Video Game Music
This chapter considers how video game music developed and cultural and ethical challenges in creating gameworlds with music.
Identity / Media / Music Technology
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It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when video game music began. Maybe it started with a room-sized computer at Manchester University in 1951, where a computerized game of Draughts finished with a computer-produced melody of “God Save the King.” Perhaps it was with the ‘beeps’ of the arcade hit Pong (1972). However, by 1977, arcade games like Circus undoubtedly played music.
Initially, game music was created through “sound on chips”: music was stored as instructions sent to sound chips that played the music. Usually, these chips would only be able to play a few notes simultaneously, and they had specific timbres (waveforms) and ranges that they could produce. This method of making sound was so clearly electronic that it gave the music a distinctively artificial quality. With the technological development of sound hardware and increased storage space, it became possible to include more pre-recorded sound in games. Games could now play back recordings rather than make the music in real-time on chips. With this change, any kind of recording—such as orchestral, rock, or electronica recordings—could be incorporated into games. The mid-to-late 1990s saw an uptick in recorded music in games, primarily because of the development of the CD-ROM format that increased storage.
Video games have long looked to their sibling media of film and television for inspiration. With the increase of recorded music in games, orchestral recordings—like those of Hollywood films—started to appear more in games. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), the first-released game with a newly-composed orchestral score, was a film tie-in to the Jurassic Park franchise. Modern games routinely incorporate orchestral music, but it would be a mistake to characterize game music history as simply a journey from computer chip instructions to previously-recorded soundtracks.
Games differ from film and television because they are interactive. That interactivity can take many forms, but it usually means that timing and outcome are variable. Therefore, composers must write music that can adapt depending on the nature and timing of in-game events. Kasey Collins and others call this “dynamic music” (2008). There are many approaches to dynamic music, but it usually involves writing music in discrete chunks that can then be looped or re-ordered as required by the gameplay. It’s a bit like musical Lego, which is why Elizabeth Medina-Gray calls game music “modular music” (Medina-Gray 2016). Composers can also write musical chunks that are designed to be stacked on top of each other so that the music can respond to the gameplay through adding or subtracting layers. Both the nature of the musical system and the musical material will affect how the player experiences music in the game.
Music that reacts to you while playing a game can be thrilling. When we listen to most music, we cannot affect how the music plays out unless we rewind, skip ahead, or alter the playback speed. In games, we can. These musical reactions point to the importance of interactivity in gaming and raise questions about how players engage with game music. Players and scholars often assert that music contributes to the phenomenon of engagement with games, using the term “immersion.” Yet, there is no agreement on the definition of this widely-used word—whether it means feeling like you are present in the space of the gameworld’s reality (as in believing you are no longer in your living room, but have been transported to, for instance, another planet), simply being deeply involved and engaged with playing the game, or some combination of the two (Calleja 2011). While music contributes to both meanings, it can be more confusing than useful, so it is worth being mindful about if, and how, we use it (see Van Elferen 2016).
Ludomusicology is a term that entered musical circles in the 2010s to refer to the study of music and play. While several languages use the word “play” both for musical performance and for taking part in games, scholarship has only recently begun exploring the connection between the two. While many ludomusicological discussions concern video game music (since digital games provide such a clear and fruitful avenue for examining this connection), ludomusicology is by no means limited to game music (Moseley 2016). Indeed, many game music scholars emphasize the connections between the music of games and in other media. We often seek to ask both what music “does” in games, and what games can tell us about music outside games.
Fan engagement with video game music has proven to be important for creating musical communities outside of the games themselves. Chiptune, for example, involves making music with the sounds of old consoles and sound chips. Many of these musicians argue that game music abandoned its distinctive sonic quality when recorded music became dominant in games: we have lost the specific artificiality and methods of composing that were unique to sound on chips (McAlpine 2019). Chiptune fans choose to celebrate these older technologies and sounds while finding new methods to make music with the old chips. Old technologies become resources for self-expression, tools for reacting against the accepted wisdom of “newer is better.” Whether through the vast number of covers of game music on sites like YouTube and OverClocked Remix, orchestral concerts of game music (like Video Games Live), or the chiptune community, many people clearly demonstrate how game music is meaningful to them.
To talk about “game music” is to discuss music that can involve nearly any kind of musical style. There are few absolutes about what game music is or is not. It can be dynamic music, but some of the most popular game music is not interactive. It can be chiptune, but that is only a subset of game music. It can be composed specifically for a game, but games also meaningfully use pre-existing music, too. Games are a way to examine, discuss, and better understand musical experiences and meanings. I offer two case studies to explore how that might work in practice, but more than anything, I encourage you to undertake your own explorations and adventures in game music and make your own discoveries. In short: go play!
Calleja, Gordon. 2011. In-Game: From Immersion to Incorporation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Collins, Kasey. 2008. Game Sound: An Introduction to the History, Theory and Practice of Video Game Music and Sound Design. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Donnelly, K.J., William Gibbons and Neil Lerner, eds. 2014. Video Game Music: Studying Play. New York: Routledge.
Fernández-Cortés, Juan Pablo. 2021. "Ludomusicology: Normalizing the Study of Video Game Music." Translated by Karen M. Cook. Journal of Sound and Music in Games 2(4): 13–35.
Fritsch, Melanie and Tim Summers, eds. 2021. The Cambridge Companion to Video Game Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McAlpine, Kenneth B. 2019. Bits and Pieces: A History of Chiptunes. New York: Oxford University Press.
Medina-Gray, Elizabeth. 2016. "Modularity in Video Game Music, " in Ludomusicology: Approaches to Video Game Music, edited by Michiel Kamp, Tim Summers and Mark Sweeney, 53–72. Sheffield: Equinox.
Reformat the Planet [Documentary]. 2009. Directed by Paul Owens. 2 Player Productions.
Moseley, Roger. 2016. Keys to Play: Music as a Ludic Medium from Apollo to Nintendo. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
Van Elferen, Isabella. 2016. "Analyzing Game Musical Immersion: The ALI Model," in Ludomusicology: Approaches to Video Game Music, edited byMichiel Kamp, Tim Summers and Mark Sweeney, 32–52. Sheffield: Equinox.
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Tim Summers teaches and researches music at Royal Holloway University of London. His work concerns music in modern popular culture with a particular focus on music for video games. His research seeks to understand the musical experiences and educations that mass media provide for the huge audiences they address.