written by Alastrom
Music in gaming has evolved from the early years of 8-bit composures to their current orchestral driven symphonies. “Video Game” music is a difficult category to nail down. Like its counterpart in film and television, it’s simply referred to by the larger medium that it gets packaged with. Unlike film work however, video game musicians still haven’t reached the same level of respect in the music world. Consider the Grammys, Americas foremost musical achievement foundation. At the time of writing they still don’t recognize game composers in their award ceremonies. Why is that? Music may be one of the most important and under-rated elements in our life. We listen in our cars, at work, and when we go shopping. We use music to celebrate events or to feel solidarity with a somber moment. Music literally sets the mood in every case that silence cannot.
It would be impossible to talk about video game music without first discussing its origins. The very first game to include a continuous background soundtrack was Space Invaders, released in 1978. While it was certainly a far cry from what we have today, the tune had the main hallmark of all music from the 8-bit era, namely that it was unique. Music from this generation of gaming relied on what’s known as “Chiptunes.” The term comes from the sound “chips” found in early gaming systems and in its most basic definition its simply synthesized tones that come together to form music. Due to technical limitations of early games, most titles could only process three tones at a time. Thankfully, three tones are exactly whats needed to play a single chord. For those unfamiliar with musical theory, this basically means that early composers could play a piano using only one finger. Sure, their melodies would be limited but the general idea could be conveyed. This is part of the reason that early music is so simplistic and it may be what caused the industry to lag behind in terms of respect.
The other major hallmark of gaming music that differentiates it from film is that gaming music is designed to be played on a loop, in most cases. Films last anywhere from an hour and a half to three hours, typically. Music is used there to highlight specific scenes and the idea of having a continuous soundtrack is unheard of, even in the musical genre of films. Game music on the other hand is constant. There’s almost always a background tune playing to keep the player engaged. Consider the older Final Fantasy games. While traveling you have one melody, then another when combat starts, then a variation when a boss fight starts and finally a different melody when you enter a town or region. A game composer can’t predict the players actions so they need to write a piece of music that sets the overall theme to what they expect the player to be doing. This is different from a film composer who knows exactly what experience the audience is going to have before they have it. With the advent of the modern cinematic, the gap is rapidly being closed between the two.
A good soundtrack can make the experience, just as a bad soundtrack can break one. By this point I should make clear my biases. I’m in love with the work of various game composers such as Nobuo Uematsu, Jeremy Soule, Koji Kando, Martin O’Donnell and Geoff Zanelli, just to name a few. I’ve often wondered if the experiences I’ve had in gaming has heightened my enjoyment of the music or if the music has done that for the game. Certainly, a piece can’t have all of the emotional connection to a person who hasn’t experienced it first hand. For example, if you’ve played the “Mass Effect” series you might react differently to the tune “Leaving Earth” than someone who hasn’t. The person who is unfamiliar with the corresponding events that surround that music will understand that it’s a somber tune and they may feel that emotion but that same feeling will be multiplied tenfold by someone who (spoilers) has watched the main character flee his home while it gets destroyed by an alien force. There’s something magical about the connection between music and event. It’s part of the reason why we relate to music differently and perhaps it’s part of the reason that the mainstream doesn’t accept gaming music in their medium.
Sadly, games are still seen as the realm of children’s entertainment. While it’s hard to argue that the industry hasn’t grown phenomenally, it still doesn’t hold the gravitas and respect that film and television do. I believe this is entirely a personality problem and I doubt it’ll ever be corrected. It goes back to the age old argument; “Are Video games art.” That’s a debate that’ll continue to rage for some time to come but I can say for certain that video game music should be included in that realm. Game composers are building portals to other worlds and directing our emotional journey through them. The rest of the industry may fail to see it and it may be years before they are truly recognized for their work. Maybe that’s not an issue for most people but I’m of the opinion that true masterful artwork enhances our culture and I believe that music is the highlight of our civilization.