Video Games: Now with Music!
The 3-sentence bio at the bottom of the page mentions that I write music for video games. (Pause for effect…) Now, that may strike you as unbearably cool, unbearably nerdy, or just unbearable in general, but there it is. Video game music is such a wild, insane craze that I can’t begin to describe how it began or what happened along the way to make it such a big deal. Actually, I kind of can, and that’s exactly what I’d like to do in this post. I mean, if you look back to the days of your childhood (which may not be over, mind you), you can totally remember the tunes from those classic games you liked to play. If I play the first two bars of the Mario Theme, or the Zelda Theme, or the Tetris Theme, or any other frickin’ theme that has been put out in the past 20 years, and you played that game, you KNOW it. You’d recognize it. Why is that? BECAUSE VIDEO GAME MUSIC IS EPICALLY AMAZING. The very existence of those chunks of music that you hum to yourself in the shower is an incredible phenomenon that I can’t wait to share. I feel like I should have just skipped this paragraph and gone straight to the meat of it. That juicy, delicious meat.
So let’s face it: video game music actually began with, say, Pong. Or something. The first time you heard a series of clicks and beeps in one of those oollllllddd games, that was video game music. Technically. When you ran into Inky or Pinky in Pac-Man and you heard the (eeooweeooweeoooweeooo– WEEP WEEP), that was video game music. But c’mon, that’s lame and boring and not catchy at all! If the Mario theme had been written like that, no one would have given a crap. But here’s the thing: video game “composers” writing this video game “music” could only write using those beeps and clicks. (I apologize in advance because this is very cranial and kind of tough to understand, but BEAR WITH ME because it’ll blow your mind). Basically, they stored the sounds themselves inside the game cartridge, and if you can imagine data storage 30 years ago, it totally sucked, right? So imagine that you had to put an mp3 of every little waka-waka inside your horrifically awful 5-1/2 floppy-style data storage (for those who don’t know, a regular pop song is about 3-5mB). It’s very inefficient and since data storage was also incredibly inefficient, you get very tiny sound files and not much opportunity for great music-making. For dramatic purposes, I’m including a link to a flash version of Pacman:
So what the heck? Hardly any music besides the intro (and that’s like 5 seconds long). How did we turn from bleeps and blops to the beautiful, rich, orchestral soundtrack of Legend of Zelda? (Okay, it was 8-bit music but c’mon that was one helluva step up). The answer lies in MIDI. For those of you that think MIDI is a type of music file, you are WRONG! MIDI is simply 3 things: an on/off message, a length message, and an amplitude (loudness) message. Please note that none of those even deal with producing sound. They could operate a light switch (with “loudness” turning into “brightness”), and actually, professional stage lighting for shows and such is often operated using MIDI. (Whoa.) So where does the music come from, you ask? (Okay, how amazing is this?) On the fabulous, mindblowing NES, Nintendo put a large bank of different instrument sounds ON THE GAME SYSTEM. So now, instead of storing the sounds in your cartridges, they’re all on the hunky, data-heavy Nintendo Entertainment System. And what goes on the cartridges? MIDI DATA. MIDI files are incredibly small because they send the very bare bones of the music to the sounds in the system, which play them out inside the game. It’s the difference between storing sheet music inside a binder, and storing an orchestra’s worth of musicians inside a binder. And voila, video game music was born. The genius who invented MIDI, Dave Smith (mostly), should also be credited with inadvertantly creating the entire world of video game music. I’d saint him.
Now for the rest of video game music history, according to me. It’s wildly revisionist, and I’ll certainly get blown out of the water by anyone who REALLY knows his (or her) stuff on this subject, but this is how I remember it and that’s how I’m gonna tell it. Deal? Great. So SNES made everything better, as did SEGA Genesis, and so on and so forth. Once we started getting CD games (Playstation, yay!) was when it all changed again. All of a sudden, MIDI sequencing of video game soundtracks wasn’t the only option anymore. Having said that, big titles like Final Fantasy 7 still used sequenced music and it’s not like that kept its music from being popular. But (in my humble opinion), the turning point came only a year or two later…
I know I’m not the only person who remembers loading up Final Fantasy 8, and out of the silence of the introduction, I heard… voices. Real people, real voices, singing. I got goosebumps, and it didn’t stop there. The orchestra! It was real, the harp swirled around the rising strings, and it was like this fantasy (pun intended) world had opened up and swallowed me whole. I was enthralled, completely drawn in and there was no going back. Pre-recorded live music was a total game-changer, and it started (kinda) with FFVIII. Nevermind the fact that the introduction is completely pointless and vague, and the game was needlessly complex and awkward, and often badly translated (I have a poster in my room with Squall’s face on it, saying… “He” wakes an impressive appearance at the end of the century. The “he” is in quotes. Is Squall really a woman? Awkward).
But you get the point. It’s symphonic music! And I honestly believe that this is perhaps when newly written, modern symphonic music began to make a popular comeback. Millions of musically illiterate, oblivious teenagers suddenly dug what is essentially classical music. And they still do! I see at the music store CD’s that are live orchestral recordings of Final Fantasy music. Nobuo Uematsu’s fan page is constantly inundated with praise. You can buy the soundtracks for many new games coming out, and I think that today, perhaps, music is one of the make-it-or-break-it aspects of a game that developers take very seriously. I can’t believe that my collector’s edition copy of “Skyward Sword” came with not a “making of” CD or an exclusive content CD, but a soundtrack of orchestral arrangements of old Zelda tunes, celebrating 25 years of total musical awesomeness. Think about that. And let’s not forget the genre of games that spawned from this development: games like Dance Dance Revolution, in which the music is the sole point of the game, and all you have to work with is a glorified soundtrack of peppy Japanese music (heck yeah, Japanese music!).
As to the future of video game music, I can’t really say for sure, but I have some thoughts. I play games like Portal 2 (which is a must-have for pretty much anyone who likes to have fun, laugh, or think), and I notice the subtle changes in the music when one is flying through the air or doing different things in-game. It’s all electronic sorcery, pretty much, and it totally changes the feel of both the music and the game itself. Or in Skyward Sword, when changes in your environment (such as a timeshift crystal [sorry to alienate those who haven’t played it]) make the music transition seamlessly from an ancient sounding drone to a lively jungle beat, and the environment you’re in reflects that perfectly. I think that the style of music we’ll see from future games will fuse the symphonic sound that we know with the harder electronic technological sounds that are invading the majority of music today. And I think that the music that began with the beeps and clicks of Pacman will become such an integral part of the game that you can’t help but buy into it, and your experience will be so heightened by the sounds you’re hearing that you’ll never again play a game on mute.
I mean, who does that anyway? Seriously, folks. Just get some frickin’ headphones or something.
P.S.: This site has the soundtracks for pretty much every game worth listening to, so check it out and enjoy it!