Sometime between the 3.5 inch floppy disk and UHD Blu-ray, soundtracks for big video game productions began to be recorded by specially hired orchestras. And in the early days, I was always impressed when a developer advertised that the London Symphony Orchestra was responsible for the soundtrack. I was not so impressed, however, when (for example) the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra was advertised – because even though I have no idea about orchestras and their respective quality, that somehow seemed like the weaker choice. Meanwhile, orchestral elements and tracks are almost always part of the standard repertoire* – and not only for high-budget productions. In reviews you often read something about the “cinematic”, “bombastic”, “atmospheric” soundtrack, which would give the game a very special depth. And that’s true: Remember the final boss fight, where suddenly this epic orchestral music kicked in and made the whole fight seem even more heroic and atmospheric. Epic! Now, remember that very same epic music. Hum or whistle it loudly to yourselves!
I can’t hum them. Honestly, I can’t hum or whistle a single track from my most recently played twenty / thirty / forty video games. I spent almost a year with Destiny 2, and despite the countless hours of play, all I remember is that the soundtrack was extremely well done – for some, even the best aspect of the entire game. The bigger, the more orchestral or the more epic the soundtracks became, the less I seem to remember them afterwards. I’ve named this phenomenon the Hans Zimmer effect. No matter what mood a movie is supposed to evoke: Hans Zimmer manages to create this mood musically. Every moment and every single scene is perfectly underpinned musically. You can’t go wrong with Hans Zimmer, one of the most successful and influential film composers in Hollywood history. However, you won’t get catchy, memorable or even unforgettable melodies. Obviously, you don’t need that for a successful movie score – and even a good video game soundtrack is probably no longer necessarily based on those melodies that can still be hummed or whistled decades later.
Since I like humming and whistling, I don’t like this Hans Zimmer effect very much. However, I don’t really care about this Hans Zimmer effect, because I’ve been whistling and humming one and the same melody for countless years anyway – almost every day. A melody that celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year and that has burned itself so deeply into my head that it can probably never be displaced by another film or video game track: On October 21, in 1992, Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins was released for the Game Boy. And I’ve been carrying the Athletic Theme (in all its various forms) around with me for almost as long: hum, hum, hum.
* In the second part of our interview with video game and film composer Grant Kirkhope, we talk in detail about the differences and similarities between film and video game soundtracks. Grant Kirkhope provides fascinating insights into the work of a composer and explains why a real orchestra is no longer needed for an orchestral soundtrack.
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