As a consolation prize for my canceled vacation in 2020, I bought a used PlayStation 4 on eBay. If I couldn’t get on a plane, I could at least go to Midgar: the glowing, grimy setting of the classic video game “Final Fantasy VII,” which had just received a cutting-edge remake. Despite listening to its soundtrack for half my life, I’d never experienced the game firsthand.
I eagerly took control of the spiky-haired hero Cloud Strife and piloted him through a tutorial mission, pausing to take in the explosive orchestral arrangements of the soundtrack by Nobuo Uematsu, the Japanese composer who created most of the franchise’s music. An hour in, as Cloud escaped a collapsing power plant and wandered the streets of Midgar, a familiar but unexpected melody warped me into the past: It was a chilling instrumental arrangement of “The Promised Land,” the choral opening theme from the game’s 2005 animated film tie-in “Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children” — and my most-played track on iTunes for a significant period of time when I was a teenager.
As a madeleine was to Proust, so this deep cut from the Uematsu vaults was to me. At 14, I had searched for the original soundtrack to “Final Fantasy VII” after hearing a few tracks on AOL Music’s video game radio station. (It was 2007.) I put aside the original soundtrack and its blocky synthesized sounds when I discovered “20020220,” a live concert recording of the Tokyo Philharmonic performing orchestral arrangements of music from the first 10 games in the series.
And the piano music! I trawled fan sites and printed out scans from Final Fantasy piano arrangement books for cues like “Dear Friends” and “To Zanarkand,” and rejoiced when my piano teacher deemed them suitable to live next to the likes of Chopin and Debussy in my weekly assignment book. Up until that point, music for orchestra or solo piano had been something others chose for me. For the first time, the choice was all mine, and the feeling of discovery was intoxicating.
Video game music can nourish budding appreciation for classical music. But more importantly, it nurtures curiosity and rewards listening ears. Just like video games reward exploration of what’s around the corner, behind a locked gate, or in the next area of the map, so does music — and once a new area of the map opens up, what reason exists to cover it up again?
I needed more. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t too far from Uematsu’s climactic battle theme “One-Winged Angel” to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” or Mozart’s “Requiem.” But I didn’t abandon music for consoles in favor of music for concert halls. I camped out in my school music department’s computer lab and tried to arrange “The Promised Land” for unaccompanied choir hoping to convince the director to include it in our next concert. (It didn’t work out.)
When I recounted those experiences during a Zoom chat with Marco Cammarota, a former professional operatic tenor who now makes YouTube videos about game music under the name “MarcoMeatball,” he nodded vigorously. As a teenager, he wore out his CD of Final Fantasy piano music by listening to it too much, he said. After he started pursuing an operatic career, he never stopped gaming, but he was loath to be open about it. “It’s mainstream now, but at the time it felt really like something you needed to be closeted about,“ he said from his home in upstate New York.
The same was true for New Haven-based conductor Tristan Rais-Sherman, who said that during his musical studies at New England Conservatory and elsewhere, he couldn’t help but feel guilty when he played games instead of studying. And the same is true for me, even though I’m certain I never would have become a classical music writer had it not been for those many hours I spent listening to all sorts of game music.
It’s not surprising game music hasn’t quite crossed over to classical listeners, especially those whose only experience of it has been arcade cabinet jingles or the short, looping 8- and 16-bit synthesized compositions of early Sega and Nintendo systems.
“People look at video game music and still think ‘Mario,’ or ‘bleep-bloop!’ ” Rais-Sherman said. “But in some of these scores … ’Breath of the Wild’ is like this weird, fantastical Debussy or Satie at times.”
As games’ hardware and software has developed, so have their music. Now, there are entire open worlds out there to discover.
Composer Austin Wintory has attended numerous live performances of his own music, often excerpts from his Grammy-winning soundtrack to the 2012 game “Journey,” an emotional exploration game. “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been onstage at a predominately classical concert and had 80-year-old men and women say, ‘I never would have guessed there’s this whole corner of the world where this work is being done,’ ” he said. “It’s like a new treasure chest of new things to discover as lifelong music lovers. And I shake their hand, and next in line is a 10-year-old kid, or even a couple on a date, who says, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever come to see an orchestra.’ ”
The original soundtrack to “Journey” was recorded with a small ensemble and several electronic synth patches, but to mark the game’s 10th anniversary, Wintory recorded and conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in “Traveler – A Journey Symphony,” an album-length reimagining of the entire soundtrack that reworks the score into a standalone piece for orchestra.
Today, albums of game music with live instruments, and even full live orchestral concerts, have become almost commonplace — last September, fans flocked to London’s Royal Albert Hall to hear the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra perform music from “Final Fantasy VII Remake.“ But such events are often presented as a novelty. Cammarota and Rais-Sherman both see room to change that.
“What is keeping major orchestras from programming this? Is it a lack of education, or a lack of understanding? Is it because it’s modern, or because the medium is video games?” Cammarota asked. “There’s no reason why [game composer] Yu-Peng Chen can’t be played by the New York Phil.”
Rais-Sherman wants to figure out a way to produce events of game music that could appeal to both gamers and symphony subscribers. He’s been awed by the emotional bond he sees listeners form with game music. “The incredibly intimate memories that people share about their connections with these soundtracks are stunning,” said Rais-Sherman, who was recently named a conducting fellow with the Philadelphia Orchestra for the 2022-23 season.
Cammarota started his YouTube channel earlier this year, but he is already approaching 20,000 subscribers thanks to videos reacting to music from games like “Genshin Impact,” with its expansive orchestral score by Yu-Peng Chen, and the “NieR” series, which features choral music in its apocalyptic genre mashup. When he reads comments on his videos, he sees a community of listeners that he believes traditional classical music institutions aren’t embracing. “They feel like they’re on the fringes, where they love listening to music that’s not what we know of as classical music,” he said. But “this is full-on symphonic programmatic music. It’s this combo of classical, and Romantic, and its own thing, and it’s all coming together.” With that fusion, he has said, “we are in the future of classical music as we speak.”
His words stuck with me this past Friday at the PAX East video game convention as the Videri String Quartet took the stage during the evening’s concert, a shared bill with a hip-hop collective and a math-rock band. After playing tunes from both classic and modern games, the players returned to their concert music roots with the first movement of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8. The audience sat in rapt silence, listening. Suddenly, the tempo and intensity increased — not into the thrashing second movement of the same quartet as my ears had anticipated, but into my old “Final Fantasy” favorite, “One-Winged Angel.”
I never dared to imagine this future, but now that we’re here, I like the view.