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Video games are huge.
Over the past few decades, video gaming has progressed from a few lab coat-clad geeks playing virtual tennis to become the most lucrative industry in the entertainment world – surpassing movies and even the music industry in terms of sales in 2008 – so to any naysayers who still think of video games as a childish hobby, it’s time to crawl out of the rock you’ve been living under.
With that growth established, you might be able to appreciate it a bit more when I say that the music within those games has grown on a par with their popularity – but what happened along the way? How did we get from piercing sine waves to the epic, interactive musical scores, sound design and dialogue we have today?
It all started with…
Blips and Bloops
Video games, like movies, initially had no sound. It wasn’t until the late 1970s when arcade games like Pac Man brought monophonic goodness to the world, with a single channel of audio providing the blips for both the game music and sound effects.
Back then, video games were made by programmers – generally people with no musical experience, so games were really limited in terms of melodic content. You might get a congratulatory sequence of bleeps for winning a level, but that’s pretty much the extent of it.
As the industry progressed into the 80s and home consoles came on the scene, with the increase in sales came an increase in people working for games companies.
Some of these people were composers – people like Nobuo Uematsu of Final Fantasy fame and Koji Kondo, the genius behind Mario and Zelda, began their respective journeys into legendary status within the industry.
At this point, more channels of audio were available to work with, so finally something resembling music could be emulated, but it was still limited – composers had to be clever with their productions, for example – using fast arpeggiation to mimic chords since there was no other way to play multiple notes simultaneously on the mono channels available.
This was the golden age of chiptune, when the mario theme was born, gated white noise was the kick drum, snare drum and hi hat, and happy sounding synths soared from the speakers of consoles like the NES and Master System.
MIDI and early sampling
The next mainstream progression from these consoles was consolidated by the Sega Mega Drive – where home computers like Amiga and Atari had been doing this for a few years, Sega made it affordable and popular.
Improved sound synthesis allowed for MIDI instruments to replace the blips and bloops. Even sampling was possible, though the cartridges had so little space on them that even that “Se-ga!” sample at the start of Mega Drive games would have taken up a huge amount of the available space.
Composers were gleeful now though – stereo sound became available, meaning they could stop spending their time finding workarounds and start spending it on more varied and textured music. Games like Sonic on the Mega Drive and later SNES games like F-Zero and Final Fantasy IV allowed for much better quality music than could have been heard before. The SNES even had 16 bit audio available – but with the space on cartridges being reserved for the actual code and graphics, audio generally still had to take a back seat.
With the release of the Sega Saturn and Playstation, streaming audio was available and the extra space on CDs meant that audio could finally stop taking the back seat and start shining as an atmospheric addition to the gaming experience.
In fact, now that there was so much space, dialogue started creeping in – games such as “Grandia” offered limited voice acting to back up the on-screen text. This was pushed further by “Metal Gear Solid” – a game that had masses of cut scenes filled with audio dialogue.
Finally video game music could rival popular music in terms of quality. In fact, there were even cross-overs between the two industries, a good example being Trent Reznor scoring the game “Quake”.
Epic scores and Mainstream Popularity
As consoles progressed, so did games. With the release of the Playstation 2, the bars were pushed higher. “Metal Gear Solid 2″ broke the mold with Grammy nominated composer Harry Gregson Williams scoring the game.
Games companies had now been producing “OSTs” – Official Soundtrack CDs of the games for some time, and it was around this point that the music world really stood up to take notice as orchestras performed renditions of classic video game music to sold out concert halls.
One of the brilliant things about video game music is that due to its dynamic nature, it doesn’t have to be the same every time. There are several awesome examples of where this has been used in interesting ways…
Some games like “Star Wars: X-wing” pioneered this in their soundtracks, which changed depending on how intense the on-screen action was.
Other games like “Rez” had the players actions directly affecting the gameplay – locking on to an enemy would make hi hats and hitting them would make percussive or melodic sounds. As the level progressed, the music grew more intense, giving a previously unrealised combination of music with gameplay.
Another example is “AudioSurf” – a game that generates levels from mp3s. You play the game along to your songs – the levels are fast when the music is intense and slower and more leisurely in the chilled sections.
Of course, a more recent proponent would be the massive “Guitar Hero” franchise, essentially a rock star simulator complete with guitar controllers, hit songs and massive bragging rights for those people who can shred like crazy.
Well, with games like Brutal Legend that was just released, the boundaries between music and gameplay are thinning – the musical culture from popular music is spilling unabashedly into game design and games composers have made their mark influencing the new wave of popular musicians.
So what’s next? A Games composer in the charts? (This has already happened in Japan, when Nobuo Uematsu’s soundtracks for Final Fantasy VII and VIII hit the number 1 spot.) Popular musicians taking a bigger role in games? (Such as the starring of Jack Black in Brutal Legend…)
From the looks of things, the future is already here – you just have to know where to find it. I can’t imagine what will be next, can you?