More Than 8-Bits: Music in Video Games
small, More Than 8-Bits:
Music in Video Games, 'Get Even', photo: promotional materials, get_even_3.jpg
Music for video games is a genre that has been developing since the early 1980s. Even when 8-bit computers were still in use, this kind of music already had its great classics, for example, Ben Daglish or Rob Hubbard. But the audience from outside of the gaming community considered it a marginal phenomenon not worth the attention. This situation has changed together with the increase of both video games’ cultural prestige and the technical properties and possibilities of computers today.
The sound of a beating heart
The first to steps into the market were made by CDs with music composed especially for the most popular games. Later, one could witness the first symphonic concerts being performed, devoted to this new genre – the very first one took place in 1987 in Japan, and it was conducted by a composer Koichi Saguyama. The following ones were organised in Europe (Leipzig, 2003) and in the United States (Los Angeles, 2004). Nowadays, albums with soundtracks for video games are selling just as well as film soundtracks. However, it should be underlined that game soundtracks have their own, separate and specific set of rules.
A great example of this phenomenon is Get Even – a new Polish production from the Gliwice studio Farm 51. Music for this game was created by the French composer Olivier Deriviere. In one of the game's first scenes – when the hero explores an abandoned building whose walls are covered in graffiti –the player suddenly experiences an outburst of metallic noises that clearly stand out both from the ambient sounds (footsteps or raindrops hitting the windowpanes) and the electronic music in the background. So the player starts looking for the source: maybe someone slammed a door? Or perhaps there is a hidden mechanism somewhere behind a wall?
The sound is very regular and repetitive. Gradually, the player ceases to link it with any realistic source, especially since the background music seems to be tuning into these noises. The sounds are getting more disturbing and irritating. The hero moves on, at the player’s will. The closer to the goal, the more rhythmic the sounds become. Now they are so deafening that they drown all the other sounds. Finally, the player realises that these odd sounds are actually the distorted beat of his/her own heart. Later in the game, it will turn into the central motif of the game's soundtrack.
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This is not a traditional soundtrack – it is composed of various sound effects which build the tension. Heading towards the climax, the soundtrack depends on the hero’s movements and actions. The player has some control over it – they can go back, and the music slows, or, in turn, move forward and accelerate it. In short, the game’s interactivity translates to the music as well – listening to a recording of it or hearing it performed on stage is entirely different from experiencing during gameplay.
Motifs, arrangements & background noises
Such an approach has not always been considered obvious. At the very beginning, music would appear in games just to entertain the player while viewing the title screen. Rarely did it accompany the gameplay itself – and if it did then, in most cases, it was just the same musical motif played over and over, regardless of what was happening in the game. A real breakthrough for the interactive video game music was the iMuse system created by the LucasArts company. It allowed smooth changes between the musical motifs interacting which interacted with what was happening in the game. Even in the first game in which it was implemented, Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge (1991), it worked in an interesting and subtle way: in the first location, a town called Woodtick, the same melody was repeated until the hero entered a new building – then the melody arrangement would change.
One of the most significant and pioneering projects exploring the kind of approach to video game soundtracks in Get Even is the game called Thief: The Dark Project (1998). Eric Brosius, the author of its soundtrack, decided to erase the boundary between the sound effects and the background music. The main character is a thief who explores a fantastic and mysterious medieval steampunk city. The game focuses on sound in a way that had never been done before. The thief has to move as silently as possible so as not to attract peoples' attention. But he also has to listen to sounds surrounding him – footsteps and other worrying noises. The game uses these sounds; it creates space by adding echoes, it realistically simulates travelling and muffling ambient sounds. The music interwoven with the rich sound elements are tightly connected with their environment and they are not just yet another part of the background, but also an integral part of the sound landscape – to such an extent that it is often difficult to tell whether what the player can hear is ambient noise or part of the soundtrack.
A similar philosophy was adopted by Martin Stig Andersen for the Copenhagen company Playdead in creating the soundtracks for Limbo (2010) and Inside (2016). They are both platform games which follow the adventures of an unnamed child who travels through unreal, macabre and dystopian worlds. The music itself can be heard very rarely throughout the game since the greatest focus is put on the perfectly developed, suggestive sound effects, which make up complex rhythmic compositions. This ‘music’ created from overlapping ambient sounds is most important both in Limbo and Inside.
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Player of the opera
There is also a different strategy. Substituting sound effects with musical pieces, we can allow the hero to play with various elements of the game as if they were real musical instruments. This is the strategy adopted in the game Proteus. Its soundtrack was created by musician and composer David Kanaga. The game is based on exploring an island where almost every creature and plant makes a different set of sounds. Thanks to this feature, each stroll will generate different, dynamically changing musical backgrounds. In materials for his game Oίkoςpiel: Book One, Kanaga describes video games, first and foremost, as a musical form based not on quests and challenges, but on a suspense structure spread over the time (of gameplay). A key-word for the description of this game is 'opera' – it is not difficult to guess that the patron of Kanaga's game and theoretical ideas was Wagner with his ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk – a total work of art.
polish video games
music for video games
The history of video game soundtracks tells us a lot about the way in which their creators have learned how to integrate music with the complex, interactive and unpredictable form of games. The final goal seems to be the moment in which it will not be possible to detach the experience of listening from the experience of playing the game and the drama that comes with it.
In 2018, Get Even was nominated for a British Academy Games Award (BAFTA) for its soundtrack.
Martin Stig Andersen was one of the speakers during Digital Cultures conference.
Originally written in Polish, July 2017, translated by AS, May 2018