Videogame music really does play our emotions. Its impact and increasing sophistication has inspired a growing number of academic studies (in a field sometimes tagged “ludomusicology”); in their 2006 essay The Role of Music in Videogames, Sean M Zehnder and Scott D Lipscomb noted the multi-functionality of gaming soundtracks; they “enhance a sense of immersion, cue narrative or plot changes, act as an emotional signifier, enhance the sense of aesthetic continuity, and cultivate the thematic unity of a video game.”
Ontario-based academic and filmmaker Karen Collins is associate professor at the University of Waterloo, and her excellent book Game Sound (2008) explores the history, theory and practice of videogame music and sound design. As Collins observes, the gamer is not a passive listener, but can actively trigger music in the game, as well as subconsciously reacting to it; she writes that “Mood induction and physiological responses are typically experienced most obviously when the player’s character is at significant risk of peril, as in the chaotic and fast boss music… sound works to control or manipulate the player’s emotions, guiding responses to the game.” She points out that silence is additionally used to powerful effect, whether heightening tension, or when the player is inactive (a musical fade that she describes as the “boredom switch”), prompting us to finish the task so that the game can progress.
Videogame music is a global expression, both in its international studio collaborations and audience reach. Earlier this year, the Poland-based Game Music Festival presented a London concert, including a Polish big band performing the boisterously jazzy, Latin-inspired grooves of much-loved adventure Cuphead (2017), composed by Canadian artist Kristoffer Madigan. The concert finale focused on LA-based Brit composer Gareth Coker’s enchanting (and devastatingly beautiful) award-winning scores for the games Ori and the Blind Forest (2015) and Ori and the Will of the Wisps (2020).
Coker originally studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music, and later lived in Japan; his musical range is expansive, including scores for film and TV – but his love of videogames runs especially deep. “Growing up, I have the fondest memories of playing videogames with my parents,” he explains. “Those memories I’ve created with my own family, I’d like to be able to give to someone else.”
For the Ori games, Coker spent several years with the development team, creating music that feels distinctly attuned to the title character/player role (a child-like forest spirit), and supernatural surrounds. “I respond heavily to visuals when I’m working on a game; then I can really get inside creating a soundworld for them,” he says. “The visuals in Ori allow me to create that tapestry with the music, because we’re asking people to expand their imaginations.