I’ll be right up front about this. I know next to nothing about music. My knowledge is cobbled together based on the writings of others, and my opinions are almost solely based on what I think sounds nice. Everyone has their medium in which they are well versed and maybe a few others that they are more casually acquainted with and then those that they either ignore or simply have no idea how to talk about in the slightest. Video games are my primary medium (obviously) with a major-minor in film and literature as it were, and music falls in the last category for me.
So, when I was offered a review copy of The String Arcade, a digital album of video game music performed by a classical string quartet, I was somewhat hesitant. However, playing video game music with classical arrangements is somewhat of a growing trend, starting nearly a decade ago with Video Games Live. I’m hearing more and more often about quartets and orchestras looking to video game tunes to turn into classical performances. This trend deserves attention, however ill prepared I may feel to comment on it. And unlike the more one-to-one adaptations of other groups, The String Arcade isn’t just recordings of four musicians playing the themes to some classic video games. The whole of the arrangements of their selections have been redone and those selections have been curated from a broad range of the history of video games, from the days of the arcade to as early as last year, to create a thematically complete whole.
Their choices are rather eclectic. For example, the album includes what I think was a rendition of the “Green Hill Zone Theme” from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 along with “The Legend of Zelda Title Theme” to newer material like “Minecraft Theme 1” and the “Scurvy Scallywags Theme” to even more obscure tracks like the “Outlaws Title Theme” and “Medicated Cow Walks the Cobbled Streets with Disgruntled Goat” from Ravenshire Castle. Plus, it includes some less recognizable tracks from well known games like Portal 2, Galaga and Secret of Monkey Island 2.
Despite what the tracks are called (they’re mostly there to identify the original source material), the music is often very different than the original. I say above “what I think was a rendition of ‘Green Hill Zone Theme'” because about two thirds of the way through the track comes the “Robotnic Battle Theme,” while the rest of this piece serves more as a kind of mood setting than it does the base melody of the original music. That’s true of a lot of the music. The base melody and counterpoint are rarely performed, instead using the original score as a base to create interesting mood pieces on top of that each flow from one to the next. I think it might be better to go in thinking of it as a classical music album than a video game music album done with classical instruments.
That thinking is paramount to understanding the album. Once I got my head around the idea that these weren’t the themes themselves, but entities unto themselves constructed from them, I was able to enjoy them much more. Video game music isn’t meant to be a work unto itself, but to guide the player by setting the tone of a scene. Without the game to accompany the tunes, changes to the music have to be made so that they can stand on their own. The new pieces may or may not fit into their original contexts, but on their own, they make for quite a journey as the notes manipulate the listener’s emotions, and they are guided along an invisible track. This isn’t an exercise in nostalgia or recognition, but a journey into new territory.
All of the tracks are solid, but there are some that I find myself gravitating towards more than others. My favorites among the 17 tracks are probably the plucky upbeat tango of Plants vs. Zombies‘s “Grasswalk,” the morose sonic baroque of “Echos of Ecco based on the sounds of Ecco the Dolphin and the morose “Lament of the Engii” from FTL.
You can check out a demo of the first piece on the album at their website. All (as in 100%) of the proceeds from the album, go to the Alameda Music Project, an after school program bringing music to underpriveleged children.