Monday, 11 January 2010

What? You Want Me To Listen To A Videogame Soundtrack?

It may not be the most shocking revelation considering I'm a young male writing stuff on a blog about music, but I'm a bit of a geek. I know, earth-shattering right? What I'm getting at is that I'm a geek about more than just music, again not real surprise considering I'm a man – we're a very geeky bunch really – but yeah, I thought I should just put it out there. My main other vice is computer games, and like all great interests, when two areas I'm “well into” cross over, it's a delight. While computer game music isn't much beyond soundtrack – and yes, you might think “I like lots of soundtracks” – the problem with soundtracks is that often, the pieces you grab onto are the songs, the same sort of thing you'd like normally, or maybe even a song you'd known before suddenly given a gutwrenching context. I know people talk about the Dark Knight soundtrack and anything involving Nick Cave in terms of recent years, but it's a rather small number compared to, say, people who liked to sing along to Hairspray.

Today I'm going to talk about Nobuo Uematsu. Who, you ask? Well, I'm sure you can guess he's Japanese, and the mention of video games, that, yes, very good, he's a composer of video game soundtracks. A bit of a stalwart too, though only really at the Japanese end of computer game development, it's what he's best known for that's what sticks to me.

The Final Fantasy series of games are some of the best-selling games ever. They may even be the best selling series; I really can't be bothered to research, but they obviously made an impact on me through my early teenage years. And late ones too. And yes, the music always stuck in my head, but it was only with the opportunity to buy the soundtracks on the cheap on eBay when a university student that reignited my passion. I can't even remember why I bought them, or even searched for them – guess it was just an unexplainable pang of nostalgia.

Final Fantasy 8 (uh, there are 14 numbered games in the series...and more besides in some strange chaos numbering system) is probably my favourite – it's a warm-spirited piece which marries incredibly nerdy themes such as fantasy-style sorcery and magic with sci-fi-style super-technology. But there's a very human heart to the (admittedly flimsy) story and this truly comes across in the music. Ignore the Hollywood-hit “Eyes On Me”, which is sentimental tacky crap, because there's nearly four hours of music to get through, so let's get going.

Opener “Liberi Fatali” is surprising: Uematsu normally had to work with the Sony Playstation's unbuilt synthesiser apart from in very special, memory-heavy cases. Liberi Fatali is one of them, starting with an ominous Latin chorus, before a creeping orchestral rumbling brings in, and all hell breaks loose. It's never short of melody but you've got crashing strings, cutting rhythms and changes in time signature, like an overture for a symphony in less than three minutes. In the game it works with the cinematic opening but as a standalone piece it still grabs you by the collar and slaps you with cold hands, demanding “Wake up!” and “pay attention”. And then, just like that, it fades away, and we're into the pastoral “Balamb Garden”, more of a scene-setting for the game and soundtrack as a whole. But it's audacious, and it means that when the upbeat, shocking and minor-chord-heavy riots occasionally kick in, we're ready and willing.

But as I've mentioned, it's the pastoral element that really stands out. “Fisherman's Horizon” is a wonderful gently rolling piece, with electric piano that conjures waves lapping against the sure perfectly, it's also got one of the most delightfully simple melodies I've ever heard. “Waltz for the Moon” stays on the nicer side of wistful, it's a light, incidental piece. “Timber Owls” is a sparse, playful piece akin to a child playing a gentle prank on a relative.

Four hours is a lot to plough through, and yes, it will feel like filler. It's not intended to be listened to as a coherent whole, but to be dipped into and leaned out of. There's tracks like the menacing chilled funk of “Martial Law”, complete with a skittering clavichord solo in the middle, or the fantastically sparse yet simple fusion of “Mods de Chocobo”, which in two and a half minutes hints at pop traditions from the West, Africa, Japan...and then is gone, just like that. Those tracks almost get lost in the wash if you plough through it all, but while there's non-stop quality soundtrack, there's so much reward for giving it a little time and patience, letting the mood of the music, like all good soundtracks, transport you to a place you'd not been to before, whether you've seen it or not. It's a remarkable achievement. If you played the game, see if you can't get hold of the soundtrack. If you've not, well, why not do the same, then give each disc a few listens (over a longer period of time, yes) and come back to me, tell me what it did to your mood.


  1. incidentally, if anyone wants to get hold of a copy of the soundtrack, er...let me know. *waggles eyebrows nefariously*

  2. I was going to write something similar, but different.

    Basically my favourite game soundtrack is Jet Set Radio, it is so amazing. So diverse and yet built so well together. Also, worth mentioning, is the minimal techno of the Red Alert / Tiberian Sun sound tracks (which are on Spotify) are pretty amazing.

    Not to note the sound tracks for Streets of Rage and Sonic the Hedgehog 3.

  3. 'marries incredibly nerdy themes such as fantasy-style sorcery and magic with sci-fi-style super-technology'

    This is my favourite bit for sure.

    I like computer games and I like fantasy stuff loads. Oh actually, no I don't. That made me chuckle.