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Music and video games have a long and rich history together. From the earliest days of composers working with circuit boards to the full licensed soundtracks of today – music and video games are inexorably linked.
I know I’m not the first one to go down this road. This is a well documented subject, video games and the music world are fundamentally connected. Recently, I was on an episode of the podcast ‘The Sound Of‘ – hosted by Steve Black and Anne Carlini of 101 WRIF in Detroit. And they asked me to talk about some of the history of music and video games. You can check out the episode below:
During our conversation Steve reminded me of a few early games that blended video games and rock and roll, like the game Journey Escape. A game developed in 1982 where you – and this is true – guide Journey past “Love-Crazed Groupies, Sneaky Photographers, and Shifty-Eyed Promoters” to be able to make sure Journey makes it to their next show. Also, their manager is The Kool-Aid Man.
If that wasn’t enough madness, then let me remind you about Revolution X aka the Aerosmith arcade game. A game where Aerosmith, the band, gets kidnapped…for some reason, and you have to save them by shooting bullets and CDs at…..riot cops?
But it’s not just arena rock bands that saw the potential in video game music, the infamous Michael Jackson also made a few of his own video games. I even owned one of them as a kid: Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. Now, I’m still not totally clear on the plot of the game. Obviously you play Michael Jackson who uses the power of dance and magic finger sparkles to save crying children. Now why these crying children seem to be in a night club or why they’re being held by thugs wielding guns wearing, admittedly, really nice 3 piece suits – who knows? I guess to mimic the music video/movie? All I know if that ‘Smooth Criminal’ is playing on a loop and after about 2 repeats you’re ready for it to just be over. They also made it into an arcade game which cleared up literally none of the problems I just mentioned.
Michael Jackson’s involvement with video games didn’t end there. For years I had always heard a rumor that Michael Jackson had composed some of the music for Sonic The Hedgehog 3. Turns out – that rumor is totally true! Michael Jackson was working on the soundtrack during the development – right up to the point in 1993 when he was first accused of sexual abuse. He went uncredited for his work on Sonic 3 but ultimately the story ended up making its way out. If you have 20ish minutes, here’s the full story:
In the next generation of video game consoles, technology finally started to facilitate more complex soundtrack productions. Moving the media of video games to CD meant that more space could be dedicated to music, which started the era of licensed video game soundtracks. Video games started to become a vehicle for music discovery and for bands to get noticed. The first time this happened to me was with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
The soundtrack for the first Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater may have only been 13 songs, but in those 13 songs my life changed. In 1999 I was a big fan of Green Day and Blink 182, but Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater gave me my first real exposure to punk rock – it was my first time being exposed to bands that are some of the best punk bands on the planet and some of my favorite bands to this day. Bands like The Dead Kennedys, Goldfinger, The Vandals, Unsane, and even guys I would later get to meet and become friends with: The Suicide Machines. And apparently, I wasn’t alone either because games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, FIFA, Madden and NBA2k would all become notable vehicles for people to discover new music.
One of my absolute favorite YouTube Channels ever, The Punk Rock MBA, recently did a fantastic video about this very subject! WATCH IT!
The trend of video games being vehicles for bands continued on into the era of Guitar Hero and Rock Band where it seemed like every hot band would get a DLC or game tailored for their particular music catalog. And, listen, I don’t want to minimize the impact of a game like Rock Band on exposing people to music – bands like Dragonforce and In Flames saw huge boosts from their song being in these games – but when your DLC library looks like the Top 100 of iTunes, then I have to question how much people are really being exposed to new music. On the other hand, when you have an entire game dedicated to The Beatles, who cares, right?
It’s only natural that pop culture and video games would collide in a meaningful fashion, but what is fascinating to watch is the way that original video game music is starting to influence pop culture. About 4 years ago Redbull did a video series about video game music and its impact on popular music by way of interviewing producers, the series is called ‘Diggin’ in the Carts’ and is probably the best documentary I’ve seen on this subject.
The connection that people form with video game music, whether they’re 8 bit compositions or huge sweeping orchestral pieces, is remarkable. But music can illicit so many different emotions – joy, triumph, action, pain, loss, anguish, love, fear – the full range of emotions that video games can also give us. Those connections are inexorably linked in our memories and we’re just waiting for those few notes played in just the right order to transport us back to that time and place. Thats what’s so important about shows like Video Games Live. If you don’t know, Video Games Live is a live concert series spearheaded by the video game legend Tommy Tallarico. Their touring show has symphonies playing music from video games.
Video Games Live started in 2002 and has played nearly 500 shows all over the world. And they don’t bring the typical orchestra hall experience either,Video Games Live brings all the fun of video games to the orchestra with fantastic visual accompaniments, getting the crowd involved with the show and even batting around beach balls that look like Pokeballs.
Check out our conversation with Tommy Tallarico on Video Games Live’s most recent stop through Detroit, MI
Honestly, I could go on about video games and music forever – and I can already see the comments about how I forgot about Dance Dance Revolution and DJ Hero or that I’m ignoring the impact of games like Pa Rappa The Rapper or Space Channel 5. Trust me: I’m not leaving them out. I just can’t keep going on about this forever.
But I’ll leave you with this thought: many of the music producers of today are people who grew up on a blend of popular music and video game music – people who hold David Bowie and Nobou Uaematsu in the same regard. I can’t wait to hear the music they make whether it’s for video games or just music.
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