Have you ever imagined what a film would be without a score? How about without foley? Woefully incomplete. The fact is, backing tracks and audio elements are just as much a part of entertainment as the visual aspects.
The same is true of video games. Without background music (BGM) or sound effects, a game would be severely lacking, and not just for the absence of something pretty or exciting to occupy one’s ears while playing.
From the very first video games, sound has played an immense part in setting overall tone, increasing tension and appeal, and enhancing a player’s connection to the game they’re playing. Take the first sounds one hears in Super Mario Bros. (1985), for example. These iconic tracks and effects evoke a sense of nostalgia for many, and those who may not have spent a childhood hearing them — and even people who have never touched an NES controller — can recognize and identify the opening notes.
And video game music has only improved since then, evolving beyond the confines of the games in which they’re contained, into an art form. A quick search on YouTube will turn up channels like Smooth McGroove, RichaadEB, and GameChops — all with different innovative takes on what video game music means, and how it can be transformed into something new.
It’s not difficult to see how music can accomplish a wide variety of tasks in a game. Using a popular example, “Stickerbrush Symphony” (from 1995’s Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest) starts out simply, then builds in complexity and volume — but it never overpowers the actual interactivity of the gameplay. Nor is it distracting; from a level’s opening, it helps fashion an atmosphere that is airy yet driving, and encourages the player to take in the scenery while still focusing on finishing the level itself.
And with increasing technology comes increased sound quality and potential complexity…in most cases. Many remember early tracks from the Sonic the Hedgehog series, such as the excellent “Chemical Plant Zone” (Sonic the Hedgehog 2, 1992).
But just because composers CAN create better music doesn’t necessarily mean they DO. An offshoot of the main series, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood (2008), features overly simplistic, unappealing tracks like “Central City” that not only fail to engross the player in the game’s world, but also fail to take advantage of the technology at the time.
Listening to the track, one might guess that it came from the era of the Sega Master System, or the Genesis at best. However, the game was released in 2008, seventeen years after Sega’s first Sonic the Hedgehog title. By all means, composers could have (and SHOULD have) taken advantage of vastly improved cartridge size and sound processing to create a better soundtrack, but for “Central City”, that just wasn’t the case.
Despite the select few exceptions, though, developers have done an excellent job using the sound processors available to them to create interesting, often immersive music to accompany the overall feelings of a game and its varying levels, sections, or other parts.
Game music composers have always been proud of their work as well — many games feature a “sound test” mode, dedicated to the ability to play music and sound effects from the game without actually having to navigate to the parts of the game where one would normally hear them. The execution of this mode varies. Sometimes all tracks are available at the beginning of the game. Oftentimes the tunes can serve as rewards, unlockable by completing certain tasks or collecting them as the game progresses.
Players have long loved music nearly as much as the games themselves. Notable composers, such as Nobuo Uematsu (the musical force behind the majority of the Final Fantasy series) and Koji Kondo (who continues to score and oversee musical direction of the Mario, Zelda, and Star Fox series, among many other Nintendo franchises) have entire orchestral concerts dedicated to their honor; and conventions such as MAGfest and the Game Music Festival are able to unite players and music fans all over the world.
And the online community dedicated to listening to and altering video game music is huge. OverClocked ReMix, for example, began in 1999 as a humble forum for those interested in remixing music from games, and has grown into a massive community of musicians who have collaborated with each other and publishers like Capcom to provide the official soundtracks to games such as Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix.
The aim of this column is to take the soundtrack from a given game and analyze most, if not all, of its tracks, critiquing and appreciating the collection of tunes. Each analysis will take into consideration the technology available at the time of the game’s release, the composer’s experience, the number of available tracks, and many other factors. The soundtrack in its entirety will then be rated on an appropriate scale. Stay tuned for the first installment!