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Game Music: Enhancement Through Limitation


This is a column by Jesse Gregory all about his primary obsession, video game music. He feels that despite how core to the experience soundtracks often are, they aren't as large a part of gaming discussion as they should be. Let the discussion begin!

Game music has changed.

It's no longer about bleeps and bloops, absurdly catchy hooks, or finding ways to cheat hardware restrictions. It's an endless series of film scores masquerading as game music performed by live orchestras. Nanomachines inside their bodies enhance - oh, wait. Now I'm just stealing from Metal Gear.

The game music of the past has been etched into our culture. If you visit sites like OverClocked ReMix, you'll quickly realize how much more love and attention the soundtracks of older games get than those of modern day. Whether it's the ringtones you hear at a gaming convention, the music behind goofy YouTube videos or the soundtrack arrangement scene, classic game music dominates.

Is this merely a product of the fondness we associate with these tunes from our childhood memories? Is it all nostalgia? That's certainly a legitimate factor. But there's far more to it than that.

Back in my day we didn't have your fancy streamed audio. We had to make do with whatever noises a game system could be coaxed into making. The NES in particular had only enough slots for two square waves, a triangle wave, a noise channel, and a DPCM channel for very limited sampling. Considering that these few components also have to handle a game's sound effects, you can imagine just how limited this tool set is to work with.

Composers had to make everything they did count. More often than not, adding a harmony to your lead meant sacrificing any non-bassline accompaniment you had going. Choosing between a backing arpeggio or harmonizing leads is the type of difficult decision that was made on a regular basis.

More often than not, adding a harmony to your lead meant sacrificing any non-bassline accompaniment you had going.

Composition was king. You lived or died by your attention to melody and articulation. Creating a mood by emulating the sound of real world instruments was simply not an option. This intense focus on such a small set of simple waveforms gave birth to countless, instantly recognizable melodies that would live on to permeate gaming culture to this day.

But while catchy soundtracks were plentiful, creating more meaningful, emotional scores was incredibly difficult. Famed composer Nobuo Uematsu did as good of a job with the hardware limitations as one could with his music on the Final Fantasy series. But it was the move to the more advanced Super Nintendo hardware that allowed him to create a piece of music that would become so popular and was so well crafted that it would actually be incorporated into sixth grade curriculum in Japan.

Not only were there now eight sound channels to work with, they could also reproduce the sounds of actual instruments thanks to advanced (for the time) sampling technology. The rocking rhythm guitar of Mega Man X, the stirring string ensembles of Chrono Trigger, and the unsettling staccato choir of Super Metroid showcased a new golden age of game music.

Composers no longer had to sacrifice accompaniment just to make a harmony, allowing them to make more complex compositions. But at the same time, the instruments at their disposal weren't so high in quality as to be able to wow somebody with timbre alone. Without a truly great melody to back it, no instrument was of a high enough caliber to impress. This created a perfect balance of freedom and restriction that led to some of gaming's most memorable soundtracks.

As time marched ever onward, streamed audio became commonplace. This isn't inherently bad. Without it, we couldn't have things like the Jet Grind Radio soundtrack. But as a wise uncle once said to a certain superhero, "With great power comes great responsibility."

With the advent of streamed audio, the line between game music and film scores has blurred substantially. Many big budget titles today are often loaded with incidental music that you'd be hard pressed to guess which game it even belongs to. It's often more about setting a very subtle mood than creating an interesting piece of music to listen to outside of the game's context. With the exception of a main theme and a small handful of other tracks, most of the music in these film inspired scores feels disposable. It serves its purpose, but I find it hard to believe that people will look back at these type of soundtracks the same way we look back at the game music of the 80s and 90s.

You can always find exceptions to the rule (especially in Japan) and hopefully you always will. But to a large extent, the unique identity the music of this medium used to have is diminishing. For better or worse, the fact remains that game music has changed.

Jesse Gregory is a freelance writer and electronica musician living in the Seattle area. Aside from co-founding and contributing to The Mega Man Network, he's been published on Kotaku and SideQuesting and hosts the game music podcast, Sound in Action. When he's not listening to game music, he's remixing it. Follow him on Twitter: @mainfinger

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