Hey, Listen! – A Closer Look at the North American Conference on Video Game Music

By: Mithrandiel

Any gamer who has seen the rapid evolution of graphics in the past two decades would be hard pressed to deny the significant leaps in technology that have made games like Uncharted 4 and Final Fantasy XV possible. What is not so obvious, however, is the way that video game music has undergone a similar metamorphosis. The North American Conference of Video Game Music is a gathering of video game music scholars that started up in the late 2000s. After coming across their website I reached out to the organizers and was put in touch with William Gibbons, a Professor of Musicology at Texas Christian University and one of the head organizers for the event. He was gracious enough to answer some questions for us and spotlight the upcoming conference, taking place January 14th-15th at the University of Texas in Austin. Take a look!

Tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you, what’s your role within the VGM conference, and what got you interested in video game music?

I’m an Associate Professor of Musicology at Texas Christian University, where I’m also Associate Dean of the College of Fine Arts. I started off writing about opera, and opera culture, in Paris (and I still do, a bit)—that’s what my doctoral dissertation and first book were about. Somewhere in the process of writing my dissertation, though, I really started thinking about video game music, and it has eventually become my primary research area. When I started about a decade ago, almost no one was researching or writing about game music, so I really enjoyed the kind of academic “Wild West” feeling of getting to explore new areas. 
Most of my research these days is about the ways in which music affects how we interpret and experience games. So for example, in the last couple of years I’ve written about things like how music and silence play with our sense of morality in the PS2 game Shadow of the Colossus, or how innovative sound design helped reflect the underlying technological themes in Metroid. At the moment I’ve just finished up a new book on classical music in video games, which should hopefully be out towards the end of 2017. 
I’ve been involved in NACVGM since the first conference as part of the program committee (which helps choose which presentations are accepted, where the conference is held, etc.). Neil Lerner and I (along with Kevin Donnelly, based at the University of Southampton, in the UK) had co-edited a book, Music in Video Games: Studying Play, to which Steve Reale contributed a chapter. We all knew each other from that project and from other conferences, so when Steve had the idea to host a conference at Youngstown State, he reached out to us to help get things going. It’s been a great experience, and now the program committee has expanded to include several other fantastic scholars. I feel really lucky to be a part of it! 

How did the Video Game Music Conference come about?

When music scholars first really started dealing with video game music in the late 2000s, there weren’t very many people researching the topic. So we really were just presenting our research a little bit at a time—maybe a couple of talks at one conference, or a panel at another. As more and more music scholars started to deal with game music, though, it seemed like a good idea to give everyone the chance to meet in one place, share our research in a friendly and supportive environment, and get a sense of kinds of topics people were working on. At that point there had been a couple of great game music conferences in the UK, but nothing in the US, so the music theorist Steve Reale hosted the first North American Conference on Video Game Music (NACVGM) at Youngstown State University, with myself and Neil Lerner (Davidson College) helping organize the event. 


What are some of the goals in hosting the conference? What do you hope people get out of their experience?

The main hope for the conference, I think, is to give game music scholars a really supportive venue for sharing their research with a knowledgable audience that’s also passionate about the topic. There are a lot of possible benefits, I think. You might get really helpful suggestions about new directions to take your research, or maybe find out that someone else is working on something similar and can share some resources. More than that, though, it’s a really great feeling of community—a reminder that other people are really interested in the same kinds of things that you are. 


There’s a lot of attention directed at the visual improvements that video games have made over the last 10-15 years. How do composers and video game music enthusiasts stand out/make their mark amidst rapidly evolving technology that continues to elevate graphics to new heights?

I think it’s really interesting how much attention we pay to improvements in the visual aspects of games, often without considering that the technology of other aspects—like sound—has changed just as much over time. I’m not a composer, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but it seems to me that as the technology of game audio (and games more broadly speaking) has changed, the ways in which composers have to philosophically and conceptually approach music-making have really changed. 
Especially in big-budget AAA games, you can’t really just come up with catchy tunes and loop them, like they did in the 1980s and 1990s—there are a lot more aspects you have to think about. The music becomes a lot less linear, less repetitious, and overall less predictable. Moving forward, I think the composers who are going to be most successful in that kind of environment are the ones who are able to approach musical problems from new perspectives, embracing the possibilities of games as a medium rather than trying to find ways to make older techniques work. 
Incidentally, that makes our jobs tougher as scholars, too, because you really can’t apply the same models that you would to a piece by Mozart or Debussy, or even that you might use for a film score. We all have to learn to think less linearly, and more in terms of musical possibilities rather than certainties.
All that being said, given the rise of indie and retro games in recent years, there are also a lot of opportunities for composers interested in working with older technologies and approaches! 


What advice do you have for young people who want to go into composing music for video games?

I think for the most part I’ll leave this question to the composers, but I do think there are tons of resources out there for people interested in composing for games. There are great books by composers like Chance Thomas and Winifred Phillips, as well as lots of interesting articles and interviews out there on the web. I would really encourage people to really study music theory, history, and composition, as well—but then I guess I’m biased about that! The other big aspect is the technology. I think developers are really keen to find audio professionals who know their way around the latest programs, so there’s not a huge delay while you’re trying to learn how things work. 


What are some of the biggest challenges for video game composers today?

I think the barrier of entry is a lot higher in games now than it used to be. When you read about composers in the 1980s, many of them just sort of got lucky and were in the right place at the right time—some of the best had hardly any experience as composers as all. Now, though, I think the expectations are much higher. You have to be familiar with the technology, and be able to compose in a really wide variety of styles. A single big game—say, a JRPG—might need you to write cinematic orchestral music, prog-rock style battle music, pop/rock tunes with lyrics for cutscenes, and so on. That being said, I also think games offer a wealth of opportunities for composers. The industry is huge and always getting bigger, plus even small indie studios (which might be more willing to take risks on new and unknown composers) are making some really outstanding titles. 


Who are some of your favorite video game composers, and why? Also – your favorite soundtrack from 2016 (if you can name just one…!)

A lot of times I’m a sucker for the classics—after my current project is done, I think my next book will probably be about music on the NES. The things some of those composers were able to do within the limitations of 1980s hardware are just remarkable. In terms of more recent composers, I really appreciate the work of people like Austin Wintory and Jessica Curry, to name just two I’ve been listening two a lot. I think they are part of a great group of composers who are doing some sophisticated new things with traditional acoustic ensembles (choirs, orchestras, etc.). In terms of 2016 favorites, I’d have to say overall I think Wintory’s Abzu music is fantastic—especially the way choir is incorporated. I also found the use of music in Final Fantasy XV really interesting; although some of the musical choices were sort of bizarre to me, the music and how it was used really had me thinking for a long time, which is itself pretty impressive! 

What are future plans for the VGM conference? Hoping to extend the length? Relocate to a different venue? Where do you see it in 5 years?

Great questions—I’m not sure we’ve thought five years ahead! We definitely plan to continue the conference for as long as we keep getting high quality proposals. We’ve already had conferences in a few different states now (Ohio, Texas, and North Carolina), and I’m hoping we can continue to move things around so different groups of people can attend. 
Many thanks to Mr. Gibbons for taking the time to answer our questions – we wish them success with their conference this year and look forward to other events like it! If you’re in the area, you can find the conference’s website here.

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