While the very first games usually only emitted a few thin beeps, game music soon underwent similarly rapid development as graphics. From the sound chips of the consoles and computers of the 1980s to 8-bit and 16-bit sound cards to modern scores, which are often as elaborately produced as the music of a Hollywood film production: Music often constitutes the very special appeal of a game.
The technical possibilities also changed the way music is or could be used in games. When video games became a mass phenomenon in the 1980s, music initially came from simple synthesizer chips with very limited possibilities. Today this sound aesthetic is affectionately called “Chiptune”. The SID of the Commodore C64 – a 3-voice analogue synthesizer on one chip – enjoys real cult status. If you look at the rudimentary possibilities, it is almost unbelievable what the composers elicited from this chip.
Then followed PC sound cards, which produced their sounds first by FM synthesis and later with PCM samples. At that time, the soundtrack of most games consisted of MIDI files that were made to sound by the computer’s sound card. It sounded like a game, so it depended heavily on the hardware used. Only sometime later, when the memory space became cheaper and the processors faster, it became possible to play digital audio files within a game. This opened the door for elaborately produced soundtracks whose sound no longer depends on the hardware.
In the early arcade and console games, music often had a certain cartoon character. This was partly due to the cheesy sound of the chips, but partly also to the compositions. In jump ‘n’ run classics like the Super Mario series, the sound effects for jumps, shots, throws and other actions almost became part of the music and animated people to run and jump. But even then it became clear how much music can contribute to the effect of a game. Especially Mario, the Zelda series, Mega Man and Final Fantasy set standards with soundtracks that gave each level a very special atmosphere. Pixel graphics and 8-bit sound back or forth – the best games of that time fascinated the player no less than today’s photorealistic game worlds, and the sound of composers like Yoko Shinomura, Manami Matsumahe and Koji Kondo made a decisive contribution.
The switch to previously recorded studio-produced audio soundtracks opened up entirely new musical possibilities for game designers. Now everything was possible that is also used in films to provide musical accompaniment to scenes. So the music of today’s computer games works with all stylistic devices and clichés that are also used in film music: From leitmotifs linked to certain characters or actions, to instruments such as strings or horns, with which one instinctively associates certain emotions, to silence, which, when used correctly, can have a more than violent emotional effect.
Even if you may not always be aware of it, music plays a crucial role in how deeply you emotionally immerse yourself in a game. That doesn’t always have to be a cinematic score. Some famous games use music in another very effective way, for example by being directly experienced by the protagonist in the respective scenes. Unforgotten is the interactive radio stations of the Grand Theft Auto series (“I’m Hans! This is SF UR! I come to America to bring the love from Europe!”), which created an incomparably immersive experience. And they elegantly solved a challenge that distinguishes game music from film music: In games, the music must be able to adapt to the game at any time. When a scene is over, a fight is over or a protagonist has died, the game is not stopped until the music is over. So it shouldn’t sound funny when the music suddenly stops or changes. Besides the calculated play with emotions, this is one of the most demanding musical tasks game composers have to deal with.
But who are the creative minds behind the game soundtracks? Although video game music has established itself in the meantime and is certainly no longer smiled at, only a few game composers are in the spotlight. Here we briefly introduce some of them.
The Danish composer is mainly known for his groundbreaking scores for the Assassin’s Creed series. His portfolio of nearly 30 years of music for video games also includes other popular titles such as the Hitman series, Borderlands and State of Decay. In his compositions, he combines classical instruments such as orchestra and choir with electronic elements.
The Brit is more of a film composer and wrote the music for several Hollywood blockbusters, including Shrek, Spy Game and Phone Booth. His music for the Metal-Gear-Solid series (from episode 2) can be described as groundbreaking. The scores by Harry Gregson-Williams showed how music can work in today’s computer games – with all Hollywood style means and lots of power.
His masterful use of the tonal possibilities of an orchestra has led to the American Jeremy Soule often being referred to as the “John Williams of game music”. His best-known titles include the Guild-Wars- and Elder-Scrolls-series, as well as Total Annihilation. Altogether Soule created the music to over 60 games.
With “Bastion” and “Transistor” Darren Korb created the music for two highly acclaimed indie games. He works a lot with sampled beats and rhythmic elements combined with acoustic instruments and synthesizers.
With the music for “Journey”, Austin Wintory was the first game composer to be nominated for a Grammy. And if you listen to the soundtrack of the game, you deserve it. Here orchestral elements come together with folk influences and create a unique sound world.
The Japanese are one of the musicians who laid the foundation for today’s game music in the 1980s, with modest technical means at the time. The scores of Yoko Shinomura are unforgotten, especially Street Fighter 2 and “Final Fight”. Later she wrote the music for “Super Mario RPG” and the “Mario & Luigi RPG” series.
In which video game do you like the music most and why? We are looking forward to your comments!