Pushing Buttons: Pokémon goes to the Proms – is gaming respectable now?

·5 min read

It was such a joy earlier to tune into the Proms on TV and see a concert dedicated to video game soundtracks. Although gaming concerts have been a thing for more than a decade, recognition from this festival was a watershed moment. To watch conductor Robert Ames and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra perform thrilling renditions of scores from such diverse titles as The Legend of Zelda, Journey and Dear Esther was a moving example of how video game sounds, sights and ideas are escaping the cultural cul-de-sac they once inhabited.

Successive generations have grown up with games, and so the aesthetics and conventions of the medium are seeping out into the wider cultural landscape. I recently looked at the growing phenomenon of video game soundtracks. For modern listeners, there is no snobbery in listening to game scores as standalone entertainment in their own right.

Louise Blain, the presenter of BBC Radio 3’s Sound of Gaming told me this is something she is keen to communicate. “Game music is inexorably tied to our emotions in a unique way, but vitally, it can stand alone, too, and we can listen and appreciate the craft and the feelings the music evokes,” she said. “I recently presented an orchestral performance of Gareth Coker’s scores for Ori and the Blind Forest and Ori and the Will of the Wisps and had a few people approached me afterwards to say they had never played the games but they were in tears listening to the music. There’s a real power there.”

Fashion and fiction look to games

This month also saw the release of Gabrielle Zevin’s wonderful novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, which follows the fraught relationship between two game developers as they work on a series of projects together. But this isn’t a novel about technology, it’s about the frail beauty of friendship and how we inspire each other to be creative. Thematically, it has much more in common with the films Loving Vincent or Girl With a Pearl Earring as it does with, say, the game Ready Player One. In the last few years we’ve also seen Amanda Craig’s novel The Golden Rule and Raven Leilani’s brilliant Luster, which both incorporated video games into ambitious, grounded literary stories rather than escapist fantasies.

It’s been fun, too, to see the worlds of video games and high fashion collide and cross-pollinate, which would have been utterly unthinkable a few years ago. From Louis Vuitton incorporating Final Fantasy character into its adverts to Dior recently designing a vehicle and outfit for racing game Gran Turismo 7, couture houses are unabashedly borrowing ideas and even cultural kudos from the gaming world.

It’s thrilling that gaming is permeating the wider landscape in almost surreptitious ways. For two decades, video games and their worlds were used in awful films and sci-fi novels as cautionary metaphors for civilisation’s descent into a dehumanising online existence. The downside, of course, is that we now have billionaire tech bros asking how games like Fortnite and Minecraft can be turned into hyper-monetised consumer metaverses. Until this happens, we can enjoy the cultural ascendence of games; their music, their stories, their visuals, reaching out into the world and having that world reach back.

What to play

I’m a huge fan of management simulation games, so I recommend Two Point Campus, in which players build and run a university. Like its predecessor Two Point Hospital, it’s filled with daft humour, but it offers a deep and rewarding challenge and there are lovely ideas in it, such as the heavily disguised spy school and the archeology department that wilfully steals ancient artefacts.

Available on: PC, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
Approximate playtime: ongoing

What to read

  • Throughout the pandemic, the video game industry proved remarkably resilient, with publishers posting excellent results and games such as Animal Crossing, Call of Duty and old-timer Grand Theft Auto V selling well. Now, as a recession looms, the story might be changing. GamesIndustry.Biz looks at Activision Blizzard’s difficulties in context with other accounts of falling sales.

  • The Commonwealth Games has piloted esports as a competition category this year, with organisers claiming that the aim is to widen the appeal of the event to a younger audience. The Observer paid a visit.

  • Crime writer and keen gamer Chris Brookmyre has just published a new novel called The Cliff House, a multi-narrator thriller based around a disastrous hen weekend on a remote island. While reading, I could imagine Supermassive Games turning this into one of its brilliant horror adventures, along the lines of The Quarry and Until Dawn.

What to click

Streaming: the best video game film adaptations

Venba, a video game about the emotional resonance of food

A midlife crisis in space: The Alters is sci-fi comedy starring hapless clones

Skate Story: not your average skating game

Question block

Break a rut … Game Boy Micro, a two-by-four-inch version of the Game Boy Advance.
Break a rut … Game Boy Micro, a two-by-four-inch version of the Game Boy Advance. Photograph: Koji Sasahara/AP

This week on Twitter, Dan Chambers asked the apocalyptic question: What do you do if you feel you are slowly falling out of love of gaming?

This has happened to me a few times, so I can answer from personal experience. My first suggestion is to try playing on a platform you haven’t played on before. As a teenager, I mostly played arcade-style shooters and fighting games with the odd puzzler thrown in and I got tired of it by the time I was at university. Then I discovered the PC with its online functionality and host of management sims and real-time strategy games and I was back in. You don’t have to buy a new PS5, for instance – just get on eBay and try a Wii U, or a Sega Saturn, or a Game Boy Advance and you may unlock a whole approach to games you’d never thought of before.

Otherwise, dabble in a new genre. Elden Ring was a revelation for me as I’ve never been into Souls games; and titles such as Unpacking, OlliOlli World, Neon White, Not for Broadcast and Trolley Problem Inc got me thinking about games in different ways. And discovering and supporting small games on digital platforms such as Steam and Itch.io can bring a sense of ownership and investment that may light that fire once again.