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VGM Outside It’s Original Context: The Original Soundtrack Release (OST)

December 13, 2010

Here I’m talking quite specifically about when a video game’s soundtrack has been released as a self-contained, stand-alone product. While nothing has changed in regard to the music – being exactly the same as it was in the game, what has changed is the context in which we can perceive it and perhaps, judge it.

I’ll be using the abbreviation OST henceforth, which stands for: Original Soundtrack.

The cover for the Halo Wars OST:

From my continued exploration into video game music, as well as gathering my own conclusions, I’ve come to see a distinct separation of video game music heard inside the context of the game it was written for, and when one might hear it in another context, such as a live performance or listening to the soundtrack in isolation (which is essentially what the OST allows you to do). There is a clear distinction of what makes fitting, contextually relevant music inside a video game, to how an audience views and judges the same music in another context, such as when the soundtrack is released as an OST, either as a physical CD or a digital download.

OST releases for video games are becoming quite popular now days, with most of  big game releases (and even smaller games) being available on popular music distribution services like iTunes,  Amazon and Bandcamp. Also, the bigger game releases frequently have ‘special editions’ that come budded with the game’s soundtrack on CD or even in some cases on vinyl, such as this edition of Bioshock 2.

The OST for the Xbox Arcade Indie Game, Super Meat Boy, available to download on Bandcamp:

I think these kind of releases and the extra exposure that they gave to video game music is important. While it does not change the way composers write music for video games, nor does it change how effective that music is for the context of the game, it shows that video game music as an art form in itself is being appreciated as its own entity and piece of work. As an important part of a larger whole.

There seems to be an ongoing debate among video game music journalists about the context in which we should judge an OST: do we judge and review the OST based on how well it fits the context of the game or, as the OST has been released as a stand-alone product, do we judge it on this release alone and not if it makes fitting music inside the game?

Original Sound Version debates this issue:

“One of the most heated subjects of debate among the writers here at Original Sound Version is whether or not it is essential for one to experience a soundtrack in its original context in order to properly review, enjoy, appreciate, or analyze it critically.”

Gideon Dabi at Original Sound Version thinks that we cannot ignore the original context, saying: “How, then, can we possibly ignore the very basis of these scores? By definition, they are designed to accompany, enrich, and flesh out the drama in the games and films we love. Listening to an original score for a game without seeing/playing it is like ignoring the lyrics to a song.”

While Wes Chung leans on the other side of the fence: “I have the utmost respect for composers; I wouldn’t be writing for this site if I didn’t. Some are virtually heroes to me, or at least the fan in me, who isn’t having a good time right now. But something needs to be said regarding authorial (or compositional) intention: it is not the end of the story. As I said above, once you hear a piece of music, it’s yours. Do with it what you will. Allow the composer to influence that, certainly, and any other context from which it came (for example, a particularly annoying boss fight), but you are not obliged to leave it there.”

Personally, I firmly believe that first and foremost we must judge the effectiveness of video game music in the context it was originally written for. But if games companies or composers want to release an OST of the score as a separate product then it must be able to work and stand-alone as a separate piece of work and product also. But I think it goes without saying that hearing the music in the context of the game is a vastly different experience to hearing the sound track in isolation.

I would also like to touch upon commenting on the music I wrote for my game Pink Hair Girl vs Plants ‘n Stuff. I would definitely prefer the music to firstly be judged and viewed in the context of the game, and as a piece of music secondary to the function it performs in-game. Or, in other words, I would much rather people played the game and heard it in context rather than just listening to the music on it’s own. If they had played the game first I would then have no problem with people hearing/enjoying that music out of context.

It’s also worth mentioning that the majority of people who buy/listen to video game scores are mainly gamers and other people that work in or have interest in gaming and video game music. The average (if there is such a thing these days) music buying public are not likely to be interested in or exposed to this music unless they have played the game it was originally written for. So it goes without saying that people familiar with the source material (the game) can approach the OST in a different context to someone who has no knowledge of the game or how that music fits within it.

But, even being removed from the game, the OST release can still tell us lots about the game it was taken from, as I’ve proved with my enquiry into the Soundtrack of Bioshock and my subsequent playing of the game. This highlights just how important the game’s music is in setting the context of the game and listening carefully can reveal even more about the game.

OST are also enjoyed because of the nostalgia value they can provide for gamers. Many of the games people played as a child or when they were younger are no longer commercially available, having long been replaced with more advanced games consoles/computers and technology. But the soundtracks for those old games will be (in most cases) readily available and will succeed in reacquainting the listener with their memories of playing the game when they were a child.

It might be hard for some one who has never played or been interested in video games to understand the importance of the nostalgia value that the music, particularly, has for many people. Using me as an example, I’ll try to convey the nostalgia video games music can have.

I got my first games console, a Super Nintendo, when I was around nine or ten years old. Being fascinated by it at such a young age I invariable played it a lot. While I may of not consciously recognized it at the time, the music for these games that I was playing had a profound impact on me. I was also at an age where I had not begun to buy or listen to music myself yet, so the majority of the music I was ‘actively’ listening to at that age came from the video games I was playing.

So it became that video game music was some of the first music that became forever embedded in my mind. To this day I can remember the themes and melodies from these games. They still, to a somewhat lesser extent, retain the fascination I had with them when I was a child. So while I don’t play the majority of those games anymore, listening to their soundtracks almost means that I don’t have to; listening to the music alone is enough to make me recall playing the games and the times spent playing them with friends and family as a child.


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