The impact of cinematic music in video games in the eighth generation

When Jared Emerson-Johnson played Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, an adventure game by American publisher LucasArts, he realised his life-long dream of becoming a music composer in gaming. “That was the gateway for me and it made me realise there are people doing really interesting work in this industry,” he says.

While sound has always featured in video games, the industry has experienced a major turnaround with cinematic music now playing a fundamental role in many single-player games. The eighth generation, a term used by fans to describe the current consoles on the market including the PlayStation 4, XBOX One and Nintendo Switch, has played a big role in this.

With the eighth generation ending this year, it’s unknown how cinematic music will change and adapt to the new era. Nowadays, titles like Death Stranding and The Last of Us Part 2 use this music as a way of giving their games a more realistic and theatrical feel rather than an arcade based one.

Jared, a BAFTA Games nominated composer for his work with the Telltale’s The Walking Dead franchise, believes this change in style has occurred because of the increasing popularity of gaming. “It’s funny because in some ways it’s becoming more like film,” he says. “It’s surprising. Some of the best composers are working on games now and the budgets are a lot higher.”

Financial statistics are difficult to locate in gaming, especially in terms of budgeting to create a game itself, but the video game industry as a whole continues to rise every year. A report from Newzoo, the leading provider of gaming and esports analytics, forecasts that the gaming market in 2020 will generate more than $160 (~£129) billion in revenue, a year on year increase of 7.3%.

Luci Holland, a composer and sound artist, echoes Jared’s thoughts and says the most important part of cinematic music is the music itself. “You never know what you’ll hear next. There are so many different genres, styles and techniques that go into creating soundtracks which is incredible,” she says. “I keep finding new composers and I get motivated and inspired by them. I always feel excited when I hear the next great soundtrack.”

She has worked in different areas of the gaming industry such as with Materia Collective and also seen her work featured in Lordbound, a collective game mod project. Also, she helped to curate and present The Console, the United Kingdom’s first weekly video game music show on national radio.

But a majority of Luci’s audio work has been for small movies. For example, she has composed music for many short films like the animated narrative Hazelnut Holidays, and Jack the Monster – a pop up animation that was nominated for the Tampere Short Film Festival Award in 2014. While she has produced and written music in two completely different industries, she says she prefers video game music and that it is like “a different type of creative quality altogether”.

Regarding the different industries, it was revealed in 2019 by the Entertainment Retailers Association, a UK trade organisation, that the gaming industry in the United Kingdom was worth more than the music and film industries combined.

Jared believes many aspects of gaming from music to the gameplay itself is taken more seriously nowadays thanks to its rise in popularity over the years. “It [Gaming] benefits all sides of entertainment,” he says. “It has moved from the fringe into the mainstream and into a legitimate field of art and expression,” he says.

In addition, this decade has also seen the composers themselves receive more recognition for their work. During the eighth generation, many prominent award shows including the Grammy Awards and Hollywood Music in Media introduced categories dedicated to gaming composers.

However, while he appreciates the recognition that he receives, Jared says a majority of artists like himself do not focus on receiving awards because it’s not why they decided to work in the industry. “You don’t get into this for that [the awards]. It’s interesting but there’s way too much work involved to be focusing on that.”

Meanwhile, Johnny Donadio, a video game journalist, contradicts both of Jared and Luci’s previous claims and says he is not surprised by the impact of cinematic music. He believes the changes over the years were always going to take place because, “sooner or later everything evolves” and the industry has benefitted because of it. “At first with PlayStation games, something like Resident Evil, everything was ominous but then as time goes on you get into Halo and Final Fantasy and everything then evolves from there,” he says. “It’s almost like they evolve into each other.”

Resident Evil 2 Game | PS4 - PlayStation

Johnny says it was crucial that music adapted to the times because it has the power to make people feel more connected and emotional towards a particular story. “Could you imagine taking a game like God of War and giving it music from Mario? It just wouldn’t work,” he says.

Although the rise of cinematic music can be attributed to the gaming industry as a whole, it’s worth noting that the players themselves has also played a part in this. Famous soundtracks from popular games are often accessible on platforms like Spotify and Apple Music which in turn has supported the popularity and demand of cinematic music over the years.

To put this in perspective, composers like Martin O’Donnell from the HALO franchise and Gustavo Santaolalla from the PlayStation exclusive game The Last of Us have had their compositions listened to on more than five million occasions.

The influence from the fans has played a crucial role in the increasing popularity of cinematic music. Also, their responses are noticed by the composers too which in response helps them to create better music in future.“It’s the best feeling in the world where the music is supporting the game and the fans notice that,” Jared says.

“The only reason we make all of these things is for the fans, the people playing our games.”

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