Music, if you’re looking at it fundamentally, is simply wavelengths and vibrations that hit the hairs of your ear canals in a certain way. It’s mathematical, with traditional notes that we perceive as “pleasant sounding” having this magic ratio between wavelengths that line up almost too perfectly. It’s a showcase of human skill and physical finesse, with hundreds of hours of practice and intense labour involved in order to produce. However, music isn’t really any of those things. It’s an amalgamation, for sure, but the crux of music lies in the heart. What it makes you feel. What it makes you think.
How it enriches your soul.
Music has been at the basis of civilization since the dawn of time. Primitive people beat on drums to produce natural rhythms in order to provide themselves with some kind of order and allow them to dance around campfires for enjoyment. Early and even current religions used music in order to praise gods and were a staple of ritual with beautiful hymns and choirs setting the stage for their ultimate enlightenment. Music has evolved into something ubiquitous and within our modern era, we have instant access to any song we’d like and there are genres upon genres that can be discovered. Music is in our malls and elevators, on our first dance after getting married, in the busy house party blasting away and, most important to our topic at hand, in our media.
Writing the first notes
Gaming has always attempted to make music an accompaniment, since playing in silence to the bleeps, bloops and blasts sounds like something out of a nightmare. In gaming’s primitive state, games suffered major restrictions in terms of space, available hardware and ability. But due to human ingenuity and a can-do attitude, early game music composers used these limitations to their advantage. Early gaming consoles, arcades and computers had extremely limited audio capabilities due to the hardware restrictions of the time, so the only way to compose music was to make things simple.
This simpleness created these iconic theme songs that we know close to our hearts today. If you think the first level of Super Mario Bros. your brain almost instantaneously remembers the song that plays in the background. John Williams, the legendary composer of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones theme songs once said that in order to make a theme song as recognisable as possible, it has to be as simple as possible. That’s why in the Star Wars theme, there’s an orchestra quietly in the background with simple melodies played the most audible. You can hum it right now, can’t you? You can’t hum a Yngwie Malmsteen song.
This limitation of bringing things down and making simple melodies gave birth to some of the most recognisable songs of gaming ever and showed us why soundtracks are so important for games. A soundtrack is not only there to provide a sonic backdrop to a visual experience, it’s also there to give a game its identity. A voice, if you will. It’s thanks to composers such as Koji Kondo, Yuzo Koshiro, Manami Matsumae, Masato Nakamura and Nobuo Uematsu who were responsible for some of the most memorable soundtracks of gaming’s past that it didn’t just become a necessity but an artform of its own.
Chiptunes and mechanised melodies were a product of the past, but at some point, we had to move on to bigger and better. Hardware was improving, chipsets and soundcards allowed for more audio clarity and the focus moved from recording two notes at a time to something akin to what films have been doing since the days where someone played the piano during a silent movie to give it a soundtrack. We started heading into the orchestral and our speakers were now capable of delivering us the soft touches of a cello and the flourishing bombast of a piano playing a crescendo. Everything changed.
Writing the melodies
When games first started implementing choirs, the momentum of video game composition started reaching a critical mass. Composers could do anything that their hearts desired and the focus shifted from creating catchy simple theme tunes to becoming the backbone of a gaming experience. Japanese composers flourished in this department and many of the big names that often get brought up in “best video game composers” lists hailed from Japan. Japan has very classical tendencies, harkening back to Beethoven-era orchestration and this set the tone for many of the following works that transpired in video game sound.
Stringed instruments started getting implemented, hard percussion was a must for heavy action scenes, sweeping slow soundscapes were a favourite for slower sections and overworld exploration. The quality of these soundtracks were entirely dependent on the composer of the music as well as their ability to match what is happening on the screen. In order for a soundtrack to be stellar, it needed to harmonise with its visual counterpart. Be cohesive rather than separate entities. It’s no use having a pounding percussion section in an emotional scene dealing with loss. It needs to fit.
Most of the best soundtracks of all time achieve this harmonisation as well as being independently meritable. It’s one thing to be a perfect fit for a game, but also a great soundtrack to listen to on your own outside of the intended experience. Finding that sweet spot is an integral part of giving video game music its credibility and I firmly believe that we’ve already achieved this.
The goal of the soundtrack is to make one feel. This definition is purposefully broad because it can include our whole wide spectrum of potential emotions. We get the relaxation and emotional intrigue from a track such as To Zanarkand. The primordial wonder and building suspense of the iconic Halo theme. The song of the Dovahkiin that makes you want to charge headfirst into battle. The poignancy and emotional brevity of Zia’s theme. The hellish chaos and aggression of Rip & Tear. We can quite literally be here all day.
These songs and soundtracks enlighten the gaming experience for us and it has become an art onto its own. A personal favourite composer of mine is Gustavo Santaolalla who was responsible for The Last of Us’ soundtrack. He wasn’t shown the game and asked to make music, he was given the themes, the motivations and the feelings of the scenes and then asked to make music based on that. He tuned everything down, used PVC pipes and natural wind instruments to keep everything as grounded as possible. In a game where the world is desolate and desperate, this aligned absolutely perfectly. The sombre detuned guitars, the rustic bombast in action-heavy scenes and the emotional strings made this soundtrack one of my absolute favourites. This was based on the fact that this wasn’t a perfect orchestration from people that went to Berkley, it was something that came from a composer’s heart and soul. The trademark of an excellent composer.
This doesn’t even include the standard music we get within all of our games. Everything from the main menu music to the songs that play while you’re shooting and exploring worlds. This can include licenced soundtracks as well, which is a careful art of its own. If a game includes quality tunes that are recognisable and fit with the game, it can be an incredible boon. When I first booted up Mafia III and heard All Along the Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix, I was instantly in love with the game before even pressing start. Grand Theft Auto V has everything from hardcore punk to country music to satisfy every musical need. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater turned all of us into punks in the early years for a while. Music-centric games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band can, and in my case, have, influenced people’s entire musical taste to a drastic extent.
Video game music is polymorphic and can be what makes or breaks a game. If the soundtrack to what you’re playing isn’t up to par with the rest of the experience, it can feel like a gigantic gap that needs to be filled. A soundtrack can make a good game great, as it were. If it’s on your playlist as you work or you own the CD in its own fancy sleeve, then you can count that soundtrack as something special that needs to be cherished. Games have this very special ability to merge what is already an interactive artform with another artform as old as time itself. And this combination is something that we need to embrace and be thankful for.
From the earliest bleeps to the current orchestra-worthy epics that we have now, soundtracks have always been important in gaming’s evolution and identity. It’s something that, shockingly, you sometimes don’t even notice. It’s in the background, it’s not the focal point, but it is the colour we use between the lines. Without music, games would be horribly dull and being in an impossible mystical world in utter silence would be some sort of cosmic cruelty. I’ve only lightly touched on some of the most iconic soundtracks in gaming’s archives and I’m sure some of you are itching to link your favourite songs and soundtracks in the comments. So go do exactly that. Make the music spread far and wide and enlighten those that haven’t heard the notes yet.