Has videogame music become unoriginal and Hollywood-obsessed?

17 September 2015, 11:36 | Updated: 11 January 2017, 13:36

By Tim Edwards

Some high-profile videogame composers have said the genre has become stuck in a rut with too many soundtracks imitating Hollywood's orchestral style. Classic FM reports from the Game Music Connect conference.

Videogame music composers had a lovely day out at London’s Southbank Centre this week. Gathered at the annual Game Music Connect conference, they heard inspirational and informative words from industry insiders and bigwigs. It was insightful and fun:

Enter Karen Collins, who was there to talk about Beep, her forthcoming film on the history of videogame music. The audience settled back to watch a 20-minute segment from part of the film where Karen went to Japan to interview a series of legendary composers, including the great Nobuo Uematsu. The segment ended with some frank assessments of the current state of videogame music and a perceived over-reliance on the orchestral style.

Nobuo Uematsu on videogame music

Nobuo Uematsu said: “I think that game music is getting stuck in a rut. Well, game music in Japan at least is aiming to sound like a Hollywood film. But if you aim for the Hollywood sound, everybody ends up making music that sounds like John Williams.”

Hisayoshi Ogura looked particularly melancholy as he said: “I think Japan is infected with an ‘orchestra sickness’ at the moment… I really feel that game music hasn’t developed at all in the last 20 years.”

As the credits rolled, the feeling in the hall was a bit:

And it's not just Japanese composers who are worried...

Karen Collins expanded on her theme to Classic FM, explaining that it wasn't just the Japanese composers she talked to who felt like this. Western composers might not have expressed a distaste for orchestral music, but they felt there are a lot of games coming out where the music sounds like "aural wallpaper" rather than being related to what is happening in the game.

"To some extent I agree," she said, but there is still plenty of inventive game music out there. "Bioshock – yes they’re using an orchestra, but it doesn’t sound like anything else. Even some indie games are using orchestras. Guy Whitmore’s Peggle 2 uses an orchestra, but not in any way that anybody would ever expect." 

Later, Classic FM spoke to some other movers and shakers for their views:

Chuck Doud: there's a beautiful myriad of music out there

Doud, the director of music for Sony Computer Entertainment America, was one of the shocked ones:

"I was surprised by that. I think there’s more diversity in our industry than ever before. There’s just a beautiful myriad of music being created out there." Listen to his full comments here:

The Flight: the trend in games is moving away from Hollywood

The Flight - aka composer duo Joe Henson and Alexis Smith - rejected the idea that video game music has stagnated. "Whatever rut the Japanese industry is in... I don't think we're in that now," said Smith. "I think there is a massive desire for new sounding things."

Henson added: "There's also a changing of the guard... where a new generation of composers come up and they've just played games so they're influenced by game music and less focussed on film." Henson says that they have recently been told to avoid the orchestral film style. Smith adds: "There is a trend away from following Hollywood. There is a desire to push boundaries, which is great."

James Hannigan: we're asking the wrong question

A video game music composer and one of the organisers of Game Music Connect, Hannigan felt the question of whether orchestras are simply good or bad for games is missing the point.

"What developers and composers should be asking is, 'what is appropriate for our game?'" said Hannigan. It's not about the choice to go orchestral or not; it's about why and where you use music in games and finding the best style and approach to adopt, be it with minimal electronica, string quartet or full orchestra.

"I think what a lot of the Japanese composers who commented on this subject were driving at - and I kind of agree with them here - is that perhaps there is too much of a reliance on the film model in games today, and that a large volume of music adopts the language of film in particular.

"Let's not forget, there's a whole universe of orchestral music out there beyond film music to be inspired by and we shouldn't tarnish it all with the same brush just because a lot of film scores are orchestral...

"Yes, of course we can have orchestras in games, but not all games have to be informed by film or stylistically modelled after films. Recognising that is vital for the industry's evolution as a distinctive art form."

Watch the video yourself

Watch the extract from Beep below and tell us what you think (the bit about unoriginal videogame music starts around 18 mins 20 secs):