All Around the World or the Myth of ‘Leave Luck to Heaven’
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The Development and Changes in Video Game Music
I am not one of those people you’d find rushing home…
IN THIS IMAGE: A promotion shot from Far Cry 5/ALL OTHER IMAGES: Getty Images
from work to play Call of Duty or Far Cry 5! The fact my references are probably so far outdated – and snatched from overheard discussions – shows I am not a typical or authoritative gamer! Different generations have their favourite memories of video games – it is interesting seeing how we have evolved from the somewhat primitive, if charming and simple, games of the 1970s to the luscious and near-sentient showcases of today! Technology and design have come on leaps and bounds – there is something to be said for the nostalgia of the 1980s and 1990s. I remember when Nintendo (whether the name means ‘leave luck to Heaven’ or not has to be verified) came out and how many frantic youngsters spent endless hours on them. I was a Sega boy and remember the delight of being given a Mega Drive and a selection of games. It wasn’t only about playing the games and seeing these much-loved characters come to life. I was drawn to the music and strange sounds coming (Sonic the Hedgehog was the first game I experienced, released in 1991, and inspired me hugely). There were the sound-effects associated with level completion and time elapse; you had interstitial themes and the game theme itself. I cannot recall whether Sonic the Hedgehog’s soundtrack was particularly memorable but it was more the overall sound and palette that struck my ear. I recall being taken down to Butlin’s (Bognor Regis) and revelling in the blare of the arcade. I am not sure whether it is down there still (I doubt it) but the 1980s/1990s music coming from the popular games of the day got into the brain and helped, in a way, stoke a passion for music.
Those childhood memories are vital when it comes to how we see music at a later age. Although games like Street Fighter and Golden Axe had rather sparse – compared to today – scores; it was a revelation to my ears! Listen back to the songs from Donkey Kong (1981) and Tetris (1984); BurgerTime (1982) and Paperboy (1985). Those games seem so basic and simple compared to what we are used to. Although the graphics have developed vastly and we are experiencing video games in new ways; you cannot argue against those musical incorporations. Whether a glitch electronic tune or a series of bleeps and effects – we would all hum and recite those indelible and catchy sounds! So, then: did the video game soundtrack appear in the 1970s and 1980s?
“Video games as we know them first started appearing in the late 1970s, with arcade games and console versions of popular arcade games, proving a hit. Music was created via simple synthetic chips, generating sounds in a style that became known as 'chiptune'. This was a step on from the complete silence or basic beeps and boops of early games, for example those made famous in Atari's Pong. As we moved into the 1980s, so video game music began developing as quickly as the technology. Dynamic soundtracks started to become the norm, using music to directly communicate information to the user. The famous 1987 game, R.B.I. Baseball, was an early example of music being used to reflect the actions of the player”.
Provided with little memory and technological advance; game developers and composers had to work with what they had at their disposal. By the early/mid-1980s, the sophistication of design had come on another leap and allowed new games a chance to put greater depth and variation into their soundtracks. Moving from the bleeps and boops; the simple and linear lines – now, there was something akin to actual music. I will look at the modern incarnation of video game music but, in the 1980s, the sounds we experienced were vastly different to what our parents would have been used to. How, then, did things develop from the 1970s to the mid-1980s?
“By the time Kondo went to work for Nintendo, in 1984, the capabilities of video-game sound design had evolved from the early, primitive days of the Atari 2600. Still, it was a task that had traditionally been handled by programmers, mostly for logistical reasons. As the pioneering developer Garry Kitchen explained in Karen Collins’s definitive study, “Game Sound,” there simply wasn’t enough memory to worry about elaborate soundtracks: “You put sound in and take it out as you design your game. … You have to consider that the sound must fit into the memory that’s available. It’s a delicate balance between making things good and making them fit…It’s hard to listen to some of these decades-old sounds and not feel a sense of giddy nostalgia. This fall, Data Discs will reissue the soundtrack for 1992’s beat-’em-up classic Streets of Rage 2 as a deluxe vinyl edition. It’s a spellbinding document of its time, full of the composer Yuzo Koshiro’s chirpy interpretations of the era’s bleeding-edge sounds: scaled-down club tracks, a nod to Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause,” an almost note-perfect interpolation of Inner City’s “Good Life.” It’s the sound of a familiar, age-old musical story: cherished genres translated into new idioms, young visionaries butting up against someone else’s constraints. It was the first time some heard techno, and it was the music they had been waiting for all along”.
This article gets memories flooding back: those amped-up (by the standards of the 1980s) Club sounds that was a muted version of European Dance/Rave. Whereas I started life listening to cute and light-hearted electronic sounds from the Sega Mega Drive; by the time the late-1980s ended (and I was still a child), something tougher and more ‘advanced’ was coming in. You cannot really call the Streets of Rage 2 score as a proper soundtrack, I guess: it had a sense of co0mposition but was not exactly primed for the charts! It is interesting to see how video game sounds juxtaposed and contrasted the sounds we were hearing on the radio. I was listening to a lot of British Pop and what was deemed ‘cool’ by the tastemakers. The Techno and Electronic sounds I discovered in some games was my first experience and opened my tastes to a wider world of music. I was intrigued by this raw and low-lit danger; the European-inspired Dance rehashes and wondered what these sounds were! Not only were the ‘songs’ matching the action and adding to the experience; my brain was being nourished by sounds I was not getting anywhere. Classic 1990s games like Mortal Kombat and Doom took sounds in a new direction – there were more violent and ambitious games and, with it, composers had to up their game and come up with something appropriate. The 1990s saw great trends and developments.
“Though superstars like Uematsu already had cutting edge soundtracks to their name prior to 1990, it would still take considerable time before mainstream gamers would take notice. Moreover, music for most video games at the time were very simple and rather generic (and perhaps also a bit grating). With the exception of stand out games (largely RPGs, often JRPGs), the industry didn't get the whole soundtrack thing sorted out until the mid '90s. That's largely thanks to Nintendo.
…That was just the start. What game soundtracks like Donkey Kong Country, Castlevania: Bloodlines, and Super Metroid brought to the table were something other than frenetic sounds designed to evoke a sense of motion or urgency. They added atmosphere--a very distinct sense of place, emotion, and character. This was especially true in Super Metroid, the soundtrack for which evoked the feelings one might experience investigating a dangerous planet. There are haunting ambient tracks as well as energetic and sinister tracks”.
I will end this piece by looking at five games that are often seen as the very best when it comes to the music. If the 1980s and 1990s saw its video game sounds produced by in-house composers or those outside the world of music; as games became more spellbinding and boundary-breaking; popular artists become involved. There are film actors who often lend their voices to games. It is a lucrative business and a great discipline that helps them as actors – and stretched their fanbase to new people. Musicians are spotting potential by adding their talents to video games. The games themselves get to such a wide variety of people, and so, the potential to recruit and compel is huge. Lush games set in apocalyptic scenes; strangely realistic war games and fantasy epics are almost film-like in their realism. One would not balk at a popular musician wanting to record a film soundtrack. So many modern games are crystal-clear and almost like you are seeing something come to life on a screen. What are the ups and downs of this new wave of video game soundtracks?
“As musical capabilities increased, big names signed on. Trent Reznor's Quakeand Hans Zimmer's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 are some of the results. Conversely, game composers crossed over. Michael Giacchino made his name with the Medal of Honor series, and went on to do the music for TV's Alias and Lost and the last Star Trek movie.
…Of course, old-school purists long for the beeps of yore. A common complaint is that the new soundtracks are all so much bombast: If not sweeping orchestral strings, there are crunching electric guitars or thumping electronica beats. Or all three at once.
Composers Bill Elm and Woody Jackson brought in harmonica great Tommy Morgan (veteran of Ennio Morricone scores). Instruments include the jaw harp, cello, timpani, and in a game music first (I assume), ultrasound. Jackson recorded the heartbeat of his unborn daughter and used it for percussion.
Even now, game composers have to figure out ways around certain stumbling blocks. In this case, Elm and Jackson wrote the entire score in the key of A minor and at 130 beats per minute, to make all the sequences fit together”.
In line with the way graphics and concepts have grown; the music in video games has become more sweeping, epic and intellectual. Composers have more money and resources – as the industry becomes bigger and multi-million-dollar – and demand is increasing. The player wants something immersive and engrossing: we cannot have the same sounds as we had back in the 1980s and expect people to swallow it. FACT, back in 2015, compiled a list of the one-hundred best video game soundtracks and ended the piece with a handy playlist. My favourite games featured on the list.
Streets of Rage 2 (1992) was high up the list – “The game’s soundtrack was similarly “mature,” and unlike family-friendly fare like Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario World, chirpy melodies were nowhere to be seen. Instead players were treated to techno and breakbeat-influenced compositions from Yuzo Koshiro, bringing an unusual club swagger to the game” – and so too was Megaman 2 – “In other words, it was just pure fun and the bare essentials before we knew what was coming, and all that was needed to complete the package was a bulletproof roster of incredible tunes to keep you going after Heat Man’s stage kills you again and again. You memorized the songs, then memorized the stages”. Whether SNES/NES favourite from the 1980s or a Nintendo gem from the 1990s – or a Sega classic – one could see the differences in terms of decade and development. Topping their list was the 2001 classic, Ico (Michiru Oshima, Koichi Yamazaki, Mitsukuni Murayama) on the PS2. This is a soundtrack I am familiar with – one that FACT fell in love with:
“…And yet they only make those moments of peace even more tender and special. If ‘Darkness’ has an opposite it’s ‘Heal’, the wonderous, childlike lullaby that accompanies the precious moments of rest provided by stone seats (the game’s save points). Some of Ico’s most memorable moments come from loading the game later to find the pair sleeping to ‘Heal’ like Ingemar and Saga nestled on the couch in the end of My Life As A Dog. Ico reaches moments of grandeur such as the massively cathartic ‘You Were There’, which erupts in its heart wrenching finale, but it’s Ico‘s smaller moments of gentle grace – and impending doom – that stick with us beyond anything else”.
Video game soundtracks and scores are more like albums and Classical suites than background sounds. I still have affection for the bare-naked and charming sounds of Pac-Man or Sonic the Hedgehog. Whether an arcade game where one goes looting or something on the PlayStation that involved more concentration and involvement – the sounds that accompanied my childhood obsessions remain with me still. I have not been a real gamer for a long while but am staggered at how far things have come. We all have an appreciation for those childhood games and there is so much value in the nostalgia of older gaming – compacted versions of the original Nintendo are available with pre-loaded games. Modern gaming is more immersive than we have ever been used to. New technologies – 3-D and special glasses; headsets and devices that allow us to almost physically step into the game – mean the customer wants music that is more adventurous and nuanced. They want sounds that match the mood and take them into a new and fascinating world. Modern video game sounds/songs are, perhaps, more digestible and multi-layered than the old incarnations but, to me, you cannot beat the wonderful soundtracks of the 1980s and 1990s that provided…
SIMPLE and endless pleasure!