Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On Video Game Music


            Ellen Mclain is a popular voice actress for Valve, a gaming software company. She is perhaps most known as the award-winning voice of GLaDOS (the hilariously passive-aggressive artificial-intelligence antagonist) in Portal and Portal 2. She is also an opera singer.
           I am not much of a gamer (though I greatly and increasingly appreciate the creative energy that goes into making games), so perhaps this post isn’t any kind of news to some who are veterans to gaming. I have played both Portal and Portal 2, and I can’t think of a better word to describe my reaction to them other than “charmed”—not just by the fun gameplay and creative storytelling, but by the unexpected use of music in the games, each of which rolls its ending credits in tandem with a pop-style song sung by GLaDOS. The second game even features an opera-style mini-aria as part of the ending scene, complete with Italian libretto, and also voiced by Mclain. What an interesting way to cross those two career paths!
            It’s no secret that games can and do involve wonderful music produced by skilled musicians—music ranging from simple but catchy MIDI tunes to complete orchestral scores, similar to film scores. Those who are better acquainted with games than I am could doubtless expand on the merits of game music even more. Video games are, in my opinion, heralding in a new form of storytelling and artistic ingenuity; it’s increasingly clear that the classical musician, and classical performance traditions, could find places in such an art form. They already have, in fact, and have already met with approval—just look at the popularity of Video Game Orchestras (VGOs) such as Boston’s own.
            I was so tickled by the “Turret Opera” (as it has come to be known) after finishing Portal 2 that I scoured YouTube for recordings, and—for a nice change of pace, given the general maturity level and thoughtfulness threshold of most YouTube comments—read through pages and pages of commenters gushing over the music: how nice it was, how it moved them, how they were actually entertained by it, and so on. This was operatic and classical-style music (albeit in a much shorter form) placed in an entertainment category that allowed the listeners access; they understood the characters and the world of the game by then, and the music made sense to them as a result. It didn’t seem stuffy or inaccessible because it was catered to them, the players. Though certainly many attempts are made by classical musicians to make classical music accessible to a broad audience, we seemed to have maintained that strange aura of “too difficult for the common public to understand”.  Perhaps the key (or one of many keys) to actually widening that audience in the united states is to further unite classical music with other art forms. Why not step into a new, evolving, popular art form as classical musicians? Why not make it easy to understand?
            My surprise and delight at the opera shout-out in Portal 2, and the knowledge that Mclain herself is an opera singer, was not due to the fact that music was present in a game. I was excited, as a singer myself, that it involved someone who has, and still does, pursue goals similar to my own; someone who managed to incorporate a bit of her first goal into her current career, and who was met with approval by a generally non-classical audience. We’d do well to follow the popular consciousness in order to keep our art form alive, and video games are certainly popular. Who knows what kind of future success could be waiting if we all, as classical musicians, kept our minds open?

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