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Crossing Over - The Work of Film and Television Composers in Video Games

Editorial Written by Joe Hammond

Writing music for film and television used to be seen as a completely separate job to composing music for video games, back when writing video game music was more of a programmer's job. These days, these jobs can be combined and people that do this kind of work are more widely regarded as media composers, a job that encompasses film, television, and video games. This is most obvious when you consider the work that many film and television composers have put into the video games industry. We've seen contributions from the likes of Michael Giacchino, Danny Elfman, Harry Gregson Williams and, most recently, Hans Zimmer. While I think it's a good thing that game music is being recognised in this way, there is a danger that game developers may start treating video game music the same way as film music. If that happens then video game music will lose the creative edge that it has over film music.

The most interesting person to look at in this regard is Michael Giacchino. His career actually started out in video games, composing the music for various Sega Mega Drive games and eventually landing the job of scoring the video game adaptation of The Lost World: Jurassic Park for the PlayStation, which was also one of the industry's first orchestral scores. This netted him other scoring jobs with Dreamworks Interactive (now the Los Angeles branch of EA) and eventually led to his critically acclaimed scores for the Medal of Honor series. The music from the Medal of Honor games was noticed by J.J. Abrams, which led to him becoming the composer for the Television series Alias and since then his composing career has taken off. Now he does music for Film (e.g. Star Trek), Television (e.g. Lost), and Video Games (e.g. Fall of Liberty), and also for some theme park attractions and awards ceremonies. Fans of Giacchino's music can hear his signature thematic style even in his video game scoring. Interestingly, Giacchino's score for The Incredibles was very much based on the man watching his children playing video games.

Another Western film composer who has made a significant contribution to video game music is Harry Gregson-Williams. Having heard his music for the film The Replacement Killers, Hideo Kojima hired Gregson-Williams to work on Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. He then worked on the two sequels, Snake Eater and Guns of the Patriots. His music for Metal Gear Solid is very typical for what he writes in a lot of the films he scores, blending the orchestra and choir with electronic sounds. Other composers at his company, Remote Control Productions, have also crossed over from film to video game music, including Steve Jablonsky (The Sims 3, Gears of War 2), Trevor Morris (Command & Conquer 3, Army of Two), James Dooley (inFAMOUS, Epic Mickey), and, indeed, now Hans Zimmer himself (Modern Warfare 2). These composers have a proven record for creating functional cinematic music and their involvement in such projects testifies that video games can now have the same production values as major Hollywood films.

Danny Elfman is another big shot film composer who has made a significant impact on video game music. In addition to influencing various game music composers, his music has formed the thematic basis for the Fable series and has been used extensively as a promotional tool. When working on Fable, Elfman said that working on a video game was a nice break from working on films, and felt less pressured. However, back then, he also said that film composers are generally put off from working on games when they have to use MIDI as oppose to real instruments. Nowadays more game developers are able to fund the use of live orchestras and it is effectively the norm for big budget productions, so we will probably see a lot more crossover work of this nature happening. From the Western point of view, I would defiantly like to see John Williams do at least one video game score; while his music has been used in various games based on the films he's worked on, I'd love to hear what he'd come up with for an original video game score.

My personal favourite Western video game score by a film and television composer is the Dark Void soundtrack. The game ended up being a big disappointment but the soundtrack was great. Bear McCreary is most well known for his work on Battlestar Galactica, but with Dark Void he has outdone himself and shown gamers what he can do. Throughout the score he incorporates a very wide variety of styles, from classical composers to more modern influences, and a memorable main theme, interwoven very well into the score at various moments. Throughout the score he incorporates influences of John Williams, Howard Shore, Richard Wagner, Claude Debussy, and Nine-Inch Nails... there's even an 8-bit version of his own theme as a bonus. McCreary has proven that he can be innovative with his scoring, which is what game music needs, and if Western games become too Hollywood-esque then there is a danger that game music will just become a lesser imitation of film music, and no one wants that to happen.

The Western games industry aren't the only ones to employ the skills of film and television composers in video games. The Japanese do it too, though to a lesser extent than the US and Europe. In Japan, most famous composers are primarily video game composers that eventually cross over and compose music for anime and films, or vice-versa. The most famous example of an anime composer doing music for video games is Ko Otani. He made his name writing music for anime shows such as City Hunter and various series in the Gundam universe, as well as films such as the Gamera series. Having previously worked on Philosoma and Sky Odyssey, he then became famous to gamers for his epic score for Shadow of the Colossus. Fellow composers at his company Imagine, including Hayato Matsuo, Shiro Hamaguchi, and Kohei Tanaka, also extensively work on both animes and video games.

In the future, we can look forward to a major video game score from Japan's best known and most widely loved film composer Joe Hisaishi, on behalf of the Ni No Kuni games. This is actually a great story in itself. For those who don't know, Ni No Kuni is a new RPG series that's being developed by Level 5 and Studio Ghibli. There are two games being made — one for the PS3 and the other for the DS. The producers asked Joe Hisaishi if he was interested in handling the music (this was when the game was just being developed for the DS) and he said he would do it if he were allowed to use a live orchestra. As a result of this, and Ghibli's animation, the DS version of the game is going to be the biggest DS game ever made in terms of file size (featuring a 4GB card). In all the trailers for the game, Hisaishi gets top billing now — after the title is shown, underneath the text reads "Developed by Level 5, Animation by Studio Ghibli, Sound Direction by Joe Hisaishi" — demonstrating the wow factor and selling power a big name composer can bring to a video game production.

In my opinion, crossing over can definitely yield some good effective results, with many of the composers bringing their signature musical styles to the games they work on. However there is a danger that game developers might get a bit carried away. Video games are not interactive versions of films; therefore film music is NOT the same as game music. This is one of the reasons why many people, including myself, feel that the Japanese tend to be better at writing for games than everyone else, because they clearly understand the differences between the two mediums. George "The Fat man" Sanger once said in an interview that, if someone says a video game score, or the game itself, is movie-like then that is not a compliment, given people don't go to see a movie because it's movie-like.

Of course, in the future, we will probably be seeing a lot more crossing over of this sort. This is certainly true for the output from the USA, as Western games these days have become very Hollywood-influenced in their nature and companies have a lot more money to spend in this way too. This is potentially a good thing, but it is important that the individuality and creativity of game music continues to be maintained, even in the more Hollywood-influenced scores.