Ep. 26: Music’s Role in Video Games, with Dr. Ryan Thompson, MSU Game Design and Development Program

Dr. Thompson in the Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab at MSU

January 21, 2020

How does video game music communicate gameplay information, adrenalize us, and stimulate reward centers in our brains? Dr. Ryan Thompson takes us behind the scenes of Michigan State University’s Game Design and Development Program, in a discussion about the role and evolution of music in video games. Bonus: Learn about a fantastic resource of free game music remixes.


Dr. Ryan Thompson is Professor at Michigan State University’s Game Design and Development Program. This program was founded in 2005, and has grown leaps and bounds into the highest-ranked public university for game design and development by the Princeton Review. In the past few years, the university has created multiple award-winning games, including 2019’s “When Rivers Were Trails.” Dr. Thompson teaches video game history, video game audio, and audio programming as part of the game development faculty. As a scholar, his research focuses on intersections between gameplay and audio – instances in which the music is used as a means to communicate gameplay information to a player. Dr. Thompson has presented at meetings of the American Musicological Society, the North American Conference on Video Game Music, and Music and the Moving Image. As a musician, he sings in collaboration with other musicians to create remixes of video game music as part of OverClocked ReMix, an organization dedicated to the appreciation and promotion of video game music as an art form.



I highly recommend listeners check out OverClocked ReMix, a non-profit dedicated to the promotion of video game music as an art form.  There are thousands of arrangements of various video game pieces, giving listeners an opportunity to experience music in an all-new way. 

First, listen to a piece of original game music. Second, search for that song on OverClocked ReMix to experience the same song in a new way.

Want suggestions? Here are Dr. Thompson’s recommendations:

  • Koji Kondo wrote the scores for much of the Mario and Zelda franchises, both on Nintendo’s platforms. Original piece from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker; OverClocked ReMix arrangement of that piece.
  • Similarly, Nobuo Uematsu wrote (among other things) the scores to the first ten Final Fantasy games. Here’s a link to Shadow, the theme of the in-game ninja by the same name (note the sampled quality of this one; it’s not recorded orchestra, but an approximation thereof limited by the constraints of 1990s technology). Here’s a link to Andrew “zircon” Aversa’s arrangement, entitled Fistful of Nickels from Balance and Ruin, the Final Fantasy VI arranged album created by OverClocked ReMix (the whistle is provided by author and voice actor Joe Zieja – he’s got quite a range!)
  • Lastly, here’s the FFVI opera sequence in full.
  • And here are three different arrangements of it, to give some scope as to how differently one piece can be treated/arranged:
    • “Till We Meet Again,” performance of the aria by professional vocalist Jillian Aversa: (available in English at OverClocked ReMix, and in Italian)
    • The Nightmare Oath rock opera arrangement by Andrew Luers, feat. Laura Intravia (flute), DragonAvenger (brass), Steve Haverly (vocals), Ryan Thompson (vocals)
    • The Impresario arrangement of the entire opera performed in the style and harmonic profile of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by game industry composer Jake Kaufman (the craftsmanship on that last one is breathtaking!)



Dr. Thompson has been connecting with video game music since childhood.  “One piece that’s always stuck in my mind is the opera sequence from Final Fantasy VI, in which players watch and participate in multiple scenes of an in-game opera, despite the Super Nintendo’s limitations of sound quality and lack of a human voice.  Multiple authors (including myself) have written on it as a touchstone of our collective childhoods and a moment for game audio writ large, but it (and the rest of the leitmotiv score to Final Fantasy VI) continues to hold special importance for me.  I’m also the vocalist playing the part of Prince Ralse [second vocal part] on this OverClocked ReMix arrangement of the aria theme in “The Nightmare Oath [played as this episode’s Coda].”

Closing Words

Thank you so much for joining me today! Next week’s episode will feature Dr. Nina Kraus discussing how being a musician (amateur or otherwise) affects your ability to pick up on others’ emotional cues! If you enjoy the show and have not yet subscribed, tap the subscribe, follow, or + button on whatever podcast app you use to conveniently receive new episodes when they release. While you’re here, I’d love to hear from you! Connect with me by leaving a comment at the bottom of this page; email me at mindy@mpetersonmusic.com; or connect with me on social media (I’m on Instagram and Facebook with the handle @EnhanceLifeMusic; and am also on LinkedIn). Until next week, may your life be enhanced with music.  

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