Killer Soundtrack

02.21.15 11:50 AM ET

Music to Shoot You By: Taking Beethoven on a Ride-Along in First-Person-Shooter Games

The tradition of Beethoven and Wagner is ignored by today’s academic composers, but over-the-top Romanticism thrives in first-person-shooter video games.

When I was a youngster first learning about music, I was puzzled by the grand claims made for the genius of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Wagner and the other towering figures of the Romanticist period.

The facts just didn’t add up.

I was told repeatedly how great these composers were—I even encountered this Beethoven-mania in the midst of pop culture, in places as unlikely as Peanuts cartoons and the movie A Clockwork Orange. Eventually, as I trained my ears, I could hear its magnificence for myself. Yet I also could tell that current-day composers showed no desire to write works in this same Romanticist style. In fact, they seemed embarrassed by the very emotional intensity that they admired in works of an earlier day.

How could the same musical establishment set up Beethoven as the supreme composer, even as it fervently avoided the aesthetic vision at the heart of his achievement? Something had to give.

Here was my hunch: I expected that the spirit of Beethoven would return some day. You can’t keep a good man down, as the proverb goes. And, believe it or not, the revival has finally happened. But I never, in a million years, would have guessed where musical Romanticism would experience this rebirth.

The spirit of Beethoven has come back to life in first-person shooter games. Over-the-top Romanticism, in all its most extravagant manifestations, is now the preferred musical accompaniment to virtual killing.

That’s right. The grandiloquent sounds of the 19th century are still alive in the new millennium … but only when someone is getting bludgeoned, bloodied, blown-up, or decimated with automatic weapons. Give those German composers credit! They didn’t have any video screens back then, but they somehow concocted the perfect formula for on-screen carnage.

This wasn’t always the case. If you listen to early generation first-person shooter games, such as Wolfenstein 3D (1992), the music sounds more suitable for a demented merry-go-round than a video battle. But as the capabilities of game consoles improved, soundtrack composers were able to tap into their inner Wagner. By the time you get to Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001), we are in full German Romanticism mode—perhaps a little ironic, given the premise of the game is to hunt down and kill Nazis.

This is no isolated example. Michael Giacchino’s score for Medal of Honor: Frontline, released the following year, commandeered a chorus and full orchestra, extracting musical fireworks that would make grim Mahler smile. And this tendency has only gained traction with the passing years. Even composers working solely with software strive to capture the sound of the traditional symphony orchestra. On recent video game scores such as Mass Effect 3 (2012) you can hear the high Romanticist effects coming to the forefront during the most dramatic moments. Mike Morasky’s score for Counter-Strike Global Offensive (2012) embraces the same aesthetic with the fervor of a young Werther, marrying a 19th century vocabulary to some contemporary drum and bass effects.

And action movies are marching to the same beat. I recently discovered an online ranking of the commercial films with the most on-screen fatalities. At the top of the list I found The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King—with 836 fatalities during the course of the movie. I was hardly surprised to learn that composer Howard Shore, responsible for the soundtrack music, turned for inspiration to the works of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, and Beethoven. He even included part of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony in one of his previous scores. For The Return of the King, Shore relied on a full orchestra plus voices, and the soundtrack is filled with 19th century elements, including Wagner’s leitmotif technique.

The second place honor for most onscreen fatalities goes to Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, with 610 victims, and here again the soundtrack relies on full orchestra plus voices, just as Mahler required 110 years earlier for his Resurrection Symphony—although nowadays, death rather than resurrection is invariably the subject at hand when you hear these supersized ensembles in the background. Scott’s film is set in the 12th century, so you might expect medieval-tinged music. In fact, composer Harry Gregson-Williams makes some efforts to incorporate a few of these period elements into his score, but when Crusaders battle for control of Jerusalem, these older sounds are blended into the emphatic 19th century tradition—the only suitable soundscape for record-breaking kill counts. The same is true for the other deadliest movies. Whether the story involves samurai warriors or the Trojan War, the music is heavily indebted to 19th century Romanticism.

Of course, not all musical accompaniment to bloodshed derives from these old role models. As in the case of Gregson-Williams’s score, other musical styles occasionally step to the forefront in these games and films. These range from Morricone-style sound collages in Half Life 2 by Kelly Baily to the heavy metal backing behind Doom. But these can’t seem to dislodge the 19th century vibe that has mesmerized game designers and players. Even heavy metal isn’t heavy enough for most composers seeking to juice up their combat scenes. We need something with a little more sturm und drang.

The most attractive alternative to Romanticism is a throbbing Electroic Dance Music sound that also figures prominently in first person shooter games. This should hardly surprise anyone. Electronic music has always been the easiest (and cheapest) source of accompaniment to an electronic game, and the two have evolved hand-in-hand, advancing in tandem as digital technology has evolved. And electronica possesses a hypnotic quality that lulls the gameplayer into a mind-numbed state where the outside world disappears, and only the field of action remains. Yet electronica, for all its virtues, lacks the bloodlust drama of Romanticism, and when the killing gets intense, those old German sounds simply can’t be beat.

But why not mix the two? Many composers are doing just that. And I predict that this beguiling hybrid will thrive for many years to come as the ideal formula for accompanying on-screen killings. I call this sound “First Person Shooter Romanticism,” and it aims to combine the mesmerizing repetitions of electronica with the intense emotional highs of those old Teutonic composers.

Check out the music coming from Audiomachine, a Los Angeles production company whose work shows up in numerous movie trailers, to gauge the aesthetic shift underway. I’m not surprised that this outfit recently got enlisted to provide music for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare—the latest installment of the multi-billion dollar game franchise. Audiomachine has seamlessly integrated Romanticism and electronica into the perfect combo, drawing on the throbbing undercurrents of digital sound, but mixing in judicious doses of dark and foreboding Wagnerian melodies and melodic fragments. When you invite 21st century storm troopers to your party, this is the music to play during cocktail hour.

Let me be honest. I wouldn’t listen to any of these tracks for relaxation or enjoyment. But these soundtracks aren’t designed for pleasure. This isn’t music to relax by … it’s music to shoot people by. Yet I can’t help wondering what Beethoven or Mahler or Wagner would think of this state of affairs. After all, the trademark of their music was its gravitas, almost overwrought in its intensity. Who would have thought that, so many years later, their oh-so-serious sounds would find new traction as accompaniment to amusements and games?