If recent films, Internet culture and contemporary music are any indication, there is a rising interest in videogame music (VGM).
The Universal logo, rendered in 16-bit graphics and sound for the recent film adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, shows that gaming has begun a foray into the world of popular art. The film, as well as the source comic book by Bryan Lee O’Malley, borrows an aesthetic and formal structure from video game conventions. Examples of this include the use of episodic bosses (the “Seven Evil Exes”) and to the “death” animations reminiscent of River City Ransom in which enemies explode into a flurry of coins.
But an integral element of video gaming has also insinuated itself into the comedic film: music. Beyond the retro-rendered Universal jingle, “The Great Fairy Fountain” from The Legend of Zelda (LoZ) series is applied in the movie. Scott Pilgrim experiences his first dream sequence of love interest Ramona Flowers when that gentle piano melody crescendos into a swelling orchestration, imbuing the scene with both a sense of romance and mystique. Not only is that piece by Koji Kondo esthetically suited to the drama of the moment, it is also reminder of the 24-year-old LoZ franchise.
Scouring YouTube pulls up VGM appreciation in the form of fan homage and user-generated content. The wealth of fan reinterpretation speaks to this music’s cultural integration in the contemporary era. The ocarina, the musical component added to the 1998 LoZ: Ocarina of Time game requires the player to input commands in order to produce a magical melody. This actually allows the user to manipulate the ocarina’s tones by pressing buttons and moving the joystick to bend notes up and down. Flattening and sharpening various tones on the virtual ocarina is capable of producing a variety of notes as well as musical accents. Many LoZ fans have uploaded videos of their own user-generated content. BusinessDog2000’s YouTube account, for example, is dedicated to Ocarina of Time renditions of popular songs. All together BusinessDog2000 has earned almost 700,000 upload views and 856 subscribers since joining the site in 2007. He has since uploaded renditions of songs such as “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Greensleeves.”
DIY: game music systems and digital music
The Ocarina of Time is not the only musical game featuring a tuned-creative-tool. Games like Mario Paint that allow the user to produce original content using game mechanics have also made YouTube appearances. A music system allots the user a limited treble staff and 16-bit tones (in the spirit of a true diatonic staff), each one represented by a Mario character. unFun Games created the free PC game, Mario Paint Composer, using those mechanics (with the addition of a longer staff). As a possible precursor to the Rock Band franchise, creative players have reinterpreted such songs as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Dragonforce’s “Through the Fire and Flames,” as well as original compositions.
The video for “Mario Paint Thriller,” up- loaded by user geoffnet1, has gained just over two million views in two years and the video for “Through the Fire and Flames,” uploaded by Levus28, has gained 4.3 million views in the same amount of time.
VGM is having an effect on various musical approaches. In a larger context, the application of digital media in terms of music has taken an experimental turn. An unknown artist uploaded his work to various websites, including YouTube, and received attention for his digital composition known as “Windows 98 Jam.” The piece features only Windows 98 and XP system sounds as instrumentation, while the composer uses an editing program to arrange and alter the tones. The song itself uses such unconventional noises as the staccato mouse-click sound, the standard “Critical Stop” noise in a repeating loop to provide a percussion section and sounds such as the “98 Ding” in modulations, varying dynamics and accents in order to create a melody. There are more of these types of compositions on the Internet, but “Windows 98 Jam” remains foremost of its type, with over seven million views on YouTube since 2007.
The emergence of web celebrities
The reinterpretation of nostalgic tunes and sounds establishes both their musical versatility and their significance to culture. Swedish musician Freddegredde (aka Fredrik Larsson) plays an impressive variety of instruments and is a VGM and popular music arranger. One of his arrangements is a one-man rendition of the theme from LoZ: Wind Waker which he has titled “Wind Waker Unplugged.”
In it, he plays all of the parts in the piece using various instruments including water glasses, a spoon and baking sheet, the pan flute, the guitar (for which he plays two separate parts), the bongo, the accordion (for which he plays two parts), the recorder and his own voice (for which he sings nine parts). He has overlapped all the separate recordings, which he represents in the music video by introducing footage of him playing each instrument as it appears in the composition. Freddegredde has garnered over 15 million views for his arrangements on YouTube and says on his website, Freddegredde.com, that he intends to keep playing. “I’ve started on lots of stuff, like rock medleys of Super Mario Galaxy and Phoenix Wright, and I’m also thinking about doing a pop medley of famous songs with just the guitar and vocals.”
Nerdcore rocker Jonathan Coulton has worked directly with game company Valve. Coulton’s song “Still Alive,” in which a passive game character reflects on her experience in the world of Portal, was in fact written and composed by Coulton after he was approached by Valve representatives at one of his Seattle shows.
Coulton said on his site’s blog in 2007, “I’ve long been a fan of Half-Life, so I said yes yes yes. We got together to talk about a couple of ideas, and somehow we decided it would be a good idea for me to write a song in the voice of one of the characters in the game, something that would sort of tie up the story arc at the end.” The version which appears in Portal is sung by Ellen McLain. Coulton does not keep his own version on the music page of his website, but a music video featuring an upbeat (yet darkly comedic) acoustic rendition of the song by Coulton is available on YouTube.
The web is a plenum of musical creativity of this type. In it, is a generous share of video game appreciation and cross-referencing in various artistic forms, popular and high, digital and non-digital. VGM, as a style of music, has begun to flourish in the consciousness of contemporary culture.
Correction (Oct. 15, 2010): This article originally referred to the song “Still Alive” as “Stay Alive.” It has been corrected.