6 min read

Judging Video Game Music

Astarion from Baldur's Gate 3 thinking deeply about the synthesisers pictured behind him.
Astarion from Baldur's Gate 3 trying to decide which synthesiser is his favourite.

Back in January I was invited to be part of the jury for 'Best Video Game Music' at the BAFTA Video Game awards that were held last week.

Because of a lot of Serious Confidentiality Forms I signed, I am not allowed to write anything about the judging process itself, but there are some other things that the experience threw up I want to get into.


I think there's a tiny political activist that lives in my head and they are judging me. Always judging me. So when I first got asked if I would like to be a juror, my immediate instinct was to run away. Firstly because I am very allergic to anything that would voluntarily describe itself as 'British' and suspicious of anything that chooses to. Secondly because I have, at best, ambivalent feelings toward awards and award ceremonies. They tend to be self-serving, self-perpetuating machines that exist at best as industry gatekeepers, or at worst as reputation-laundering exercises for their sponsors. Furthermore the concept of putting pieces of art next to each other to be judged as being either better or worse than the others makes me uncomfortable. I am not against music criticism at all, I think it's as vital a component to music culture as the music itself. But conjuring up competition between bodies of work that have no reason to be in competition with each other? Why? Well, for one I'm not sure how else you get to have award ceremonies without doing this, but still, it didn't help me stop massively over-thinking my participation. What kind of radical am I if I align myself with the institutional gatekeepers of culture? What if this is the beginning of a political softening in me and before I know it I'm admiring Keir Starmer for his sensible pragmatism? Nodding my head sagely at Guardian Columnists explaining why nothing can ever be allowed to change and JK Rowling is misunderstood? What would the tiny person in my head say? I think they're probably a Maoist or something. Already they berate me daily for my actions not aligning with the politics I espouse.

Eventually I got over this overblown existential crisis and decided it would be better to risk regretting doing this and getting a peek at how things work behind the institutional curtain, plus I'd get a bunch of free video games. The tiny radical in my head would just have to deal with it. I don't even wanna be a Maoist! The truth is no matter how many Verso books I aspirationally buy and stubbornly manage a few chapters of, I don't think I could even explain precisely how it's different from Marxist-Leninism or any of the other flavours of failed radical historical projects. I just want a friendly communist utopia! It's really not too much to ask.

Whatevs. I said yes and then throughout December-January I spent hundreds of hours playing video games and listening to music and I did not regret it. My experience ended up being really enjoyable. It is possible that there is a lesson here, but I am doing my best not to learn it.


It turned out that sinking into the long-listed games and their soundtracks over a couple of months and letting them seep into my consciousness made me reconsider my relationship to music both as a composer and a listener.

As a listener, it brought back memories of being a teenager with limited access to new music. If I bought an album and didn't like it, there wouldn't be anything else to listen to. I'd inevitably listen over and over, pushing through any initial resistance. (Kind of like learning to drink wine.) I first heard Music For A Jilted Generation on a cassette borrowed from a friend back in the early 90s and I found it a bit tough and intimidating. But I knew The Prodigy were supposed to be cool, so I stuck with it and one day, listening to No Good, it all just clicked. I even remember listening to Terrorvision's How to Make Friends and Influence People album and finding it a bit too heavy for my tastes at first. Terrorvision! Too heavy!! What a precious, sensible teenager I was. If I'd had access to all music ever at a touch of a button, I'm not sure if I ever would have needed to push through my initial dislike of a tougher, heavier kind of music. What might have happened then?

Another vivid teenage memory: in a queue to buy a Longpigs album, I jumped out at the last minute and swapped it for a copy of Rocket From the Crypt's Scream, Dracula, Scream! I had never heard of this band before, but their name and the name of their record sounded SO COOL. And it had a picture of a scorpion on the front. It felt so exciting! And that first listen just did not take hold. Thought I'd made a huge mistake. But I spent time with it, because what else was I going to do? These days it is one of my most cherished albums. I genuinely think this was a crucial moment in my life and you had best believe that I already have an overly-long blog post about Rocket From the Crypt sitting in my drafts. What kind of cosy indie land might my musical tastes have drifted into had I stuck with The Longpigs? Happily, I will never know.

Anyway. This is not (I hope) about nostalgia. It is just an example of something that I have lost, and that we as a people in the age of the internet have seemingly lost too, which is a set of circumstances where you're obliged to spend an extended period of time with a limited amount of art. To exist alongside it as life happens to you. To become familiar with it. To approach it from different angles, in different moods and aspects. This is not a new or profound observation, but it wasn't until being on the BAFTA jury forced me to do this again that I realised how far from this practice I have drifted (apart from my BLACKPINK listening habits but that's also a blog post for another day). And especially how little I spend large amounts of time with artists previously unknown to me, like all composers for the scores I was judging, working in genres I wouldn't necessarily list as my favourites.

It was rewarding, is what I am saying. And I am trying to put more effort into listening to music differently as a result.


Here is how this experience altered my thinking on music as a composer.

Many video games these days are juggernauts of content. This year in particular most of the games under consideration for their music were epics, taking upwards of a hundred hours to complete. The soundtracks were all similarly vast.

At some point in the last couple of years, I realised that what is often referred to as 'world building' in various disciplines, video games very much included, is also a good description of how I approach writing music. Not in a prog-rocky, concept album way. Rather, I feel that writing music is to build a world whilst simultaneously writing a soundtrack to it. It isn't necessary to do this consciously, I think it is perhaps an instinctive part of composition. Or at least my composition. I have lots of scribbled notes about this idea and if I can convince myself to painfully reread some academic papers on phenomenology maybe one day I'll try to get to the heart of what I mean and attempt to say it more clearly.

While the worlds I am talking about when writing music are purely imaginary, if you're writing music to a video game the size of some modern games then you do have an actual world to soundtrack. Being able to lean into that and unhook your music from being heard in a linear path, from the beginning to the end of an album or even just the duration a song, it opens up so much territory that video game composers are able to explore. I want to do more of this.

I feel like this comes with a significant risk attached too. Because much like how the internet encourages endless churn and is desperately trying to conflate 'art' with 'content', the task of soundtracking a game that lasts for hundreds of hours must certainly come with a temptation to just throw everything at it, in the hope that more is surely better. Or, in a couple of years, inevitably, to just reach over and press the big Generate 500 Hours of Lowest Common Denominator Sci-Fi Music Trash A.I. button.

And so what was fascinating and reassuring about the soundtracks I was asked to consider for the BAFTAs was that, as vast as they all were, they all still sounded human. They sounded composed. As non-linearly as they might be presented in the game, at the core of the music was an artist very deliberately putting one note in front of another, organising sound through time. Here at the dawning of the age of Junk A.I., hearing this intentionality and attention to detail in art this large in scope somehow feels noteworthy. And so here I am, duly noting it.


I'm not sure what I am allowed to talk about, so I'll just say that Baldur's Gate 3 is an absolute banger of a game (no spoilers please - I'm still in Act 3). I have never been so happy to convince a wizard to make out with me.