Unlimited Replays occupies a significant place in game music scholarship. It is the first book devoted to ever-intriguing instances of classical music in video games, and through addressing that topic, it seeks to build a bridge from ludomusicology toward more longstanding fields of enquiry. The author, William Gibbons, is concerned not only with what classical music does in games but also with broader questions of cultural value and meaning. The book's narrative thus privileges cases in which the combination of classical music and video games engages (knowingly or not) with common understandings of those forms as, respectively, “art” and “entertainment.” Within this remit, the range of examples covered is admirably broad, from uses of classical music in video games on conventional systems (new and old, familiar and unfamiliar) to mobile apps that “gamify” classical works. Consideration is also given to the journey of original game music onto classical concert-hall stages and radio airwaves. The book includes ample reference to other work on games and game music, as well as broader musicological studies, and is written in an accessible and often entertaining style across eleven short main chapters.
The starting point for the book's exploration of “high” versus “low” is an assertion that “combining classical music with video games involves a kind of transgression, a crossing of boundaries that begs for explanation and interpretation” (4). Gibbons highlights the arbitrary nature of the opposing values commonly assigned to classical music and video games, and his examples of their combination serve to further expose “the art in the game, and the game in the art” (156). He concludes, however, that long-held conceptions are unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future, not least because of vested interests on both sides. That classical music benefits from its high-art status is clear, but more intriguing is the idea that, “whether to give them either something to aspire to, or something to position themselves against, video games often need classical music to remain on its high-art pedestal” (174). Even where games challenge classical music's prestige, such as by remixing classical pieces in popular styles, the point is that this is perceived as a challenge—not that the challenge is to be resolved.
While there is much in the book I find convincing, I have reservations about how it essentializes issues of high versus low within discussion of video games and classical music. For one, while from a philosophical perspective I agree that these forms and their assigned values may seem “mutually exclusive” (18) or “fundamentally incompatible” (156), through a historical lens I see their combination as inevitable and almost unremarkable. Classical music has long collided with commercial entertainment in other contexts, yet the book seems to downplay these and consequently oversells the distinctiveness of video games as a site of supposed transgression. Gibbons claims that film, for example, is “understood to be serious business” (50), but while this might hold true today and for the films mentioned—the Stanley Kubrick pictures to which numerous games have made musical reference, for instance, as discussed in chapter 5—it is clearly an oversimplification. Some effort is made to qualify this idea historically, but the book's related suggestion that cinematic uses of classical music contributed to film becoming art (52 n5, 54) is also simplistic, and not only in the obvious sense that many modern films (including those that use classical music) are not “serious” by either intention or understanding. Again, the point may apply to the examples discussed, but notably absent is an acknowledgement that in that central tradition of Western filmmaking, classical Hollywood, use of classical and other pre-existing music was most common in—and so most reliably signified—B films made cheaply and quickly. Hollywood did (and does), however, import things other than musical material from the art-music tradition as markers of value: composers, stylistic characteristics, and an attachment to notions of originality. With modern video games similarly borrowing the likes of Hans Zimmer from film, it may be that a broader perspective on musical prestige in games could offer a more nuanced account of from where such prestige derives, just as greater attention to the intriguing histories of classical music's interactions with other entertainment forms might more convincingly contextualize the specific topic at hand here.
The book's discussions of relationships between uses of classical music in video games and in film do at least afford Gibbons opportunity to consider more concrete ways in which games are unique, such as through attention to the implications of interactivity. That some music (Richard Strauss's 1896 tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, for example, famous as the title theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)) can be understood as classical music and/or film music and/or game music when encountered in a video game is also a significant point addressed in the chapter on allusions to Kubrick. Elsewhere, though, these subtleties can disappear into the binary of high and low. While Gibbons gestures toward “a future where the artificial distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow are erased,” he maintains that we have not reached that point, and that games have consistently “depended on players to know that classical music is high art” (174). These assessments are probably fair generalizations, but I wished for further acknowledgement of the range of understandings that individuals surely bring to classical music's interactions with games. Given that so many of the classical pieces discussed had entered into popular culture long before their use in games (Handel's “Hallelujah Chorus” is another example, one among many well-known selections in the game Catherine (2011)), I suspect that some players' (and game developers') knowledge of that music's high-art status might already be less straightforward than Unlimited Replays tends to imply.
Of course, some generalization around categories of high and low, and gamers' knowledge and experience of classical music, is surely acceptable in a trade for the breadth of examples and ideas discussed within this digestible book. Where the book does find room for more detailed case-study interpretations, though, these can themselves seem somewhat at odds with its broader conceptions of gamers, given they prioritize the author's own music-historical expertise over the likely experiences of other consumers, as well as the intentions of producers. Take the reading of Mozart's Requiem as “a sonic symbol of quantum uncertainty” (49) within the parallel-universes narrative of BioShock Infinite (2013), owing to the piece's complicated authorship, for instance. This kind of expert analysis has its place, especially when communicated so engagingly, and Gibbons is clear when interpretations are his alone. Here, though, such readings could add to an impression that the issues raised when classical music meets video games are of academic intrigue more than real-world significance, with one potential result of deterring more general readers who might otherwise be drawn in by the book's accessibility (which includes allowances on technical vocabulary: Gibbons is careful to define fugue on p. 148, for instance).
Other quibbles I have are more personal: I would often have liked more detail on how classical works are transformed to function as game music on immediate narrative and ludic levels, for example, but the book is explicitly much more concerned with the meanings of the music's interactions with games than the mechanics. Here as in other regards, I recognize that a balance has necessarily been struck. Overall, while I therefore expect many readers to have some reservations about the book, I also expect the book to have many readers, because it is an accessible, thoughtful, and thought-provoking work on a topic of interest across academic disciplines, and beyond—classical-music concert programmers and critics might find much to consider here in regard to the music's future, for instance. Indeed, the book could be recommended to almost anybody with an interest in its topic. In discussing issues arising from various encounters between video games and classical music, Gibbons's “ultimate goal” was not to provide all answers but rather “to open these questions up for a larger debate” (6). On those terms he has certainly been successful, and he is to be thanked for it.