Video Games Rock Classical Music

When I was eleven years old, my dad took me to see the Rolling Stones Voodoo Lounge concert. The stage erupted with inflatable skeletons, giant Jagger-like cartoon lips flashed across a jumbo screen, and Mick Jagger strutted across stage. I was sold—it was rock n’ roll and I not only liked it, I loved it. I still do. Growing up, the only time I chose to “study” classical music was when I slipped the 1984 film Amadeus in my VHS and watched Tom Hulce, as Mozart, don a ridiculous wig, and spout pompous lines like “I can’t rewrite what’s perfect.” Today, I embrace classical music for its soothing qualities. And for the impact classical scores have on video game play.

In the early 1980s, composer Koichi Sugiyama wrote down his impressions of Enix’s Morita Shogi. Unbeknownst to him, Sugiyama’s family mailed his comments to the company. Impressed by Sugiyama’s response, Enix soon invited him to compose a score for their 1986 game Dragon Quest. Some say that Sugiyama wrote an orchestral piece for the game first and then he toned down these arrangements to fit the limitations of the console. Dragon Quest I’s graphics seem archaic by today’s standards, but as the first composer to later record his video game music with a live orchestra, Sugiyama’s classical score proved revolutionary. Until then video games typically consisted of monophonic, looped tracks. For the Dragon Quest series, Sugiyama incorporated repeated motifs and each game included an upbeat theme titled “Overture” and a casual tune titled “Intermezzo.” I’m no aficionado of classical music, but Sugiyama would make Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel proud.

Shortly after the release of Dragon Quest, pianist Yoko Shimomura started work on video game soundtracks for Capcom. Shimomura’s own influences included Beethoven and Ravel, and in 1993, she jumped on the opportunity to join Square and create classical style music for fantasy role-playing games. Her soundtrack for Kingdom Hearts became her own personal favorite. In the first Kingdom Hearts game, the main character Sora loses his friends during an invasion by the Heartless, a group of creatures devoid of hearts and corrupted by darkness. In an attempt to reunite with his friends, Sora encounters both Disney and Final Fantasy characters. Shimomura admits she felt enormous pressure when arranging pieces like Disney’s “Into the Sea” and Danny Elfman’s “This is Halloween.” But she meticulously maintained the style of the original compositions. She also created smooth transitions between setting and battle themes occurring in real-time combat. She’s now composed more than 35 different video game soundtracks, and it’s clear that while classical music remains a muse, rock, jazz, electronic, and pop also hover in the foreground. Rock on.

Jim Dooley, composer, arranger, and orchestrator earned rock star status in my book for his score for the 2010 action-adventure game Epic Mickey. In the game, Mickey accidentally turns the pen and paper world of Yen Sid (Fantasia sorcerer who also appears in Kingdom Hearts) into a wasteland. Disney gave Dooley access to the company’s archives, where he studied original scores from films like Mary Poppins, Pinocchio, and Peter Pan. In an episode of NPR’s All Things Considered, Dooley explained to Guy Raz that developers wanted the score to match the actions and moods of Mickey. If Mickey performs a heroic feat, “you start hearing a lot more brightness, a lot more woodwinds,” and if Mickey misbehaves, “you’ll hear a lot of bass clarinets, bassoons, essentially like the wrong notes,” Dooley noted. It seems fitting that the company and American icon that first used click tracks to synchronize sound and produce better quality during a recording session for an animated film continues to inspire scores of epic proportions.

I imagine that when video game composers create classical scores, they envision a set much like the one I saw during the Voodoo Lounge tour—a three-dimensional piece of interactive art that, with the aid of music, evokes a range of emotions. CHEGhead Jon-Paul Dyson has raved to me more than once about how that occurs during ICHEG advisor Tommy Tallarico’s Video Games Live concerts. I unavoidably missed their show in Western New York a couple of summers ago, but perhaps when I check out the London Philharmonic’s forthcoming album “The Greatest Video Game Music,” I’ll feel the same way I did when I first discovered rock n’ roll.