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Video Games and Music

July 19, 2019


I recently attended a performance at the Walt Disney Theater in downtown Orlando, along with Word on Fire Content Director, Brandon Vogt. Several months prior, we were there to see an opera, but this time we held tickets for a very different kind of concert: the Kingdom Hearts Orchestra “World of Tres” tour.

Excitement exuded from me as I walked to the theater. I wasn’t alone . . . Hundreds of people were gathering at the narthex of the arts center, each of them just as stoked about the performance as I was. When I entered the concert hall, not a single one of the 2700 seats was unoccupied. Anticipation built as the conductor and orchestra took to the stage. The lights dimmed. The whole theater was engulfed in darkness save a solitary ray illuminating the musician seated at the Steinway grand piano. He gently raised his hand with a practiced yet elegant solemnity. Then, eyes closed and bending his upper body towards the keyboard, he started playing the theme “Dearly Beloved.” Immediately, the house erupted into applause. What commenced as a richly hued tapestry of sound quickly became a visual tour de force, as scenes from different Kingdom Hearts games swept across the large projection screen positioned behind the orchestra. The next two hours sent me on an emotional roller coaster ride as I heard a series of melodies and cut-scenes from my childhood and adolescence. I cheered, laughed, and cried with my millennial peers as we jointly reveled in what is among the fondest memories of our lives.

There are many things to enjoy in a video game: plot, graphics, characters, gameplay, etc. However, music holds a special place in the gaming experience. In the words of Plato, “Music gives wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.”

Video games have come a long way in regards to music. What began in the eighties as the catchy background jingles of Galaga, Tetris, and Pac-man have evolved into the sweeping cinematic soundtracks of Final Fantasy, Uncharted, and Skyrim. As a matter of fact, video game soundtracks are opening a new frontier in the music industry. Whereas gaming tracks used to be bypassed in the world of professional music, more and more people are starting to appreciate the creative genius behind certain video game scores. In 2011, Christopher Tin’s “Baba Yetu” featured in the video game Civilization IV became the first gaming composition to receive a Grammy. The following year at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards, Austin Wintory’s score for Journey received a nomination for “Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media.” Since then, the gaming industry has been pushing The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) for a separate category at the Grammys specifically dedicated to video games. I tend to agree for one simple reason: video game soundtracks are marvelous.

I say this not only as a fan but as a classically trained musician. I studied opera and composition before entering seminary. I know what complex, well-structured, and beautifully composed music sounds like. A lot of video game soundtracks fit the bill. This occurred to me when I attended the Kingdom Hearts concert. The pieces performed at this concert are not mediocre by any standard. The orchestration is intricate, comprised of rich chord structures and harmonies. The solo instrumentations are also quite impressive, especially the piano and first-chair violin parts. The people most certainly qualify as respectable musicians.

These observations lead to one very encouraging aspect about video game music. The soundtracks that are most popular in the gaming community are not the beat-driven, dubstep, heavy bass kind of stuff. Rather, it is the sophisticated and more classically composed orchestrations; the haunting chants of Halo Reach, the epic chorus of Skyrim’s “Dragonborn,” the soaring symphonies of Final Fantasy, the touching themes of Kingdom Hearts’ “Dearly Beloved.” So often we hear that millennials and post-millennials are attracted to shiny, flashy, loud, and shallow things. In some ways that’s true. But in the end, my generation is consumed with a longing for profundity and beauty. We can sit and listen to these video game soundtracks for hours; no lyrics, no pictures, no free prizes, no trophies . . . just beauty. As one gamer put it, “Believe it or not, this [music] makes me feel whole with the world, and with God.”

I left that Kingdom Hearts concert with an even deeper appreciation and hope for my generation. There is so much potential for goodness rooted in a profound sensibility to what is beautiful in the world. I often imagine how the Church can tap into this trademark characteristic of the millennial generation; how we can meet them where they’re really at . . . not where we think they are. All of the evidence points towards a generation that is dynamic, hungering for truth, eager to experience the beautiful and hopeful to find goodness in themselves. Through the truth of Christ, the beauty of his Church’s tradition, and the goodness of his sacraments, I believe we can speak to the hearts of many men and women in our time.