The Most Influential Piece of Music in Video Games Was Composed in 1888

By Jordan Oloman on at

Two monotonous chords, subdominant and tonic. Lonely abstract melodies appearing out of time, complementing the naked structure. You may not know its name, but you've heard this ambient piano piece somewhere before.

Erik Satie's 'Gymnopédie No 1' is an inexplicably melancholy 19th-century composition that has permeated deep into the media canvas.

Instructed to be played 'Lent et Douloreux' (slow and painful), the piece conjures and ineffable sadness: the kind that makes the heart long for faces and spaces in one’s past. The harmonic dissonance prods the listener's mind back-and-forth, providing an opportunity to dwell on the anachronisms of certain life experiences. So effective is its atmosphere that 'Gymnopédie No 1' has found a fragmented home in the soundtracks of many video games, to the extent it's perhaps the single most influential piece of music within the industry.

There are some straightforward reasons for this. Most compelling adventures in gaming thrive on simple juxtaposition: the distance between the protagonist and their goal. Whether that be a princess in a castle, a benevolent conspiracy or a noble cause, games often use this narrative hook to pull us towards their climax.

Yet the most memorable titles compound that emotion. The greatest adventures show us the futility of our objective in order to test our character - the overwhelming number of Colossi Wander must slay in his efforts to save Mono, for example, or the ultimate ineffectuality of altering time in Life is Strange.

The injustice of these complex barriers evoke a palpable melancholy. They attempt to dissuade us from the goal whilst also giving us a reason to fight. We are forced to channel this sense of futility into fuel. Such an emotional quandary is most efficiently immortalized in song. These are pieces of music that we choose to take away from the experience and hold dearly, the pensive gloom returning to our lives when we least expect it.

Silence. The faint sound of hooves making tracks as a lonely moon hangs in the sky. A green-hooded child rides valiantly across a hillside.

To many who grew up in the 90s this was a deeply formative moment: an introduction to an iconic adventure, of seemingly unimaginable scope. The compulsion to press start was overrode by the desire to watch and listen as the scene is set. As my young ears tuned into Koji Kondo’s wistful ocarina melody, my imagination raced and my heart fell sombre. Every time I returned to the console for the next step of the journey, I would stop here and listen.

Ocarina of Time’s title screen is a gateway to another world, and the spirit of Satie’s ‘Gymnopedie No. 1’ is its keeper. The influence is unmistakeable: the theme’s structure is equally relaxed and solemn, the same monotonous chords taking you far from the hectic gameplay of the temples and back into the open field.

This breathing room lets the player ponder how far Link has come, but also the epic nature of his journey and the tolls it has taken upon him. It reminds the player of why they started, and the necessity of reaching the end.

Kairi's Theme’ from the Kingdom Hearts series is another piece analogous to Satie's work. Mythical RPG composer Yoko Shimomura opts for the same structure of repeating chords as 'Gymnopedie No. 1', save for a small accent and a soaring flute melody bursting with tender sentiment.

The song embodies the character and her relationship with the protagonist, Sora. The gentle acoustics evoke memories of the halcyon beginnings of the pair on Destiny Island, and their naïve dreams of exploring the worlds beyond the horizon.

Yet the music's true resonance is only discovered when you approach the devastating crescendo of Kingdom Hearts. The player is struck by how far the two characters have drifted from the safety of home. Listening back, the dissonance allows you to dwell on the harsh truth that Sora and Kairi can never return to the bittersweet safety of their past. It lights a fire under the player to resolve the journey and reunite the lost friends you’ve invested so much in. A musical sentiment that carries more weight as the journey is extended throughout the entire series.

This solemn loss of innocence captured in song can also be found in Shimomura’s ‘Somnus’ from Final Fantasy XV. A globe-trotting coming of age story combining overwhelming stakes and enticing camaraderie, itself a product of a 12-year development process.

The scale of a Square Enix RPG naturally lends itself to melancholy, because any player is committing to many multiple sittings and dozens of hours to see things through. Yoko Taro’s NieR: Automata leans into the emotion of pure existence to provide a similar feeling, the core theme of the game being “Agaku,” a Japanese word signifying a desperate struggle.

This can be seen most effectively in Keiichi Okabe’s 'City Ruins – Rays of Light', another track that channels ‘Gymnopedie No. 1’s use of repeating melody as a leitmotif. The frisson-inducing piano notes draw raw emotion from the player, the desolate environment juxtaposed by a distant moon - humanity’s final hope.

This creates the perfect backdrop for such a soothing, solemn piece. In spite of the forlorn feeling, the concluding impetus is to look up and feel hope for a better future. Such is the power of great music.

Finally Shoji Meguto’s work on the Persona series is unmistakeably evocative of Satie. Whilst ‘Gymnopedie No. 1’ can be heard as one of many in the classical rotation of Persona 2’s ‘Velvet Room’, its influence is also felt in the slow, careful nature of songs like ‘Aria Of The Soul’ and ‘Beneath the Mask’ from the more recent Persona 5.

Both tracks appear when the player is between worlds. The Velvet Room and commuter-laden Shibuya provide spaces where they can dwell on the melancholy of their year-long journey and the blissful blank-faced ignorance of the inhabitants of Tokyo, unaware of the distorted hearts ruling their society.

The thread that ties all of these games together is a special kind of juxtaposition: one between sadness and hope, a space where melancholy thrives.

This emotional foundation of a game’s design often turns on the incredibly talented pool of composers across the industry, and their willingness to re-imagine great works of musical history while doing so. It is no exaggeration to say that such inspired work has been one of the drivers behind the evolution of games as a whole: changing the way we perceive these worlds, framing our connection to characters in a particular way, and creating emotional connections in hearts and minds that go quite beyond  what peripherals and wires could manage alone.

If nothing else, it is fascinating to consider how the work of a 19th century French composer has become such an important part of a creative medium that simply didn't exist in his lifetime. Erik Satie died in 1925. But boot up some of our industry's most cherished games, listen carefully, and you'll hear how his spirit persists.