Video game composers are quietly doing something incredible -- and this podcast totally gets it

Emily Reese MPR photo/Luke TaylorEmily Reese conducts an interview in a Minnesota Public Radio studio.

Public radio isn’t known as a hub for video game coverage. As recently as this past April, National Public Radio published a think piece just to convince its readers that they should care about video games at all. 

That’s why Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) host Emily Reese is such an anomaly. Reese has two professional passions: classical music and video game scores. Classical music, of course, is a staple of the public radio universe. 

“Top Score,” Reese’s video game music podcast, is an exception.

Video game composers are often unknowns in the music world, choosing to hammer away for years on melodies to match the unique, interactive experience of gaming. Those artistic and technical demands make their work special, Reese told Business Insider:

When you think about writing music for media, video games are pretty much the only time it gets interactive. With video games it’s fascinating that composers need to think about what players may or may not be doing.

The broader culture has only just begun to notice what game composers are accomplishing. In 2013, the Playstation 3 game “Journey” was nominated alongside “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” for a Grammy in the Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media category. You can listen to it here:

It’s only a matter of time before a video game beats out its film competitors for the award. “Top Score” is ahead of the critical curve in this respect.

With Reese’s background in classical music broadcasting and her personal passion for gaming — right now she’s obsessed with “The Elder Scrolls Online” and has a love-hate relationship with “Destiny” — “Top Score” was a natural next step.

She says it gives her the chance to explore an aspect of the art form she’d been aware of but, like many video game fans, knew very little about. “That’s why its fascinating to have people on who are in the trenches doing it.”

Some of the most surprising things she’s learned have had to do with the unusual methods many composers use. “I remember [composer Jason Graves] telling me how he scored the first ‘Deadspace’ and was blown away,” she says.

Graves records violinists in the studio before writing a single note. Then, he mixes and edits the recordings to produce the spooky, alien melodies of that series. Reese didn’t even realise the sounds were from violins.

Here’s the full soundtrack to “Dead Space,” which is both impressive and extremely creepy — it is a horror game after all:

“I was like, wow, I guess people really can write music like that.”

That artistic wonder translates into the podcast — and it’s addictive. I put on a short playlist of “Top Score” episodes to prepare to interview Reese, and ended up listening through the archive for a whole evening.

Part of what makes “Top Score” so interesting is the raft of technical challenges these composers face in their work — challenges that most of their musical peers never have to deal with.

For example, games written for mobile devices and handheld consoles like the Nintendo DS have to ration memory space like water in the desert. And music often gets only a few drops. It’s an exercise in minimalism, harkening back to classic games with limited technical capacity for music.

Games like the original “Super Mario Bros.” had extremely rudimentary soundtracks:

That’s probably the most recognisable piece ever written for a video game, and it had to squeeze in among the few tens of kilobytes allotted early NES titles — a footprint several orders of magnitude smaller than even a two minute low-quality Spotify stream.

In her most recent episode, Reese spoke with composer Michael “Skitch” Schiciano about his experience writing with that kind of hardware challenge in mind. Skitch is a technician as much as he’s a musician, and when he talks about the process of scoring “Hot and Cold,” a game for DS, he wades deep into the weeds of music theory and computational jargon.

“This is probably one of our most technical episodes ever,” Reese warns listeners, “so get ready to nerd out.” 

But even as Skitch talks over everyone’s head, Reese clarifies and explains without getting in his way. She says her goal is to make “Top Score” appeal to anyone who likes music and creative puzzles, whether or not they play video games themselves.

That model works even in the staid line-ups of public broadcasters; a five-minute national radio version of “Top Score” reaches the same listeners who tune in for “A Prairie Home Companion” and “Carnegie Hall Live.”

“It’s really just a show about music,” Reese says, “and people who love music are interested in the show.”

If you want to go out and listen to “Top Score” now, you can find it in your preferred podcast app or on their show page.

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