About: Video Game Music - Part 1: History

  • Citan
    Music is a mysterious thing... Sometimes, it makes people remember things that they do not expect. Many thoughts, feelings, memories, things almost forgotten. Regardless of whether the listener desires to remember them or not. (...) At times they would have been cheered up... while at times they would have been made to cry.

    I played Xenogears many years ago, but never got to finish it. So I was watching Huber's stream, and that particular quote really stood out to me. Being a musician myself, and as passionate about video games as any other Ally, I got inspired and decided to start writing about the importance of music and sound in video games. I want to make this blog series very user-friendly, so even if you don't know anything about music you're welcome to participate. So, we're starting with the very basics: the history of sound and music in video games. I have only planned a second part for this, but we'll see how it goes.

    Now, I won't be getting too much into detail about each era, just by reading you'll get right away what years/consoles they represent. I've provided several links to learn more about game music and composers, so definitely check them out if you're interested. Also, I won't be citing too many games, unless they serve a real example to what I'm talking about. I apologize in advance for any game I should've mention but didn't.

    Oh and btw, these "eras" are made up by me so you can have a better understanding of the differences between them, but actually they overlap each other by many years, especially when you consider handheld consoles.

    Alright, let's just get to it...

    Chiptune Era

    The term chiptune refers to the fact that the sounds had to be produced by a chip that interprets the code as such. But the very first video games had very basic sounds, sometimes having just a simple channel (think of an instrument that can't produce two notes at the same time), so the sounds had to be basic too. It was a difficult time in terms of technology, and most of the time the programmers had to do the sounds themselves. Nonetheless, even the first games had sound in some form or another. Take Pong for example, a very simple game but with a clear sound design. Later comes Space Invaders, which took advantage of these limitations and had sound effects cleverly camouflaged as background music, or was it the other way around? Then it was PacMan, which had simple short jingles outside of the main gameplay. The list goes on and on, but you get the point. However, the real starting point for music in video games as opposed to just sounds comes with Rally X, which used a 3-channel chip to produce music and sound effects simultaneously during gameplay.

    Watch: Rally X gameplay (Arcade)

    In the following years arcade machines started getting better sound chips with more channels, and had the ability to produce more complex waveforms resulting in sounds that simulated various instruments. Some of these chips included a noise generator that was used as percussion and often for sound effects, and some could even play pre-recorded sounds, like drum sets or voice clips, in a dedicated channel. This advance in gaming technology was eventually used in home consoles, but were still very limited. However, composers found some ways around these limitations, creating simple but very melodic tunes that were easily recognizable. They also discovered techniques to take the most out of each channel, which in turn led to more complex compositions. For example, using a second channel to produce an "echo" effect on the main melody, or playing several notes very quickly and repeatedly in a single channel to give the illusion of a chord, in order to have other channels free for more instruments. These techniques are still used today by many artists, even without limitations, because it's part of what makes chiptune music so unique.

    Listen: Title Theme, from RoboCop 3 (C64)

    Sequence Era

    Video game consoles started using more complex sound processors, and games got more and more space to store its data. This allowed games to have pre-recorded sound samples of various instruments stored in them. Then, a music sequence tells the sound processor which instruments to use and which notes to play (similar to a MIDI file), resulting in more realistic sounding music, while also having the ability to change the tempo, pitch, and many other effects, all in real time. This method is so flexible it's still used to this day, especially in handheld games.

    Listen: Yume wa Owaranai, from Tales of Phantasia (SNES)

    While the use of samples wasn't entirely new in gaming it was very simple and limited, and certainly the addition of sequences led to even more complex compositions. Audio sampling also allowed games to have more extensive voice over work, used mainly for characters' reactions during gameplay, and obviously cutscenes as well.

    Many people compare video games to films. For me, they're more like TV series, and it becomes very evident in this era. Putting more emphasis on storytelling, video games started getting longer and having more complex themes. In terms of music, now they didn't only have a song for each location, but also for each character, each kind of event, etc., and the repeated use of these melodies throughout the game is what made them so meaningful and memorable.

    Read: The Ever-Changing Music of Hyrule Field (Iwata Asks)

    Thanks to the flexibility of sequences we also saw the birth of dynamic music, which means it adapts to the player's actions. A classic example of this is Super Mario World adding a percussion track when mounted on Yoshi. But one of my personal favorites is Ocarina of Time's Hyrule Field Theme, which consists of various short musical sections that play one after the other depending on certain conditions, such as walking or standing, riding on Epona, fighting an enemy, and so on.

    Streaming Era

    Listen: The Best is Yet to Come, from Metal Gear Solid (PSX)

    Streamed audio consists of loading a pre-recorded music file, so there are basically no limits whatsoever in terms of composition; the only limitations being the system's capabilities and the user's sound set. It was prominently used in CD-based consoles during the 90's, and it's one of the most used methods to this day (although, as I said earlier, sequenced music is still used, sometimes even in conjunction with streams). It was a huge step forward for video game music, mostly because this allowed games to incorporate almost any kind of music genre, especially songs with lyrics and real-life instruments, or music that could not be produced by the system otherwise.

    While there were no limits to composing, it still had a drawback in gameplay though: it was more difficult to loop songs, and dynamic music was entirely out of the question. This is why most of the streamed audio was used almost exclusively for openings, endings, and cutscenes. Despite all that, streaming audio also set the grounds for a new kind of background music playback: companies could now include licensed music in their games and play them in sequence like a music CD, the most iconic example of this being Tony Hawk's Pro Skater.

    Listen: Gusty Garden, from Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)

    During the following years, and with the development of new consoles and music software, the technology made it possible for streaming audio to be more flexible, so now there are multiple games that use this method to play looped and dynamic music with the best quality available. Moreover, with the gaming industry expanding and growing bigger each year, development budgets now allow game composers to use full real-life orchestras, making video game music rise to the level of film/TV scores, and above. Along with the advancements of computer graphics, storytelling and user interaction, the evolution of video game music has made gaming one of the most captivating and influential forms of art and entertainment.


    So there it is, it took me awhile to get this all together so I hope you liked it, and please don't hesitate to correct me if I made any mistake. And of course, everyone is welcome to discuss about video game music and share the love!

    See you on "Part 2: Design" (whenever it comes).


    PS: I'm gonna play Xenogears now... Long live Mitsuda! <3