The Year is 2000. The whole world breathed a sigh of relief at the Millenium Bug’s failure to erase most of computer data from existence. Nintendo sold their millionth Gameboy handheld, and one of the niche experiments of music (which was still largely dominated by pop and R&B) was a synthesis of genres such as hip-hop with rock and punk. As summer came to an end, back alley curbs became local skateparks and no matter where I went, the clipped riff intro of Blood Brothers by Papa Roach or Millencolin vocalist’s hoarse voice in No Cigar could be heard.

No one legally shared music on the internet.

Of course, at that time licensed music was nothing new (those who never got stuck listening to the FIFA series’ main menu playlist, raise your hands) but the influence that Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 had on general music culture couldn’t be compared to anything else. No one legally shared music on the internet. There were still 5 years before Youtube would go online, and the idea of Spotify didn’t even cross its creators’ heads. People simply either bought CDs, borrowed them from their friends, or stumbled across them some other way. Then, a new way of experiencing music entered in the form of video games.

It’s a given that rap-rock didn’t really break any new ground (all the bands featured in THPS2 were already well known among rock enthusiasts, iconic Rage Against the Machine included) but the musical mainstream was still dictated by neutral genres such as pop, as well as TV station preferences. And then, video games appeared‒a medium that could be used for music promotion and convey the voice of the young generation at the same time. It doesn’t matter whether you listened to hip-hop or metal; the skating subculture embraced both genres and didn’t even require you to actually ride a skateboard in real life. In due time, this music genre and its accompanying cultural change would expand and become the true mainstream, paving the way for similar subgenres in the following years.

Well, I’m sure that this period is a nostalgic memory not only to me‒pre-teen and adolescence years filled with a culture that celebrated freedom, as well as its sound that could be heard blasting from teenagers’ headphones no matter where you went‒but let’s stop looking at it through rose-coloured glasses. In the end, it can be seen as a prime example of the inner workings of our brains and the way music and sound are able to draw people’s attention to a video game. As studies have shown, sound is able to elicit activity in brain regions responsible for evoking and processing emotions. As our memories are partly driven by emotions, a video game’s soundtrack can ultimately become a key component in its promotion.

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A few years ago, Neurosight analysed over 150 ads in terms of music. The study has shown that the more the music matches what’s on the screen, the higher the probability of it getting stored in our long-term memory, effectively becoming a part of our self. Taking that into consideration, it’s no surprise that producers of consoles such as PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X heavily promoted the audio capabilities of their new hardware, considering it one of their most important improvements.

After all, it’s all about emotions. Subjective as they may be, recent Spotify statistics could be an interesting hint just to show how large video game music has become. According to the streaming giant’s summary for the year 2020 the number of users listening to VGM playlist increased by a whopping 41% in just March 2020. There’s no doubt that back then many people stayed at home but it should be noted that it only resulted in an increase of their free time and didn’t really affect their music taste.

I remember when my friend introduced me to the music from „The Binding of Isaac”. She didn’t tell me that it was a game soundtrack, but she would listen to it everywhere: while learning, cooking, or during a walk. I decided to ask her about the album and how she came to know it, and she told me about the game and its music composer, Danny Baranowsky. It’s one of those games that make you actually think about what exactly defines a video game. Theoretically, it’s just a simple equation: sound + visuals + context and the plot = video game. But „The Binding of Isaac” is the type of a retro game that puts more emphasis on sound and plot. You can either love it or hate it. In this case, the game’s soundtrack directly influences the gameplay, which in turn affects the player. I’m certain that this vivid experience is what ultimately still attracts many people to this title.

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What I’m trying to say is, when a soundtrack is able to defend itself on its own, it often makes people dive into the production details, including the video game itself, as well as its developer and the music composer‒it’s clear from Steam’s recent approach. Last year Valve’s beloved child introduced a way to buy the soundtrack albums separately from the game. It’s a great way to make the game more known, especially when it comes to indie titles and small developers. If we take a look at Steam’s soundtrack bestsellers, among them are „Kingdom Come: Deliverance” and „Ori and the Will of the Wisps”, the soundtrack for the latter being the main reason for me to check out the game itself.

I didn’t even play that game, and some of my friends never touched a single video game before.

Both games benefit from their music performed live, just like other titles featured yearly at the Game Music Festival. This kind of events spreads the word by bringing together video game music lovers in concert halls and theaters worldwide. An example can be the Final Fantasy Remake Orchestra World Tour, which should be quite busy this year. There are also Chrono Trigger music concerts which are regularly held and as a result, made this game (released in 1995) effectively immortal.

I heard about people who had never played any game before but their love for music made them give games a try. That’s perfectly normal‒the ease of sharing music has always connected similar-minded people. Again, going back to my teenage years, I remember sharing earbuds with my friend to listen to the „Need for Speed: Most Wanted” soundtrack on a single mp3 player. I didn’t even play that game, and some of my friends never touched a single video game before, but all of us knew each track on that playlist by heart. In the end, it is the soundtrack what made them try out this game.

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Maciej Baska

In the games he happens to stand around at a random location only because there is a great music. For over a decade he's composed, written, recorded and mixed.