Music in Video Games – From the Stone Age to the Space Age

Music in Video Games – From the Stone Age to the Space Age From ‘Space Invaders’ to ‘Need for Speed’ or from ‘Earthworm Jim’ to ‘Tomb Raider’, there has...

Music in Video Games – From the Stone Age to the Space Age

From ‘Space Invaders’ to ‘Need for Speed’ or from ‘Earthworm Jim’ to ‘Tomb Raider’, there has got to be at least one videogame out there that can get your blood rushing, your head spinning and your mind craving for more; virtual realities merging into seemingly real realities before your very eyes, waiting for you to explore them and drawing you in by offering the complete realm of human experiences, video games are an extensive means of getting people entertained.

They are also, however, probably not part of the places where you would expect to hear good music, let alone good music placement.  It is, or, perhaps one should say “was”, generally accepted that video games rely solely upon the authenticity and lure of the virtual world they create and upon how true the gamer thinks the ‘lie’ is.  Music placement, thus, was believed to be only of slight importance in video games, but the times have changed tremendously.

Music placement is concerned with getting the right music to the right place at the right time, and video games are no exception, although some might argue that a music supervisor’s job is somewhat more difficult to handle in the case of video games, because most of the times we’re dealing with music that has to be picked out or elaborated without seeing the end product first, but that should, however, be rather dependent on it.

Nowadays, even, you will notice that the soundtrack differs in accordance with the various decisions a player makes during the game play, and so, the game, the story and the music behind it keep evolving, but it has taken some time and effort for today’s music placement experts to enter the video game market, time in which, of course, the games themselves have undergone serious changes and have become the action-packed, suspense-laden, dramatic and jaw-dropping new realities that keep us entertained, busy and even obsessed.

In the beginning: Music in Video Games practically non-existent

Enter the world of the most notorious video game in the beginning of the modern era: Pac Man. An icon in the history of entertainment, Pac-Man was simple, catchy and addictive, but quite an innovation for arcade games at the time – all you had to do was help Pac Man eat all the dots, while escaping the four ghosts that were following him; direction and agility were of utmost importance. Its user-friendly interface and fast-paced rate made it an instant and long-lasting hit, but, when it comes to music placement, it wasn’t exactly Oscar soundtrack material, nor did it require extraordinary work by a music supervisor to license music: it consisted of small length, monophonic sounds that popped up mostly at the start of the game and sounded childish and simple.  This was probably because, at that time – in the early 1980’s – technology had barely started using digital, instead of analog sound.

A couple of years later, the same technology that limited the contribution of music in games to mere beep-like sound effects allowed the introduction of small samples of previously recorded tracks, which were stored in the sound memory of the computer – this meant that producers could incorporate the digital versions of popular songs, like in the case of Tetris, a sort of structural puzzle which included a computer-made soundtrack based on Korobeiniki, a catchy Russian folk tune.  By using digitized sounds that could be looped at key moments in the game and by integrating some vocal and acoustic elements, computer-generated game music was beginning to pave the way for future success and for an increasing involvement of music placement experts seeking songs that fit.

Of course, console games quickly caught up with the trend and, by early 1990’s, the newly invented, Japanese manufactured sound chips made it possible for consoles to support a wider array of effects and even surround sound; games like Final Fantasy, Zelda or Super Star Wars were very different from their predecessors, correlating intricate, story-like scripts with more and more dramatic and narrative instrumental  synthesized music.  Final Fantasy actually went on to become one of the most sought-after franchises in the business, critically and publicly acclaimed for its realistic characters and orchestrated, specially designed soundtracks.

Music in video games kicked off a new era for music composers

The emergence of the CD-ROM made the prospects of music placement in video games much more exciting. All the hardware constraints that prevented a true development of realistic music in video games due to the complexity and extensive memory space it required were beginning to fade, and there is no better example than that of Myst. An epic of discovery and mystery, Myst not only helped the player get a sense of different worlds and eras in the perpetual search for the key to unlocking all enigmas, but it also enhanced the gaming experience through music placement of highly instinctual, almost sensuous, appropriately composed music that managed to convey the desired suspense.

Composer Chris Brandkamp is the music placement expert responsible for putting together ambient, classical sounds such as “Planetarium theme” or “Forrest ambiance”, although, at first, the producers of the game did not want any music placement to interfere with the actual playing. They noticed, however, that not only did the music placement of songs not spoil the fun, but they also ensured that the player felt the virtual worlds were more authentic. More so, the tracks featured in the game were so appreciated, that, for the first time in the time line of this market, a soundtrack album was released separately.

The sequels of the game were the climax of  the music/story line symbiosis; Myst III and IV relied heavily upon their choice of music placement, to the point where the boundaries between the audio and the visual became indistinguishable.  One of the most prominent video game music composers, John Wall, got his inspiration for Myst III from Orff’s famous Carmina Burana, a passionate and intense piece of classical opera, and, as a consequence, all the thrills and emotions of the gamer were very well addressed in that music placement. It is undoubtedly sure, then, that one of the factors which contributed to Myst becoming the best-selling game of all time (before the release of The Sims), was this exquisite union of movement, images and music placement that gave the player a sense of reality, both physically and emotionally, at the touch of a button.

Since then, video game music placement has revolved around seeking the best musicians to match the plot of the game with the feelings of the human beings getting involved in it, for a complete sensation. Customized compositions are a must for every self-respecting new game out there, while the songs themselves are transcending entertainment media barriers, becoming headline appearances and full-scale events in the schedule of some of the world’s most gifted orchestras: 2004 saw Nobuo Uematsu perform his Final Fantasy pieces along the Los Angeles Philharmonic, while, in 2005, Wall and his fellow game music composer, Tommy Tallarico (Earthworm Jim, Prince of Persia), created the concert series Video Games Live.

An interweaving of  music, projections and interaction with the audience, centered around the soundtracks of several major video games, like Final Fantasy or World of Warcraft, Video Games Live is highly valued throughout the world and has the distinctive role of bringing video game music into the spotlight and of allowing the artists in the branch to showcase their compositions at a larger scale.  The pieces of music and music placement in general in video games are becoming as craved for and as influential as the works of  grand classical composers, while music supervision is exploring the niche more and more by trying to track down the best custom-made sounds for up and coming video games.

No video game without a soundtrack

All this doesn’t mean, of course, that a music placement in games is synonymous only with fresh compositions.  Some of the highest-engrossing games today, such as Guitar Hero, Madden NFL or Grand Theft Auto, practically base their desired sales outcome on the music they are associated with; while the last two use tracks from artists such as Busta Rhymes or the All American Rejects to inflict that sense of contemporary and popularity that players can identify with, Guitar Hero lives and breathes music, as it is the very essence of the game – the amazing rock riffs of household names such as Aerosmith or more indie bands, like The White Stripes, are the very element that gets the game sold, and not the other way around.

Just in case you aren’t quite convinced that a music supervisor and his expertise in music placements should lend a hand in the video game industry, it is advisable to look at a simple, yet astounding fact: in recent years, video game sales have surpassed music sales, especially online, totalling a staggering $21 billion in 2008 alone.  It is estimated that a freelance composer can make up to $2000 per minute of music written in a single video game project or up to $500.000 per game soundtrack.  In a market with fierce competition, extensive technological advances and constant innovation, video games can use the extra edge some specifically tailored music can provide.

“It’s for this reason that I’ve always said that if Beethoven were alive today, he’d be a video game composer.”(Tallarico for NPR). It might sound exaggerated, but he is actually not that far off.  Video games have come a long way from the days of Pong; with the advent of ever-more-detailed visual effects and graphics, new and improved consoles such as the Nintendo Wii or Microsoft’s Xbox and more and more seemingly devised, enthralling story lines like the ones in the epic World of Warcraft or even The Sims, players everywhere are getting hooked into these virtual worlds, which, in terms of music placement, translates into a lot of exposure and a lot of potential.

This booming market is erasing the already thin lines between senses, providing a complete experience and full coverage of the fantasy world.  Anything is possible in the realm of video games, and music supervision and the art of music placement explores all these possibilities – it has become, really, an instant path towards success: bands and composers gain new audiences, while music supervisors gain new ground.

The music placement business is benefiting from the millions of gamers that are constantly thirsty for more; in the end, music placement maintains its essence as an art form: it is focused on finding the perfect means of expression for a particular feeling and context, so that those millions of gamers can feel fully immersed in those worlds and in those moods; that is when you know you have done your job.

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