Game Culture: Exploring the Unique Video Game Music Genre

The many genres of music offer a route of expression for every possible emotion and message. Music genres are usually defined by the sound or emotions they convey. Punk is known for being gritty and angst-driven, and so it is defined by that image. This method of definition struggles to take shape in regards to the “video game music” (VGM) genre. It seems straightforward enough to define everything that appears in a video game as a member of this genre, but many problems arise with this approach. VGM has a more fluid nature to its definition that sets it apart from other music genres.

From its origin, this genre had a loose definition. The very first music made under this category belongs to what we now call “chiptune.” Chiptune was first created by the hardware limitations of game systems but Its unique sound earned its place as an independent genre. Once hardware improved and systems used sound cards, video games employed distinct, separate types of music. This is like how rock has sub-genres like Southern Rock and Hard Rock. VGM didn’t get this treatment because its potential sub-genres became too distinct. The blanket VGM was applied to these soundtracks because they shared hardware, not because they shared musical quality.

This blanket becomes problematic when games take music from mainstream artists. Some games, such as NBA Live 2003, source their entire soundtrack from mainstream artists. The songs featured in NBA Live 2003 all belong to their own genres of music. With this context, the question arises: is this VGM? Snoop Dogg’s “Get Live” was produced for this game, but the song would belong to the hip-hop genre if a different label produced it. This interaction goes back to the precedent that was started with the early music in video games. Is the song defined by its platform or by its fundamental sound? This identity crisis is unique to the VGM genre.

At this point, we can’t even make the claim that certain video game soundtracks can be defined by the genre they feature because games commonly blend genres within their soundtracks. Bravely Default is a wonderful example of this concept. Many of the battle themes sound like a typical rock song, featuring electric guitars, drums, and bass. At the same time, the soundtrack features more sensual music. “Beneath the Hollow Moon” features pan flute, violin, and acoustic guitar. Clearly, this song does not belong to the same genre as the battle themes. The VGM genre creates a fluid environment, then, where multiple genres can share the same space and still fall into the same category.

It even can be hard to talk about the individual songs of a game’s soundtrack since dynamic scores exist. Some games edit their music to reflect the current situation of a game experience. It isn’t uncommon for a platforming game to introduce a tense melody into a level’s standard music if the player is close to failing. If the player successfully recovers, the tense melody disappears. Thus, different play sessions provide different scores. In a similar sense, games like Guitar Hero use this concept. A complete song is programmed into the game, but if the player makes a mistake, the song is subsequently changed to reflect the failure. Multiple endings also affect what music a player will hear. It isn’t enough to talk about the music “at the end;” specificity is necessary. Gameplay and music become tied.

The fluidity seen on a micro scale of a single game’s soundtrack expands out to the macro scale of cross-media collaboration. VGM originates in the game and has the potential to expand out to CDs and even concerts. Compared to the soundtrack of a movie, this is pretty standard. VGM, however, expresses itself in more ways than movie soundtracks have. In addition to CDs, soundtracks have appeared on vinyl. The concerts that feature the scores even take shape in many ways. The most common example is an orchestral rendition of a soundtrack, which itself is a translation from electronic music to symphonic music. There are also concerts set up in the style of rock concerts, such as Revo’s live performance of Bravely Default’s soundtrack. Then there are the small cover bands who translate select songs or soundtracks from video games into instrumental music. The variety of mediums where this music is performed is unprecedented by any other genre of music.

The VGM genre has no comparison, which is what ultimately makes it so fascinating. Movie soundtracks are the closest comparison, and yet they seem so limited in scope compared to what VGM experiences. The creative nature of the genre spurs innovation. As a player, I can’t predict what music a new game will have, and that’s wonderful. A game may have vocals in its tracks, or it may have only ambient noise. It doesn’t really matter since the soundtrack will ultimately complement the game experience, and that’s the whole goal.