Video game music has developed simultaneously with the advancements of its surrounding technology, whether it is through improvements in the technology used to compose the music, or the technology with which it is received. With video game music essentially only being around 50 years old, it is crazy to think how far it has come. Today we’ll discuss how the technology used to compose video game music has improved, and what that has meant for the music that’s now able to be created.
Early video game music and its technology flourished in Japan in the early seventies. Companies like Capcom helped pave the way with early systems found in popular arcade games, with female composers such as Manami Matsumae and Yoko Shunamura playing a huge part in the development of the sound.
The music was written for the Nintendo Famicom (or the Nintendo NES in the West). It was a hard and laborious task, with each individual note having to be programmed incessantly, and to cap it all off, the system only had three individual channels!
However, it is often said that limitations breed creativity, and out of this movement, the music for Mega Man, Street Fighter and many more games were created. This sounded like music we now know as Chiptune and 8-bit, and was hugely influenced by Classical Composers such as J.S. Bach. His music, especially the works for keyboards, often had only 3 parts, but involved counterpoint, which is the interplay of individual elements to create an overall musical texture. This can be heard in early 8-bit music too – listen to the original themes for a lot of your favourite games from this era; you’ll hear a bass line, melody and a line in the middle that keeps interest. As you can tell, this was a step forward than the basic bleeps and bloops of earlier systems!
As the music developed, dynamic soundtracks started to become the norm – they took the music and communicated information in the game to the listener. A vast majority of this music was made via digital synthesis, which is the attempted replication, or creation, of sounds through electronic means.
Computers were able to harness much more power than that of Eighties, and were therefore able to accommodate large-scale synthesised scores, allowing composers to express themselves in new ways, creating more dynamic pieces of music.
Composers like Nobo Uematsu (Final Fantasy) and Yuzo Koshiro (Streets of Rage) wrote for consoles such as the Commodore Amiga, Sony MegaDrive, and more, all of which featured more advanced soundchips. However, there was still a significant lack of memory in these systems, and the music they created was very minimal, with repeated riffs and rhythms, electro-style basslines and trance-like sounds.
There’s been an incredible improvement in the power of today’s technology for musical creation. Computers are now able to handle terrifically large-scale projects, able to store and replicate the sound of orchestra through samples. They can play the parts themselves as if they are the orchestra, and there it’ll be. They can emulate vintage synthesisers in their software and even have access to digital guitar amplifiers. Basically, anything the composer can hear, they should be able to produce it in their software – there’s so much scope to be creative now, and it’s near impossible to NOT be able to create a sound.
With this, the audio-visual experience of playing a videogame has dramatically increased; there’s been an explosion in the types of genres found in games, and the introduction of Dolby Digital Software (what they use in Cinema to create an immersive experience) into the gaming realm has meant film composers such as Brian Tyler, Trent Reznor and more can be found composing for games. An increase in budget for the development of a game means that the audio team can record a full orchestra and bring the Hollywood experience to a smaller, but arguably more immersive, experience of a videogame.
The increase in memory available on a system means that players can essentially choose their own soundtrack; the score can develop as they play it. Think about it for a second – from the 1970s, with only three lines of music able to be written, to today, where we can actually write too much music that we are leaving it up to the choice of the player.
All of this allows for the creators of video games in today’s industry to further draw you in and send you on a journey. As technology has improved, so has the music, but the imagination of the original developers remains the same. We are seeing a return to the more nostalgic sounds of Chiptune in some games, and but more experimental modes of composition in others. I’m looking forward to the next fifty years – who knows how it’ll sound then!