in Columns

Editorial: Video game music – all around us yet often ignored

by Lasse Lehtonen

"Video game music has become increasingly prominent in musical life in Finland. This special issue introduces some of the fascinating and diverse aspects of game music in the country," writes Lasse Lehtonen.

Video game music has become increasingly prominent in musical life in Finland. Several generations have grown up playing video games, making game music an integral part of their – and possibly their families’ – everyday lives and memories. Indeed, a number of Finnish professional musicians have recalled that their serious interest in music was sparked by music in games, and this is also true of several Finnish composers involved in game music. Live performances of game music attract sold-out audiences in prominent concert halls, such as Finlandia Hall, where the Finnish orchestra Game Music Collective gave its debut concert in 2017. Even the country’s oldest musicological journal, Musiikki, recently released a special issue on game music scholarship.  

Yet the status of game music in public discourse remains somewhat ambivalent. Despite its prominence both within and outside gaming contexts, game music tends to garner very little attention in mainstream media. Even major awards won by Finnish creators of game music rarely make the news, eager though the Finnish media usually are to herald Finns’ international successes. Although video games themselves have gradually become part of a broader media discourse, it is still difficult to imagine game music being written about in the arts and culture sections of Finnish newspapers.  

What explains this ambivalence? One reason may be that game music is stylistically so diverse; it can be anything from rock and jazz to bossa nova and Baroque-style organ music. Such diversity – sometimes within just one game – is somewhat alien to public discourse that still seems to prefer neat pigeon-holing. Still, an even more probable reason is in the specific nature of video games as a medium. Without first-hand experience in gaming, the importance of the music for players can remain difficult to grasp, indeed making even major sold-out concerts and international game music awards seem like subculture curiosities.  

Game music is often compared to film music because both are linked to a visual narrative and because in both of them music can add substantial depth to what is (and is not) visible on the screen. However, there are fundamental differences between the two. As Japanese game music composer Yasuroni Nishiki explained to me a few years ago: “Game music has to sink into the listener’s innermost being. It’s not just about listening to music – it’s something significantly deeper.” The strong emotional bond that many players have experienced with game music may result, say, from the countless hours the player has spent listening to the same music and the interactive relationship between the player and the audio. Both are aspects of game music that are now affecting music culture at large. Both also impose specific requirements on the music.  

How does one create game music, and how does one become so intrigued by it? This special issue introduces some of the fascinating and diverse aspects of game music in Finland. We start with a story about the game music orchestra, Game Music Collective – a fitting example of how live performances of game music reshape concert culture and engage with audiences. The following article examines one aspect that may explain the popularity of live performances: the emotions that memories of game music evoke, which have been studied in an internationally innovative research project, Game Music Everyday Memories, at the University of Jyväskylä. Following our trip to Jyväskylä, composers Ari Pulkkinen and Salla Hakkola – both of whom have composed music for the global superhit Angry Birdsreflect on their experiences of being game music composers in Finland. Internationally acclaimed composer and arranger Jonne Valtonen continues on this theme in his column by reflecting on his experiences with live performances. Valtonen has a connection to the Final Fantasy game series through his hugely popular Final Symphony orchestral arrangements – but what is probably less known is that the composer of the series, Nobuo Uematsu, recorded a Final Fantasy album in Finland 30 years ago. This is the topic of my own column. A playlist of Finnish game music closes this special issue.  

I hope that this special issue will lead to new discoveries. After all, that is what so many encounters with games and game music are fundamentally about.  

Featured picture created with DALL·E 2.