One point on the timeline of video games’ fifty-year span that continues to track the industry’s progression but is often least considered — compared to graphics or narrative — is a title’s original soundtrack, or OST. Some games, such as MADDEN NFL or Grand Theft Auto, rely on pop music or established and licensed-recording artists for background beats. Others use OSTs to further highlight thematic elements in gameplay. OSTs are not limited to gaming alone — films and television programs have relied on original tracks for productions way before video games became a pop culture phenomenon. This high synchronicity between music and games occurs more often in narrative-driven games, which derive many of their components from cinema.
As humans, we hunger for information from our environments, even when watching a movie or playing a video game. When visual surroundings are unclear, we rely on auditory abilities, or a scene’s music, to make necessary connections. A psychological study conducted by Alessandro Ansani, a research assistant and PhD candidate, concluded that soundtracks, or background music, have cognitive effects on one’s perception of a scene or moment. The team discovered certain scores can shape understanding of not only a characters’ actions, emotions, and intentions but, also add to participants’ plot expectations.
“How Soundtracks Shape What We See: Analyzing the Influence of Music on Visual Scenes Through Self-Assessment, Eye Tracking, and Pupillometry” documents that melancholic music, or scores that are slower paced and melodic, caused a subject to develop higher levels of empathy for a character/s in a scene. The study’s participants perceived a character as being “agreeable” and well-intentioned as a result. The more melancholy a track contained, the more a listener felt a strong semblance of love and minimized fear. Through remembering pleasant moments from their lives, partakers felt a sense of overall comfort and safety while hearing this type of score.
In comparison, anxious, fast-paced background music resulted in heightened alertness and a greater attention to detail. Subjects experienced levels of “lowered likability” and “uncertainty” towards a character and said character’s thoughts. Intense tracks also made participants assume a character within a scene was “planning something morally bad” and thus decreased their sense of empathy. Ansani and Co. note and agree with similar past research that “background music… [as] an interpretive framework for audio-visuals… [is a] second source of emotion to the film itself”.
And no one understands this more than Yoko Shimomura.
Sing us a song, you’re the piano woman
Yoko Shimomura, a prolific video game composer whose career spans the past thirty years of gaming, often shares her thoughts on her line of work and subsequent portfolio, which contains mostly games of a narrative caliber. Some of the most notable OSTs her name appears on include Street Fighter II, Super Mario RPG, Final Fantasy XV, and Parasite Eve. She is most globally known — and, in her opinion, a reflection of her best work — for being the soundtrack maestro to several Kingdom Hearts titles.
Shimomura’s career began in the early 90s, just as she was finishing up her studies in piano composition at the University of Osaka. The humble creator admits in interviews not knowing exactly “what to do” when creating songs for her earliest assignments with Capcom, but she knew how to play piano and what felt good to play on it. When Shimomura sent her initial demo tape to Capcom for possible employment, she placed a tape recorder atop a piano and went to town — to this day, she can’t believe Capcom hired her with such a rudimentary example from her portfolio.
Obviously, during this time, video game background music was not as stimulating as Ansani’s research claims. But early consoles, such as the Famicom and Super Famicom, and arcade cabinets as well, required extensive experimentation with sound. Game OSTs really needed to be over-the-top to make a title more exciting to consumers. Shimomura had to apply a delicate balance between sound and visuals as to not interfere with gameplay. Since game memory was so limited, she could only use three repetitious bits for the Street Fighter II soundtrack. Video games with louder sound effects drew attention away from music compositions and ate up space for more complex scores. Thus, Shimomura had to subscribe to a trial-and-error process while composing Street Fighter II to make sure the music did not sound weird — which led her and her team to produce some unexpected results.
Shimomura claims Capcom insisted on noises that caught the player’s attention when creating the SFX, but with the developer’s initial arcade release of Street Fighter II, players could not actually hear them. Despite these challenges presented through technological limitations, Shimomura enjoyed the process, as she naturally learned about developing soundtracks for video games. Ultimately, she wanted to create something iconic with the Street Fighter II OST. Shimomura confesses that there were and still are a lot of things she does not know, especially with an initial background in classical music. As such, melody has always been vital to Shimomura’s process.
Shimomura was a gamer before a musical genius and admits that she loves action games, even though she is no good at them. She started as a Final Fantasy fan, citing the legendary Nobuo Uematsu as a HUGE influence — who would later become a mentor figure during her time at Square. Unlike Uematsu, who is known to be a enamored by an extensive span of musical genres, Shimomura does not quote pop or rock music as being influential. The soundtrack to Final Fantasy XV was her first foray into a mainline Final Fantasy — life achievement unlocked — and essentially became Uematsu’s spiritual successor. Shimomura drew inspiration from American Blues and Bossa nova, creating an OST overflowing with moments of “fantastical orchestra with rhythm elements”.
In terms of her process, Shimomura relies on a title’s developmental images to build soundtracks. This proves difficult with the RPG genre, as narrative is central focus. Most of these games come to a head with an epic boss battle and grandiose ending sequence — full of sweeping and expansive scores. However, Shimomura rarely receives production samples of these battles before the end of the development cycle, making the pressure to complete these last tracks very real. When she finally completes a game’s boss theme, she breathes a sigh of relief. Overall, creating OSTs for games involves her wanting to make compositions uniquely her own, but also what fits best in the universe of a title’s world. Shimomura currently embraces a freelance lifestyle and loves to work on her own rather than part of a team. Directors from time to time give suggestions concerning integration, but there is more freedom for her when working like this. But as gaming on mobile platforms becomes more and more prominent, she admits there is a lot more overall pressure to get soundtracks done quicker.
Your Brain on Yoko Shimomura…
When applying Ansani’s “How Soundtracks Shape What We See…” to Shimomura’s expansive list of contributions to video game music, it is easy to see how her art is a prime example of this research. Not only does her portfolio support claims of what happens to the brain in response to melancholic and anxious BGM but also elevates her as one of the most memorable composers in video game history — she literally has a score titled “Melancholia” in the Final Fantasy XV OST.
Let’s first consider what could arguably be considered her most iconic track, the main theme to Kingdom Hearts — “Dearly Beloved”:
I don’t know about you, but as a preteen, I fell asleep to the KH1 title screen many times — the endless loop of a piano a perfect lullaby embrace from the horrors of middle school. Regardless of my personal experience with this game, it is hard to deny a universal feeling of childlike wonder dotted between “Dearly Beloved” feathery trills. In this lilting simplicity, this soft strum-like stroke of keys and allegiance to melody, players become wholly invested in protagonist Sora and others’ fate. Despite Square’s recent penchant for metaphysical plot lines that obstruct our perceptions of the company’s past twenty-five years of releases — looking at you KH3, FF7: R, and mostly… Tetsuya Nomura — this track clearly grounds us in moments of memory.
This song is exemplar to Ansani’s conducted research on the effects of BGM and our brains. “Dearly Beloved” is a powerful, melancholic piece that immediately invokes — before the player even begins — many of the emotions and presumptions Ansani argues about these types of scores. The player does not know yet who Sora is — the young hero on the screen who stands at an unidentified shoreline, a fish bone protruding from his mouth. Yet, there is an undeniable overflow of empathy I feel when staring at this initial image. Without playing, one can assume the tone of the overall game in relationship with this character — a level of both familiarity and agreeability Ansani proves subjects experienced during his research. There is nothing fearful about this track, as a warm sense of home — especially of Sora’s home — invokes feelings of comfort and safety.
But what about Shimomura’s bad-ass anthem to the finale — or at least close to it — of LIVE A LIVE, “Pure Odio”?
Battle music is vital to the enjoyment of an RPG title, as it has a tendency to reappear during gameplay. But nothing gets my palms more sweaty than the grandiose approach the genre takes to the score of a final boss fight. An eight-year predecessor to Kingdom Hearts never released in the States, LIVE A LIVE is Shimomura’s first foray into music composition with Square. The game is beyond epic and expands both narratively and musically through the player’s ability to explore more than half-dozen protagonists whose fates Demon King Odio controls.
There is an immense intensity reverberating through “Pure Odio”, as players finally come face-to-face with the One pulling the strings. It confirms Ansani’s findings on how “anxious” BGM effects a listener. As with any battle in an RPG, strategized focus and attention to detail are a necessity to defeating an enemy. Shimomura adds to this with a sweeping organ arrangement and church-like vocals, mixed with beats from a drum noise that pounds as quickly as the heart. Players do not empathize with Odio, at least in his demon form, as he represents all the evil and chaos the characters experience. Even when the track allows itself a moment of freedom, the pace shortly becomes louder and even faster — each instrument joining in a cacophony of repetitious destruction, much in the same way the characters combine their talents to defeat the Demon King.
Oh yeah, and nothing sounds the anxiety alarm more than Odio’s screech at the end.
… And Instilled in your memories
It should be no surprise how music overall influences our perceptions and understanding of not only the world but the world within a video game. BGM and through extension, OSTs have the remarkable ability to transform the mood and relationship players have with the characters in a title. Alessandro and his team best condense their findings regarding this phenomenon by writing, “[t]he music…may be original or not. But what matters most, from a textual and communicative point of view, is the relationship established between the music…script…photography…and how they all add up and combine with each other, so that viewers can interpret then in a certain way”.
Video games, as a combination of said music, script, and photography, plus the active role players take while participating, subscribe to Ansani’s thoughts on BGM. It is absolutely vital then to not only appreciate the often underappreciated talent behind OSTs — through the work of someone like Shimomura — but also to realize how, just like the games themselves, their music shapes us in ways we hardly noticed growing up.
Shimomura wants this for her music, for each of her scores to transcend beyond a cartridge or screen:
“[The] importance of game music is about it fitting…to the story or the visuals and the atmosphere that it creates… it’s not necessarily about having the music come first… it’s really about the atmosphere… and…players…immersing themselves in that atmosphere…realizing ‘oh you know this is a great place…oh wow this music is also equally as great isn’t it?’… [that OSTs are] kind of … background music in a sense,…not necessarily jutting out and kind of forcing itself…but rather…when it’s coming into your ears you realize that it’s kind of great music…it’d be great if people look at a particular scene and [when the] BGM starts to float into their minds…that game scene…pops up…”
Her deepest desire being that her music “slowly seep[s] in…[and becomes] instilled in your memories”.
Ansani A, Marini M, D’Errico F and Poggi I. “How Soundtracks Shape What We See: Analyzing the Influence of Music on Visual Scenes Through Self-Assessment,
Eye Tracking, and Pupillometry”. Front. Psychol. 11:2242. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.02242
Ellwood, Beth. “Eye-Tracking Research Sheds Light on How Background Music Influences Our Perception of Visual Scenes.” PsyPost, PsyPost, 26 Jan. 2021,
Ehtonal Canada. “Yoko Shimomura interview”. YouTube, October 21, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_YzNRH7rCs.
Game Informer. “Meet Final Fantasy XV’s Legendary Composer: Yoko Shimomura”. YouTube, April 25, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adPcZuU9cRs.
Samba. “Yoko Shimomura Interview – Street Fighter II Soundtrack OST”. YouTube, October 27, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOxN8Dzv2sw.