James Hannigan on video game music: is it art? Part 3

Composer James Hannigan looks at how video game music differs to genres like film music in the third part of his series that asks, 'Is video game music art?' Part 4 coming soon...

James Hannigan

Part three

Part one gave a very brief overview of the evolution of music in games, and part two looked at how orchestral music has become particularly relevant for some genres.

But so far we’ve overlooked two important aspects of music for games, namely the role music plays setting them apart from linear forms such as film, and that of interactive music (coming in part 4).

What film could achieve took decades to discover after its inception, and the distinctive role of the film composer with it.  I expect the same holds true for games and the ever-changing role and skillset of the game composer.

In the late 1870s, early motion pictures such as Eadweard Muybridge’s ‘Race Horse’ excited audiences merely because the pictures moved (and, decades later, talked) and there was a time in the not-so-distant past when simply having a clip of sampled speech or a dazzling chip tune in the menu or loading screen of a game amazed many, or even gained classic status.

Part of the magic of early game music undoubtedly derived from its technological novelty and the dazzling ingenuity of the musicians and programmers behind it.

When prerecorded music came into games in the 1990s, an orchestral score similarly excited many, at first perhaps because it, too, merely existed.

But as time went on, the function of music in games and the meaning embedded in it became more important, as did the idea games could tell stories.

Music for Filmic Games

We’ve seen already that emerging technological forms tend to mimic older ones and that games are no exception there - borrowing, as many do, from popular film genres such as horror, science fiction, action and adventure.

Indeed, many of today’s games offer the thrills and spectacle we once associated only with blockbuster films, and it’s somewhat unsurprising composers are often asked to utilize the language of Hollywood film music to support these ‘filmic realities’ and gameworlds.

Game designer Hideo Kojima was inspired by the sound of Harry Gregson-Williams’ score for the ‘Replacement Killers’ and hired the composer to score 2001’s Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.

Building on experiences available elsewhere is nothing new. Early films resembled filmed stage plays, and film music has for many decades drawn on other forms, ranging from pop music and jazz to the classical and avant-garde.  No artist or industry exists in a vacuum, after all.

But as well as stories and characters that could have come right out of a Hollywood blockbuster, what else equates games with films?

The cutscene

Cutscenes (or ‘Cinematics’ as they are sometimes called) are linear movie-like sequences in games that are in widespread use today. Composers usually score them as they would a sequence for film or television.

In film, much music exists for narrative support and cutscenes in games - although often short – set the scene, deliver plot points or guidance to players, usually after bouts of gameplay, between chapters or as a reward for finishing a task or level.

They’re short, I imagine, because making them any longer might create a feeling of passivity in players leading them to wonder if they are playing a game at all.

Some older games even feature live action in them, such as those in the Wing Commander and Command and Conquer series, and I’ve been lucky enough to work on a few - including the likes of Privateer: The Darkening, with Christopher Walken and John Hurt among its cast.

Graphics, sound and music delivery have advanced considerably in the last decade or two, and where once cutscenes often looked and sounded like separate productions they are now more likely to share the look, sound and feel of the rest of the game.

Indeed, they are often so seamlessly interwoven with gameplay that the line between taking an active role in a game and exposition has become increasingly blurred, affecting approaches taken to music in the process.

Passive Viewing Vs. Participation

So what about the differences between games and films?

Firstly, it’s rather hard to ignore the consequences of interactivity and player participation for music in games, especially if you think of music as existing mainly for narrative support.  

If music tells a story, then precisely whose story should it tell? That of the character adopted by the player or that of the player him or herself?

Cutscenes are one thing but when players feel they’re driving a story or determining the outcome of events, music for narrative support, however listenable, can end up a little redundant if it merely reads back to players what they already know.

For example, we wouldn’t expect an open-ended simulator to ‘impose’ too much story on players, or to have the same kind of emotionally motivated music score of Assassin’s Creed.

But before looking at some of the other ways music can serve gamers, here’s a bit of film theory:

A musical spectrum

A film score exists for a passive audience, is inaudible to the characters on screen existing in the film’s story world, and is described as being non-diegetic. Diegetic sound, on the other hand, exists in the story space; doors slamming, gunshots and other such literal sound effects, along with any music emanating from televisions, radios and the like.

The James Bond theme is an example of non-diegetic music and, I think it’s safe to say, James Bond himself hasn’t heard it.

That’s an easy observation to make within the conventions of film, but in a game seeing players view the exploits of James Bond while assuming the role of the iconic superspy at the same time, things could get more complicated.

In general, however, I tend to think of filmic games as simply positioning players somewhere on a broad spectrum - with emotionally manipulated passive audience at one extreme (think Steven Spielberg movie offering a universal experience) and that of occupant in a clinical virtual reality at the other (think realistic flight simulator, with a more personalised, player-centred perspective).

So, rather than being black or white, diegetic or non-diegetic, the games player can occupy a grey area between the two spaces, and perhaps even makes the distinction a bit academic.  


A growing awareness of how music supports the gaming experience has led to increasingly sparse and atmospheric music going into many games. This may be because this often minimal, textural music – of a kind that barely draws attention to itself as music at all - helps immerse players in a more believable gameworld, while staying emotionally resonant enough to engage them.

After all, if you want to draw players into games you may want them to feel things, but being an audience probably isn’t one of them.

Music of the ether

And what of those games that are open-ended, allowing players to create their own stories or scenarios? Sims, strategy and open world games, for example.
Somehow, composers working on those need to create music that emotionally engages but also remains flexible enough to feel as boundless in scope as the game itself.

Music like this is rarely composed to picture or synched with visual events and, at times, there is a sense that it lingers in the air, belongs to locations or emanates from the environment. It can feel like part of the very fabric of a game’s reality.

Interestingly, composers and sound designers today often work closely together in creating soundscapes, which may be further evidence of how sound and music share a space in games.

Music’s message

Great film composers not only write great music but also make great decisions about how and why it gets used. Successfully composing for the screen involves having an in-depth understanding of how music functions in context.

To find out how important music has become in film, you only have to turn it off.  Imagine, for example, the experience of watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in the absence of Bernard Herrmann’s groundbreaking score.

Psycho’s hold over audiences arises in part from the way in which music tells us about the unseen and unspoken tensions between characters, of their motivations and inner states, often in the absence of visual cues or dialogue.  It does more than merely echo what we see and it adds a dimension that wouldn’t exist without it. Its absence renders the film hard to understand or even follow.
In contrast, the games industry has a longstanding convention allowing players to ‘mute’ the music in many games – an indicator, I feel, of how music has been thought of as a mere option in game design - rather than integral to it. A little like the icing on the cake rather than part of the cake itself, you might say.
This does rather beg the question: Why have music at all if the game can be played satisfactorily without it? 


James will answer that question and more in Part 4, coming soon.

Catch up with the previous instalments of this series by reading part 1 and part 2.

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