by Christopher John Farley
The death of Pac-Man was not an event that cried out for a symphonic requiem. So the music for the earliest video games was often simple and silly — there were beeps and buzzes, whines and whistles. Although one's pulse may have been quickened, real sentiment was never stirred. In those days, recalls composer Nobuo Uematsu, 42, "no one really paid attention to game music."
Now, as video-game story lines and imagery grow complex enough to evoke deeper emotional responses, the music is evolving too. In Japan several composers, including Mamoru Samuragoch (Onimusha) and Yoko Shimomura (Legend of Mana), have won acclaim for writing big-screen-quality music for small-screen games. Uematsu, who composed the music for the popular Final Fantasy series (the games, not the movie), is also winning a substantial U.S. following — drawing raves from gaming magazines and teens learning to play his songs.
Improvements in technology have played a major role in Uematsu's work: the release in the U.S. in 1995 of the Playstation platform, with its increased storage capacity and CD sound quality, enabled game developers to employ more sophisticated music. Uematsu, a self-taught guitarist and keyboardist, writes while playing test versions of each game, getting "constant feedback" from the development team. But despite the high-tech aspects of his calling, he is inspired most when "surrounded by nature." Every morning the composer, who lives in Tokyo, walks along the river Tama with his dog Pao, musing on new ideas: "I feel a tranquil environment is necessary so that one can feel the slightest stirring of emotions."
Uematsu's music imbues Final Fantasy games with grandeur and depth, much the way John Williams' score helped propel Star Wars into hyperspace. Unlike movie music, Uematsu's supple, heartfelt tunes loop endlessly — until the user moves to a new scene. To stand up to repeated scrutiny, his work is suitably complex (he uses drums, oboes, strings and synthesizers), but the melodic core is strong (he has released solo piano versions of some songs). He doesn't find his field limiting: "If I had been composing only popular music in Japan, I would not have had the opportunity to hear from fans worldwide." Who needs music videos when you've got video games?