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The Growing Art of Music Composition for Video Games

June 8, 2022

The Last of Us, which was scored by Gustavo Santaolalla.

Photo via: https://twitter.com/DomTheBombYT/status/1529515137073393667/photo/1 

Gustavo Santaolalla is arguably one of the most significant modern composers to hail from South America. The Argentinian-born musician has created a vast body of work, earning commercial success for providing scores for movies and television, as well as an interesting body of solo work. He’s been awarded Oscars – two of them (Brokeback Mountain, Babel) – and dozens of other awards, including around 12 Latin Grammy Awards. He’s worked with notables as diverse as Francis Ford Coppola and Gaby Kerpel. In short, he’s done it all during his lengthy career. 

However, when all is said and done, Santaolalla’s best work might just be contained within a video game. The composer scored The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II, receiving immense critical acclaim. But more importantly, his participation in the music for these games shines a light on the growing importance of music in video games. 

Games becoming more sophisticated 

There is, of course, some stigma around video games in the sense that they might not be considered high art. But increasingly, those assumptions are being washed away. Games are becoming more complex, offering more interesting and sophisticated storylines to complement the gameplay and visuals. And the music is also playing an important role. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry, too, so it’s no surprise that some of the best composers are getting involved in gaming projects. 

Indeed, if you look at popular games for PC, console or even, to some extent, a smartphone, you’ll likely see some amazing music composed for the games. Crypt of the NecroDancer, Bastion, Cuphead, The Elder Scrolls V, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, The Witcher 3 and Final Fantasy XV are among those games that have been augmented by their critically acclaimed soundtracks in recent years. 

Of course, just like any movie, the soundtrack must reflect the theme of the game. So that means there is a broad range of composition types. It could be rock, pop, folk or electronic dance. But many of the big-budget games tend to have grander themes, focusing on fantasy, war, medieval conquests and mythology. This usual lends itself to the hiring of classical composers. 

Composers eschewing movies for video games

And while some might turn their noses up at the thought of composing for a video game, it’s worth noting how this has helped with interest in classical music. Last year, the publication Wired looked at the rising interest in classical music from younger people, claiming that their entry into a brave new world of sound was fostered by compositions on video games. Some composers have actually been stating for a long time that gaming is a great gateway to introduce younger people to orchestral music, but it seems to be gathering pace. 

It’s also interesting to note that some composers may have headed to Hollywood at certain points in their careers, and now it seems many are choosing to go down the route of video games. It obviously depends on the type of game, but it is possible that they can earn more money that way. Moreover, they can also get more artistic freedom. In the past, a video game might have used a few samples from a composer’s score, making it repetitive (but often catchy). Yet now, there are massive undertakings, often with a blank canvas for the composer to work their magic. 

In the end, composing a score for a video game might not be every artist’s dream. But the industry is evolving. Many games are so complex and, yes, beautiful that they should be seen as examples of high art. Increasingly, we are seeing some musicians recognise that, and they, in turn, are enriching the gaming industry. That’s something to celebrate. 

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