The Complicated Issue of Game Music Preservation

Journey turned 10 years old this past March 13th, which is quite a milestone. To celebrate its tenth anniversary, composer Austin Wintory cooked up Traveler: A Journey Symphony, a monumental re-imagining of the score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra (!), the London Voices (!!), original cellist Tina Guo (!!!) and a host of other soloists. It is a magnificent re-rendering of the score, with Wintory taking full advantage of the symphonic orchestra and choir.

However, as I was listening to it, a thought hit me– is this the first time I’m listening to a Western game score being recontextualized in this manner for an album?

The answer was… yes. And not because I’m ignorant. There just aren’t that many examples out there, especially this widely available to the public. Japanese game music fares a bit better in this regard, with albums like Distant Worlds, the symphonic suites from Dragon Quest, Drammatica and many others.

The thought sent me down a rabbit hole. How cool is it that a ten-year-old indie score can be treated with the luxury and respect usually afforded to the likes of Final Fantasy? How cool is it that anyone can now find Traveler and discover an album of stunning symphonic music and fall in love with it, possibly without even knowing that it’s attached to a game (however slim the possibilities of that happening actually are)? How cool is it that game music can have such a life outside of its original form?

It quickly got me thinking about game scores that haven’t gotten anywhere near that treatment. Scores that maybe once had an album, but aren’t available anymore, maybe because they were attached to not-too-popular games back in their day, because they just weren’t brought to streaming, or are caught in complicated copyright situations. Worse even are those scores that never saw the light of day beyond their existence within their game. The bottom of the rabbit hole was a reality that has concerned many developers over the years– the industry hasn’t done a very good job at preserving its own history.

So having all of this information, I knew I had to make an article out of it, even if I instantly started dreading the thought. The thing is, it’s a complicated subject, one I don’t quite have a complete grasp on (partly because I’m not inside the industry), and on top of that, Game Music Hub is a small, niche website with a ridiculously short reach; I didn’t want to undercut the conversation by looking like an old man yelling at a cloud.

In fact, what you’re about to read is the fourth major draft this article endured, three of which were page-one rewrites. The first one was a much shorter, impassioned affair, a celebration of the Traveler symphony and what, to me, it meant for the long-term livelihood of game music; then the larger topic of game music preservation was too large and complex for it to take a secondary role. The second draft eventually overtook the conversation about the album to the point of it being, well, pointless to even address the Traveler symphony. Then it hit me that I was being way too negative, even bitter, in the writing, so the third draft reframed the conversation as being focused on major efforts being undertaken by third parties to ensure the preservation of video game scores. But by that point I was so far removed from the original angle that made me want to write this, that I thought of ways I could find to tie it all together.

Lo and behold, this absolutely monstrous thing you’re seeing today. I can only hope it makes an iota of sense, but it is my best effort to talk about a complicated and lengthy subject and, hopefully, shed whatever spotlight I can provide on it. Let’s begin.

 

Vol. 1, A Historical Perspective

Last month, I talked about how much music coming from Japanese game composers is unavailable today, and indeed the tone of my writing might have given you the impression that Japan has done a far worse job, historically, about releasing music from their games than Western game developers.

The reality is that no, far from it. If anything, they were, like in many other areas, far ahead of their time, especially when compared to their Western counterparts. Japan has been releasing video game music for almost as long as they’ve been making games. In fact, VGMdb lists Japanese soundtrack albums, even for the most obscure titles, with releases dating as far back as 1978. For reference, the widespread commercialization of game music in the West didn’t really start until the 2000s, which is over two decades later.

And eventually the West did catch up; by the mid-2000s, it was a fairly regular practice for Western developers to release soundtrack albums on CD for their games, developing between both ends of the industry a healthy environment where fans could enjoy the music they loved from the games they played.

The rapid growth of the digital space over the late 2000s and into the early 2010s changed the landscape of the games industry, most importantly by introducing in-console/PC stores for players to buy digital copies of (at first some, then most, then all) of their games. Suddenly, the idea of video game scarcity was being re-evaluated as people no longer had to worry about physical copies of an anticipated game selling out.

Such a change was already happening in the music industry when iTunes opened its digital doors in 2001, and it would be around the late-2000s that game music would regularly be released on the platform, starting a trend that has seen game soundtracks shift away from CDs into digital albums.

Such is the demand for digital soundtracks (first by the increasing popularity of digital stores like iTunes, and then by streaming giants like Spotify) that eventually game stores like Steam and the PlayStation Store started offering soundtrack albums in their catalog (the latter even partnered with Spotify for the streaming service to be integrated into PS consoles should players want to play music while playing games).

Over in the indie space, Bandcamp, founded in 2008, would be another game-changer for people who weren’t writing music for the big things, whether AAA games or huge music labels. Indie composers have thrived on the platform, and Bandcamp’s appeal is predicated on being an artist-friendly outlet, boasting a whopping 82% of a purchase’s revenue going to the artist.

Today it’s easier to find a recently-released soundtrack album than it has ever been in the history of the industry, and that’s a huge accomplishment for the benefit of everyone.

So that should mean that the problem is solved, right? Game scores are now widely available for everyone to purchase/stream and listen to.

Well, yeah… but also not quite.

 

Vol. 2, Game Music Availability

Think of a game score from the 2000s. You got it? Now, go to your music store, digital or otherwise, or streaming service of preference and look it up. Is it available to buy or stream? If it is, then you’re very lucky. If it isn’t, then welcome to the club.

Apropos of the recently-released Horizon Forbidden West two months ago, a friend of mine told me that Killzone 2 by Joris de Man was one of his favorite game scores of all time. Naturally, I went and looked for it; I’m not familiar with the franchise at all and wanted to give it a listen, particularly following such glowing praise. To my disappointment, there’s nowhere to find it, whether digitally or physically.

So on it went Killzone 2 to the list of 2000s game soundtracks I’ve always wanted to listen to (whether or not I’ve played the game beforehand) but aren’t readily available nowadays. Now it’s part of a crowd that also features Ico, SOCOM 4, Secret Weapons Over Normandy and even more well-known things like Star Wars: Republic Commando, the first two God of War games, some entries in the Ratchet & Clank franchise, some entries in the DOOM franchise and very early Tomb Raider games.

An unfortunate carry-over from the early days of game music being released on CD was that, with older albums, their release was only a once-and-done deal. Even the most famous titles for which demand should’ve been relatively higher only got so far before they went out of print.

And that’s completely understandable. Making CDs is expensive, and game music exists in that gray area where there’s enough demand for albums to be warranted, but they’re niche enough for albums not to be profitable, save for a handful of exceptions. Pressing limited batches was probably the most financially sensible choice, and no release at all even more so for titles that weren’t all that profitable to begin with.

So physical releases were an effective commercial solution for its time but, with the examples I’ve given, clearly not one made with future-proofing in mind. And this soundtrack album scarcity eventually gave birth to a pretty healthy secondary market for soundtrack fans and collectors. Unfortunately, for some of us, the secondary market is an option that is way out of reach. Let’s look at the math.

I’ve calculated that every month I have around a hundred dollars for me to spend on whatever I want, however I want, off of my monthly income. I don’t spend that exact amount every month, but it’s an average. That may shock you if you’re relatively well-off in a dollar-based economy. And to be clear, in my own country’s currency, that’s a healthy number; but even then, when most of the things I like (games, music, films, streaming) are dollar-based services anyway, well, that eats up cash pretty quickly. I wish games or music were the only things I wanted to spend money on.

If we were still predominantly using physical albums as our main platform to have access to music, I can assure you I wouldn’t know as much as I do now about games, film and TV scores. So you can understand why the secondary market, with its wildly fluctuating prices, is an immediate no from me.

This is a convoluted way of saying that I’ve constantly missed out on music.

It’s a world of difference when you have to think about a single CD or vinyl shipped from the US (or Japan, which is even costlier) potentially eating up over a third of your spending money. Now that there are options to get the music for a fraction of that, or via subscription fee in the case of streaming, it’s a no-brainer for me.

And look, the truth of the matter is I could just go on YouTube, look up the scores I listed earlier, and I’m bound to find most of them because somebody else uploaded either tracks, full albums or edited suites. In fact, I have listened to bits and pieces from some of them that way over the years. But the larger point is, why should that have to be the case? Why does it need to be on the fans to keep game music accessible and, in more extreme cases, to be their sole preservationists? Why are publishers letting some corners of their industry just disappear?

 

Vol. 3, Game Music Preservation

It has to be said that, in the grand scheme of things, game music is by no means the most egregious of losses in the industry when it comes to the passage of time. There is a real issue of video games themselves vanishing over time as interest wanes and console generations change.

Unlike film or TV or music, and with the clear exception of PC gaming (and even that has its own exceptions), games aren’t universally playable. In the case of console exclusives, games are often custom-built to take advantage of each respective console it was developed for and, in the case of PC games, of the software that was used at the time, which makes developing compatible ports for future platforms a real hassle. As a dev told me some time ago, “games are built to work now, not to outlive their platforms.” And indeed, developing a game is hard enough as it is; a dev team’s primary concern should be to ship the game, not being encumbered with the thought of how people will play their game in 20 years.

Fortunately, the companies behind the big platforms have found ways to circumvent such hardware and software difficulties.

Microsoft uses emulation to run the Xbox 360 system within the Xbox One console (and the same with the Xbox Series X), thus opening the way for hundreds of older games to be available on their consoles. That’s how I played the original Red Dead Redemption back in 2020, a game that I originally played on the 360 but left unfinished for many years.

Original PS and PS2 titles used to be retrocompatible via emulation on the PS3. For the PS4 and PS5, there’s the PlayStation Now service, which allows users to play recent and older games through a cloud service, supposedly to great results. PlayStation Now has recently been incorporated as a higher tier of the PlayStation Plus subscription. Alas, the service is only available on select markets, mine not included. For what it is, though, I’m very glad that it exists, and would be the happiest if a bigger international expansion is ever announced.

But even with such efforts and advancements, each generational shift in the past meant losing a good amount of the games that were released for the previous generation of consoles. They stay alive only by the will of those who keep their consoles in good shape, those who manage to grab one in good shape, or thanks to the various communities around the world creating emulators for older consoles.

The problem with any of those situations is that, ultimately, the larger crowd of people who come long after the original release of either game or score are being shut out of the experience, sometimes without even knowing it. I was aware of Killzone 2, the game, back when it launched, but it never interested me enough to want to check it, or its music, out. Now that I do have such interest in the music, I find out that it’s either getting nothing, YouTube rips, or turning to the secondary market. And that’s for a fairly recent release.

Well, then, does it need to be on the fans to keep game music available, and even maintain its preservation?

The truth is… I don’t know. In a perfect world, it shouldn’t. Companies own the rights to the games and music, so it should be on them. At the same time, I’m not naive enough not to realize that a company’s best interest is in profits.

So it’s not a perfect world, and it is often up to fans to keep game music alive and available. Both fans and people adjacent to the industry are actually doing fantastic efforts to ensure the preservation of video game history.

If we’re talking about general video game preservation efforts, you’ve got the Video Game History Foundation as one of a handful leading the charge. Founded in February of 2017 by prolific video game historian Frank Cifaldi, the organization is “dedicated to preserving, celebrating, and teaching the history of video games.” Among their numerous projects is the preservation of game source codes and assets, “including development tools, raw art, and documentation.” And speaking of art, their efforts extend to the media made to promote older games, even going as far as restoring older media assets provided to news websites (which were often rendered at lower resolutions to accommodate for the slower internet speeds of the time) back into higher resolution images. They’ve even built a dedicated, physical Research Library comprising American and international magazines and other video game publications for the dedicated study of the industry’s history. While they don’t have any music-specific projects on their plate, it cannot be overstated how much good work they’re doing for the legacy of this industry.

Another project is the National Videogame Museum in the US, particularly concentrating on the exhibition of retro games and systems. It initially started back in 1999 as a traveling exhibition that was primarily shown in gaming conventions like E3. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, its organizers were able to secure a permanent location and in 2016 it opened its doors in Frisco, Texas. With time, it’s become both an arcade for people to play older games on consoles and arcade machines, and a museum exhibiting older systems, games and rarities like special editions of certain consoles.

A separate, different National Videogame Museum is located in Sheffield in the UK. It was founded in 2015 as the National Videogame Arcade, renaming it to its current title when it moved to Sheffield in 2018. Other than its myriad of exhibitions, it’s also home to the Videogame Heritage Society, a concerted effort between the Museum, the British Library, the Museum of London, the British Film Institute and a handful of others. The Society was founded to provide “advocacy, expertise, and support in collecting, preserving and displaying videogames.” Because there are no official guidelines for the proper preservation of video games, the VHS offers guidance for anyone undertaking efforts in video game preservation for the proper acquisition, preservation, and research of video games.

These are just three of many more around the world. You’ve got the Game Preservation Society in Japan, the Hong Kong Game Association, the Centre for Computing History in the UK and the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment in the US. Even government-funded projects like the Library of Congress in the US and the National Film and Sound Archive in Australia have opened archives for video games and other interactive media.

But what about game music specifically?

Well, the number of projects is smaller. The most well-known resource for the cataloging and archiving of game music albums remains VGMdb. Spanning all the way from the late 70s into the current era, and not strictly limited to video games either, the website is the single most exhaustive record right now if you want to find information about either a video game release, or proper composer and musician credits.

You’d be surprised to know that, unless you own the physical copy of an album or scroll through a game’s credits, such detailed information can actually be relatively hard to find compiled together the way you would find it on IMDb. Every final paragraph on any Game Music Hub article gives a detailed (but not exhaustive, otherwise it’d be an article onto itself) rundown of music credits for whatever score I’m talking about; all of that information comes from VGMdb most of the time. It truly is a life saver.

A second project, similar in intent to the VGMdb, while at the same time going further and into other kinds of details, is the Video Game Music Preservation Foundation. It went live in August of 2005, and is a different kind of archival wiki that equally catalogs older game music, both released and unreleased scores, even providing the music itself either ripped from the game or the album; most importantly, though, it aims to put together how scores were made and implemented into the games.

It’s a community effort, one brought about online and, according to its founder, Dean Tersigni, its real goal is to delve into the stories and technology behind video game music. I had the pleasure of exchanging a handful of emails with him to learn more about the project.

Contributors to the site help track down composers to let them know how much of an influence their songs have had,” Tersigni says, “hackers reverse-engineer old audio formats and hardware to learn just how complex it was to make music back in the day, and programmers help write new software to play antiquated music on modern computers with ease.” The community is strong and contributes frequently. “There are about a dozen frequent editors, a couple dozen more who update sporadically, and over a hundred others who have come and gone over the years.”

While the VGMPF doesn’t focus on any type of game in particular, the bulk of the archive is made out of older, obscure titles, with a steep drop in the number of scores from 2000s games and on. The reason, he tells me, is legal. “Nearly all video game music is still under copyright (and will be for decades to come), and we hope that by focusing on games which are no longer profitable, we won’t get hit with a cease and desist order. So far, we’ve never been threatened legally and some companies have even thanked us for our efforts.” We’ll come back to the subject of copyright in a minute.

Tersigni also tells me that providing proper music credits is of utmost importance to the VGMPF. “Modern games are usually very upfront about who composed the music, but this was rare in the early days of gaming. […]  Being able to interview the composer of one of my favorite video game tunes makes me giddy. Learning about their influences, how they got hired, what hardware they used to make their music, and how they produced such a memorable sound on weak hardware is inspiring, and it creates a strong connection back to our childhood. Unfortunately, many of these stories are now at risk of being lost. The first generation of video game music composers are in their 60s and 70s, and dozens of them are now dead. If we don’t figure out who composed the music from these games and preserve their stories, they will be gone forever.”

Having grown up on film music, as opposed to game music, made it so strange to find out how much of a common practice it is in games not to credit the composer on the cover of an album. I could understand wanting to avoid the clutter on scores where multiple composers are involved (which happens in many games for very understandable reasons), but a lot of games in the early days of the industry had a single composer write all the music by themselves. It may be such a small thing to single out, but it can be tricky many years down the line to figure out who wrote what on a score when the credits are obtuse or even non-existent. The music didn’t spring from the void, so that’s the work of a person being erased by the lack of clarity.

The Video Game Music Preservation Foundation is, both encouragingly and a little heartbreakingly, the only project still active and soldiering on in their effort to preserve video game music out of a handful I was able to dig up on research. Others, like the Video Game Music Preservation Project (not affiliated with the Foundation), was a massive archive of game soundtrack albums, both old and modern, and even derivative works from fans like music covers. I reached out to all of them in an effort to learn more about the projects, but they weren’t available for comment. And indeed, the VGMPP website hasn’t been updated since late 2017, I suspect for the very reason that Tersigni and the VGMPF stay clear of modern and popular games– copyright.

Copyright laws are a particularly tricky subject (and one that would take me many more months to research if I were to talk about it with any conviction); its complexity is what makes the preservation of video games at large a difficult task. A prominent number of games abide by the US copyright laws, since they’re made in that country or the companies that pay to have them made operate from there. And while there have been steps in the right direction, there are still so many obstacles in the process.

Its most important challenge is that most of the industry, especially at the AAA level, operates on a work-for-hire basis. This means that, in the end, the publisher is usually the one who owns the copyright and publishing rights to the game the developers make, not the developers themselves. This leaves the music, which is part of the development process, in the hands of the publisher as opposed to the composer. Which is fine, it’s not my place to argue such things, but it does lead to a big pitfall I’ve already mentioned– a company is only incentivized to do anything insofar as it brings actual value, primarily financial, to them, and game music doesn’t really do that, at least not in a way that would be profitable to a company.

Circling back to the availability issue of earlier, publishing rights have an even more complicated effect when it comes to international markets, which is that something available in one country may not be so in others. Many scores released in Japan, even digitally, are available exclusively in Japan. Many older Western game scores I want to stream or buy aren’t available in my country either, but are in the US or their country of origin.

All of that ultimately leaves preservation efforts caught in a complex standstill. One that’s uncertain how to get around.

 

Vol. 4, Life Outside of the Controller

By this point you should probably be wondering… when will I finally mention Traveler: A Journey Symphony?

Well, right now! With all of what you’ve read so far, does it not look like a miracle that this album exists at all? How many things can you think about on this side of the world that have gotten the treatment that Austin Wintory has given to his Journey score? The beautiful thing is, it only accidentally comments on all of the points I’ve been touching here.

Traveler wasn’t born out of a desire to keep the music of Journey alive beyond its origins. It wasn’t a preservation or availability effort. It was just born out of the immense gratitude that the composer feels for the fanbase that made the game as well-known as it is now and the love they’ve professed over the years for both the game and its music. It was a self-funded, self-produced passion project that resulted in a unique treatment that, as I made clear near the top of this article, is only reserved for what are considered the most iconic video game scores in the history of the medium. It also should be noted that Traveler was made possible because of the healthy relationship that Wintory maintains with Sony, who own the rights to the game and his music.

In a way, the power and longevity of the score is what makes it so important for game music to remain accessible, and the album the practicality of why that can be so unfeasible. Journey is part of a self-fulfilling prophecy that is actually prominent in all forms of art, making preservation efforts all the more important– the most famous art is the one that gets the opportunity to become even more famous for even longer, while others fade into obscurity, without the chance for a spotlight because of their obscurity.

Preservationism cuts right through that, allowing art to stay alive in spite of its popularity, or lack thereof. It is important that this is also allowed to exist. There is historical and artistic value in experiencing older works and even knowing how they were made.

Mind you, this is not meant as a disparagement of Journey or any other game score that’s been lucky enough to have this level of attention and love driven their way. Just the opposite, they deserve it wholeheartedly. I happily bought Traveler and I will forever be grateful that it exists. If anything, it needs to be championed if that’s any way of showing that there’s interest in these sorts of experiments.

But I do have to mention the reality of game music right now. A reality that is vastly different in the case of modern scores, fortunately, but still ever-dangerous for older works.

Traveler is also an example of another way in which game music is kept alive– transformative works. YouTube is overflowing with a healthy scene of cover artists. Austin Wintory himself would know, he worked with a small army of them in the spectacular I Was Born For This. Hell, the 8-Bit Big Band recently won a Grammy for the cover of a track from Kirby Super Star! Don’t discount the passion that other musicians have for the music they love.

Or even the original composers from those works. Traveler is one of two re-imaginations of older game music that were released this year. Grant Kirkhope recently released the fabulous Banjo Re-Jiggyed, an album of selections from his Banjo-Kazooie score re-imagined in all sorts of wacky and unbelievable styles and genres. It’s an absolute hoot and you should listen to it.

Game music also has a healthy life on the stage. Plenty of local orchestras, particularly in the US and throughout Europe, jump at the chance to perform pieces from video game scores, including Journey itself, as part of their repertoire.

Larger events dedicated solely to game music are a tad rarer, but no less accessible. The Game Music Festival is a fantastic, annual, two-night festival hosting, among other things, live performances of different scores, and it’s organized by the folks at gamemusic.net. This year’s festival was dedicated to music from Cuphead and Ori and the Will of the Wisps, but in the past they’ve had orchestras and other ensembles perform music from Baldur’s Gate 3, Grim Fandango, Ori and the Blind Forest, World of Warcraft, The Banner Saga, Shadow of the Colossus, and the list goes on. You can even catch some of the concerts on their YouTube channels (one channel is over here, the other over here).

I was fortunate enough to go to one of the Final Fantasy VII Remake: Orchestra World Tour concerts last month and watch an orchestra power through some of the game’s gorgeous music.

Conductors like Eimear Noone are champions of game music on the stage. Her brilliant work on the 2018 Gaming in Symphony concert with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Danish National Concert Choir gathered selections from a myriad of different scores, showcasing the diversity of the medium and how much beauty the composers working on it are capable of.

And speaking of diversity, game music doesn’t only exist in orchestral form! While cover artists have made sure of that, transforming famous video game tracks into the most creative pieces of music you’ll ever hear, there are concerts that have played more than just orchestral game music. The Game Music Festival hosted a performance of Grim Fandango’s music in 2018, featuring a big band and composer Peter McConnell, and at least from the footage that is available, it was an absolute joy to listen to them riffing on the music. 2022’s Cuphead concert was also performed by a big band, and 2020’s festival featured music from Supergiant Games’s four titles, performed by a combination of rock ensemble and orchestra.

On this front, it is truly heartening to see scores being celebrated in this manner, recognized by their quality and musical depth. Even more heartening is seeing the power of endurance these pieces, some of which are decades-old, have in the minds of players and audiences. Game music is important, and it deserves to be respected. It deserves to have its place in history.

 

Conclusions

It has to be said, once more, that nowadays the situation for game music is much healthier all around. There are many more options than there have ever been for the release of music albums, and with the evolution of the industry, the people in charge have evolved and bettered their practices, learning from the mistakes of the past.

But there is still so much to do for the video games of the past, and the people who wrote music for them. Instead of responding with more questions, there is a proper answer I can give you for why I don’t just settle for YouTube rips of scores I can’t find through legal means– because I want to be appreciative of the composer’s work.

It is about listening to the music, yes, but also recognizing that there was a person or group of people who gave their all to see that music come to life. Short of reaching out to tell them how much I love their work (which, as it’s been outlined, is made difficult when such credits aren’t transparent), buying the music is the action I have as a consumer to show my appreciation.

And even when wide availability and accessibility aren’t a possibility, preserving those works for academic and historical purposes is far more preferable than allowing them to vanish.

I hope Austin Wintory will forgive me for using his marvelous work to talk about a larger, ancillary-connected, issue. I am being honest when I say that it was the Traveler symphony that started this whole thing, but more cynical eyes might see this as using a popular thing in game music to talk about a thing I actually want to give exposure to. And maybe it is, but I do genuinely want to celebrate it and other works that have achieved such great and prolific things, even if I am also underlining the reality of what used to happen to most game music.

What is also true is that I want more eyes on this subject. I would love for more organizations to jump into game music preservation, because things like this only get done more effectively when there’s more people talking about them. And even if it falls on deaf ears, it was important for me to use Game Music Hub to highlight this issue. I don’t hold my breath on anything, but maybe, just maybe, down the line, someone else looking for Killzone 2 won’t have a YouTube rip as their only option to turn to if they want to listen to it.


Banner images by the Video Game History Foundation
©2022 Video Game History Foundation, Inc.

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