When Video Games Live! arrives at Orchestra Hall this Friday it's not just going to be a fun nostalgia trip for anyone who grew up Playing with Power. It's also going to be a showcase of the evolution of video game soundtracks, one that covers a long span from Koji Kondo's simple-but-infectious 8-bit Super Mario Bros. themes to the grand symphonic sweep of Kow Otani's score to Shadow of the Colossus.
Yet despite the show's representation of recent video game soundtracks in its repertoire--Gears of War, Mass Effect, and Assassin's Creed all get their due--little of the new stuff is as instantly recognizable as the music from, say, Double Dragon or Street Fighter II. The fact is, the bigger-grittier-more-epic scope of current blockbuster games means that chirpy little action themes (Jonathan Coulton's power-pop Portal favorite "Still Alive" aside) have been largely replaced with Dolby-rattling slabs of bombast that fall somewhere between Hans Zimmer and a pistol-whipping. And that's assuming that the whole thing isn't scored by pre-existing licensed music anyways. So let's salute a few of the composers who've bucked those trends over the last 10 years and given us quirky, catchy music people remember long after setting down the controller.
If there's such a thing as a cult video game composer, Masafumi Takada's a good candidate: He's scored three of the most insane games ever, each one with a different take on postmodern pop style. For God Hand, a beat-em-up that crosses Fist of the North Star brawling with Benny Hill slapstick, he collaborated with Jun Fukuda to put together a score that mixed traditional techno/metal ass-kicking music with goofball takes on The Ventures and Elvis Presley, then topped it off with the wackiest ending theme imaginable. The surreal action game Killer7 was a bit more serious--and disturbing, and bizarre, and confusing--so his score for that one mirrored its split-personality overtones and disconcerting settings with a soundtrack that covered everything from electro-pop to horror-movie ambience to lounge-inflected trip-hop. But his most memorable theme was the one for No More Heroes, a simple melody that gets so many different treatments and remixes that it winds up scoring nearly the entire game--good thing it's so catchy; too bad it's so hard to get out of your head.
Peter McConnell spent the better part of a decade working on soundtracks for LucasArts in the '90s, which meant that he was often dealt the task of trying to bottle John Williams' lightning for a whole bunch of Star Wars games. But he also worked on the bulk of the classic adventure games created by Tim Schafer during his tenure there, and since the founding of Schafer's Double Fine Productions his music has been a major part of that studio's aesthetic. Brütal Legend was his most recent score for Double Fine--overshadowed as it was by the kiloton of licensed metal tracks that appeared on the soundtrack--but the music for Psychonauts is his most memorable effort of the last 10 years, an off-kilter mixture of country, blues, and cinematic composers ranging from Ennio Morricone to Danny Elfman.
The only thing that would surprise a circa-1991 fan of Steel Pole Bath Tub more than the idea of their frontman scoring video games would be the revelation that his most famous theme sounds more like Lalo Schifrin than abrasive, noisy punk. But it definitely makes sense in hindsight given the morbid comedy and outlandish violence of Team Fortress 2, and Morasky's over-the-top nods to '60s and '70s action-flick orchestration are as subversive in their own way as anything he did back in the '90s. Morasky's also one of the musicians behind Left4Dead2's fictional Southern Rock band Midnight Riders, a logical progression after Valve used SPBT's "Train to Miami" in an ad for the first game.
Shawn Lee's one of those odd musical chameleons who's done everything from funky rearrangements of classical standards to fusion jazz featuring ancient Chinese string instruments. And while his foray into video game soundtracks appears to have been a brief sideline, it gave him a chance to stretch out his genre-hopping chops, especially on Rockstar's notorious schoolboy-fracas title Bully. Each clique has their own fight music that veers between styles unpredictably but naturally--the Dropouts' theme swipes Franz Ferdinand's nervy pop-post-punk and fuses it to '70s dub reggae, while the Preps theme pushes the tempo of "Billie Jean" up a few notches and imagines it briefly reclaimed by new wave android Gary Numan. Throw in cop-show-style chase cues and a graffiti theme straight from dusty memories of Sugar Hill, and Lee's score hits all the right nostalgia buttons for twenty and thirtysomething gamers who finally have a way of revisiting their childhood school traumas on the winning side this time.