The soundtrack of your childhood: the music of video games

Music in video games collage

When soundtracks are mentioned, movies and television series are what usually come to mind. However, video games have evolved to include soundtracks that can easily match the subtle art of film scores. And they have an earworm quality to them that can transport you back to a moment in time just like any song on the radio can. Many of us have experienced the instant flood of memories that come from hearing the theme song or coin bling from the cult classic Super Mario Bros.

Despite the positive emotions associated with the sounds and melodies from video games, you might dismiss them as unnecessary or even think, “What purpose do they really serve?” On the contrary, just think about how empty a game would feel if there was only silence accompanying it. Video game soundtracks are created with quite a few intentions in mind. Some of these include creating atmosphere within the story, communicating information to players in an artistic manner, manipulating emotions, and sharing something about the game’s setting through era-appropriate tunes. And, of course, if a video game reached wide popularity that very music is a sure-fire way to jolt your memory and enhance feelings of nostalgia.

The very first video game came out in the 1940s so it is understandable that back then games had no sound due to technological restrictions. As the quality and mechanics of video games slowly evolved, once-off sounds became integrated into gameplay, for example, the onomatopoeic beep-boop sounds in Atari’s Pong from 1972.

When arcade games and second-gen consoles became popular forms of entertainment for teens, chiptune or 8-bit music came into play. Chiptune is synthesised electronic music made specifically for PSG sound chips. A good example of chiptune music can be heard in the arcade game Gun Fight from 1975. The first game to use chiptune to create a continuous soundtrack is the insanely popular Space Invaders. It had four simple chromatic descending bass notes that were repeated in a loop.

Space Invaders was also one of the first video games to make use of what is called a dynamic soundtrack. A dynamic soundtrack is where certain events within the game cause the background music to change. For example in Space Invaders, when the aliens start getting closer, and thus more threatening to the player, the music simultaneously gets louder and faster. This shows the player that gameplay is getting more challenging and, of course, raises one’s heartbeat to a mile a minute!

In 1978 a game called Simon (as in Simon Says) became the first game to incorporate sound as part of the gameplay itself. It was a console-like device with four brightly-coloured buttons. Each button produced a particular tone or sound which was inspired by the notes of a bugle. The device would light up in a random sequence and the player would then have to replicate the sequence by pressing on the buttons. Nowadays we have more advanced games like Guitar Hero and Rockband where you play along with the onscreen music on “real” instruments. Ubisoft’s Rocksmith, where the player connects an electric guitar to the console to improve their musical skills, is another great example of how far we’ve come with the incorporation of music into gameplay.

Video game music has upped the ante significantly since the days of Pong and Space Invaders. Nowadays producers and classical music composers are hired to create original, epic masterpieces to accompany games. You can hear the amazing quality of this type of music in games like Elder Scrolls, Portal and World of Warcraft.

In the late 1990s Nobuo Uematsu, the composer of nine Final Fantasy game soundtracks, participated in a series of concerts that were created around these fantastical soundtracks. The concerts were immensely popular with people fighting to get tickets, something previously only seen with big rock bands and singers. They performed in Japan, Germany, Australia and America over the years. Uematsu’s latest concert, Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy, is being performed in America later this year. The talent of Uematsu and the success of the music events have definitely put video game music on the map with several other video game music composers following suit with their own live concerts.

Video game scores have been winning awards and gaining recognition even though opportunities are few and far between. The first piece of video game music to be nominated and winning a Grammy award was Baba Yetu from the game Civilization VI. Subsequently, the Grammys officially included video game music in their Visual Media category in 2012. The BAFTAS, on the other side, have been hosting a British Academy Games Awards with an Original Music category which includes video game music since 2004.

Music from video games has even wormed its way onto pop charts. Back when Space Invaders was first released in 1978, bands already started sampling the game’s unique sounds. A full studio album featuring songs based on games like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Frogger and Asteroids was released in 1982 by Buckner and Garcia. The title song, Pac-Man Fever, became a top-ten hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Specific genres like bitpop, 8-bit and synthpop that utilise video game music and sounds have since emerged. Big artists like Eminem, Ke$ha and Dizzee Rascal have also sampled these sounds in their music and continue to expand and assimilate this genre within popular music.

Unfortunately, video game music alongside its history and its composers are not yet getting the recognition and respect it deserves. It is like a secondary character on a television show that no-one really pays attention to but without them there would always be the feeling that something is missing. Next time you play a video game, take some time to pay attention to the sounds and background music because someone out there created it for a purpose.