A study of prominent factors affecting the development of music in video games.
‘Games composers are well aware of the reputation of their craft as repetitive, incessant bleeping, and there have been many attempts to overcome this issue as well as this reputation. Not only are games music composers finally achieving more recognition for their work, but they are increasingly interested in tackling the problems of creating sound for a participatory, dynamic media; not only creating more variability in their soundtracks, but also ensuring that the music and sound effects are responding to the needs of the game and the game player’ (Collins, 2008).
This essay aims to analyse the technical and compositional techniques behind music for video games – how it was conceived, to what extent can we compare it to music in other media, and the many factors involved in its continuous evolution. The author has included information from a variety of sources, including relevant research and academic papers; but also individuals more directly involved in the field, such as game composers and journalists. Due to the nature of the industry, and the relative recency of the endeavours into its serious academic study, some of these sources may largely be down to individual or subjective opinion. ‘Video games and interactive software have transformed from a soundless, black and while visual representation to a movie-like, surround sound experience in the last quarter of a century’ (Kent, 2001), and is undeniably tied directly to the continuous advancement of digital technology over this timespan. Michael Cerrati suggests that ‘generally, the history of video game music can be classified into various periods highlighted by the type of technology existing at that time’ (2006; 296); but modern video games can now support audio of equal quality to the highest-budget films or television programs, and the digital sound technology which evolved alongside that of video games has rendered the analogue formats of the last century all but redundant. If we have reached a point – regarding music for mainstream video games – where resources and potential are effectively limitless, what effect has this had on music composition for AAA games? What other factors besides technology could be affecting the evolution of game audio? And how have independent game developers and composers adapted to these changes? While many who seek to analyse the development of interactive entertainment are content to explain the many changes of style in game audio with purely technological reasons; this fails to take into account the creativity of composers, the demands of the consumer, market forces and the quest for realism, or the emergence of the many disparate styles of composition for games as we approach the peak of audio technology.
Before we can answer the questions raised in the introduction, we need to have clear definitions for some of our terms. Family therapist Jesper Juul defines a “game” as ‘a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiable’ (2006; p.36). Prolific researcher of video game sound Karen Collins expands on this, ascribing the term “video game” to ‘refer to any game consumed on video screens, whether these are computer monitors, mobile phones, handheld devices, televisions, or coin-operated arcade consoles’ (2008; p.3). When it comes to the distinction between a “AAA” (or “triple-A”) game and an “independent” title, the former is defined by Warren Schultz of gameindustry.about.com as ‘a title from a large studio, funded by a massive budget. These games will have marketing budget in the multiple-millions of dollars, and are planned to earn out in excess of one million titles sold’ (2016). “Independent” or “indie” games, however, are much less easily defined, and attempts at doing so have been the subject of much contention – but for the purposes of this paper we shall use the clear and concise summary from developer Craig Stern of sinisterdesign.net: ‘An “indie game” is a game that is both (a) developed to completion without any publisher or licensor interference, and (b) created by a single developer or small team’ (2012).
It is only after the relatively recent success and expansion of the video game industry, however, that video games have started being divided along these lines; as in the early years of electronic entertainment, even the most successful games would rarely have a development team larger than two or three people. The small size of the teams that would work on individual titles meant that music for video games was surprisingly slow to develop. Since ‘most programmers were not musicians or were under strict time constraints’ (Collins, 2008; p.23), even when the technology had evolved to accommodate sound beyond the ‘simple blips of Pong‘ (Cerrati, 2006; 297), music would only comprise of short one- or two-bar loops, or else ‘create recognizable renditions of precomposed music, such as Bill Goodrich’s use of “Flight of the Bumblebee” (Rimsky-Korsakov) in the game Buzz Bombers (Intellevision Productions, 1983)’ (Collins, 2008; p.23). In addition to this, as described by Nintendo composer Hirokazu Tanaka, the process of programming music on early gaming machines was extremely difficult and time-consuming. He explains:
‘Most music and sound in the arcade era was designed little by little […] sometimes, music and sound were even created directly into the CPU port by writing 1s and 0s, and outputting the wave that becomes the sound at the end. In the era when ROM capacities were only 1K or 2K […] you have to write something like “1, 0, 0, 0, 1” literally by hand’
(cited in Brandon, 2002).
This implies that the simplistic style of video game music in the arcade era was not solely down to the specific limitations of technology, but also due to the specialised expertise required to compose and program music for these machines. Despite the legacy left by early titles like Pac-man (Namco, 1980) or Space Invaders (Taito, 1978), electronic games only had niche appeal at the time of their creation, and a certain amount of growth and success in the video game industry may have been necessary for original composers to become a worthwhile investment for new games.
This idea of investment, along with other commercial factors, appears to be a key idea in the evolution of audio for video games. While it is easy to dismiss the change in game music – from short loops of electronic beeps to full orchestral scores in surround-sound – as nothing more than a response to improvements in technology, the demands and expectations of the consumer is something that should not be ignored. F. Ted Tschang writes of the creative industries in general: ‘Just as in manufacturing industries, product decisions in these firms tend to become more market driven as the firms mature’ (2007; p.989). So whereas the audio capabilities of the earliest game machines were mainly used for sound effects or simple reproductions of existing music, Hirokazu Tanaka describes how the idea of “game music” gradually started to take shape:
‘The sound for games used to be regarded just as an effect, but […] the sound started gaining more respect and began to be properly called game music […] Then, sound designers in many studios started to compete with each other by creating upbeat melodies for game music. The pop-like, lilting tunes were everywhere. The industry was delighted’
(Cited in Brandon 2002).
The increasing attention afforded to game music encouraged the studios making these games to start actually hiring composers, instead of relying on the computer programmers to provide simplistic musical accompaniment: ‘The compositions were becoming better and more complex and musicians were replacing programmers at an increasing rate’ (Marks, 2009; p.3). This suggests that the identity of arcade game music, recognisable to many of us for its simple, catchy melodies, was developed through the competition between studios for the attention of the consumer. We can see the continuation of this pattern through the introduction of 64-bit machines, in an even more clearly observable example of the influence of market forces on the game industry, and specifically audio. Sony released the PlayStation in 1995, marking the beginning of the transition from the storage of games on cartridges to CD-ROMs. The PlayStation strongly emphasised its ability to support “CD-quality stereo sound” in marketing, as well as its built-in support for digital effects such as reverb and looping. Nintendo’s 64-bit console was released one year later in 1996, and its ‘choice to continue using game cartridges, rather than CD-ROMs, would allow Sony’s PlayStation to (inevitably) outsell the Nintendo 64’ (Cerrati, 2006; 301). This set a new standard for the games industry, and the following generations of gaming consoles all used CD-ROMs instead of the inferior cartridges.
Karen Collins also suggests an additional theory to explain the driving force behind the evolution of game audio, namely the continuing quest for “realism” in games: ‘This drive toward realism […] is a trend we shall see throughout the history of game sound’ (2008; p.9), and links this to an attempt at increasing immersion. ‘The illusion of being immersed in a three-dimensional atmosphere is greatly enhanced by the audio […] the music, dialogue, and sound effects help to represent and reinforce a sense of location in terms of cultural, physical, social, or historical environments. This function of game audio does not differ significantly from that of film’ (Collins, 2008; p.132). This introduces a comparison between music for games and films, connected by the desire to immerse the audience in the simulated world. This link is one that is emphasised strongly in the AAA industry, with increasing effort to produce titles that are “cinematic” (which has become something of a marketing buzzword) in both visuals and audio. Rob Bridgett gives the example of ‘ducking music and FX when dialogue occurs […] a very basic way of achieving a more cinematic effect in games’ (2007), and Collins describes how ‘with real-time mastering, unwanted audio information can be removed in favour of a much more realistic, cinematic dynamic range’ (2008; p.101). Quotes such as these give the impression that the way music is written and produced in modern AAA games is not only aspiring to be more realistic, but also aspiring to be more cinematic. In other words, more similar to films.
One person who laments the increasing tendencies for games to try to be “cinematic” is indie game developer and veteran game critic Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, who suggests: ‘This devolution (of AAA games) is partly as a consequence of reaching a practical limit for third party development and the desire to be more “cinematic”’ (2011). On the subject of game music specifically, Croshaw muses that ‘the number of triple-A games I play that put all the effort into getting expensive orchestral soundtracks made strikes me as triple-A doing the same thing triple-A always does – spending a whole lot of money and ultimately getting a more generic experience out of it’ (2013; p.2), and adds ‘the loss of limitation has led to in-game music becoming generic, unmemorable, and unwilling to stand out’ (2013). Subjective though these sentiments are, we are presented with the idea that the traditional identity of game music from the arcade era was developed as a response to limitation, and that arguably, the loss of that limitation has resulted in game music losing its identity – as part of an industry openly striving to more closely approximate the medium of film. But it is implied this trend is only apparent in the AAA game industry, as it is only major studios and publishers that have the money to make the most of the technological resources now available. Though there has always been an independent market in games, Croshaw describes how ‘the divide between (AAA) and independent development didn’t used to be so abysmally deep’ (2015). The rise of home computers such as the Sinclair ZX Spectrum in 1982 allowed amateur programmers to be creative with simple code, and with similar hardware to that which major studios were using at the time. But while the success of large publishers granted them the ability to remain on the cutting edge of technology, independent developers without the same resources were still confined by many limitations, and the identity of the music and sound used in their games consequently evolved in a far different direction.
Though common home computers now have the technical capacity to store sound files of the highest possible quality, the production of that level of audio maintains to be time-consuming and expensive. If we accept Karen Collins’ theory that game audio has largely developed over time through the drive to increase the sense of realism in its simulated environments (2008), is it fair to assert that this applies equally to both mainstream and independent development? To a certain extent this can be argued to be true, in the sense that the expansion of genres and settings in games have resulted in an increasing effort of the accompanying sound and music to reflect those settings. However, the inability of independent developers to achieve the level of realism found in AAA titles may lead to certain stylistic choices being made. ‘Smaller companies are unlikely to use orchestras, and so synthesizer tracks can be created, which are more affordable’ (Collins, 2008; p.95), and these synthesized tracks can often be compared with the music found in early arcade games. Collins says of gaming systems in the early 80s: ‘Competing machines had to be loud, with short, simple, but exciting sounds that would attract players’, supporting Hirokazu Tanaka’s view that the genre of “game music” arose through upbeat, catchy melodies that ‘someone can sing or hum’ (c. Brandon, 2002). Though these quotes refer to early arcade games, and are usually dismissed as the result of primitive technology, many of the most successful and recent independent games have soundtracks which, upon analysis, contain many or all of these stylistic features.
To examine how a contemporary independent game can feature a soundtrack which is comparable stylistically to classic arcade game music, we will look at the example of the popular independent game Super Meat Boy by Team Meat (2010). The original soundtrack for Super Meat Boy was composed and produced by Danny Baranowsky, who has created music for a number of successful independent game projects, and often has high critical acclaim afforded to his music. The soundtrack for Super Meat Boy received nominations for many awards including “Excellence in Audio” from the 2010 Independent Game Festival and “Best Soundtrack” from the IGN Best of 2010 Awards. The soundtrack is largely electronic in style, reflecting the tradition of the “bedroom programmer” which is connected to early and independent game development. Baranowsky’s music also features distinctly upbeat, pop-like melodies, which Hirokazu Tanaka has described as a key feature of old fashioned arcade game music. Edmund McMillen, lead developer for the game, described how the soundtrack ‘gets your heart rate up, complements every aspect of its gameplay, and stays with you for days’ (2011). It is made even clearer how strongly the soundtrack was influenced by the music of early arcade game, due to the fact that the special edition of the Super Meat Boy soundtrack (2011) was released with various chiptune remixes of specifically selected music loops, recreated using authentic emulations of sounds typical of the sound chips from old gaming consoles. As well as carrying a similar sound, a parallel can also be drawn between contemporary and classic arcade games in terms of the marketing implications of the game’s music. Just as Collins suggested that the loud, simple and exciting sounds of arcade machines were an effort to attract players, the energetic music created by Danny Baranowsky had a large amount of marketing surrounding it, as part of the process of generating consumer hype, selling Super Meat Boy and pushing the general brand of the game.
In addition to what are essentially modern equivalents of arcade game music – in the style of Super Meat Boy‘s soundtrack – there are several examples of independent games which use their music as part of an obvious attempt to directly imitate games from the past. Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight (2014) puts a great deal of effort into accurately representing the style of the games found on the Nintendo Entertainment System from 1983. The lead developer David D’Angelo describes their approach to the music used in the game:
‘(We exported) music in NES machine code, which is capable of running on an actual NES or Famicom console, with all of its limitations and hardware quirks. We finalized the audio using mastering tools (EQ and compression) to give it some extra punch on today’s sound equipment, but avoided using reverb effects or stereo mixing, which would destroy the raw character of the sounds. Any echoes or special effects you hear are programmed note-by-note, the way they were on the NES’ (on gamasutra.com, 2014).
This describes in detail the fusion of traditional video game hardware and modern digital audio processing in Shovel Knight, D’Angelo also adding an acknowledgement of their failure to keep the music within the 5 basic sound channels supported by the NES: ‘It might seem more lush and full than you’d expect for a NES game […] the sound effects are simply layered on top of the music, which is completely inauthentic, but much nicer to listen to’ (2014). The fact that D’Angelo and Yacht Club Games chose to deliberately emulate the aesthetic of a specific gaming console from the 1980s, goes beyond the idea of simply utilising a musical style as a response to limitation or to maintain a perceived identity, and begins to raise the question of what effects “nostalgia” and “retro culture” have had on video games and their music.
Russell W. Belk (1991) discusses the power of nostalgia, asserting that personal possessions can serve as materialisations of memory, and evoke a powerful sense of the past. Peñaloza later noted the importance of expanding this concept of nostalgia and personal history as ‘a source of market value’ (2000, p.105), which, when applied to video games, brings us back to the idea of market forces influencing games and their music. In 2000, when Io Interactive released Hitman: Codename 47, and ‘initiated what has since become an increasingly popular practice: commissioning an entire orchestra to score the action’ (McDonald, 2004), it had been over twenty years since the four-note soundtrack from Space Invaders had first played in arcades. Over the following years it became clear that the identity of mainstream video gaming had changed forever, and an opening emerged in the market of players with nostalgic memories of retro arcade games from their childhood. With resources that couldn’t hope to match the levels of realism explored in the AAA industry, this was a niche that independent developers fit perfectly, and was able to create a new identity of “retro-inspired” games with stylistically nostalgic, upbeat and melodic soundtracks. This effect of retro branding is explained effectively by Brown, Kozinets and Sherry, when they describe how ‘retro goods and services […] trade on consumers’ nostalgic leanings. Familiar slogans and packages, for example, […] evoke consumers’ memories of better days, both personal and communal’ (2003; p.20). They then add, citing Brown (1999, 2001): ‘The problem with exact reproductions, however, is that they do not meet today’s exacting performance standards. Retro products, by contrast, combine old-fashioned forms with cutting-edge functions and thereby harmonize the past with the present’. This provides clear context for the identity of contemporary independent arcade games, and a comprehensive description of the musical style utilised in their soundtracks. Games like Super Meat Boy and Shovel Knight take the old fashioned form of arcade game music and combine them with modern audio technology, to fit with the market and brand identity of the genre.
In summary, though the influence of technological development certainly should not be downplayed as a factor that shaped the evolution of music for video games, it is evidently not the only factor. The audio aesthetic of electronic entertainment has been influenced by its rapid expansion of popularity, the ever changing demands of the consumer and the cultural context of games, a pushing drive towards realism and cinematic artistry, and – in the case of independent development – limitations on money and resources, and to fill a niche in the market based on retro nostalgia. It may be worth considering how the array of compositional styles that can be found accompanying modern games reflects upon the state of the industry and the art form at present. Is it a valid argument that the drive towards greater realism and cinematism in games has caused them to lose an identity? Can the genre of “game music” still exist if many mainstream titles have soundtracks of such similar style to films and television programmes? Perhaps triple-A “games” are only so called out of habit, and “interactive experiences” would be a far more accurate description of their nature. Arcade-style platformers and tennis simulators may be classified as games because they have ‘variable and quantifiable outcomes’ (Juul,2006), but it is less definite to say if this definition could be applied to some of the complex and cinematic titles coming from the AAA industry. Despite the possibility that game music may have in some sense lost its identity in regards to the mainstream, the expanding popularity of the independent game market and the monumental success of indie games such as Minecraft (Mojang, 2009) could suggest that there will continue to be a market for traditional styles of game music too. All things considered, looking to the future, if the products of this industry continue to become more and more richly diverse, then so too shall its music, and that can only mean increasing opportunities for composers and musicians.
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- Atari Inc. (1972) Pong. Arcade game; USA.
- IO Interactive. (2000) Hitman: Codename 47. Video game, Microsoft Windows; Denmark: Eidos Interactive.
- Mattel Electronics. (1983) Buzz Bombers. Intellevision Productions; USA.
- Mojang. (2009), Minecraft, Independent video game, Microsoft Windows/Xbox 360; Sweden.
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