James Hannigan on video game music: is it art? Part 1

23 September 2014, 10:27 | Updated: 6 January 2017, 14:45

With Game Music Connect happening this week and the topic of video game music once again at the top of the agenda, in the first part of this three-part essay, composer James Hannigan asks, 'Is it art?'

Firstly, is game music unique?

Whenever I ask myself the question of whether game music is truly an 'art', I feel I’m actually faced with the question of whether it functions differently from other forms of music, and not simply whether it’s enjoyable to listen to by itself - which is perhaps an important distinction to make. Millions of fans of the genre, myself included, will testify to their enjoyment of game music heard outside its original context - perhaps in soundtrack form or in the concert hall in the presence of thousands – but the question of how it may be unique is a complex one and perhaps better left to musicologists and scholars of screen music than to someone like me, a mere practitioner.

However, regardless of its distinctiveness or lack thereof, one thing seems pretty clear right now: game music has well and truly arrived in the mainstream. Even if it has merely succeeded in only matching – or at times, perhaps exceeding - the quality of music on offer from other entertainment industries, game music’s growing popularity, global reach and cultural influence is difficult to deny. This is reflected time and time again in soundtrack sales, sell-out concerts (such as Video Games Live and the LSO’s ‘Symphonic Legends London’ at the Barbican recently) and, dare I say it, the recent entry of game scores into the Classic FM Hall of Fame.

In commercial terms - admittedly not in itself a measure of artistic integrity - games are not to be sniffed at, either. The global games industry in 2013 generated estimated revenues in excess of $70 billion, and as recently as one week ago the video game Destiny grossed a staggering $500m in its first day of release.

Interactive Music

On reflection, I can see that the question of whether music functions uniquely in games could be seen as a little academic for many casual listeners simply after a catchy tune, and perhaps not even carrying that much weight for some hardcore fans of the genre, either. But for many composers actually working in the industry the question is an important one because establishing the role music plays in different types of games can actually determine the approach taken to its very creation – right from the earliest stages of composition through to application.

Game composers today face considerable pressure to create music that is both truly supportive of the gaming experience and ‘game world’, but is also listenable outside it as well, which I can tell you from my own experience is no mean feat.

Increasingly, composers are called upon to create interactive music that chops and changes as a game is played and, at times, for me at least, the very concept behind doing this can feel like it is turning my head inside-out, utterly challenging my preconceived notions of what music actually exists for.  At the very least, in contrast with composing for linear media forms like film and television in any case, injecting a narrative or musicality into interactive music for some games can at times be very challenging indeed - but it can and does work. Some of the time, at least!

If only the job of composing for games today was as simple as writing catchy tunes!

What is 'real' game music and who gets to decide that?

Putting aside the role of music for a moment and what the industry itself deems appropriate for games, even for many fans of the genre the question of what really constitutes ‘good’ game music is a pretty divisive one.

Some fans clearly like older, ‘purer’ forms of game music, created in an era preceding the use of recorded or ‘baked’ music and before any kind of equation existed between games and films (let alone between game music and classical music). ‘Chip music’, heard in many early video games, certainly sounded unique and was actually created and rendered using gaming hardware and the onboard sound chips present in consoles, home computers and arcade machines.  Indeed, before the diversifying effects of digital audio were felt in the mid-to-late 1990s allowing for the playback of any recorded music (a change leveling the playing field with film, television and the music industry) this was one of the only ways to make music for games.

So chip music certainly qualifies as real game music and its authenticity is clearly beyond doubt. But that isn’t to say it is the only legitimate game music, of course, and in the last two decades game music has diversified greatly as games themselves have evolved into different niches spread across a multitude of platforms and formats - ranging from mobile phones to high-end consoles, tablets and PCs.

Indeed, just defining the term 'video game' has become difficult - such is the sheer range of experiences now on offer under the umbrella of interactive entertainment.

In part 2, I’ll be taking a brief look at a subject very close to my heart: the past, present and future of orchestral music in games. And I’ll be looking at the ongoing relationship between the music of games and films, and how Hollywood and cinema in general has exerted an enormous influence over game genres, especially at the ‘blockbuster’ end of the spectrum.


Read part 2 of James' epic essay here.

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.