Starfield is one of the most anticipated video games in recent history.
The game, which was released on September 6, 2023, allows players to build their own character and spacecraft, travel to any one of a thousand or more planets and follow multiple story arcs.
The London Symphony Orchestra has performed music from video games like Starfield and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. [Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for the London Symphony Orchestra]
The soundtrack is equally epic, with audio director Mark Lampert describing the game’s music as a “companion to the player,” with a “sense of scale” that “had to be totally readjusted,” in a recent interview about Starfield’s sound design.
Soundtracks for outer space have appeared in many films—Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Interstellar, to name a few.
But the interactive music of Starfield by composer Inon Zur does something different: Utilizing a palette of musical language that cultivates a contemplative soundscape, it launches the listener into the vastness of space while remaining curious, innocent and restrained. If you close your eyes, you can imagine it being performed in the concert hall.
That’s exactly what happened prior to the game’s release, when the London Symphony Orchestra performed the Starfield Suite before a sold-out audience at the Alexandra Palace Theatre, one of the world’s most prestigious concert halls.
Before recording technology, the only way to hear music was to experience it live. Throughout early history, music functioned as an integral part of cultural life: It was played at festivals, accompanied religious services and even served as a means of communication.
During the time of the Renaissance, around the middle 15th to 16th centuries, there was a shift from music as function to music as art and entertainment.
Soon, live vocal and instrumental music became a form of popular entertainment, and people clamored for bigger and better sounds. In the 16th century, the marriage of art, drama and music was consummated in opera. During the 17th and 18th centuries, instruments continued to evolve, large concert halls and opera houses were built, and composers explored new ideas that pushed boundaries.
What’s now known as “symphonic music” was born: music that was performed by a symphony orchestra. A symphony is not only a large group of musicians, but it is also a piece of music written by a composer containing multiple movements.
To hear a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, you had to witness a symphony orchestra play it, and crowds clamored to gain entry to concert halls hear the newest and most acclaimed composers’ works.
During the 18th and early 19th centuries, however, a set of social rules calcified around this music: how to listen, what to wear, where to sit and when to applaud. As tastes and technologies began to change in the late 19th century, the masses were drawn to new forms of music like jazz. Concert halls, meanwhile, became the realm of high culture, high art and high society.
With symphonies working to be more inclusive in their music education and program offerings, I see video games as a key way to bridge this divide.
FROM ‘BLEEPS AND BLOOPS’ TO SYMPHONIC MUSIC
Due to limitations in hardware, early video games utilized synthesized “bleeps and bloops.” However, these constraints spurred programmers to think about creative ways to make games more immersive through sound.
Today, video games do not have the same limitations. Composers have the agency to create soundscapes that utilize the most advanced hardware and software, and they can employ some of the best musicians in the world to record award-winning soundtracks.
In a 2021 interview, video game composer and conductor Eimear Noone said, “More young people listen to orchestral music through their game consoles today than have ever listened to orchestral music in the history of music.”
The fusion of advanced technology and scholarship has forged worlds like those found in the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise, which can act as time machines that allow players to explore ancient Greece, with historically informed soundtracks accompanying them on their journeys.
In Activision’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, composer Yuka Kitamura used traditional Japanese instruments to craft a sound informed by Japan’s Sengoku period; the music of Civilization IV contains tracks influenced by composers throughout history; and many of today’s most popular video game titles feature classical music.
The increasing complexity of video games means composers are once again pushing boundaries through expanded sound palettes. Like Starfield, many modern game titles incorporate symphonic music needed to provide the emotional and atmospheric underpinning of the game experience.
Starfield will be marked by beautiful graphics, interactive game play and a compelling story, but holding it together will be the gravity of its sonic landscape. Video game music has come a long way from its first “bleeps and bloops.” Symphonic music will continue to accompany players’ video game journeys, and like Starfield, the sky is no longer the limit.