This is a hotly contested question I’ve seen on Reddit from time to time. You see the normal names thrown out there like Nobuo Uematsu of Final Fantasy fame, or Keiichi Okabe from the Nier series, Koji Kondo from the Zelda games, and many others. I think a better question is: how do we define the best video game composer?
There’s a group that tours around the country playing music from various video games called Video Games Live. I saw the concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater with the Colorado Symphony performing music from various video games while gameplay footage of the related song displayed behind them on a large screen. Many songs from many games were played that evening, but only a few of them did I recognize. My favorite that evening was Baba Yetu by Christopher Tin from Civilization IV.
One of the largest reactions from that crowd was when the music from Halo was performed. While I thought the music was fine in its own right, I had never played the game and thus didn’t recognize it. It was nothing to lose my mind over compared to Baba Yetu from the hundreds of hours I poured into Civilization IV in my teenage years. Other songs had different reactions when the game was named, but I found myself falling asleep most of it as I hadn’t played a majority of the games and none of the music resonated with me.
Keiichi Okabe received an award for best video game music for Nier: Automata. In one interview when asked about why the music resonated with the audience, he writes, “When I was creating the music for it, I felt that my music could become a part of that game and so when you remember your gameplay, the music will come along with that memory as well – you just remember it automatically. Of course, I’m very happy about it, but because I didn’t really expect it I don’t know what resonated with fans.” This led me to the simple question:
Do we like the music on its own, or do we like the music because of the memory it's tied to?
When I thought about this same question with movie composers, I reminded myself of Hans Zimmer behind most of Christopher Nolan’s films like Batman: The Dark Knight, Inception, and Interstellar. I listened to the music of Hans Zimmer from films I hadn’t watched and thought the music was very average. Howard Shore composed most of the memorable music for the Lord of Rings films and the Hobbit films. Again, I found his music outside of those films average at best. To be clear, I don’t want to say they’re average composers, but I felt like their music from a classical standpoint when comparing them to the likes of Bach, Chopin, or Debussy was inferior. On the other hand, Ramin Djawadi who composed music for Game of Thrones and Westworld has an extremely catchy style for theme songs. John Williams is famous for his theme songs like Star Wars, E.T., and Harry Potter. These two composers have fairly good music outside of films I’m familiar with, but always one particular theme song. It’s worth noting that while these composers write the theme song, they usually have staff under them that write the other songs, or “fillers” as I call them.
One of my favorite songs in a video game ever is Melodies of Life featured in Final Fantasy 9 and written by Nobuo Uematsu. The moment the song plays for the first time was overwhelming with emotion. It’s played a few more times throughout the game and it hits my heart every time I heard it. Is the song good on its own? Absolutely. Is it a great song without that resonation that Okabe-san mentioned? Maybe not. My wife had never played the game, but she liked the song when I played it to her. However, it didn’t stand out from any pop song by Taylor Swift.
With that in mind, I want to circle back to Okabe-san. In a separate interview, he writes, “Many of Director Yoko Taro’s requests come in the form of him just asking me to ‘make a song for this scene.’ He does use my compositions as expected, but he also uses them in unexpected and often surprising ways. The song ‘Alien Manifestation‘ was requested to be written as a song for one of the last stages. But when I started playing the very beginning of the game, as soon as you can control the character yourself, there it was. I was like, ‘Whaaaat? That song, here!?’ I just laughed.” Many video game and film directors take the music that the composers write and place them at certain points to evoke emotion, sometimes in places unexpected like Yoko Taro did. Many studies like this one suggest that music evokes emotions, and a good director will take advantage of a good composer’s music to accomplish that.
When it comes to memorable music it appears there are ties between the composer and the director of the game or film. We know that when Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer work together, they’re going to bring something magical every time just like Taro-san and Okabe-san.
Eliminating the resonation aspect of music, how do we judge a good composer? I want to start with Joe Hisaishi, a name many probably don’t recognize, but would recognize his music. He composed music for a game called Ni No Kuni, which had very mixed reviews. Thus, his name isn’t well known in the industry since Ni No Kuni and its sequel are the only video games he wrote music for and didn’t draw a large audience. However, if you were to mention a movie like Howl’s Moving Castle by the world-famous Studio Ghibli, and ask, “Did you know all of Studio Ghibli’s music is written by Joe Hisaishi?” Then the conversation changes quite a bit. For the record, when I think about classical compositions and compare them to video game composers, Hisaishi-san is far above average.
I found myself searching on DuckDuckGo the greatest composers and came across one article that mentions Johann Sebastian Bach at the top. My wife would probably agree. The author writes, “My top spot goes to Bach, for his matchless combination of masterly musical engineering (as one reader put it) and profound expressivity. Since writing about Bach in the first article of this series I have been thinking more about the perception that he was considered old-fashioned in his day… Bach was surely aware of the new trends. Yet he reacted by digging deeper into his way of doing things. In his austerely beautiful ‘Art of Fugue,’ left incomplete at his death, Bach reduced complex counterpoint to its bare essentials, not even indicating the instrument (or instruments) for which these works were composed.” Even another list would agree on writing, “Bach wrote universal masterpieces in every genre, including the six finest concerti grossi ever written, nicknamed the Brandenburg Concerti… He also wrote the finest single work of sacred music in history, the Mass in b minor, which has been argued by many musicologists and composers to be the single greatest work of music of all time, in any genre, in any style.”
These observations put me in a difficult spot because I don’t feel like I’ve played enough video games to form any factual evidence of the best video game music composers. I also haven’t been able to find any musicologist studying video game music enough to the extent of classical composers to give them a rating. I think it’s best to leave this topic as a personal opinion on which composer resonates with each individual the most. Nobuo Uematsu is my favorite video game composer of all time. His music was performed at my own wedding and there are more memories tied to scenes of the Final Fantasy games more than any other game, and his music has resonated with me my entire life.