For Whom the Box Boops
A History of Sound Composition in Gaming
Music does far more than just soothe the savage beasts of our psyche. The sonic experience viscerally brings virtual and cinematic worlds to life. Join us in our examination of the evolution of video game and synth music in tandem with storied and largely influential arrangements used in film and animation.
The correlation between imagery and audible sounds evokes the most primal and emotional states of the human subconscious. Music is an arrangement of sounds meant to convey a certain sense, emotion, or visual manifestation. Since the inception of motion pictures in the late 19th century, there almost always has been a presence of sound, specifically organized sounds that carry a melody. Music has been an integral part of evoking an emotion or feeling from a live-action or animated feature. Even silent films were usually accompanied by big band jazz stylized melodies. The impact of music has spread far beyond just film and television but to different media as well like video games, which themselves carry multi-faceted styles of art forms.
The resounding and widespread cultural impact these genres of music have had upon the industry in its entirety intrinsically fascinates and pushes other artists to create, innovate and push the limits of sound design. This has led music in the form of a soundtrack almost always present in a game or film’s background, complimenting and supporting the media’s visual cues, atmosphere, and conveyance of emotion—and this is what we’ll discuss in depth throughout the length and breadth of this series. Let’s begin our discussion with classic audio and soundtracks in the realm of gaming before branching out into more traditional venues such as film and television soundtracks. The approaches between film and game soundtracks and audio are highly divergent, yet there are still many points where these two otherwise independent mediums intersect, often in ways you may not have ever considered.
The Bit-Crushed Sound of Thunder
Some games, like Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda franchise, let the player take the game’s soundtrack and bring it the foreground as a core mechanic of the game [ 1 ]. Video game compositions, like the games themselves, are arranged by a single or entire team of composers employed by the game studio. “When audiences pack the Philharmonie de Paris’ concert halls this weekend to soak in the sounds of a chamber orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra performing game music and an homage to one of the industry’s stars, ‘Final Fantasy’ Japanese composer Nobuo Uematsu, they will have no buttons to play with, no characters to control. They’re coming for the music and the nostalgia it triggers of fun-filled hours spent on sofas with a Game Boy, Sonic the Hedgehog and the evergreen Mario” [ 2 ].
Video game soundtracks didn’t truly see any true substance until the 8-bit era of the Nintendo Entertainment System, where compositions were compressed to an 8-bit format to fit the capacity of an NES cartridge. A recent nostalgic revival, reminiscent of the compressed “bleeps” and “bloops” heard on countless cartridge-based games of yesteryear, has branched out into various sub-genres of music known as chip tunes. As the video game industry evolved through the ’90s and the turn of the century, games were becoming more realistic, immersive, and being accepted as an art form. As the games evolved, so did the music, more closely intersecting with traditional film soundtracks. Sonata of the Screen and Grid is a series that will bring the reader a closer analysis behind the music that shaped the video game industry and how it intersects with traditional composition and songwriting.
While video game soundtracks and arrangements find its creative footholds as far back as the late 1970s, music and sound featured used in film extend as far back as the medium of the silent film era. While this dual-wielding series is meant to serve as an analytical take on film and video game scores, much of the analytics and emotional extrapolations will derive from this author’s personal interests. Genres of film that either found resounding box office performance to the underground and cult followings. Much of the film scores and differentiating soundtracks are analyzed from a “geeky” persuasion and lean towards the darker perspective. Such analysis will intersect the influences portrayed in video games. For example, the Metroid video game series produced by Nintendo borrows largely from Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise. “Metroid isn’t just an action franchise, but a horror game inspired deeply by the Alien movies, and one whose true terror and power are rooted in the female body” [ 3 ]. While Metroid shared striking similarities to Scott’s 1979 horror classic, it was the isolationist elements and brilliant use of sound that evoked such emotions of dread and helplessness.
As a personal author reflection, I will express my views on official soundtracks (OSTs), compositions, and arrangements through classic and contemporary games and how they relate to traditionally composed film soundtracks. In addition to bringing an introspect on games’ compositions, I will also give my own critique and praise for games and films that I have grown up with and become emotionally attached to in the same way that film soundtracks have as well. Games like Nintendo’s Super Metroid for the Super Nintendo, or Konami’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for the Playstation are just a couple of examples of games in a series that ascended their predecessors and surpassed fans expectations upon their release [ 4 ]. Not only are they games that have stood the test of time, they are also titles that are known for their exemplary compositions and arrangements.
Whether it be the ethereal, isolationist quest of Samus from the Metroid series as she braves the elements of an unexplored alien world, or Alucard, the son of Dracula storming his father’s castle in a gothic macabre fashion evocative to Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi, one element remains constant: the music or soundtrack evokes emotion for the games’ and films’ visual response through audible frequencies that align flawlessly with what the player or character is doing on the screen. The soundtracks for a video game essentially consist of themes that correspond to the story’s design, stage location, and the player’s movement of their character, things that are largely inapplicable when compared to a less interactive form of entertainment such as film. Yet the game soundtrack, like a film soundtrack, can range from classically scored solo pieces to fully orchestrated ensembles and even extend into modernity with blues, jazz, rock, metal, hip-hop, and techno styles creating the backbone for a game’s sound design just as it does for a film. “We still remember so much of early video game music not only because it’s attached to strong childhood memories, but because the limitations of early sound chips forced composers to go for strong melodies that were easy to hum and accompanied by simple chords. Like many pop songs, great video game music is near-impossible to forget” [ 5 ].
Now You’re Playing with Power
The mid to late 1980s saw the end of an era in gaming, as the industry had become saturated with rehashed and unoriginal titles for systems like the Atari 2600. As the decade moved on, so did more formats for the music industry. Worldwide, people were introduced to music portability with the introduction of the Sony Walkman cassette player, and the compact disc was right around the corner, making film soundtracks more accessible for audiophiles and movie fans alike even as gaming temporarily floundered. Luckily for the video game industry during this time, companies like Japan’s Nintendo and Sega were about to herald a golden era of innovative gaming to the masses. These companies would provide a healthy competition with each other throughout the late eighties and late nineties in a home game console war that would bring waves of cherished titles to North American shores.
At the same time, western film and the advent of science-fiction and horror popularized in cinema lent to a slew of influential directors and film composers. One such renowned composer is John Williams, who is best known for such compositions featured in Jaws, Jurassic Park and Star Wars. Williams forged himself into legend by composing for film giants like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. A 2016 Hollywood Reporter article on AFI’s tribute to John Williams gives the audience a tongue-and-cheek perspective and solid understanding of the relationship between the composer and the directors he’s worked for. The author quotes Williams and Spielberg, “I said, ‘Steven, this is truly a great film and you need a better composer than I for this film.’ And he said, very sweetly, ‘I know, but they’re all dead’” [ 6 ].
As sound technology was booming and evolving in every medium, so was the video game industry. Third-party game developers would begin releasing entry titles for the NES like Squaresoft’s RPG epic Final Fantasy series, or the Konami’s run-and-gun shooter/platformer with the Contra franchise. Like the hit first-party titles that Nintendo delivered on its home console with Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid, developers were quick to cash in and release noteworthy games for the system. The conveyance of emotion and feeling flowed through the game directly with the music. This connection was present even in the compressed 8-bit video game format of the NES era. In games like Capcom’s Megaman 2, an 8-bit soundtrack flawlessly pulled the listener into a retro-futuristic adventure that matched the intensity and bombastic nature of the Mega Man series. Even more obscure or lesser known titles like Sunsoft’s Journey to Silius for the NES are considered some of the most highly regarded soundtracks for that system. With memorable melodies and intelligent choice of arrangement, even the restrictions of the NES’s sound card didn’t hinder the composer’s expression of sound, allowing compositions to be just as emotionally evocative as a film score released during the same era.
But it Still Sounds Like a Video Game
By the ’90s, the video game industry was in full swing. Nintendo and Sega were at the top of the market for home game console competition, and developers were ambitious to release titles for the new 16-bit powerhouses. With graphics, visuals, and mechanics going through huge improvements for Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis titles, sound design, arrangements, and composition saw an improvement as well. While the typical 16-bit cartridge game was still limited to a finite amount of space, because of the additional space compared to an 8-bit cartridge, artists and composers were able to express themselves further and thus begin to close the gap between “video game music” and full-orchestral film scores. Pushing the limitations of the technology on the market, multi-layered voicing, choice of instrumentation, and sound quality enhancements all came into play with composing and arranging official game soundtracks. Games like Squaresoft’s Secret of Mana for the SNES were laden with memorable, prolific, and all around catchy arrangements that wouldn’t have been possible on previous hardware. With the 16-bit processing power of the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, games like Squaresoft’s Chrono Trigger and Konami’s Snatcher for the Sega CD expansion for the Genesis were made possible. Incidentally, Snatcher was largely influenced by Ridley Scott’s 1982 dark sci-fi cult film classic, Blade Runner.
With this expansion of processing power, sound design was further explored. Even tropes and nuances like Link discovering treasure in the Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, or losing a life in Donkey Kong Country 2, the player was given a major-key arranged sense of discovery, or a minor-key sense of failure integrated in the game’s score. This frontier of sound design let musicians and composers truly explore the capabilities of the current hardware of the time, as pivotal and still nostalgic official soundtracks were setting the foundation of the myriad of exemplary soundtracks that would emerge in the following years, soundtracks that would eventually become so nuanced to be indistinguishable from film scores. Games like Nintendo’s odd-yet-charming cult RPG Earthbound, Interplay Entertainment’s Earthworm Jim series, and Sega’s ToeJam and Earl would be the earliest incarnations of titles breaking away from the traditional mold of video game storytelling. Regardless of revolutionary game design, more avant-garde titles would burst into the market, granting the medium a chance to flex its artistic and creative muscles, not only visually but audibly. Games like Sega’s Comix Zone for the Sega Genesis or Enix’s E.V.O. Search for Eden for the Super Nintendo weren’t as highly recognized as the typical Mario or Sonic game, but they had innovative game design, unique motifs, and exploratory sound design that made headway for more niche game studios like Atlus and Grasshopper Manufacture.
Serving as a squeaky wheel in the synergy between video games and movies, with a grain of salt do many fans of video games in this time period were also subject to the targeting of large film companies looking to capitalize on their favorite video games. While the advent of video games’ intrinsic ties with the movie world won’t be fully analyzed in this series, it’s an imperative footnote on the intersection between the two creative mediums. Largely, many video games are licensed by a publisher or developer from a movie studio and made into a video game, but much of that won’t be touched on further. These releases tend to be hit or miss for most audiences. However, it is the video games themselves that are portrayed in cinema that have left a sour taste in the mouths of moviegoers since the late 1980s and 1990s. Such films include 1993’s Super Mario Brothers Movie, 1995’s Mortal Kombat Movie, or 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Not to discount the full use of arrangements and orchestrations featured in such films, the flimsy plots, characters and storyboarding in these films landed them in bitter infamy.
The Jagged Edge of 3-D Gaming
As the ’90s rolled on, so did the video game industry. Competitors Nintendo and Sega were about to enter the realm of three-dimensional gaming, with some fierce competition from Sony with the introduction of the Playstation in 1995. Nintendo received high praise and merit with the vast library of first-party titles available for the Nintendo 64 like Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, and F–Zero X. Meanwhile, Sega, and its latest console the Saturn, would take a backseat to the popularity of the Playstation and N64 in North America.
While video game soundtracks were still compressed to 64- and 128-bit processing power at the time, musicians and composers for games were given even more creative flex with the storage capacity of the compact disc system used on the Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn, thus creating opportunities for some of the highest fidelity audio ever in a video game that truly began to rival the work done by film composers. By this time, the divergence between sub-genres of gaming had become less ambiguous then previous console generations. Now cheery games with soundtracks often composed in a major key, like many of the Super Mario or Kirby titles released, far contrasted that of survival/horror entries like the dissonant, eerie, and brooding music heard in games like Konami’s Silent Hill, Capcom’s Resident Evil and Dino Crisis, and Squaresoft’s Parasite Eve. Many of these series drew much inspiration from world of cinema as games like Resident Evil and Dino Crisis sought to capitalize on the zombie and dinosaur pop-culture crazes ignited by the big screen. As the dawn of 3-D gaming was in full swing amongst content starved gamers, it was apparent the low-poly visuals of many titles released at the time were often far outweighed by the creative magnitude demonstrated in their OST. Critically acclaimed titles of the time, like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Konami’s Metal Gear Solid, would warrant visual remastering in future releases, but their music soundtracks more withstood the test of time.
Soundtrack to the New Millennia
With the dawn of the new century, video gaming not only had evolved on the mobile market with the success of Nintendo’s Game Boy and Game Boy Advance, but graphical limitations and storage space were becoming part of the past on home consoles. With Sony’s PlayStation 2, Nintendo’s Game Cube, Sega’s Dreamcast, and newcomer Microsoft’s Xbox hitting North American markets, the disconnect between reality and gaming was becoming even smaller. Borrowing from intense action blockbusters, games like Capcom’s visceral Devil May Cry series for the PS2 and Bungie’s Halo for the Xbox were at the forefront of the new console technology and the visuals were catching up with the new uncompressed full-fledged official soundtracks that wouldn’t sound out of place in any movie theater. By this time, discerning developers and composers tapped into the nature of simplistic composition and pop culture trends amongst wider audiences as the catchy and memorable melodies and hooks were what kept audiences playing their games and continually drew them back in.
“Many fans and industry nostalgics bemoan the simplistic, hook-driven songwriting techniques behind today’s radio hits—but catchy, repetitive hooks are precisely what drove VGM’s popularity and relevance from the medium’s inception. It is arguably unfair to judge VGM (video game music) using the same set of criteria as that for pop music; rather, one should take into account gaming’s unique properties, development process and consumer-facing context” [ 7 ].
As 3-D gaming was improving and still evolving in this frontier of game development, CGI was widely improving in the world of cinema. Perhaps if there were any movie franchise that is more comparable to the mechanics, visual ques and sound design of a video game is that of 1999’s The Matrix directed by the Wachowski sisters. New age techno musical arrangements paired with industrial and alternative rock and metal lent to a cultural phenomenon and in suite many video games became loosely modeled off The Matrix’s influence.
This evolution of graphical improvement and fully arranged compositions would continue throughout console generations through the late two-thousands and two-thousand tens. With the latest entries in franchise like Santa Monica Studio’s God of War series, Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy XV, and CDProjektRed’s critically acclaimed The Witcher III, gaming achieved a new sense of realism—and so did game soundtracks. Most of these newer blockbuster titles were composed and arranged by multiple collaborations from a wide array of musicians to create the themes for these extensive and demanding game worlds. With full orchestration and instrumentation of arranged pieces, the coalition of a game’s visual design aesthetic would blend perfectly with the complimenting sound aspect, resulting in video game music finally standing shoulder-to-shoulder with traditional film soundtrack composition.
With today’s hardware technology, developers are pushing the immersive envelope even further with fully marketed virtual reality, or VR. Some video game purists view VR as a descent away from what makes video games enjoyable and are often perceived as too real. Many gamers aren’t accustomed to a soundtrack following them as they barrel their way through undead and dragon hordes of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim VR, but these games still have their ethos of video gaming. While not the same immersive experience as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy, the purist mentality of games becoming aesthetically too real becomes a topic of debate. Within recent years, a retro revival of gaming has become widely known and shows no signs of wavering. With the mass influx of independent gaming emerging in current video game facets of development, the allure of returning to 8 and 16-bit visual and sound design has gained mass appeal. While perhaps not as graphically pleasing as current platinum titles, many independent titles are still met with critical praise due to their charming visual design and mechanics, and implementation of 8 and 16-bit chiptune compositions. Games like Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight and Pixel’s Cave Story were a nostalgic homage to gaming of yesteryear.
The Composers Behind the Curtain
As with any art form, a composer or musician must take quite a few things into consideration when creating their art within a video game. What type of game is it? A platformer, shooter, puzzle, racing, fighting, or RPG? What type of voicing and instrumentation should be used? Does the game have a retro aesthetic that requires the soundtrack to be composed in a compressed and synthesized format? Additionally, it also depends on the composer’s musical upbringing, style of writing and performing, and tone. Those factors greatly affect the ultimate atmosphere of the game.
Let us take composers like Michiru Yamane, who arranged many of the Castlevania games, and Nobuo Uematsu, who composed for the core Final Fantasy series, as examples. Both come from a classically trained piano background. Each of their styles, while similar in some ways, greatly differ, especially when comparing the two franchises. Composers like Akira Yamoaka, who composed for Konami’s survival/horror franchise Silent Hill and Grasshopper Manufacture’s visceral grindhouse cult series No More Heroes, differ drastically from the cheerful and upbeat distinctions heard in many of Koji Kondo’s compositions for the Super Mario and Legend of Zelda franchises. Michiru Yamane composed for many of the widely praised Castlevania games, as her classically trained piano implemented in the hard rocking and gothic macabre atmosphere of Castlevania demonstrated the series’ compositions. Akira Yamoaka’s take on horror in the Silent Hill games, however, differ as it draws from his influences of rock and industrial—eerie, sorrowful, dissonant, and provocative. Regardless of the alternative and macabre foregrounds of such franchises, much of the sound design featured in films like 2006’s Silent Hill (based on the game) attempted to capture the same sonic elements of unease and dread.
While gaming has come full circle in terms of retro revival and the chip tunes phenomenon, the sense of storytelling, narrative, and engagement has changed drastically in the gaming industry within the last fifteen years to rival and even succeed traditional film and cinematic compositions, especially due to video gaming’s interactivity. As an author’s side note in which will be largely overlooked in this series is that of music and rhythm-based games. Video games that often use copy written, or sometimes original music from bands and artists became increasingly popular in the late 2000s. With games like Parappa the Rapper, the Hatsune Miku franchise, and instrument-controller peripheral driven games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band—these types of game were meant to challenge the player with hand eye-coordination, and rhythm execution, rather than provoking emotionally connected attachment to a game’s design, environments, characters, and soundtrack.
In today’s current gaming generation, the emphasis of sound design used in AAA release video games is comparable most to that of sound used in film. Compositions and arrangements utilized in video game soundtracks not only allude to film scores, but encapsulate the evolutionary movement of sonic freedom amongst artists and composers. While often overlooked, the comparisons between the two creative mediums parallel in more ways than one.
- “A revolution in an already aggressively evolving field, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time actually began to engage audiences and players in deeper interaction with video game music, as participation.” Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qO5iJd0r3IM (Cite Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time game? Maybe?)
- “While most are aware of Dance Dance Revolution, RockBand and Parappa the Rapper, the Hatsune Miku franchise absolutely deserves an honorable mention in further engaging player interaction in music through gaming.” Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hatsune_Miku
A classically trained musician, when paired with her talents in creative writing, her career as a technician and industrial electrician, and her education in journalism and the arts, Kyla’s a force to be reckoned with. Having served in SFS’ core and intermediate writing staff, she’s made her mark, both on The Living Multiverse and, of course, The Unconventional. Her series Sonata of the Screen and Grid, provides in-depth analysis of the usage and evolution of music in video games and cinema.
- Pure. “Zelda Ocarina of Time—All Ocarina Songs.” YouTube, 13 July 2012, youtube.com/watch?v=cd60Sgob99I&t=0s.
- Associated Press. “From Bleeps of ‘Pong’ and ‘Mario,’ Video Game Music Comes of Age.” Billboard, Billboard, 16 June 2017, billboard.com/articles/news/gaming/7833821/video-game-music-comes-of-age.
- Hudson, Laura. “Metroid: Samus Returns Isn’t Just an Action Game—It’s a Feminist Horror Tale.” Wired, 29 Sept. 2017, wired.com/story/metroid-samus-returns-alien-movies.
- Steelix100. “Vampire Killer (Symphony Of The Night Version) Extended.” YouTube, 19 Oct. 2011, youtube.com/watch?v=u5CRoCqSUR4.
- “We Are Living in a New Golden Age of Video Game Music.” Eurogamer.net, Eurogamer.net, eurogamer.net/articles/2018-05-16-we-are-living-in-a-new-golden-age-of-video-game-music.
- Galuppo, Mia. “Steven Spielberg, George Lucas Toast John Williams and His Music at AFI Tribute.” The Hollywood Reporter, 10 June 2016, hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/john-williams-lifetime-achievement-award-901491.
- Hu, Cherie. “Is Video Game Music An Art—And A Business—In Its Own Right?” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 15 Feb. 2018, forbes.com/sites/cheriehu/2018/02/15/is-video-game-music-an-art-and-a-business-in-its-own-right/?sh=3841dd002a6a.