Music in video games is a phenomenon that evokes epic adventures, emotions, and immersive gaming scenarios. It is an integral element of modern productions that has the ability to build atmosphere, excite players, and guide them through virtual worlds. But what is “game music” really? How did it come into existence and evolve in the history of video games?
What is “game music”?
The term “game music” is extremely versatile and encompasses various musical genres used in video game soundtracks. The history of music in video games is fascinating and allows us to understand how unique musical features distinguish this field from others. Video game composers had to develop creative ways of working within technological constraints, leading to the creation of a new kind of music later known by gamers as “video game music” or simply “game music.”
The history and development of video game music are intriguing subjects. They focus on analyzing how limitations of previous gaming systems influenced the musical choices of composers. However, before delving into these aspects, it’s essential to understand how music became an integral part of video games.
The Beginnings of Video Game Music
The early days of video games were technologically modest. In the 1970s and 1980s, when video games began gaining popularity, computers and consoles were far less advanced than they are today. Technical constraints, such as limited available memory space or the absence of advanced sound capabilities, posed a challenge for composers. They had to use the available tools and technologies to create music that not only was an integral part of gameplay but also evoked emotions and impacted players.
One of the first breakthroughs in video game music was the introduction of digital sound in the arcade game “Space Invaders” in 1978. Tomohiro Nishikado created a very simple musical theme for the space shooter. It consisted of just four looping beats. However, the song sped up as descending enemy aliens approached the player’s base.
Despite its simplicity, the music for Space Invaders was revolutionary for the gaming industry at the time. It popularized the concept of variability, the idea that music could change according to the unfolding on-screen narrative (read more: Composing Classics: A History of Video Game Music). This opened the door to the creation of more complex soundtracks. Today, it’s an entirely different kind of music that goes beyond four looping beats.
“It was thus the first time that sound effects and music were superimposed to form a rich sonic landscape. Not only do players receive feedback related directly to their actions through sound effects; they also receive stimulus in a more subtle, non-interactive fashion through music.”
(Schartmann, Andrew. Maestro Mario: How Nintendo Transformed Videogame Music into an Art. New York: Thought Catalog, 2013.)
Another milestone was the development of music in games on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the 1980s. It was there that we first heard iconic melodies like “Super Mario Bros.” and “The Legend of Zelda.” Although these compositions were technologically limited, they became an integral part of the identity of these games.
Technological Challenges and Creativity
Technological constraints prompted composers to experiment with new ideas and create unique sounds. Melodies had to be recognizable and catchy to be memorable to players. These technical limitations, such as a limited number of available sounds at once or the absence of advanced sound effects, led to the development of characteristic features of video game music.
Characteristic Features of Video Game Music
One of these features is repetitiveness. In games where players often perform the same actions repeatedly, the music must be enjoyable and not become tedious even after multiple repetitions. Composers understand this need well and create melodies that are both memorable and pleasing to the ears.
Interactivity is another crucial aspect of video game music. Unlike traditional forms of music, where a piece is linear and unchanging, game music must adapt to the player’s actions. This means that the soundtrack can react to what is happening on the screen. For example, when a player approaches an enemy, the music may intensify, creating tension. When they triumph, it can play a triumphant melody, rewarding their success. This interactivity makes game music exceptionally engaged in the gameplay itself.
Evolution of Music in Video Games
As video game technology evolved, so did the music within them. Contemporary games offer incredibly elaborate and composed soundtracks that can convey a wide range of emotions. Some combine different musical genres, creating something entirely new and immensely satisfying for players.
Game Music as an Integral Part of the Player’s Experience
Music in video games is not just background or an add-on; it is an integral part of the player’s experience. It is a form of art that has the ability to influence emotions and leave a lasting impression. It is also a great example of how video game creators and composers can use technology to create something unique.
Music in video games is not just sound – it is magic that accompanies us during every adventure in the virtual world. But most importantly, music in modern video games is music with a capital “M,” entering the canon of music alongside film music.