How electronic music has shaped the Games industry over the last 40 years

The world of gaming has exploded since the mid-90’s. While there’s never been a shortage of gamers, it’s only been in the last 10 – 15 years that it’s become such a visible cultural presence. The clichéd image of a gamer as a nerdy boy who can’t talk to girls or that it’s just for kids is most definitely a thing of the past. The ratio of male to female gamers is almost 50/50 with the average male gamer aged around 35 and average female 45. The industry has grown to a gargantuan size with global annual revenues around €60 billion. There are sponsored leagues where gamers make a full time living playing competitively. The most subscribed channel on YouTube is PewDiwPie, the Swedish gamer who plays through games and comments on them in real time.

As of September 2016 he has just over 48 million subscribers and leads the next channel by around 20 million subscribers. Here at home is a thriving game development community and we can now boast a number of award-winning home-grown studios and offices for some of the major players in the industry including Blizzard Entertainment, Riot Games, Activision, and EA. Since the early 2000’s Ireland has been building a name for itself as a leader and innovator in the tech sector. From 2003 onwards a slew of game development studios started to emerge across the country.

2015 saw Irish developers gain international recognition for a fascinating mix of titles. Gambrinus studios raking in praise and an Indie prize for Guild of Dungeoneering, an innovative approach to dungeon crawling adventure games where instead of controlling your hero directly, you build the dungeon around him, populating it with monsters, traps and loads of booty! Your options come from your decks of Guild cards amassed by managing your adventurers Guild, building it up to attract more unwitting adventurers to your lair. The fascinating VR experience DEEP by Owen Harris and Niki Smit made finalist for ‘Most Amazing Game’ at Berlins’ A Maze video games festival.

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Deep is an underwater VR experience that introduces yogic breathing techniques as a means to deep relaxation and stress relief. Diaphragm expansion is monitored through a custom controller and visual feedback is sent to the headset to help encourage deep breathing and relaxation. The project got going when Harris began designing a digital Zen space for himself on the newly released Oculus Rift to help him with his own meditation practices. Spurred on by a lot of interest in the concept he started to develop it for a wider audience, eventually teaming up with artist Niki.

The game that took the prize at that same event was also an Irish production, an effective and heart-breaking construction called Curtain by Dreemfeel X. It takes the form of the old text-based narrative games and deals with the emotional turmoil of abusive relationships. At half an hour in length, it is brief by comparison with most of today’s offerings but the experience set out is unique. Buoyed by a graphical style like the old 8 bit systems; pixelated and with washes of colour that shift like moods. The game was also honoured with a Game Script award from the Irish Writers Guild. So with all this activity in Irish gaming, we thought we’d have a look at the kinds of challenges video game composers have dealt with over the decades.

The story of video game sound kicked off back in 1972 with the introduction of Pong by Atari. This simple paddle and ball tennis game contained a series of beeps and blips when sticking the ball or scoring. These sound effects were all the circuits were capable of creating at the time. The limitations of burgeoning computer and electronic technology was to be the greatest shaper and obstacle in the evolution of game music and define the creative challenges for the generations of composers who would try their hands at it, and for many, ultimately forge full-time careers dedicated to it. The huge popularity of Pong caught the interest of other technology companies and spurred the development of new games.

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Towards the close of the decade saw the introduction of the now iconic Space Invaders (1978) by the Japanese Taito Corporation. Players controlled the direction of a small ship at the bottom of the screen and had to shoot down the onslaught of descending alien ships before they reached the bottom of the screen. It is often credited as being one of the first shoot-em-up style games and also an early example of that key game music feature: adaptive music. A collection of four quarter-note pitches play at around 60 bpm, as the difficulty and speed of the game increases so does the speed of the music thereby heightening the tension for the player. The music is designed to respond to the player’s situation. This concept would become integral in how composers would think about game music as the technology evolved.

On into the 80’s and the possibility of melodic compositions in games is heralded by the development of the Programmable Sound Generator (PSG). These generators could produce basic waveforms that any modern producer would recognise: Sawtooth, Triangle, Square, Sine, and Noise. It also allowed for ADSR volume envelope controls for each voice. An amusing example from this period is the 1983 commercial flop Journey from games company Bally Midway. The game finds the rock band Journey on an interplanetary quest to reclaim their stolen instruments.

While generally regarded as one of the worst games ever, it featured novel arrangements of the bands music using a three voice PSG as the background for the gameplay and comical renderings of the band with photographed faces and cartoon bodies. Players were even treated to a full rendition of “Don’t Stop Believing” played from inside the arcade machine by audiocassette at the end of the game. As the decade progressed the introduction of Frequency Modulation chips allowed for up to eight simultaneous voices and were adopted by many of the leading arcade manufacturers of the time. They made possible more varied textures and timbres than had previously been possible. While a noticeable jump in sophistication, resources were still very limited. A striking example of some of the challenges of this period comes from an interview with composers Clint Bajakian and Michael Land about their careers with Lucas Arts.

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The mid 90’s saw the production of video game incarnations of two of Lucas’ major franchises: Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Bajakian talks about being confronted with adapting themes and atmospheres from John Williams’s scores, performed by the then 105 piece Lucas orchestra, to fit the limitations of a nine voice sound card. In his words, “you would have to distill down an entire orchestra’s worth of content to whatever the most prominent gesture was.” No mean feat. With another colleague, Peter McConnell, they would go on to develop the first adaptive music engine called iMuse. It allowed composers to introduce branch loops and markers into a sequence that would let the music change based on player choices. The technology debuted 1991 with Monkey Island 2: Le Chucks Revenge.

The arcade machine dominated the video games experience of the 70’s and 80’s. The machines had in general, up until that point, and throughout, used superior graphic and audio technologies that put them in a competitive position to the home offerings available to consumers. Home console gaming was first popularised by the Atari 2600 in 1977, the follow-up to the very popular home Pong machine. The 2600’s were severely limited in what composers could do. It allowed for only two simultaneous voices that also had to accommodate SFX and was incapable of producing certain frequencies so that some pitches were impossible to synthesise.

1983 saw the almost complete collapse of the video games industry in North America, the result of a price war in the PC market and a saturation of the games market with rushed, crappy games that turned consumers away. One clear victor emerged from the wreckage in the form of the NES from Japanese game company Nintendo. It was not Nintendo’s first machine, their original Colour TV was only released in Japan and the second, Game and Watch, was a single game handheld precursor to the Gameboy. The NES featured up to five available voices for the composer and gave rise to the first generation of some of the most recognisable franchises in the games world and to some of the great classic video game themes.

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Two of the industries most revered composers made their first marks on the platform. Legendary composer Koji Kondo focused his energy on melodic invention to compensate for the lack of voices available. This emphasis on strong melody would become a hallmark of his style, creating classic themes for Super Mario Bros (1985) and The Legend of Zelda (1986). He has continued to work on these staple franchises as they have evolved into Nintendo’s current generation. The Super Mario Bros main theme is an icon of video games and has been referenced countless times in popular culture. Deserving of special mention is the last title he composed all himself, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998). Generally ranked among the best games of all time, it also contains arguably some of the greatest melodic themes ever composed for game.

The other great thematic composer to emerge from this era is Nobuo Uematsu, made famous for his work on the Final Fantasy series, which made its debut on the NES in 1987. The series was a smash hit and he began to develop a style characterised by defining themes for specific characters and environments, like what might be found in film or opera. He has even been listed in the Classic FM Hall of Fame.

The early 90’s saw console technology start to rival the arcade machines with the next generation Super Nintendo (SNES) 1991 and Sega Genesis 1988. The Genesis used an FM chip with digital audio playback and the SNES could handle up to 8 simultaneous voices of sample playback. Things really started to get interesting with the introduction of CD-ROM technology in the smash hit PlayStation console from tech giant Sony in 1994. This technology allowed for much bigger game sizes than were possible before (600mb) and gave composers ability to stream pre-rendered digital audio files opening the door for titles like The Lost World Jurassic Park 1997 which featured the first fully recorded orchestral soundtrack.

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The PlayStation was also home to the revered Final Fantasy VII, lauded not only for it’s immersive story and gameplay but also the sweeping score from Nobuo Uematsu that has become a classic of video game music and developed his thematic approach to characters and storylines (a remake is currently in production). Another standout title for the platform was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night 1997 which featured music from multiple genres including classical, techno, jazz and metal. Nintendo’s rival N64, released in 1996, retained the use of cartridges and relied on the use of synthesis techniques.

It did, however, still produce titles notable for music such as Goldeneye 1997 and the aforementioned The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 1998. Interestingly Nintendo decided to build the N64 without a dedicated sound chip. They would supply developers with sample sets to be written onto the game ROM and playback duties were added to the CPU and co-processor. This left developers a balancing act whereby maximising music capabilities would affect game performance, especially if the graphics and game mechanics were processor intensive.

Sega introduced the next generation of technology in 1998 with the Dreamcast, the follow-up to the commercially disastrous Sega Saturn. The 128-bit DVD-ROM technology allowed for an increased quantity of voices and real-time DSP effects like reverb and filtering. The platforms life was short, Sega decided to abandon the console business in 2001 in favour of developing cross-platform games. Hot on its heels, Sony released its successor, the PS2 in 2000, which has gone on to become the best-selling console in history. A year later Microsoft made its first entry into the market with the Xbox which also boasted 128-bit DVD-ROM capabilities. DVDs brought the overall game file size to around 7GB, a massive jump from the 600mb of CDs.

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This meant composers could fit considerably more music, and at higher quality, into the games. Final Fantasy X (2001) for instance contained around 3 hours of music from a team of composers. The hit Grand Theft Auto III (2001) used a slew of licensed music that players could access by changing radio stations in cars. Another PS2 title, SSX Tricky, had a cool use of real-time DSP. The snowboarding game would apply a low-pass filter to the music in proportion to how high in the air the player was, adding to the sense of being far from the ground. Many Xbox titles contained beautifully executed scores such as the iconic Halo (2001).

Nintendo also joined in with the GameCube (2001). Armed with a dedicated sound chip this time and some exceptional games including the beautifully scored Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (2002) and a personal favourite, a remake of the original Resident Evil with a sparse and jagged piano accompaniment that was perfect for the unsettling atmosphere of the horror genre. All three consoles came with 5.1 surround capabilities. This brings us to the modern incarnations of consoles. The Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 and their successors the Xbox One/PS4.

What these machines have brought most significantly for composers, are such considerable boosts in processing power and RAM that many of the limitations of old are no longer present. Less so in the case of Nintendo as it decided to focus a less powerful, and so less expensive, machine aimed at families. It will be interesting to see where the innovations will lead. The industry is just starting to test the audio limits of the current generation which will drive the next development in capabilities. Exciting times.

Note: This article origianlly appeared October 2016



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About the Author

Ken has been a musician ever since being mesmerised by Jazz performers at the age of three. A dedicated bass player, he has a deep love of all things low end. His time at college was spent studying the works of the classical masters and a few years in Paris searching out the heart of Jazz. An early encounter with Daft Punk's Discovery album sparked a passion for all things electronic and he has recently been making his way into the world of production.