When did it become so important and where is it going?
When someone mentions video game music what does your mind immediately jump to? Depending on the time you were born you probably think of your days spent playing the original Zelda, with the 8bit theme tune or the more modern themes, like Skyrim’s chart topping epic. There may be some of you who even think back to the very first days of the beeps and blips on the TV. Wherever your mind wanders it is clear to see exactly how far the industry has come. The advancements of technology has had everything to do with this advancement.
If the technology that is used to produce video games and sound hadn’t developed, we would still be back at Pong with the monotone bleeps. Advancements are still happening, as we can see with the release of newer consoles, but has the sound hit a development barrier? I will be discussing the advancements in technology and then how they affected the audio on games including soundtracks, sound effects and even vocals. I will discuss the consumer and how their reactions have shaped how game music is produced and perceived, giving examples of popular pieces.
Back when computers where first emerging out of the technological cave, someone came up with a brilliant idea for games that could be played using computers, rather than boards or cards. The very first game was made around 1958 but it was completely silent, not to mention incredibly expensive and huge.
It was developed on the PDP-1 computer, which like most early computers was the size of a small car, and as the technology was just starting to develop there was no audio. It was a tennis type game much like pong. It kind of makes you ask if there was really any point in developing such a thing as no one could play it with the price tag so high. However it did set the foundation for the future games and in 1972 Pong was released upon the world. It was the first game to be heard around the world, even if what was heard were mere sound effects.
This new development in sound technology paved the way for games such as Androids and Space Invaders, which was released only 6 years after Pong. The increased tempo chugging of the Space Invaders was a new step in sound. Not only was it playing more of a tune, the tune it played was not part of the sound effects. It was one of the first ‘soundtracks’ of its time. Music of any kind has some effect on the brain and ‘simply having music present is usually an indication that what you are currently experiencing is somehow special or different from other sections of the game that do not have music.’ Stevens and Raybould, this creates an environment into which a person can escape and unwind, unless of course your space ship is about to be destroyed. By this time technology had seen a tremendous development. Originally the games could only use the sounds that were hardwired into the mainframe of the console with certain programming, giving a certain limitation and almost identical sound to each game produced.
In 1978 Odyssey2 was released with programmable 2K ROM cartridges, giving it the ability for each game to have its own music and sound effects. It even had the first synthesised voice, which was developed a year later on the Major League Baseball game which had single words triggered when certain parameters were met. 1980 saw the rise of Pac Man. It was and still is one of the most popular games. The in game sounds are quite simple but it was a great example of how technology was improving. The new technology allowed a short piece of music to be played at the beginning and end of the game. This was one of the biggest steps as soon we were seeing music throughout the whole of the game. By 1982 we had seen technology with the ability to play multiple voices at once. These chips were added to home consoles, sometimes in pairs creating more voices, adding a certain element of freedom. It was then the game Journey Escape was released. This game featured digitalised versions of actual Journey tracks. It was the first time known songs had been applied to a game and it soon became a widely used tool.
This particular advancement meant that bands could record tracks in the studio especially for the games even though ‘the sound quality wasn’t much better than MIDI music…the composer wasn’t restricted to the sound palette which came with the hardware.’ Marks. By 1985 we saw the rise of the 8bit machines. The NES set off the new era, opening the doors for many recognisable games and soundtracks, such as Tetris. The new technology had the ability to play more than one sound to be played at the same time. Now you could have effects and music playing at the same time. As the technologies hardware began to be compressed into smaller sizes, the developers could add more into the consoles, meaning more voices, music and sounds could be triggered at the same time. This meant the games soundscapes grew, giving the composers more to work with.
1986 brought about the dawn of the disk.
Games were finally entering the first stage of the new era we are still living in. By 1989 the handheld game console had appeared, sending gaming itself down a new route. 1991 brought with it the 16bit era, making what was already around just that bit better. The ActRaiser from Japan was one of the next links in the chain. It was the first game to have a full symphonic orchestra soundtrack. This has been one of the biggest steps sound wise, as it drew the link between game and film, giving games a more personal touch and creating a more interesting landscape to play. By 1995 the 32bit soundcard had been introduced and the next generation of CD memory game consoles was introduced, starting with the original PlayStation. Within four years the bit rate had made it to 128, meaning more intricate sounds could be used and a more lifelike sound was achieved. Many games could progress because of this, creating a whole new level to gaming. This also coincided with the advancement in the visual technology. Much stayed the same from here like the techniques used and the basis of technology. The quality of the sound has gone up in recent years, as has a need for more sophisticated soundtracks and top class Hollywood composers to write them. Stereo was once thought of as the ultimate quality, whereas now it is the standard, with surround sound slowly taking over.
So why do we now use symphonies and big electronic soundtracks for our games?
To put it simply, it is because we can. Technology has allowed us to have beautiful soundtracks that truly get to the heart of the consumer and background music of the highest quality so it perfectly sets the mood. The world of game music has now been opened up to more of the public than just the games consumers. In 2013 the soundtrack for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim reached the top ten in the Classic FM Hall of Fame chart, ending up in the 5th spot. There was suddenly a new hype about game soundtracks, as people realised there was more to it than they originally thought. Pac Man was the first game to cause a stir musically, as there were a number of songs written about the game. These sold worldwide and gave the game more publicity, not that it needed it though. Other games that have used music on them that was already commercially released, gave gamers a different kind of reaction. Most of these games were something to do with the band or music itself and soon games such as Guitar Hero were born. People were able to become their musical heroes whilst having fun.
Soundtracks are now something you can enjoy whilst playing the game, and enjoy when you are not. They may not be quite as repetitive and catchy as the earlier themes, but they are sold as albums so you can download the songs onto your computer and listen to them all you want. Is it this availability that has made game soundtracks all the more enjoyable and important? You can go on websites like YouTube and search the particular game soundtrack you want, including many retro games, and listen. When you go on the videos you can see how many people have watched the video and this shows that people are getting enjoyment out of the soundtracks without the game.
The newer more embellished soundtracks may have sparked a deeper love for the gaming music, but it has also brought back the passion in people that the original games brought. As things go in and out of fashion it seems music and technology have been caught up in the revival, having techniques and classic sounds revived by the generation that most likely grew up with them. It is quite common for people to revive the 8bit era especially. The modern day technology has given young composers the ability to revisit their beloved 8bit themes and give them new life.
You still have the same kind of sounds but there is now a higher availability of the number of voices you can use, giving the 8bit era a more modern twist. The earlier games seem have a certain appeal to them and we see many of the noises and themes being remembered and re used when creating todays sounds. This is especially true for certain sound effects which are repeatedly used on various games. Why recreate something when it has already been done to a high quality standard? Again this is something we see creeping over into the gaming industry from film. This is something that has taken a steady change throughout the years.
When sound was first introduced onto games ‘early game soundtrack composers were usually computer coders who could programme the games’ sound engines and synthesizers using the same computer languages that the animators and designers sued.’ Hoffert and Feist. When technology was advancing and there was a sudden improvement in the quality and quantity of sounds available, game developers began to turn to composers to write for their games. It has even become a specialised job of its own. You can now go on courses that teach you specifically to write audio for games. One of the main focuses of these courses is getting to grips with the software used within the industry, but they also help to advance your compositional skills to suite that of the gaming world.
Game music, along with the now equal quality film music, is now heading for the future, but what is left to add? We have an almost realistic sound quality, the graphics help emulate this, and we have brilliant systems and consoles on which the music gets played. Since stereo became the default sound setting, surround sound has become a new option that game developers can play around with to affect a consumers experience. This way of listening to a games soundtrack and effects certainly is exciting and within a few years you would expect this to be the highest level of sound available.
But as always the brand new piece of technology you expect to be the highest level possible is over taken by something much better and just as unimaginably awesome. Sound developers are working on a way they can get a consumer completely immersed in a games audio. Surround sound gives you a certain level of immersion, but imagine being able to hear the game as if you were the character you are playing. Technology still has a long way to go and much like other advancements ‘even five years from now, interactive and adaptive audio will be seen as barely in their infancy.’ Marks. In terms of what sounds are being played on soundtracks, I believe we have reached an end point. The sound quality will most likely improve and the way the consumer perceives the pieces will change, but there are no more ways out there to produce music that we have not already used.
There are many thousands of games out there with many different soundtracks, bleeps, pings and explosions and there will be many thousands more. Even if we have already discovered the end point in where thee soundtracks can go musically, the technology will always be improved. Right from the very beginning of sound on games we have strived for bigger and better and now that funnel is slowly getting smaller. We have many more years before technology catches up with what our brains want them to do, but as computers and consoles get faster and ‘smarter’ we can expect the quality of the sound and environment produced to slowly rise to a level we never thought possible. Music is a special part of our lives and we slowly add it to every part of our daily lives, so why not make it the best we can?