The video game industry has an ongoing identity crisis. Mostly, I’m able to watch this from afar, keeping industry drama firmly at arm’s length. Unfortunately, one of the symptoms of this crisis is manifesting itself in video game soundtracks.
In recent years, as the industry has blossomed, some AAA games seem set on hiring famous film composers to write music. I feel this is a loss that compromises the identity of the enterprise.
For several reasons, the game industry struts around like the red-headed stepsister of entertainment. I often liken this film breaking away from theater in the early 1900s; over time, ideally, these feelings of inadequacy will fade. Yet, since video games make absurd amounts of money, above and far beyond the music and film worlds, I’ve struggled to understand the inferiority complex.
Hiring film composers hardly brings more respect or recognition to games. Consumers certainly buy soundtracks as a result of the composer, but how often will someone actually buy a game as a result? Who purchased Mass Effect 3 because of Clint Mansell? Who bought Halo 4 because of Neil Davidge? Who bought Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 because of Hans Zimmer?
Did developers make back the exorbitant fees wrapped up in hiring these men (calling a spade a spade), purely from consumers buying soundtracks because of their music? That is so incredibly unlikely. Did they get bragging rights for hiring Zimmer? Yep. Good for them.
The most profound music in games was written by game composers. Or, quite simply, composers who aren’t famous for their films. They’re composers who are famous for their game music. They excel at writing game music. Film composers don’t.
A film composer can write a beautiful theme, but how often will they be the ones to innovate or improve game music? And let’s face it, when Mansell or Zimmer or Reznor get hired, they aren’t writing the bulk of the music. They might write a theme or two, and that’s it. The real game composers fill in the gaps, which is equally as tragic, scoring minutes upon minutes more than the film dude did. The game composers still write the bulk of the music, and get far less credit than they deserve.
Outside of bragging rights, there is no rhyme or reason for hiring outside the industry. There is plenty of talent within it. It’s not like I need to list names like Soule, Kyd, O’Donnell, Schyman… but there you go. Some of those insanely talented composers have been replaced by film composers.
The message sent? We want real entertainment composers. Video game composers don’t have enough talent, or skill, or name recognition. I think that last part is key: the name recognition. Hiring someone like Zimmer sends conflicting messages. To the rest of the entertainment industry, it’s a “Look at us – we hired Trent Reznor because video games are a big deal.”
To the fans, however, the message is, “Hey, we’re gonna go ahead and hire someone from outside the industry so we can get attention from the film folks”.
Again, how often do consumers buy a game because of the famous dude (spade a spade) hired to do the music? Perhaps they buy the soundtrack, but it seems outrageous to assume that this will make a pub/dev enough additional money to warrant the decision.
Game music makes games special. It always has. Hiring huge names for millions of dollars means the industry loses one of its unique attributes: composers who’ve spent their lives playing and studying games and game music; composers who strive for the best interactive experience musically. Let’s keep those folks in the game, so to speak.