Reign of Fire, Evil Genius, Red Alert 3, Freelancer, titles in the EA Sports range and many more. With John Broomhall, he founded Game Music Connect, a conference for composers and enthusiasts alike at London's South Bank Centre.

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