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Back at the keyboard after a busy week, I'm going to move onto something of a tangent and look at the audio component of modern video games complete with Wikipedia links for further general reading without having to wade through a ton of different sites. If you want to read a much more technical retrospective on the evolution of sound in video games, read up on it right here. My post is not about tech specs, but instead looks at the evolution of the sound concepts over time and the directions the industry as a whole has taken.


Whilst it is true to say that the visual impact of a game is the greatest in terms of aesthetics, the sound and music can enhance or detract from the experience to a degree. Consider games that you turn the music off and substitute some of your own: how long did it take before getting fed up or simply bored of the soundtrack? Has a game's sound or music ever put you off to such a degree that you stopped playing? Has it ever been so good you want to listen to it on its own merits?

Personally I prefer to have both the game sound effects and background music on unless I've grown tired of it or it's irritating. I'm fairly sound-oriented so to me, video game music is srs bznz.

In some games such as Eve Online, it can negatively affect performance and turning it off comes with a noticeable improvement in client-side lag. Doesn't matter how nice it sounds, if it means the difference between losing my expensive battleship and claiming phat lootz as the victor, it's getting turned the hell off. Of course, this is mitigated somewhat by the usefulness of audio cues alerting you when something is going on that you might not be able to see too clearly, perhaps because a ship behind your field of view has targeted you or there's too much happening on screen at once. Eve is a tricky balance because the music can be very relaxing, if a little inappropriate for a heart-pounding fleet fight unless you switch the in-game jukebox over to one of the Drone tracks, or some Caldari techno.

The flip side of engaging music is in the game Rift. Whilst it's not horrible and doesn't provoke a 'turn it off right now' reaction, it's extremely dull and unmemorable to the point where I don't even notice if it's playing or not. Attempts to make it quietly fantasy-epic haven't succeeded, to my mind. This is quite unlike the music in Anarchy Online which is very fitting and memorable indeed and likely to provoke bouts of nostalgia within the first 3 bars when I hear it, and had me running around various locations just to trigger certain tracks playing like outside Baboon's nightclub in the Omni-1 Entertainment district.



Scores old and new

These days, sound in games is big business rather than the hastily tacked-on blips and bleeps of the 8bit days and earlier. Full orchestral scores with composers; popstar singers with a CGI video release; studio suites dedicated to blending a medley of sounds into a single door-opening hiss and so on. Whilst some earlier consoles had sound chips that were advanced for their time, with memorable soundtracks to boot (the Commodore 64 being a famous and notable example of this) it wasn't until the 8bit generation was in full swing that gamers developed the expectation of a good aural experience to complement good graphics and good gameplay. The sound of claiming a coin in Super Mario Bros. on the original Nintendo Entertainment System has become iconic and can even be heard nowadays coming from a Blackberry near you.


The 8bit days were about a catchy repetative loop of background music that changed every so often, perhaps even every level or when it was time to fight the big boss. Sound effects would mimic the characters' actions and were meant to be distinguishable from the music track and perhaps related to the action they were attached to, but little else.


By the time the 16bit consoles rolled out, some publishers were being more adventurous in their use of sound as everything from enhancing the atmosphere to providing audio cues for something off screen or about to happen. An excellent example of this is the Delphine Software game Flashback (released in 1992 for various consoles including the Amiga, Super Nintendo and Sega Megadrive, and since re-released periodically on newer formats). The background music was intermittent, triggered by entering certain areas, or when enemies were due to appear. Sounds for enemies and traps off-screen would be heard quietly and by listening to the sounds growing in volume and if you had stereo speakers or headphones, the direction they were coming from, you knew to get yourself ready for what was about to appear. All very basic stuff that we take for granted now but in the early 1990s this was new and groundbreaking.

The 16bit days also marked the popularisation of the idea of releasing game soundtracks on CD for retail. As an example, Squaresoft produced and sold OSVs (original sound versions, also called OSTs or original sound tracks), arrangements of OSVs and 'music inspired by' OSVs for their RPGs such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI (known as Final Fantasy III in the US). The Super Nintendo was blessed with an excellent Sony-produced sound chip of the SPC-700 series making up the core of it's S-SMP sound processor, which would later find an upgrade inside Sony's original Playstation. This allowed game music composers to really flex their creativity as the consoles were capable of more than a series of bips and boops. Some of the most well-known, remixed and replayed game tunes of all time came from these 16bit games and their writers have become legendary figures in the video game communities; for example Nobuo Uematsu and his work on the iconic Final Fantasy soundtracks or Yasunori Mitsuda and his Chrono Trigger, Shadow Hearts and Xenogears series (he's a particular favourite of mine with a distinctive style that can be spotted even through heavy remixing).


When the next generation of consoles hit, the 32bit Playstation and Sega Saturn in particular, video game music had become integral to the whole playing experience. Music composers led teams of dedicated sound engineers and musicians to produce polished and original works of sound art that would be marketed as products in their own right, and sometimes even made the music charts. An example of this can be seen with Final Fantasy VIII's Eyes on Me which was sung by Faye Wong, a popular Chinese singer and released as a pop single in Japan where it did extremely well, selling over 400,000 copies. The famous Wipeout series of futuristic racing games began life in 1995 with the original Playstation and it's heavily-pimped soundtrack was written by CoLD SToRAGE featuring tracks from the Chemical Brothers, Leftfield and the Orbital.


Since then, collaborations between musicians and game publishers have become commonplace with soundtracks and albums of music inspired by game soundtracks charting commercially worldwide, exclusive tracks appearing inside games, soundtracks partly or wholly written and performed by popular bands and so forth. In 2010 the Ivor Novello Awards introduced a category for Video Game soundtracks and from 2012 the Grammy Awards will have a section for game music as well. There's even college and university courses that include or specialise in game music composition in the US and Europe.

Current examples of video game music crossing over with more traditional avenues of music include:-

There's an ever-increasing number of games that integrate sound into the experience in a fundamental manner by essentially dictating the gameplay based upon the player's interactions with sound-generating mechanisms. These games include the rail shooter Rez on the Dreamcast, Playstation 2 and XBox 360; the freeform music game Electroplankton on the Nintendo DS; and puzzle-racer Audiosurf on the PC. Whilst they've enjoyed mixed success, the ability to play your own music instead of the in-game soundtrack with XBox 360 or PC games is popular and I wonder if we'll see more games that wrap themselves around the player's choice of music.


tl;dr

Game music has evolved from tinny beeps meant to fill the silence punctuated by clicking keys and thumbs on pads into a multi-billion dollar star-studded industry with global recognition and awards. It's not just for us saddo obsessives any more...




* Flashback was groundbreaking for other reasons, including the hand-drawn backgrounds, the rotoscoped animation, the Conrad sprite using a real person moving as it's base etc. A personal favorite of mine.

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May 2012

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