Following the completion of this text, you should have gained a greater understanding of the study of video game music, and you should have a basic toolkit available to you with which to analyze, write about, comment on, and evaluate the function of game music. You should be able to trace the historical trajectory of game music and explain some of the reasons behind the developments. You should also be aware of the importance of the study of video game music, and why this music is such a prominent fixture in contemporary culture. While this text is not a manual on how to compose for video games, aspiring or working composers in the industry should benefit from the discussions of compositional and theoretical techniques, which can be applied to future compositions.
9.1 Video Game Music History
This text covered the history of video game music, from the late 1970s, when music began to appear consistently in arcade games, through the present (in this case 2016). This is not a significantly lengthy period of time, but in this short period, game music underwent tremendous growth and change. The first game to have continuous background sound was Space Invaders (1978), and consisted of a continuously repeating four-note pattern. Today games can contain hours and hours of pre-recorded and streamed audio, most of which can be programmed to change continuously throughout the game. Some concepts, however, have remained throughout history, such as the responsiveness of the music to gameplay. The sounds in Space Invaders, for example, sped up as the player got closer to failure and slowed down when the player began to succeed again, and this type of adaptive response is present in current games, when sounds increase in volume, change in instrumentation, or adapt in other ways. Therefore, while there are many differences in the actual sound of game music, some of the core functionality of the music remains the same. It is important to recognize the impact of technology on the development of game music, as these limitations led to the amount, duration, and type of sound that could be played back on any given console or computer device. The NES, for example, contained only five channels of sound, with many limitations on what types of sounds could be produced. Such limitations do not exist today, and composers are free to do what they wish, including substantial post-production of sound material before it is programmed into a game. Such technological limitations have informed the style of music and its development. The evolution of game sound function also played an integral role. In the 1970s and 1980s, music was added to arcade games (mostly during the title screen) to lure customers, as the loudest games attracted the most people. As sound technology became more accessible and game music became longer and more individual, the intended function became more about creating individual and unique soundtracks, rather than flashy and loud sound. This evolved further once 3D gaming and surround sound entered living rooms, with sound and music both serving to immerse the player in a realistic gaming experience. However, while the function has changed considerably over time, all of these uses emerged out of a desire to sell more games, and to keep players actively gaming.
This fast development of video game music, which included rapid changes over a period of about four decades, has seen scholarly reflection only in very recent years. Some publications have been produced regarding the study of game music, and many dissertations (especially since 2012) have begun to discuss elements of game music. Prior to these publications, most books discussing video game music were written for aspiring game composers, and took a more commercial approach. Therefore, the reflection on video game music and its development as a scholarly subject is actually quite new. This reflectiveness can also be seen outside scholarship, with the rise in nostalgia gaming, including the re-release of old games and the development of new games that are modeled after past generations of games. One thing that has remained clear is the importance of music and sound in games, which will continue to have an impact on game music and its development. The future of game music is uncertain (as most technologies are), but it is likely that we will see evolution in immersive sound, with the advent of virtual reality technologies, as well as increases in music composed for nostalgia gaming. The market share of applications and downloadable games also has an impact on game music, as these games have different musical demands. The primary discoveries following the historical study in this text are:
- Video game music is informed by technology,
- The overall function of video game music is continuously changing, but consistently aims to attract players,
- Reflection upon video game music will have an impact on its future development, and
- The future of video game music is uncertain, but will likely result in several differing trajectories.
9.2 Theoretical Concepts
In this second unit of this text we examined the theoretical concepts of video game music, including terminology related to music for interactive media, the function of music within a game, and the ways in which game music uses themes for storytelling, characterization, and musical cohesiveness. Because this text is intended to be an introduction for anyone, including those that do not have a strong background in music, more detailed formal analyses and those involving specific harmonic or pitch analysis were left out. However, you should have an understanding upon completion of this text on concepts related to video game music, such as the differing degrees of interactivity (reactive, adaptive, and fully interactive), the way in which music is made to be indefinite (looping, dynamic looping, and generative music), and whether the music can be heard by the in-game characters (diegetic vs. non-diegetic). Once again, these are concepts that, while they have been written about to a degree, have not reached the academic mainstream, and certainly no unified scholarly definitions exist. However, it is crucial not to lump all game music into a singular category, such as interactive, or looping, without understanding how it functions with regards to gameplay, and what techniques are used to create music that is both engaging and indefinite. Currently the term interactive is difficult to define even within academic electronic music, despite being consistently written about, and many texts and articles about video games term the music interactive, taking for granted the meaning of the term with respect specifically to the music (interactive media does not automatically indicate the music is interactive). The fact that video games are a media with indefinite time is also pertinent to the study of the music; this implies a radical difference in both the compositional process (unlike film composers, video game composers do not have the ability to play the game from start to finish and set the music to picture lock) as well as the approach to the sound. Composers cannot even determine an approximate amount of time a player will remain in any given area of the game, as this can vary substantially from player to player. Therefore, several approaches to indefinite music have emerged, beginning with the concept of linear looping (repeating the same piece of music over and over), developing into more dynamic forms of looping, which include modifications of a continuously looped piece of music, and eventually giving way to other alternatives such as generative music, which is a type of music created in real time based on some kind of pre-written algorithm. All of these types of indefinite music have compositional merit, and their use is very much determined by the type of gameplay and game that they occur in.
You should also be aware of the form and function of game music, and the way in which music relates to gameplay. Music differs depending on the area of the game it occurs in; many of the stylistic traits of music in these situations have developed out of gameplay paradigms that were present in the very beginning of video game history. Music functions as a result of what is going on in the game; therefore, during a battle the music will be considerably different than when the player is in a safe area of the game. This concept applies to game genre as well, as genre is determined by gameplay mechanics. Between the mechanics of gameplay, possible audience, game setting, and even psychological factors, the genre of a game will have an influence on the style and type of music used within. Finally, use of themes in video games remains an important component to the compositional organization; many RPGs make use of extensive libraries of themes for individual characters, events, or places, using such themes as leitmotifs. Other games, including more immersive and fast-paced games like Halo, use the continuous use and reworking of a small group of themes in a way that creates a unifying sound, a concept related to cyclic form. Just as with many of the other theoretical concepts, the integration of themes in games is highly depended on gameplay and function of music within the game. The primary discoveries related to theoretical constructs in games discussed in this book are:
- An appropriate analysis of game music will consider how it functions as a music for interactive media,
- Function and placement of music is an important determinant of its features, and
- Themes can be used effectively in numerous ways in video games.
Following the completion of this text, the reader should have a very clear understanding of these basic concepts relating to video game music, including:
- An understanding of the basic history of game music,
- A framework for analysing game music theoretically,
- An understanding of the social and cultural impact of video game music.
For further understanding of game music, you can examine the references cited within this text, and find your own sources on the subject, as the body of literature on video game music continues to grow. Game music is continuously in evolution, and as more analysis and evaluation is made on music in games, these analyses may affect future game music. Therefore, this text should not be seen as a definitive solution to all analysis of game music, but as a good basic framework from which one can begin their examination of the genre.