She Shoots, She Scores A Brief History of Video Game Music
Published Jun 10, 2013Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, the Canadian "multidisciplinary hyper orientalist cesspool of 'east' meets 'west' culture," are quite serious about the multidisciplinary part. The noh-wavers latest excursion beyond music's thunderdome is Your Task // Shoot Things, an infinite-running 2D shooter boasting the group's signature black-and-white animation as well as what they promise to be "a genre-defying original soundtrack" (as if they were capable of making music that didn't defy genres).
Your friendly neighbourhood games columnist recently joined YT//ST co-founder Alaska B in a New Music 101 seminar on videogame music. Alaska, who also contributed music to cult stealth side-scroller Mark of The Ninja, discussed the group's in-progress game.
"It's a fusion of a shooter and rhythm tap, where the entire game itself has been designed to play in time to a soundtrack like we were writing a rock opera," she elaborated. "The music has been remixed and reworked in order to line up with the game, so they actually play through the music itself. Having written for theatre and film before, this is a new…task."
New to YT//ST, perhaps, but the game music genre has been levelling up since the late '70s.
Blips, bleeps and bloops, Oh My! (1978 to 1985)
Remember in Back to the Future when Michael J Fox started playing "Johnny B. Goode" and Marvin Berry called up his brother Chuck and said "you know that new sound you've been looking for?" In a still-analog music world, arcade and Atari bleepscapes were entirely digital ― made through tone generation, sampled tones or frequency modulation synthesis.
Early game music was memorable like the Pac-Man theme or useful like Space Invaders, which had the first continuous score, rather than just interstitial, and increased tension by increasing tempo as the aliens approached. Though the Atari 2600 could initially only produce two tones at a time, by the early '80s
new CPUs and sound chips were allowing eight or more, leading to slightly more complex game music like Frogger.
NESymphony 1985 to 1995
This is where videogame music started to sound like actual music, thanks to the more powerful 8-bit processors and audio advancements as well as the involvement of composers, not just coders. Koji Kondo (Mario, Zelda), Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy) and Yuzo Koshiro (Streets of Rage) took influences ranging from classical to techno but it all sounded like "videogame music" thanks to being filtered through primitive tech. Yet they remain indelible and orchestras now play these early game scores on tour.
The subsequent transition to 16-bit added improved sample technology and multiple chips, allowing the music to become more intricate.
Viva La CD Revolution (1995 to 2000)
The move from cartridge to compact disc added a massive influx of memory so that instead of sequencing everything, pre-recorded music could be streamed off CD. This allowed Star Wars games to use John Williams' symphonics and Trent Reznor to score Quake, the most high-profile game soundtrack of its era despite being more atmosphere than music.
But not everyone was onboard with the CD revolution allowing for full studio recordings rather than synthesizers, including Uematsu who composed FF VII and VIII on MIDI.
Last-Gen Revolution (2000 to 2006)
The previous console generation heralded a huge leap forward in audio as game music split into two basic streams, adaptive and soundtrack. The latter's best exemplified by Grand Theft Auto, which left the realm of "game music" altogether by curating virtual radio stations, letting gamers pick their own soundtrack and leaving a legacy of quality and quantity that continues with GTA playlists on Spotify and iTunes.
But the real advancement was adaptive music. Though there were earlier experiments, technology finally allowed game music to be comprised of mix-and-match stems that could truly react to the gamer. Unlike a movie score composed to set visuals, a videogame score has to work despite every gamer playing unpredictably, an ever-increasing fact of life in gaming's new open-world era.
Halo took this adaptive template and applied it to traditional cinematic tropes like orchestral symphonies and Gregorian chants while Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory did the same for electronic music with Ninja Tune's Amon Tobin.
"It was a matter of making tracks that could be split into different layers and each would correspond to a different level of stress in the game. So you'll be creeping around and might just hear strings and bass, then a guard spots you so the percussion gets layered on top and you'll get full-on drums when you're in a battle situation," Tobin told Exclaim! at the time.
Now-Gen Evolution (2006 to 2013)
Current-gen consoles dramatically ramped up graphics but didn't add much to audio, allowing developers to explore game music without having to suss out new tech. This has resulted in everything from Massive Attack's Neil Davidge directing a 50-piece orchestra for Halo 4 and Austin Wintory's atmospheric, Grammy-nominated Journey score to Bioshock Infinite's anachronistic 1912-style covers of modern-era pop songs like "Tainted Love" and "Fortunate Son." Then there are Toronto-made modern classics like Sound Shapes and Sword and Sworcery, which are practically interactive albums.
Soon enough, we'll be able to hear what Yamantaka // Sonic Titan have composed to push game music even further, just as a new generation of consoles arrive, perhaps setting the stage for something we haven't heard yet.