Videogame music: stuck in a rut?

Last week, I was invited to speak at Buma Music in Motion in Amsterdam, an event centered around music within the different forms of visual arts: film, TV, and video games. The sole gaming panel featured writer, filmmaker, and Canada Research Chair in Interactive Audio at the Games Institute Karen Collins; Senior Music Supervisor at Sony Computer Entertainment Duncan James; and yours truly representing my music label Brave Wave Productions. Titled ”Video Games Music: Stuck in a Rut?,” the one-hour panel focused on the usage of music in video games and its evolution throughout the years.

It’s been said that artists work best under constraint, so does the absolute freedom offered in our modern times hinder the progress, or perhaps the inventiveness, of contemporary composers? This is a point of contention amongst game music enthusiasts, especially with the prolific employment of the orchestral Hollywood sound in triple-A games often cited by the community as a sign of the homogeneity of modern game soundtracks. In his book I AM ERROR (MIT Press, 2015), writer and musician Nathan Altice chronicles the NES and Famicom both as game machines and as cultural artifacts, and in the seventh chapter we get a rigorous dissection of the console’s audio processing unit and the arduous task of creating music for it. “[It’s] not like composing on a piano. It cannot be played with a keyboard; it has no inherent understanding of notes, scales, or tempo. Instead, composing [for the Famicom] is identical to programming: audio data is encoded, stored, and interpreted in the same format as code, byte by byte in hexadecimal numerals.” Altice argues that these technical restrictions, archaic in nature and seemingly counterproductive, are the underlying catalyst for that era’s best sounds.

This is a regular discussion that I have with the pioneering Famicom-era composers that I work with at Brave Wave. Composers such as Keiji Yamagishi (of Ninja Gaiden) and Manami Matsumae (of Mega Man) had to experiment with technique in relentless pursuit of great sound, often under unrealistic deadlines. Their experiments were the kindling for ideas that became standard practice, such as emulating percussions with the pesky noise channel, and the recording of drum sounds with the 1-bit sampling channel. The complex nature of the Famicom’s audio processing unit forced the composers to go above and beyond in order to produce sounds and melodies that complimented the visuals and were pleasing to the ear. They were not only in charge of composing the music, but also of arranging it themselves for the incredibly limited hardware. The imagination of the cornered musicians gave birth to some of the best and most effective works of video game music, from the jazzy sounds heard on Super Mario Bros. to the drama-heavy tunes of Mega Man and its sequels. In recent times, a new wave of acolytes have risen high thanks to those limitations, embracing the medium and keeping it alive by driving it to new limits — from the Gameboy-composed bangers of Chipzel and Danimal Cannon to Shovel Knight’s enthralling VRC6 soundtrack by Jake Kaufman.

While I firmly believe that the limitations of the NES era played a pivotal role in emphasizing the importance of the video game composer, I see modern trends as a natural progression for game soundtracks. It’s easy to think that the contemporary composer has such a number of tools at his disposal making it easy to follow Hollywood trends, and is no longer tempted to challenge the status quo. But at the same time, new and modern types of games and forms of play are merging to include diverse experiences, thanks in part to the rising importance of independent designers and composers. In the soundtrack to Fez, where one would expect chiptune music in accordance with the game’s looks and style, Disasterpeace laid down an intriguing juxtaposition with a score that is rich in ambient soundscapes and electronic fizz. Instead of drawing solely from the pixelated visuals, he worked to create music that matches the feeling of the game and its art direction rather than just its design. Eirik Suhrke followed suit with his quirky soundtrack to Spelunky, where the music for each world would play randomly in a rotation of world-specific tracks, embracing the roguelike design of the game. Another example is Kozilek’s shifting score to Luftrausers, a game that plays its music depending on the player’s custom design of the plane, where changing the front or rear design alters the music produced.

Such applications are found in both the independent and triple-A spaces, but we’ve come to expect more innovation from the former due to the overwhelming freedom allowed by indie game designers. Where the goal with Famicom-era music was to create catchy melodies within strict technical constraints, many modern composers choose to focus on genres that previously were difficult to implement (e.g. minimal and ambient music) and the different forms of play that require a new way of approaching the music.

There’s a simple answer to the question imposed by the Buma panel, which was in turn proclaimed by Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu, and that is to look beyond the triple-A games for the thought provoking and exciting scores. There’s no argument to be made for the superiority of any given era’s music, as it all boils down to each era’s designs and limitations requiring different methods and applications. Acknowledging this and embracing it allows us to advance the medium in ways that go beyond singling out substances as style and melody.

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