Music Post: The soundtracks of video games


Video games have roots going back to the 1940s, when a “cathode ray tube amusement device” was patented by the chief engineer of the Dumont Television Network. “Tennis for Two” came in the 1950s and Pong in 1972. Most of us, however, were innocent of the existence of video games until the early 1980s, when video arcades became widespread, and when we all began to buy PCs for our homes.

My first experiences with video games came in 1982 when I was 29. A restaurant had Frogger built into every table – Frogger had just come to the U.S. the previous fall – and an arcade had a sedate but pretty game called Qix that I liked. The movie “Tron” also came out in 1982. (Wendy Carlos composed the music for it, electronic for scenes in cyberspace but orchestral for scenes in meatspace.)

In 1983 my son Sean asked for a Mattel Intellivision console for Christmas and suddenly our TV was an arcade, with games like B-17 Bomber, Auto Racing and Sea Battle. (Donkey Kong and Super Mario Brothers were soon to come.) Sean and I played these games for awhile, but soon he found more avid and competent game partners – I was old, 30, and couldn’t be expected to keep up.

On my own time, though, I enjoyed exploring the game space of Auto Racing, discovering that all its courses were laid out on the same landscape and if you drove off your course, avoiding crash hazards, you could drive between courses. I found this far more enjoyable than the actual game.

Sean went on to bigger and better game consoles, while I wasted hours playing Minesweeper on my PC, until one day I reached a decision: I would not play video games. I would rather spend hours on a computer writing a novel or composing music than playing games created by other people. And so, from the mid-1980s, the video game world passed me by. For the next 20 years I would delete Minesweeper from any new computer I acquired.

Video games improved so much and so rapidly that, while “Tron” holds up surprisingly well as a visual experience today, those old games look laughably bad. Today the landscapes look like movies. What’s laughably bad today is “game physics,” in which you can survive horrible injuries, because if you died more easily the game wouldn’t be fun.

Little noticed by me, the non-player, until very recently, games upped their game not only visually but also aurally, with better music.

And because this music is the soundtrack of your life if you play the games containing the music, a number of relatively new CD releases contain video game music performed by full symphony orchestras.

“Angry Birds,” the hot hit of 2009 that spawned a movie, was a Finnish creation, and Finnish composer Ari Pulkkinen, now in his fifties, wrote the music.

“Tetris,” the Russian game whose world rights are owned by Hawaii resident Henk Rogers, uses Russian traditional music. “Tetris” was created in 1984 and appeared in the West in 1986 and was the top mobile game of 2008.

Modern video games generally look and play like action movies. This is reflected in the movie for “Assassin’s Creed,” “Advent Rising,” “Final Fastasy” and “Legend of Zelda.”

Sometimes the same composer who scores your favorite action movie also scores your favorite game. Michael Giacchino, who did the soundtrack music for “Jurassic World” and “Doctor Who,” did the music for “Splinter Cell” and “Call of Duty.”

The London Philharmonic has put out several hit CDs of video game music, and the Canadian group La Pieta has done chamber versions of many of the same soundtracks.

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