Who Pioneered Video Game Music?
Music in video games is very important. It informs the mood, shapes the atmosphere and can even be a gameplay mechanic in its own right.
As games have evolved, the complexity and importance of their music has grown as well. But while we are used to modern releases having full orchestral scores, this was not always the case. In fact the earliest games had no music whatsoever.
So who is responsible for bringing music to games, and what challenges have been overcome to get us to where we are today?
Dealing with technical limitations
The first thing to point out is that adding music to video games was not brought about by some innovative person who thought outside the box. Rather it was only because of the restrictions of the hardware in the early days of the industry that the first games did not benefit from soundtracks.
It was not feasible to store full audio recordings on the media available at the time, and so digital solutions were required. Coupled with the fact that music had to sit alongside sound effects, developers had very little wiggle room with what could be achieved.
Very basic music appeared in Space Invaders in 1978, with a looped series of four notes playing out. It was not until 1980 and the release of Rally-X that a definite melody, composed by Toshio Kai, was included in a game.
In essence, like much of the early video game movement, it was Japanese developers and composers who came together to push the envelope and squeeze as much from the available tech as possible.
Building a better future
Over the course of the 1980s, video game tech took several major leaps forward, with systems integrating multichannel sound and eventually embracing higher end audio processing chips which could recreate polyphonic tunes alongside effects without a problem.
However, storage was still a limiting factor, and it was not until the 1990s that the move to CDs gave far more scope for cinematic scores to be added to games.
Tracks could be streamed directly from these high-capacity optical disks, meaning that everything from classic licensed music tracks such as the most iconic songs about gambling, to original compositions recorded by entire orchestras, were within reach of even modestly-budgeted games.
Compression was still heavily relied upon to ensure that all of the data required could fit onto a disc, and this meant that audio quality was somewhat compromised compared with standalone music CDs.
Even so, this is the point at which the majority of the boundaries to music in games were removed, and so composers were free to do whatever they pleased with their creative compulsions.
Putting the player in charge
The CD audio era was not the end for music in video games. It was merely a stepping stone to something even more unique.
It would not take long for developers to realise the potential of home consoles and PCs using optical drives to let players pick their own soundtracks for their games.
This could either be achieved by swapping discs mid-play in the case of consoles, or drawing on audio saved to the hard drive of a desktop computer.
When the Xbox was launched in 2001, bringing with it a comparatively large internal hard drive, player-derived soundtracks came to the living room.
And while this is still a relatively niche feature, it remains to this day for those who want it, especially as internal music storage has been replaced by streaming services like Spotify.
Looking to the past while living in the future
The first games to bring music to pump up the action were limited by the technology of the time, but with those restrictions came charm. Because of this, for many years since developers and composers have been able to do whatever they want with game soundtracks, many have opted to hark back to the past and create soundtracks that are retro-inspired and dripping with nostalgia.
This tends to be done to fit in with the wider aesthetic of a game. The likes of Spelunky, Shovel Knight and other modern releases with old-school styling have gone all-out with 8-bit music to evoke the epoch of gaming they emulate.
So much has moved on in the gaming industry, and yet music, like graphics and even gameplay, does not always have to shed the trappings of the past, or escape the restrictions faced by pioneers, which is what makes it such a rich and varied artistic medium.