Levels of Sound

Eric Pidkameny
May 15, 2002

Table of Contents


Why is video game music important? To most people, such a question would seem absurd; video games are almost universally viewed as low-brow entertainment, useless or childish, at best a distraction and at worst a sign of cultural decay--certainly not the source of anything we might classify as art. Perhaps when games were first given sound and music there was little recognizable as artistic; indeed, there was little to hear at all--a few notes at the start of Pac-Man, a steadily growing pulse in Space Invaders, but not real music. Yet from those first primitive synthesized tones and primitive arcade games grew an industry where good music has become essential to creating top-selling games with sustained popularity, where the pieces composed are at least as musically and artistically complex as those made for film and television soundtracks, and where there is a genuine demand on the part of consumers for the soundtracks of games, a demand which has begun to span the globe. What can explain the overwhelming popularity of video game soundtrack CDs in Japan and, increasingly, in the US? On the Internet, there are countless websites devoted to video game music, featuring MIDI files, mp3s, interviews with the composers, and thousands of game music remixes--all created by fans. What is it about game music that makes it "a third of the gaming experience"[1]: hummable, profitable, essential to most good games, and yet largely overlooked whenever we catalogue the "relevant" music of our culture? In refusing to acknowledge the cultural weight of video game music, we are ignoring the work of talented composers and we are denying the effect that this music has had on our individual and collective consciousnesses; even if we do not actively remember the sounds of the games from the late 70s and early 80s, they are still imprinted in our minds. It is my intention to prove first that there exists game music with considerable beauty and art, and second that game music, as a feature of video and computer games, allows for a level of interactivity with its listeners that no other genre of music can match, wherein the gameplayer himself is involved in the process of composition.

Game Genres and their Music

I will begin by defining some terms that will play an important role in my study.

First-Person Shooter

First-person shooters (FPS) are games where the action takes place from the player's perspective, as a simulation of movement and interaction (primarily in the form of shooting weapons) within a three-dimensional space. While some exploration takes place in FPS, the focus is mainly on combat and survival, defeating all the enemies in a level and/or reaching the end of the level. Music in FPS can range from creepy, ambient melodies to thumping techno rhythms; this genre is perhaps the most atmospheric, the most dependent on the soundtrack to set the mood and to provide important clues for the player (a shift from calm music to menacing music when an enemy is near, for example). FPS have a high potential for interactive music, since the player's environment has a high interaction potential; enemies appear suddenly, passageways open and close, and the player is constantly updating his playing style, moving slowly through the shadows when avoiding an enemy, then charging out with guns blazing to take him by surprise. A truly interactive soundtrack would tailor itself closely to the player's style while still providing atmosphere and audio cue; for example, the appearance of an enemy would cause the "Enemy Theme" to play for both a cautious player and an aggressive player, but the cautious player would hear the theme played in a different style than the aggressive player would--in a minor key, for example, as opposed to a major one, or with slurred notes rather than sharply articulated ones. Examples of FPS include Doom, Oni, System Shock 2, and Unreal.

Graphic Adventures

A graphic adventure is a genre of computer game where the emphasis is on solving puzzles and exploring one's surroundings, rather than on killing or destruction. Storylines are usually rich and detailed, and the player learns more about the character he controls and all the other characters as the game progresses. Mark J. P. Wolf refers to this type of game, under the heading of "Adventure" in his list of game genres, as "games which are set in a 'world' usually made up of multiple connected rooms, locations, or screens, involving an objective which is more complex than simply catching, shooting, capturing, or escaping".[2] Graphic adventures are the direct descendants of text adventures, one of the earliest genres of computer games; text adventures are simply graphic adventures without the graphics. In the early 80s, text was the easiest way of portraying a game world (and computers lacked the capacity to create or store high-quality image files), so text was used to describe the game's environment and its characters; popular examples of text adventures include Zork and Planetfall. Early graphic adventures (such as the Space Quest and King's Quest series) retained the text-driven engines of their predecessors by requiring the player to enter in his commands using the keyboard, just as he was required to do in the text games; current graphic adventures generally employ a mouse interface.[3] In graphic adventures, music tends to be less intrusive and more ambient; the composer knows that players will be hearing his pieces looped many times while attempting to solve the game's puzzles, so his task is to come up with music that engaging yet not distracting. Examples include The Secret of Monkey Island, King's Quest, Loom, and Myst.


One of the most prevalent genres in home console games (both the NES and Sega Genesis' flagship games were platformers), these are

games in which the primary objective requires movement through a series of levels, by way of running, climbing, jumping, or other means of locomotion. Characters and settings are seen in side view as opposed to top view, thus creating a graphical sense of "up" and "down," as is implied in the category "Platform." These games can also often involve the avoidance of dropped or falling objects, conflict with (or navigation around) computer-controlled characters, and often some character, object, or reward at the top of the climb which provides narrative motivation.[4]

The music in platform games tends to be energetic and upbeat, encouraging the player to make his way quickly through the levels; some platform games also have a time limit for each level--if the player moves too slowly, time runs out and he dies. Music in platformers also tends to be non-interactive (except for speeding up when a level's time limit is almost expended, as a way of telling the player to hurry up), but there is considerable potential for interaction in this genre; platform games even as early as Super Mario Bros. allowed a large amount of interaction with the virtual environment, and in many ways platformers are distant cousins of first-person shooters. Examples of platform games include Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, and Sonic the Hedgehog.

Role-Playing Games

A role-playing game (RPG) is similar to a graphic adventure in terms of its story breadth and its emphasis placed on exploration, but the main focus of it is less on puzzle-solving than on fighting monsters, finding treasure, and (usually) saving the world from evil. RPGs are the direct descendants of tabletop pencil-and-paper games like Dungeons and Dragons. Wolf defines RPGs as "games in which players create or take on a character represented by various statistics, which may even include a developed persona. The character's description may include specifics such as species, race, gender, and occupation, and may also include various abilities, such as strength and dexterity, usually represented numerically."[5] Since the RPG focuses more closely on character development than any other genre, it has the most potential for a nuanced and complex plotline and, therefore, an extensive soundtrack. It should be noted, however, that as RPGs are the most narrative-dependent genre of games, their interactivity potential is somewhat limited; most of them do not allow significant deviation from the pre-programmed storyline and the music that accompanies it. Thus, though the soundtrack of an RPG can be beautifully written (and often is), at its heart it is most like film music. Most RPGs involve the player wandering around on a large map screen or through various dungeons, being attacked regularly by random bands of monsters (fighting the monsters allows the accumulation of treasure and experience, which in turn allow the player's characters to buy better equipment and gain levels to fight more effectively); as these random battles occur countless times during the course of a game, the music accompanying the battle screen is the most often heard of any other music in the game, and, if written badly, can be the most annoying. Examples of RPGs include Final Fantasy 3, Diablo, and Baldur's Gate.

Other Important Terms


A cutscene is a section of a game where the player has no control, where he simply watches the plot unfold; a cutscene is essentially a little movie within the game, and game developers usually include them as a way to move the plot of the game in a desired direction and/or as a way of rewarding the player for solving a tricky puzzle, completing a level, or finishing the game. Cutscenes represent video games (and their music) at their least interactive, where the player is watching passively as he would a film, and therefore the potential emotional effect of the music on the player is just as great as it would be for a film score.

Interactive Music

In video games, music is said to be interactive when it can be directly altered by the player's actions. "Interactive audio is a technology designed to allow specifically created audio, placed in a given application, to react to user input and or changes in the application environment."[6] Interactivity is sometimes known as "adaptivity," since the music can be said to be adapting itself to the player's actions, to changes in environment and mood (e.g., from a safe environment to a hostile one, or from a cheerful scene to a sad one); in his article on interactive audio, Rob Ross suggests that "interactive" is ultimately a more accurate label than "adaptive": "Some might say that Adaptive Audio or even Reactive Audio is a better term for what I'm talking about, but I think that these labels do not properly convey the idea that we want the audio to not only react to a given situation or adapt to the changes in the environment but to also to give a portent of things to come." This "portent of things to come" is the essence of interactive music, the idea that the game will be programmed to expect the player's actions and to translate that prediction into music--to be aware of the player's actions almost before he is, yet still allow the music to evolve in a natural and unscripted way.

The History of Game Music

I'd like to start by briefly chronicling the history of game music, which began with the arcade games of the late 70s. The very first video games (or video game precursors, at least) -- Tennis for Two, created by engineer William Higinbotham at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1958, and MIT student Steve Russell's Spacewar created in 1963 -- had no sound at all.[7] In 1972, Pong, a simulation of ping pong, debuted as the first game to feature sound, the "sonar-blip" of the ball ricocheting off the paddles. 1972 was also the year the Magnavox Odyssey (the first home game console) was released, though it had no sound. The first real soundtrack seems to be found in Space Invaders, which arrived in America from Japan in 1978, wherein rows of aliens march down the screen, eventually reaching Earth unless the player can shoot them down first; the game had no music, but rather a steady pulse that would accelerate as the invaders got closer. Several games prior to Space Invaders employed sound effects, but this game seems to feature the first instance of non-diegetic sound (in film, this refers to "background music amplifying the mood of the scene and/or explicating dramatic developments and aspects of character"[8]) as well as the first instance of interactive sound, since the tempo of the pulse would increase if the player did not destroy the aliens fast enough. It is not until the early 80's that actual music began to appear in video games; Pac-Man (1980) is cited as a particularly popular example by Gamespot's Brief Timeline of Video Game Music, written in 2001: "The opening ditty is one of just a few video game melodies to seriously penetrate the pop-culture superconscious." Though the music in Pac-Man plays only briefly from time to time (at the start of the game and during between-level cutscenes -- which may be the first use of cutscenes in video games)[9], it can still be considered the first instance of melody used to complement the mood of a game. The bouncy, playful sound of the "opening ditty" masks the challenging nature of the gameplay, luring in would-be arcade gamers nearby and involving the player more closely with Pac-Man's fantasy world, and since the music is always brief, there is little chance of it distracting or annoying the player. Most early games did not feature continuous musical soundtracks due to the memory and sound output limitations of early arcade and home gaming machines; melodies could be composed of no more than a few lines of synthesized notes with monaural (non-stereo) sound and little or no harmony, so any attempt to create a sustainable soundtrack was an exercise in excruciating repetition--some games of the mid-80s fell prey to just this sort of trap: "Audio, especially game audio, is a powerful weapon. When used properly, it has the power to involve, immerse, elevate, and reward. It has the power to excite. It can make an artificial world appear to be deeper, older, and much more complex and complete than it actually is. But when misused, audio reveals its most awesome and deadly power--the power to annoy."[10]

In 1981, Atari released Tempest in the arcades, one of the first game machines using the "Pokey chip," which functioned as a dedicated audio processor and was incorporated into Atari's 5200 home console.[11] A significant breakthrough for the potential of game music texture, "the Pokey chip used four separate channels which controlled the pitch, volume, and distortion values of each, allowing a four-piece virtual band to perform for the first time" (Marks 3). 1985 stands out as the year the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was released, and it effectively marks the beginning of home consoles that had the hardware to support games with sustained yet variable soundtracks--in other words, true interactivity in game music became possible. Nintendo eventually discontinued the NES in 1995, but since 1983 more than 50 million consoles and 350 million games have been sold[12]. Tetris and Super Mario Bros. were both released in 1985, and both games contained infectiously popular music[13]. When considering the popularity of games that have both well-known soundtracks and high consumer appeal (Tetris and SMB are among the privileged few), the question immediately arises of how much impact the music had in determining consumer reaction to the games. Game music composer Aaron Marks feels that music does not generally have the power to make or break a game:

Normally, unless the soundtrack is made up of licensed music from mainstream bands, it won't really change a game's popularity. That's not to say that it doesn't play a role, though. If a game has lousy music, it will degrade the overall quality of the game and it might sell less because of this element. If it has great music, it will bring the game up a notch or 2 - a great game to a higher level (which in turn might cause it to sell more because every thing about the game is awesome), an average game to the 'good' level (which would initially cause it to sell better until the game players realized that game play really isn't that good - in other words, the great music won't sustain game sales.)[14]

One of the survey responses said something similar: "The music, in my experience, doesn't really make the game more fun. But if it's bad, it can make the game less fun." Simply put, games sell well because of their superior quality as software; the games Nintendo and other companies began marketing in the mid 80s were programmed skillfully with an eye toward what gamers wanted: fast-paced gameplay, a balanced difficulty level, high replay value, and immersive storylines. The fact that the games had music that didn't drive the player crazy increased their popularity, but music alone was not the deciding factor; if Super Mario Bros. had been released with different music, it would most likely still have been popular, but if Koji Kondo (SMB's composer) had written the "Mario Theme" for a game of poor quality, the music would never have been remembered. Gamespot says in their timeline: "With the Super Mario Bros. soundtrack, video game sound design begins to move in a new direction, away from cinematic conventions and toward something altogether new." While Gamespot does not comment on what that "new direction" might have been, we can assume that game composers at the time were attempting to make their music as effective as film music, while at the same time exploring the possibilities of a storytelling medium that allowed for multiple outcomes and sudden, unexpected shifts in the gameplay (for example, when the player dies in a game, the story of that game comes to an abrupt and wholly unsatisfying ending, and the music must support the idea that this ending is unsatisfying, in order to cajole the player into trying again).[15]

Following Nintendo's appearance in 1985, the home console industry grew rapidly, with the age of the arcade giving way to the age of home gaming; arcades, though still a popular venue for gaming, now had to compete with games created solely for home use, rather than translations of pre-existing arcade games. Sega and Atari released the Master System and the 7800 System, respectively, in 1986; both featured sound technology comparable to the NES, but they lacked a big hit like SMB to jump-start sales. In 1987, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy. Koji Kondo again composed the music for Zelda, and Nobuo Uematsu wrote the music to Final Fantasy; both games were the start of franchises that remain widely popular in the gaming community to this day.[16] 1989 featured the release of Nintendo's first handheld console, the Gameboy, as well as the releases of the Turbografx-16 and Sega Genesis home console systems, both of which sported more sophisticated sound technology than the NES (the Genesis had six-channel stereo sound, as opposed to the NES's four-channel monaural); Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog slowed Nintendo's single-handed domination of the gaming world. 1989 was also the year Sega released Moonwalker for the Genesis; featuring synthesized songs by Michael Jackson, the game marked the first major collaboration of a pop artist with a video game's soundtrack. In 1991, Nintendo released the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), outdoing the Sega Genesis and NEC's Turbografx-16 with eight channels of stereo sound. In 1994, Square released Final Fantasy 3 in America for the SNES; according to Gamespot, the game is "a great example of Uematsu's brilliance," and its "soundtrack demonstrates the increasing sophistication of video game music. Character-specific leitmotivs recur throughout gameplay, and the sheer variety of styles employed is audacious. Uematsu is deservedly compared to film composer John Williams."[17]

Meanwhile, on the home computing front, music in computer games began to evolve beyond primitive beeps: "Sound cards were developed with small synthesizer chips built in which allowed very small message files (encoded with triggers similar to the roll on a player piano) which told the device what sounds to play and when to play them. The sound bank consisted of 128 sounds with the capability to play a total of 16 notes at a time. This use of the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) gave [game music composers] some hope" (Marks 3). MIDI played an enormous role in computer game music, because it was such a versatile format and it could be used to make files of relatively small size; prior to the advent of CD-ROM, games were packaged on floppy disks (larger games required as many as twelve, which had to be inserted and ejected constantly), and MIDI could be used to produce synthesized music that wouldn't tax the megabyte-and-a-half capacity of the disks. MIDI is currently waning in popularity as a game music format, due to CD, DVD, and mp3 innovations, and also due to problems with its consistency; Marks says, "Internal instruments gradually became better as sound card manufacturers included high-grade synthesizer chips, but because this quality differed greatly between manufacturers, what sounded good on one card sounded like a train wreck on another" (Marks 4).

In 1995, "Sony releases the 32-bit PlayStation in the US in September at a price of $299. The 24-channel sound chip provides CD-quality stereo sound and has built-in support for digital effects such as reverb and looping."[18] Originally intended as a collaborative effort with Nintendo called Play Station (which would play CD games and SNES cartridges), the partnership dissolved and Sony finished the console on its own. According to David Sheff, author of Game Over Press Start to Continue, the deal with Sony "contradicted Nintendo's cardinal tenet of giving nothing away. Nintendo, which had predicated its business on complete control of its game software, had granted Sony the right to control (and profit from) all CD-based software that played on the Play Station" (Sheff 379). The PlayStation allowed the use of three different types of music in console games: MIDI, MOD (Digital Module), and Redbook audio; MOD is a format that allows near CD-quality music while taking up less space than CD audio, and Redbook audio is analogous to what one hears when listening to a straight music CD.[19] Of all the CD-based systems released in the early 90s (Sega's Saturn and Panasonic's 3DO console being two others), the PlayStation ended up being the most popular and the only one that continues to sell well today. In 1996, Nintendo released the Nintendo 64 (N64) console, a 64-bit system that defies the CD game trend by retaining the cartridge format of its NES and SNES predecessors (though, like nearly all Nintendo consoles, it is not backwards compatible with games from older systems). Like the PlayStation, the N64 can produce 24 channels of sound, but since its games are cartridges no Redbook audio can be used, which limits the overall music quality.

Psygnosis released Wipeout XL for the PlayStation in 1996, a fast-paced racing game set in a future where gravity is a thing of the past; its soundtrack stands out as being made up of licensed songs from popular techno artists such as Underworld, Future Sound of London, The Prodigy, and The Chemical Brothers. The game also allowed players to select which song they wanted to listen to, a feature which now appears in many racing games. In 1997, SCEA released PaRappa the Rapper for the PlayStation, a quirky music-oriented game that has the player pressing buttons in time with a hip-hop beat in order to pass through several levels of musical challenges; though the game is less about music than about rhythm, it still represents a unique game possibility, one which was capitalized on in a major way in 1998 with Konami's Dance Dance Revolution, an arcade game that actually has the player stepping on a dance pad peripheral in time with the music, earning more points for staying closer to the beat.[20] Nintendo released the highly anticipated Zelda 64 in 1998 as well: "Besides boasting an amazing soundtrack, it's the first contemporary nondance title to feature music-making as part of its gameplay. In the game, you use the ocarina, a kind of flute, to teleport, open portals, or summon allies. There's also a musical puzzle in which you must follow the bass line of a song to make it through the Lost Woods"[21] 1999 featured another big breakthrough of licensed music into the video game industry; PlayStation titles Thrasher: Skate and Destroy and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater are released with music by well-known hip-hop and alternative punk artists, respectively. Currently in its third sequel, the Tony Hawk franchise seems to be more popular, though how much of its popularity is due to its music is hard to judge.[22] In 2000, Sony releases PlayStation 2. "Along with the 128-bit Emotion Engine CPU, the system boasts 48 channels of sound plus 2MB of dedicated sound memory."[23] With the ability to play DVDs and link to the Internet, the PlayStation 2 quickly became one of the most sought-after game consoles.[24] 2000 was a game music milestone for another reason:

In 2000, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) decided to let interactive games compete in the annual Grammy awards. Individual proponents within the game music industry are lobbying for a video game-specific category in the future. So far, however, no organized lobbying group has come forward, according to a NARAS spokesperson. As it stands now, individual composers or record labels can submit video game soundtrack music independently in one of three general categories: Best Soundtrack Album; Best Song; or Best Instrumental Composition for a Motion Picture, Television, or Other Visual Media.[25]

With the inclusion of video game music in the Grammy awards, game music now has the potential to receive substantial recognition; however, no game soundtrack has been nominated yet, largely because there are not enough game composers that are voting members of the NARAS. For a game's music to be considered, it has to be "commercially available as either its own separate music CD or stored in Red Book audio format on the game CD-ROM" (Marks 310); basically, game music is only eligible taken out of its original game context - it must be able to play by the rules of "normal" music. 2001 saw the release of two other home consoles, the Nintendo GameCube and the Microsoft Xbox, which established the PlayStation/Nintendo/Microsoft triumvirate of top-selling consoles that is currently still in place. The GameCube was Nintendo's first system to finally embrace disk format, putting its games on minidisks derivative of the DVD format: "In addition to supporting CD-quality streaming audio, the GameCube's programmable digital signal processor (DSP) supports more than 100 voices and up to 64 simultaneous real-time 3D voices"[26] The Xbox had more hardware packaged with it than either of its competitors, hardware such as an Ethernet port to link with both DSL and cable broadband connections, and an 8 GB external hard drive: "Since the success of the Atari 2600 of the 1980s, American companies have tried to jump into the video game console market with limited returns. But Microsoft has something 3DO and Phillips never had--a seemingly bottomless pit of money to develop, market, and support such a device."[27] The Xbox also had an apparent edge in the sound department:

One definitive advantage the Xbox has over its competition is producing sound. Despite the fact that Xbox development kits still lack sound hardware, the Xbox will ultimately be capable of in-game Dolby Digital surround sound--a first for video game consoles. The Xbox will also be capable of broadcasting 256 simultaneous stereo voices through 64 different channels. Dolby Surround will be a snap for the Xbox, and overall, the auditory experience found in Xbox games should be superior to that of both the PlayStation 2 and GameCube.[28]

While it remains to be seen which of the three big consoles will ultimately dominate the home console market, a simple comparison of the consoles' channel and voice capabilities to those of consoles from several years ago will show that game sound technology has been advancing at a tremendous rate. In the past two years there have also been games that have explored new possibilities of interactive music. In 2001 the PlayStation game Vib-Ribbon was released in Japan and the UK; the game

takes the relationship of music and gameplay in an entirely different direction. Playing the rabbitlike creature Vibri, you must navigate levels that are themselves determined by the music track that's playing. Moody mope-rock equals slow and steady; frantic techno equals fast and furious. The kicker is that you can pop your own audio CDs into the PlayStation to generate entirely new levels based on the tempo of the music.[29]

A game that generates its levels from music is a clear step towards fully interactive audio; by somehow creating a game where the music is created by the player's playing style (and then, in turn, affects the game's environment, as in Vib-Ribbon), a game developer could create a kind of "feedback loop" music game, constantly evolving to provide a different experience for each player each time he or she plays. One example of a game that creates music by monitoring the player's actions closely is Rez, released in 2002 for the PlayStation 2.[30] The technology for game music that surpasses CD-quality audio is already available, and interactivity is becoming more and more sophisticated. It is not a question of whether or not games will progress to a state of full interactivity - it is simply a question of how soon, and that answer depends largely on what game consumers want; if the principles of interactivity present in games like Rez and Vib-Ribbon were transplanted to more established game genres, the results could revolutionize what it means to play video games.

Game Music Case Studies

In this section I will take a closer look at some of the video and computer games that have featured music of particular importance or popularity. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to touch on some of the more interesting and unique sources of game music.

Super Mario Brothers: Sometimes a Game is Just a Game

One of the most widely recognized examples of game music comes from Nintendo's best-seller platformer game Super Mario Brothers. Released in 1985 for the NES, Super Mario Bros. has since sold 40.24 million units (NP May 2002), making it the highest selling "Mario" game and one of the most popular games of all time. Koji Kondo, a lifetime resident of Japan, composed the music of SMB, and Shigeru Miyamoto, the man behind the majority of Nintendo's successful games (The Legend of Zelda, Mario 64, and more recently, Pikmin), designed the game and its odd cast of characters. The game takes place in the Mushroom Kingdom, where plumber brothers Mario and Luigi must save Princess Toadstool from the evil Bowser and his hordes of Goombas (angry-looking fungi) and Koopa Troopas (simple-minded turtles); the more one knows about Mario's inexplicably bizarre world, the more one understands its soundtrack. Music plays constantly in SMB, and this may contribute to its omnipresent imprinting on the minds of players. Though not interactive, the music does change from level to level, reflecting the change of scenery; underwater levels feature a bubbling waltz piece, while underground dungeons filled with fire traps have a creepy, tense theme suggesting impending doom. The theme that appears most often in the game is the one that plays on the first level, a shuffling, cheerful melody that manages to be laid-back and energetic at the same time; this so-called "Mario Theme" is what most people remember when they think of SMB. Matthew Belinkie has this to say of the "Mario Theme" in his 1999 paper on video games: "It is almost impossible to describe the Mario main theme. It is a sort of light jazz tune, but with so much energy pumped into each articulated note, one is not sure whether it invokes cheesy Vegas lounge music or a Dixieland band. It is sort of like mellow elevator music on psychedelic drugs. At times, it invokes the Tiajuana [sic] Brass with its cheerful cheesiness."[31] It may be the unassuming nature of SMB's music that ultimately makes it so appealing--it is all melody, lacking harmony because of the limitations of the NES, yet the absence of a "thick" timbre keeps the music from becoming grating or boring (though one survey response called SMB's music "really annoying" because "it's always the same"). Even when the music is emphasizing the immediate danger of the player's situation (as in the dungeon levels), it never gets too serious; whenever Mario loses a life, the game plays a short, percussive section of the "Mario Theme," still in a major key and still oddly upbeat even though it signifies failure. Rather than elevate a person's emotional response to the game, the music may be designed to remind players that Super Mario Bros. is, after all, just a game, no matter how many hours one invests (or has invested, as millions have) in playing it.

Loom: Game Music's First Swan Song

Loom stands out as the first computer game to feature music with varied tempo and dynamics, as well as recurring themes and character leitmotivs; in some ways, Loom represents classical music's first real breakthrough into the world of computer games. In 1990, composer George Sanger was hired by Lucasarts, the creators of Loom, to craft a soundtrack featuring sections of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" transposed into MIDI format, in addition to Sanger's original music; the game's main theme, played at the opening and ending of the game, is the Intrada (Allegro) section of the "Pas de trois" in Act I. Loom is a point-and-click graphic adventure, set in a fantasy world inhabited by mystical "Guilds"; the player is treated to different music as he visits each Guild, with the music's mood reflecting the nature of the inhabitants--the Glassmakers' Guild has light, breathy melodies reflecting the translucence of their glass structures (the woodwind-dominated Allegro Moderato from the Dance of the Swans in Act II), while the Blacksmiths' Guild features martial and heavy melodies to represent the blacksmiths hammering at their anvils (the Moderato section of the Act I "Pas de trois"). Loom does not contain continuous music (limiting the soundtrack to the game's opening, its ending, and its various cutscenes), and for good reason, since almost all of the gameplay involves the player making his own music; assuming the role of Bobbin Threadbare, a member of the Weavers' Guild, the player weaves the very fabric of reality by casting spells or "drafts" consisting of four musical notes, solving puzzles by learning new sequences of notes from the world around him and applying them in the appropriate situations. The player utilizes these sequences by first clicking on the source of the spell and then clicking on the parts of a distaff icon that correspond to notes on the C major scale. The game demands careful listening on the part of the player, and careful recording of new spells, since a sequence learned at one point in the game will often be used much later (for those with limited musical knowledge, the game also features an easier mode, which spells out the letters of the notes as they are played, rather than forcing the player to rely on his ear to pick out the correct tones). At one point in the game, one of the villains casts an evil spell which is made up of semitones outside the player's C major range;[32] the use of sharps and flats creates a dissonance with the player's own notes, which accentuates the idea of evil striving against good. The "Swan Theme" from Swan Lake (which first appears in the Finale of Act I) is also used extensively throughout Loom, usually in scenes where the forces of evil are threatening to overwhelm the player; though "Swan Lake" and its more well-known themes have often been parodied (in the films Funny Girl (1968) and Brain Donors (1992), for example), Loom uses Tchaikovsky's music as a way of providing sincere, unironic emotion for its scenes. Though the focus of the game is not on original composition (the player must play the correct sequences in order to proceed), it is unique in its use of a musical interface, and Loom was praised for its excellent soundtrack, which made full use of MIDI capability and, in a later version, CD-quality synthesized music. Today, the gaming community generally does not remember Loom, and it is no longer for sale from Lucasarts or game retailers. Yet the quality of game music today would be far poorer without Loom's innovation; sweeping orchestral scores are the standard in current role-playing games, one of the few ways in which classical music has truly penetrated popular culture.

Final Fantasy 3: The Story You are About to Hear

In 1994, Square released Final Fantasy 3 in America (known as Final Fantasy 6 in Japan). The game focuses on a girl named Terra and her mysterious connection to a group of magical beings called Espers; the player is drawn into the struggle to reveal Terra's shadowy past while battling an evil mastermind bent on destroying the world. All in all, the plot is a fairly standard fantasy/sci-fi novel setup, and players looking for an especially original and unpredictable story are likely to be disappointed; the game's music, however, cannot be faulted for lacking ambition--progressive rock, ragtime, opera, heavy metal, classical, and other styles all make an appearance. The second "Final Fantasy" game for the SNES, FF3 features an impressive soundtrack, both in terms of variety and complexity; many gamers feel it is composer Nobuo Uematsu's most sophisticated work for an SNES game.[33] One of the most groundbreaking features of FF3 music is its attention to the identities of the characters; each hero and villain in the game has his or her own musical leitmotif, which plays whenever that character becomes the focus of the story. Rather than simply stating, "This character is good" or "This character is evil," the music establishes more realism by exploring the contradictions of characters with unknown motives and histories; such subtlety is possible because the RPG is one of the few game genres where the plot of the game can be long enough and develop slowly enough for composers to write more subtle and emotional music. The music in FF3 plays continuously, establishing the atmosphere as well as the emotional content of each location; a town scene may have a gentle, upbeat melody the first time the player visits, but returning to that town after a great war has taken place, one finds the melody is melancholy and regretful. One survey response said, "The music in FF6 is awesome. Since characters in games usually don't talk the music is what tells you what is going on. It can tell you where you are or what kind of creature you are fighting." Players react strongly to Uematsu's ability to set a sense of place; they share their characters' location--in a blizzard, or a bustling city, or on a floating continent high above the planet's surface--because the music tells them they are there. This person's comment that "characters in games usually don't talk" also touches on an important aspect of RPGs: they tend to be heavy on dialogue. The player spends much of his time "talking" to other characters in the game, and this is accomplished through the use of small boxes of text that must be scrolled through by pressing a button. As in film, extended scenes of dialogue become tedious if nothing else of interest is occurring. A compelling score is a handy way to ease the burden of watching a slow scene, and FF3 makes good use of this technique. The characters in FF3 are small, almost childlike graphical representations of people, and aside from a few basic movements they are unable to express subtle emotion; in places where the SNES is physically unable to provide life-like graphics or voices, Uematsu's music fills in the gaps. The interactivity of FF3's music, as in most RPGs, is limited; the music changes when the player enters a battle or journeys to a new location, but it always functions as a cinematic backdrop for the game's action, rather than as a reaction to the player's movements. Regardless of how advanced interactive music becomes, there will always be a place in gamers' hearts for music like FF3's. It may only be able to tell one story, but it tells it masterfully.

The Dig: Wagner Meets Aliens

Released in 1995, The Dig was another successful entry in Lucasarts' long list of humorous, well-designed, and well-scored graphic adventures. The story of The Dig focuses on the efforts of three astronauts to stop the progress of an Earth-threatening asteroid, and their adventures on an alien world after exploring the asteroid. To provide a musical atmosphere to match the sci-fi plot and locale of the game, in-house composer Michael Land created a soundtrack of ambient, electronic tracks that blend into one another in lush, sonorous waves - Land once said he conceived of the soundtrack as one giant piece of unending music:

The music for The Dig was in many ways modeled after a film score. The goal was to enhance setting and mood, support drama, and emphasize the underlying emotions. However, the interactivity of the game presented a special challenge: writing music that responds to the unpredictable actions of the player, yet still sounds natural and flowing, as if it had been composed that way all along. One of the most effective techniques was to create swaths of rich sonorities based on a set of carefully chosen single chords, and associate each one with a specific location. As the player moves through the game, the sonorities flow into each other, generating a series of ever-changing chord progressions that define the harmonic center of the score.[34]

Melodies and chord progressions found early in the game reappears later in a different context and played with different instruments; these subtle repetitions bring out the cinematic nature of the score. In order to achieve a smoothly flowing soundtrack, The Dig uses Lucasarts's patented iMUSE technology: "It started out as essentially a souped-up MIDI sequencer, and has evolved into more a methodology than anything else. We currently use iMUSE for streamed music only. It's a way to organize all the different music cues, and see how they relate to each other by using a graphic layout. It also allows the composer to specify transitions and other types of musical responses at a pretty detailed level."[35] The Dig also stands out as another game to use excerpts from classical music in its soundtrack:

Back when I was in college I did an electronic music piece where I took samples of orchestral Beethoven and played them backwards and forwards and spliced them together to make a musical collage. I really liked the effect, and always wanted to do something like it again. During the early stages of The Dig, Brian Moriarty, who was project leader at the time, mentioned that he wanted a Wagnerian approach to the score. I remembered that piece from college and realized that doing something similar with Wagner could be very effective.[36]

Land uses samples of Wagnerian harmonies in a way that is not easily recognizable; the game's manual credits the source of the samples as Wagner: Overtures and Preludes, 1972-1975 EMI Records Ltd., but which Wagner pieces specifically are being sampled is never revealed.

The score for the entire game is actually derived from maybe five or six simple ideas, presented in many different permutations and guises. Another aspect of this score that I really enjoyed was that we acquired the rights to some Wagner orchestral recordings. I selected about 300 little snippets consisting of single harmonies, played with a rich orchestral sound. I pasted these snippets under my own themes (realized on a sampled string patch). I put in a separate snippet for every chord change so they would follow my musical structure.[37]

The result of Land's sampling is almost entirely synthesized soundtrack with an otherworldly sound that still retains the warmth and realistic timbre of a live string section. The Dig was originally released bundled with a stand-alone soundtrack, and this audio CD has since become one of the rarest and most sought-after soundtracks in the gaming community.

Relentless: Twinsen's Adventure: The European Sound

When one thinks of the geographical location from which most video games originate, one usually pictures Japan and the US. In fact, a great number of games are developed by European game companies under the umbrella of a larger American or Japanese corporation. Relentless: Twinsen's Adventure is one such example. Created by Adeline Software International in 1995 for Electronic Arts, Relentless features a style of gameplay and music that is distinctively European. The game involves the adventures of a young Quetch named Twinsen on the planet Twinsun, as he attempts to stop the schemes of the evil Dr. Funfrock. It is difficult to classify Relentless's genre as a game; on the one hand, it contains the exploration aspect of the graphic adventure and the extended plotline and frequent dialogue of an RPG, but on the other, it features hand-to-hand combat with enemies and the "manipulating and reconfiguring of objects" of the puzzle genre. The game's third-person point of view prevents it from being a first-person shooter, and one must conclude that it is some kind of graphic adventure/puzzle hybrid. In a similar way, the music to Relentless is just as difficult to classify; composer Philippe Vachey has provided a soundtrack (in Redbook format on the game's CD, which can be placed in a CD player and enjoyed separately from the game) that blends various styles--sweeping Copland-esque overtures and the theme song to a European children's T.V. show, for example; entirely synthesized, its sound is not as realistic as more recent game soundtracks, but for 1995 it is remarkably accomplished. Music plays continuously in Relentless, serving as the accompaniment to cutscenes and to the player's travels throughout the odd world of Twinsun. Vachey has a way of combining epic-sounding string arrangements with solo woodwind melodies that are personal, light, and almost playful. Perhaps the most "European" aspect of Vachey's music is its use of synthesized brass instruments--the sound is undeniably artificial, yet it somehow complements the more organic sounds of the strings and woodwinds. Vachey's chord progressions also have a "European" feel to them (this aspect is harder to pin quantitatively), and, although Vachey admits to no formal music education, one can hear faint influences of Saint-Saëns or Franck in his work. As with most games that defy pigeonholing, the music of Relentless works because it manages to be fun and sophisticated at the same time; RPGs usually have a requirement to have music that sounds a certain way, as do first-person shooters, but games like Relentless have more freedom to experiment with various styles. Even games that are not bestsellers can still contain relevant music, and it is overlooked games like Relentless that contain some of the best.

Rez: The Future of Interactive Music?

In the PlayStation 2 game Rez (2002), a first-person "rail-shooter" where the player flies forward along a set path shooting enemies and dodging their attacks, the trance soundtrack of the game is altered by the slightest movement on the player's behalf--each target acquired and shot fired and enemy destroyed result in a sound effect or musical riff and a visual effect, and by stringing together actions (targeting and destroying more than one enemy at once, for example), players can create complicated rhythms and effects, accompanied by hypnotic blossoms of color and light. Noted techno/trance artists Ken Ishii, Oval, Coldcut, Joujouka, and others composed the musical clips that make up the game's patchwork soundtrack. Rez exemplifies a high level of interactivity, where the game is as much about making music as it is about shooting down the enemies. Some reviewers have commented that Rez is not challenging enough to allow for much playing time (players report finishing the game's five levels in one evening), but nearly all have commented on the unique nature of the game's music, calling it "a sort of future baton for techno composers."[38] In addition, the point of the game seems to be more than just getting to the end as fast as possible:

What's blatantly obvious from your first go is that this game will require a certain amount of skill before you can actually control each track. Simply blasting everything in sight as soon as you can leaves the score sounding like someone's sat on the mixing desk, with bleeps, clicks, high hat taps, and keyboard stabs randomly jumping out at you with every blast. Weeks, perhaps even months, of solid practice will be required if you are to master the rhythms within each level and attain a decent measure of skill.[39]

While Rez's approach to video game music is undeniably unique, matching sound to specific onscreen actions is nothing particularly new, at least in the world of film; known as "mickey-mousing" (named after Walt Disney's use of it in his animated shorts), the effect is usually found in cartoons or slapstick comedy movies. With its relatively simple wire-frame graphics, Rez is a little like an interactive cartoon with a techno soundtrack; the question is, of course, does anyone want to play a game like that? At Game Rankings, a website that catalogs reviews of games, along with lists of user comments, responses are somewhat mixed. One reviewer claims that "looks alone simply don't make for a good game. The presentation is the only aspect of this technology-demo that keeps it above water. How simple can we get? Just add some cool graphics to a Tempest wannabe game and it's good?"[40] Another reviewer is far more enthusiastic: "Ultimately, Rez is a brilliant, defiant gesture by arguably one of the last few great innovators in this increasingly corporate and mercenary industry. It's a vision, a piece of art, and above all, a bold, outlandish and daring statement to all other developers and publishers. The statement? 'We will not be deterred.'"[41] "Artistic video game" sounds like a contradiction in terms, but with a game like Rez the description seems unavoidable--the emphasis of gameplay has been shifted to making music, and yet it is still a fast-paced space shoot-'em-up. The only problem with games that have interactive artistic aspirations is that they cannot compete commercially with games that make no attempt to provide fully interactive music. The video game industry is generally not the place for aural experimentation, since an unsuccessful game means an unsuccessful game company, yet it is only within the confines of that industry that a game designer/composer with artistic aspirations can find the technology and funding necessary for such experimentation. Rez was developed by Sega, a large and established company that can presumably afford to experiment with unique titles;[42] other major game developers may be tempted to follow suit and experiment, but the competition in the current video game market (and in markets past) is too fierce for a company to focus on the music of a game as its main feature. Rez's popularity will never rival that of Final Fantasy X or Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, but its aspiration to be different in an industry of imitation is commendable; Rez may not be the final evolution of game music, but its effect on what it means to "play video games" will be felt for years to come.[43]

Notable Game Music Composers

In this section I will examine a few of the composers that have proved essential to the development of the game music industry. In addition to biographical information, I will also say a little about each composer's overall style. As with the Case Study section, this list is not intended to be exhaustive.

Michael Land

While Square's Final Fantasy series may have the largest fan base of any console game, Lucasarts and its series of graphic adventures are among the most beloved of computer gamers, due in no small part to Michael Land's music. From the adventures of singing pirates in the Caribbean to a space mission exploring the secrets of an alien world, Land has provided the music for most of Lucasarts's games. Born in 1961 in Massachusetts, Land has had a long association with music of many styles.

He started classical piano at age 5, and at age 12 he took up rock bass and switched from classical piano to improvisation. Playing bass in rock bands throughout high school, he studied the music of bands such as Yes, Hendrix and the Grateful Dead. He entered Harvard as an undergraduate in 1979, where he majored in music with a focus on electronic music. At this time he also resumed his studies of classical music, with a particular interest in the music of Beethoven. After graduating from Harvard in 1984, he entered the graduate program in Electronic Music at Mills College in Oakland CA, where, along with a study of modern synthesis techniques, he developed a love of Renaissance polyphony and learned how to program computers.[44]

Land received an MFA from Mills in 1987, and joined Lucasarts in 1990, inviting friends Peter McConnell and Clint Bajakian to join him months later; the three went on to write and produce nearly all of Lucasarts's music until 2000. Land's first assignment after joining Lucasarts was The Secret of Monkey Island, a humorous graphic adventure starring Guybrush Threepwood, the hapless young man who just wants to become a pirate. Land went on to compose the music for games such as Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max Hit the Road, Monkey Island 2 and 3, and The Dig. Land also developed the iMUSE system in conjunction with McConnell and Bajakian, a method of facilitating interactive music in computer games; the system was first used in Monkey Island 2, and continues to play a role in Lucasarts games today. Land's compositional style can best be described as fugue-like; he writes fairly simple main themes and then composes multiple variations on those themes, which allows a handful of melodies to be used again and again throughout a game while still sounding continuously fresh. The clearest example of the versatility of Land's style is the game Monkey Island 3, a graphic adventure where each location has its own theme, and, in turn, each character at the location has his or her own variation of that theme. Land puts so much music in the game that it would take hours and hours to hear it all; most players will not sit around listening to the music instead of playing, but the point is that they could, that the music is there when the player looks for it and unobtrusively matched to the background otherwise. Land has said that graphic adventure music presents an interesting challenge to the composer: "In an adventure game, where the player can spend a great deal of time in one place, the requirements of the music result in a form that is almost the opposite of traditional musical structure. Instead of starting out small and building to a climax, you start out big and then get smaller and smaller, gradually settling down to almost nothing."[45] In other words, the music for each location is intended to catch the player's attention initially, then eventually become more subdued, until finally it is registering with the player almost at an unconscious level. Michael Land left Lucasarts in 2000 to pursue other interests, but for fans of Lucasarts, his name will continue to be synonymous with quality music for years to come.

George Sanger

In a recent interview at GIG News, George Sanger commented on the nature of the game music industry: "Remember, although there are hundreds, maybe thousands in it, we are in a young field. NOBODY IN THE FIELD OF AUDIO FOR GAMES HAS EVER DIED. So, while it does do some good to seek wisdom from our elders and sages, they often turn out to be not quite so much wiser than we."[46] Considering that Sanger has been composing game music since 1983, he would seem to be a member of that group of so-called "elders and sages," yet his style, sense of humor, and drive for innovation all point to an artist that is still very much on the cutting edge of the industry.[47] According to his bio, George A. Sanger (otherwise known as The Fat Man) "wrote the first General MIDI soundtrack for a game, the first direct-to-MIDI live recording of musicians, the first redbook soundtrack included with the game as a separate disk, the first music for a game that was considered a 'work of art,' and the first soundtrack that was considered a selling point for the game."[48] Having composed music for over 130 games, Sanger's compositional style runs the gamut; in answer to the question "What styles of music do you compose?" on his FAQ page, he answers, "All styles. [. . .] Sometimes it's world beat, sometimes it's race-car rock 'n' roll, sometimes it's a bouncy children's tune with catchy lyrics, sometimes it's a complicated orchestral piece, or 'surf music for a communist game show.'"[49] The Fat Man's music has been heard by countless gamers, whether they know it or not; Aaron Marks remarks in The Complete Guide to Game Audio, "I'm sure every kid in America under the age of 15 has heard his music and could even sing along with some of the themes" (Marks 8). To match his eclectic musical style and ten-gallon-hat-sporting flashy cowboy persona (?), Sanger can also talk the talk; he has written articles for Gamasutra and has been interviewed many times -- and, it seems, he always has something interesting to say. On game music at the Grammies:

I was the first to campaign for Grammies for Interactive, and I was proud to be on Chance Thomas' committee in the meetings with NARAS that actually got the category opened up to us. But I've not got that much desire to get a Grammy for myself. If I want to point to something on the wall and say "I earned that," I certainly can already. I have enough things like that in my life to not really crave more.[50]

On interactive music: "I remind myself that there _is_ a type of art that is to painting what interactive music is to linear music. There is a visual art that changes depending on what the user is doing, and is effective regardless of what he does. It's called "sculpture!" Our mission is to find the audio equivalent of sculpture."[51] And even on what players want out of game music: "It's more satisfying to the player to have instant audio feedback than it is to have games sound like movies, and that's that. And we are pioneers, so we can say things like this. We can define the sound of the genre. But our choices will have consequences."[52] Always outspoken, Sanger clearly intends people to take his "sage wisdom" with a grain of salt, but there is a good deal of common sense behind much of what he says. In terms of the musical style of Sanger and the other members of Team Fat, they seem to be most at home when writing live instrumental music: "Yeah, any blessed thing that will make noise and will sound a little less like a piece of plastic and a little bit more like a heart beating is a good thing."[53] Even for earlier games like The 7th Guest (1993) that lacked the technology to accommodate a soundtrack full of live instrumentation, Sanger's original compositions always sound like music meant to be played by a live band (a band possessing a larger-than-usual array of instruments, perhaps, but a band nonetheless). The music is usually melody-oriented, with each part remaining distinct to create a somewhat heterophonic texture; also, some of Sanger's pieces are among the few game soundtracks that feature lyrics in their music. Sanger has also composed orchestral-sounding pieces, so he clearly has the ability to work in a variety of styles; it just seems in the end that he prefers more traditional instruments to a MIDI keyboard. "Frankly," says Sanger, "as much respect as music gets, it still is not on most people's radar."[54] Regardless of this fact, computer game music would be that much less respected today without the efforts of The Fat Man, and his efforts to constantly reinvent the nature of the game music industry help ensure that such music will not remain hidden from the public eye forever.

Nobuo Uematsu

In his introduction to The Complete Guide to Game Audio, Aaron Marks mentions the possibility of fame for game audio composers: "In Japan, game score composers have attained 'rock star' status among their appreciate public. Rabid fans flock in mass to see appearances of their favorite video game stars and sales of video game soundtracks continue to top the charts, driving a whole other aspect to the industry" (Marks 8). If there is a composer to whom Marks's statement applies most accurately, it is surely Nobuo Uematsu. Uematsu's music is hands-down the most well-known, most requested, and most frequently heard of any contemporary game music composer; the fansite nobuouematsu.com lists several American high school band and choir concerts this past year that featured music from his games (as well as one February concert in Japan played by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Uematsu himself).[55] The soundtrack to Final Fantasy X, the most recent game to feature Uematsu's music, is currently the #1 bestseller at gamemusic.com (one of the largest online stores specializing in soundtrack CDs), and the game FFX itself is among the most popular titles of the year. The strong consumer response to Uematsu's compositions have lead Square (the creators of the Final Fantasy series) to keep him as the man responsible for each Final Fantasy game's music, and it seems unlikely that his position will change any time soon. Uematsu was born in Kouchi City, Japan in 1959. He started playing the piano at the age of 12 and has never received any formal music education.[56] Uematsu has admitted that he learned to play the piano "because he wanted to be like Elton John." His other favorite musicians included Mike Oldfield, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Vangelis. He began to join a number of amateur bands as a keyboard player, and also wrote a number of songs. In 1985, Uematsu was offered a job at Squaresoft and told to write the music for a game called Final Fantasy (so named because the fledgling company felt this game was its last chance to produce a hit before becoming financially insolvent). Uematsu's boss told him to emulate the sound of Koichi Sugiyama, the composer for the popular series of games that preceded Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest (known as Dragon Warrior in the US; the series has continued since then both here and in Japan). Sugiyama was a classically trained musician with film score experience, whereas Uematsu was an amateur musician strongly influenced by 70s Western pop music, yet the results of Uematsu's work have lead to ten more "Final" Fantasies. Matthew Belinkie says of the music, citing Tomo Takebe, founder of the Musical World of Final Fantasy website:

Uematsu's music satisfies both [Eastern and Western] cultures by providing a strong solo melody along with a strong chord progression. "The Final Fantasy main theme would sound fantastic only with chords, or only the solo," Takebe says. He explains that this is what distinguished Uematsu's music from [Koji] Kondo and Sugiyama's: "Mario did have a strong melody, but it did not have harmony. Dragon Quest did have a strong sense of harmony but it did not have standing melodies until recently. Final Fantasy had them all from the beginning."[57]

Belinkie soon makes another comparison between Koji Kondo and Uematsu:

The Zelda theme is harmonically complex, full of chromatic runs and interlocking parts. The Final Fantasy theme looks elementary in comparison. The melody is simple, and the other parts carry out a basic counterpoint. While Kondo struggles to utilize every moment of every voice, Uematsu does not even use the fourth part. What makes Uematsu's theme a classic is his gift for melody. The piece doesn't need complexity or ornamentation; it immediately sticks in the listener's head. This tune is very indicative of Uematsu's style: come up with a catchy tune, and then write some simple supporting parts.[58]

Much of Uematsu's popularity, therefore, seems to derive from his ability to apply pop music's hooks and catchy melodies to orchestral music's rich sound and presence. In a recent interview, Uematsu commented on the influence of Western pop on his music and his mindset: "I've been listening to ABBA's "Greatest Hits" since yesterday, and I feel their musical sense is very close to mine. Like their construction of pieces. Of course, you won't find an ABBA phrase in FFIX [Final Fantasy 9]. I feel I could have a drink with them, understand each other. (lol)"[59] Many game composers have professed to being influenced by pop artists, but few would claim to share a "musical sense" with them; Nobuo Uematsu speaks from the position of having influenced millions worldwide with his music, so perhaps it is not so surprising to hear him identify with pop stars. The ultimate difference may be that while most pop stars eventually run out of audiences, Uematsu's popularity spans several decades and shows no sign of abating. Composer Jon Holland says "'game music' is waiting to have its first hit artist. It's important that this ground be broken. It can spawn a new dimension in the relationship between up and coming music artists and games."[60] In Japan, Uematsu may have already fulfilled that prophecy.

A Few Comments on Game Music and Film Music

Just what relationship is there between film music and game music? The line between them is hard to determine, and even harder to determine is whether game music is becoming more like film music, or something entirely different. Mark J.P. Wolf says, "While film or TV may influence behavior, in the video game, the player is called upon not just to watch but to act; simulation becomes emulation, and sympathy becomes empathy" (Wolf 3). For Wolf, game music has more ambitious aims that film music. Composer Doyle Donehoo, however, seems to feel the two are closely related: "Why is movie music important? Answer that and you have the answer to your question [of why game music is important]."[61] The New Grove dictionary says this about the use of film music:

The traditional use of music to unify diverse images and provide continuity and momentum has, in mainstream narrative cinema, resulted in a film's dramatic structure often being directly articulated by an appropriate musical structure. Ideally, the force of such structures should be appreciated subliminally: music's ability to create momentum, for example, may easily be gauged by watching a scene without the soundtrack, when it will invariably appear to be significantly longer in duration.[62]

The Grove mentions that film scenes would seem much longer without their soundtracks, and the effect of the music is supposed to be "appreciated subliminally"; compare this to what composer Fraser Maitland says, "One can simply ask someone to, 'try and watch your favourite film without any music whatsoever', to gauge just how important it is but, with regard to [game music], it's not solely about the accompaniment. It's also about the users' sense of interaction - or lack of. If it isn't ever-present, then they may as well be watching a film."[63] One unique example of film music's overlap with the world of game music is in Lucasarts' flight-simulator game Star Wars: X-Wing (1992); the composers of X-Wing's music based their work on John Williams' scores for the original Star Wars movies.[64] In most flight-simulator games, music is used sparingly or not at all; the emphasis is on creating a realistic piloting experience, and pilots generally do not listen to music while flying. In X-Wing, however, the game simulates a different experience, putting the player in the cockpits of Rebel spacecraft from the Star Wars films. The game's designers aimed to recapture the excitement and drama of the movies' space battle scenes and take them one step further by putting the player at the controls of one of the ships.[65] The soundtrack is actually interactive on a basic level, adapting itself to events in the game and to the player's actions. When the player begins a mission, the music is tense but low-key, suggesting a battle about to take place; as the player flies closer to enemy ships and engages them in combat, the music smoothly rises in intensity to provide the backdrop for a heated conflict (if the player moves away from the enemy, the music shifts back to the original, tense theme). In X-Wing, the game music is deliberately calling attention to itself, in order to reinforce the player's memories of the Star Wars movies. By providing an interactive experience, the composers of game music are attempting to go beyond the realm of the film score. Composer Simon Burgess says, "When scoring a film you can write the music to match every second, every moment, of the events that take place to enhance the visual. With a game you generally have no choice but to write a tune that fits a certain part of the game - a level for example. Interactive music for games is a developing field however."[66] Again, the question of game music's identity becomes one of how interactive music can and should be:

People involved in interactive music often cite film music as a model. "We want to take the experience that everybody has at the movies and make it into something that you control," says Liam Byrne. "You're playing through your own adventure. We're used to constant soundtracks in your entertainment. The more exactly the video game soundtrack matches your experience, the more involving that experience is going to be." Byrne is a "tech evangelist" for Creative Labs, a company that makes sound cards for PCs. It is his job to get people excited about sound. He explains that while the current tricks for making music interactive work well, many feel that in order to create a fully immersive experience the music is going to have to be created on the fly. The game will actually create original music based on what is going on in the player's particular game.[67]

With interactive music, composers take the chance that some of their music will not be heard, but what about music that is merely a system of algorithms, translated into music only during actual gameplay. The technology is available (or will be soon), but will it be exploited? Do consumers want music composed mathematically, and what does it mean for more "traditional" game music composers? Will every composer need to be a programmer as well? Entertainment is likely to become more and more immersive as time goes on, and perhaps in the future there will be games that are very much like stepping inside a movie; if gameplay is moving in this direction, then game music will somehow have to move along with it, providing soundtracks that are as involving as a film score but as specifically personalized as a fingerprint.

Game Composers Survey

In preparing this study of game music, I contacted fifteen game music composers currently working in the video/computer game industry and asked them all a series of questions concerning game music (see attached copy of the survey). Here are their responses:

I. Music

1) What role does music play in a game's popularity?

Nearly every composer said that music was important to a game's popularity, since it helped create a more immersive atmosphere, but less important than good gameplay: "Well, you can have a game with the best music in the world, but if the game is crap, it's crap, and nobody will play it."[68] In the case of licensed popular artists, however, the game's music can increase the popularity significantly (for example, Trent Reznor, lead singer of the group Nine Inch Nails, composing the music for Quake; Nobuo Uematsu might also fit under that category now, since he has a very visible presence as "The Composer for Final Fantasy Games").

2) Is there a particular type of game that relies more heavily on music than others?

Several composers listed "racing games" as benefiting from good music, but not particularly relying on it: "Many sports games only have music in menus, having instead commentators, and racing games have a car radio where you can select your tunes. The music can be cool, but the game is not dependent on it, as you could replace it with other songs."[69] Role-playing games were frequently mentioned as relying on music to accompany the story and add emotion.

3) What advantages are there to writing game music as opposed to film or television soundtracks? What disadvantages?

Nearly every composer commented on the fact that game music required more interactivity; some felt this was a disadvantage, and some an advantage: "You never really know what the player will do - very hard to predict transitions from scene to scene or from game play to menu, etc. Makes scoring more challenging."[70] "The advantage of game music lies in the flexibility and freedom you have in your compositions."[71] Some felt game music was less demanding than film or TV soundtracks, because it did not have to mirror the onscreen visuals as closely: "Writing music for games is technically a bit less complicated than say for a major motion picture, because most of the time one is required to provide music which compliments the action, but not necessarily follows the action as in film."[72] Other frequently cited disadvantages were lower pay scale, less quality control, and the fact that different game formats (console vs. computer, or one console vs. another) required different composing methods. Common advantages were less pressure on the composer, less rush jobs, less competition for jobs, and "fewer prima-donnas."[73]

4) Is there an inherent difference between music for console games and music for computer games?

Opinion was mixed on this question; some felt there was no difference, others felt console games had a distinctive kind of music: "Generally I've found that consoles have a younger audience, and are more likely to benefit from a 'hip' soundtrack as opposed to a 'classic' soundtrack. PC's tend to have older audiences, and generally worse sound systems."[74] Computer games were said to have more space for music, since they tend to use Red Book format; in addition, computers all have different soundcards, which affects how music sounds: "A Playstation is a Playstation, and what you do will sound this way on all Playstation consoles. The danger for PC is especially MIDI based systems since they can sound different on different systems."[75]

5) Why is game music important?

An extremely common response to this question was that players notice when good music is missing from a game, whereas repetitive, annoying music can be turned off with no detriment: "We like to be entertained using ALL of our senses, and because music operates within our subconscious level, manipulating our emotions - it would be a very dull experience indeed without it."[76] Many responses mentioned the importance of music in film, and drew comparisons to music's function in video/computer games: "Imagine watching 'Star Wars' or 'Terminator' without music."[77] Some felt game music's role was almost always subconscious: "Most gamers don't listen to the music consciously, but subconsciously music spreads a very important feeling."[78] A few felt game music was important for the same reasons any music is important: "Music is music. When I write music for a game, it's not any different from the music I write for my album."[79] A general consensus seems to exist that game music entertains our sense of sound, and that video and computer games would not be nearly as fun without music.

II. Yourself

1) What music education have you received?

Ten composers received some form of formal music education; five were self-taught. Education level ranged from college notation and theory courses to a currently undertaken Ph.D. in Interactive Composition; most had at least an undergraduate degree in music or composition. Several composers (both with degrees and without) mentioned that experience mattered much more than formal education.

2) What kinds of music do you listen to?

Most composers said, "Everything." A few said they mainly listened to soundtracks, both from films/TV and games.

3) What would be the ideal game for you to score?

Many composers professed an interest in scoring an orchestral soundtrack, or in writing for a genre of game that typically used orchestral music (adventures, RPGs); a few made references to specific already-released games.

Student Survey

In addition to the composer survey, I also sent out a survey to students at Vassar College, in an effort to gauge how closely gamers pay attention to game music. I received 47 responses, which is a small percentage of the student body at Vassar, but there may still be some useful information in them.

1) 43% Male, 57% Female. This ratio roughly reflects Vassar's overall ratio, but it may be more an indication of student apathy than anything else.

2) 19% play video or computer games every day, 13% several times a week, 11% once a week, 28% once a month, 30% never.

3) 91% could remember music from at least one game they had played, 9% could not.

4) Of the games listed:

% that had played the game:

Loom    4%
Thrasher: Skate and Destroy    2%
Super Mario Bros.    91%
Relentless: Twinsen's Adventure    2%
Final Fantasy (I through X)    32%
PaRappa the Rapper    15%
Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3    28%
Skullmonkeys    0%
Monkey Island    11%
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night    15%
Spy Hunter    11%
Sonic the Hedgehog    74%
Tetris    87%
Wipeout XL    0%
The Legend of Zelda    64%
The Dig    2%

% that had played the game and could remember the music:

Loom    2%
Thrasher: Skate and Destroy    0%
Super Mario Bros.    66%
Relentless: Twinsen's Adventure    2%
Final Fantasy (I through X)    15%
PaRappa the Rapper    4%
Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3    11%
Skullmonkeys    0%
Monkey Island    4%
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night    6%
Spy Hunter    6%
Sonic the Hedgehog    28%
Tetris    43%
Wipeout    0%
The Legend of Zelda    28%
The Dig    2%

In response to whether the music made the games any more fun, most students found the music more enjoyable in RPGs like Final Fantasy or in Super Mario Bros. Several students remarked that game music from older games had a nostalgic effect on them when heard today. One response mirrored the common response to the composer survey question, "What role does music play in a game's popularity?" by saying "The music, in my experience, doesn't really make the game more fun, but if it's bad, it can make the game less fun." A number of responses said they often just turned the music off or listened to other music.

5) 26% said game music is always important, 41% said usually, 22% said sometimes, 7% said seldom, and 2% said never.

Afterword: Super Symphony Bros.

On August 25th, 1999, the Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra performed a concert consisting of music not of Beethoven or Bach, but Biohazard, a popular series of video games. In Japan, such an occurrence is more common than one might think, as the TCPO has recorded dozens of albums consisting of nothing but arrangements of game music. Yet to most people, a professional orchestra playing music from a video game still sounds like a joke, or, at best, a marketing gimmick; in a way, the Biohazard (also known as Resident Evil) concert was a promotional tool, since Capcom (the creators of the Biohazard series) used the concert as a way of promoting their new game, Biohazard 3. "The fact that game music is performed by orchestras does not mean the Japanese consider it serious music. Even the most intricate game soundtrack is still seen as pop music. 'True, game music does get performed in symphony halls,' says Mr. Huang, 'but that's only because the concerts are sponsored by Nintendo, in order to perform music from Nintendo games.'"[80] Composer Billy Martin admits, "Hardly anyone goes out and buys a game because they think the music will be cool."[81] But the fact remains that some games do well because of their music, and that some game music does well independent of its game. The most popular music, it seems, is the music that matches the game's atmosphere most perfectly; RPGs like Final Fantasy are an example of this, as is Super Mario Bros. Rez may be another example, but it is unclear if gamers want music to be exactly matched to their actions, rather than a more thematic fit. The music must also transcend the archetypes of previous games and, in some cases, film music; again we can see SMB and Final Fantasy as examples, because their composers took a limited technology base or style of composition and expanded on it, exploring new possibilities. There has been nothing in game music to rival Bach or Beethoven yet, but there is the potential; as the game industry evolves to include more and more interactive games -- games that put the task of creating more squarely in the hands of the player -- more and more composers will be drawn to that field. In the meantime, the music of video games will continue to echo throughout the homes, businesses, and arcades of America; I hope my study has provided you with a better sense of where that music comes from, what it means, and why it will always be with us.

Annotated List of Works Cited

"1980." I.C.When. Ed. Donald A. Thomas, Jr. 21 Jan. 2002. 9 May 2002 <http://www.icwhen.com/book/the%201980s/1980.html>.

"1994." I.C.When. Ed. Donald A. Thomas, Jr. 21 Jan. 2002. 9 May 2002 <http://www.icwhen.com/book/the%201990s/1994.html>.

I.C. When is the most complete online timeline of events concerning video games and related technology. Very useful for seeing events in a larger context. A lack of citations makes the information difficult to verify, however.

Aldis, Neil. Rev. of Rez. Music 4 Games. 2002. 6 May 2002 <http://www.music4games.net/r_rezdc.html>.

Music 4 Games is a website devoted to game music reviews, articles, and composer showcases. The site also features a directory of game music composers, which I used to contact the composers for my study. Access to the directory is granted through a quick, free registration process.

Belinkie, Matthew. "Video game music: not just kid stuff." Video Game Music. 15 Dec. 1999. 12 May 2002 <http://www.vgmusic.com/vgpaper.shtml>.

The only in-depth, halfway-scholarly treatment of video game music I've found online. Belinkie focuses on console game music rather than computer game music, but his paper features some close dissections of various game composers' work, including Koji Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu. This paper served as a partial model for my own study.

Brandon, Alexander. "Interactive Music: Merging Quality with Effectiveness." Gamasutra. 27 March 1998. 5 May 2002 <http://www.gamasutra.com/features/sound_and_music/19980327/interactive_music_quality_intro.htm>.

Gamasutra is the definitive website on "the art and science of video games." Containing articles written by members of the video game industry (console and computer), this well-maintained, frequently updated site is a wealth of information on all aspects of video games, including a substantial "Audio" section. Access to most of the articles requires a quick, free registration.

Cambron, Melanie. Interview with George Sanger. GIG News. Jan. 2002. 8 May 2002 <http://www.gignews.com/goddess_fatman.htm>.

GIG News contains many interviews and features about all aspects of video games, and, like Gamasutra, it is geared toward providing information for game industry workers by game industry workers.

"Concert Dates." Nobuo Uematsu: The man, the legend... Michael Huang. 15 May 2002. 15 May 2002 <http://www.nobuouematsu.com/concert.html>.

This website is the most complete collection of online information about composer Nobuo Uematsu. Maintained by Michael Huang (also a game music composer), the site features interviews, biographical info, lyrics, sheet music, fan music, and more. Works best with Internet Explorer.

Coxon, Sachi. Interview of Nobuo Uematsu. Nobuo Uematsu: The man, the legend... Michael Huang. 15 May 2002. 15 May 2002 <http://www.nobuouematsu.com/nobrpg.html>.

"Dig, The." The Michael Land Homepage. Sept. 1998. 5 May 2002 <http://michael-land.mixnmojo.com/dig.htm>.

Part of the vast Lucasarts fan network "Mixnmojo," The Michael Land Homepage is the source for all info pertaining to Michael Land, the composer of much of Lucasarts's game music before the year 2000. This site hasn't been updated in years, and it probably won't be again, but the information it contains already is still useful.

Disc Makers. Interview with George Sanger. Disc Makers. 2002. 12 May 2002 <http://www.discmakers.com/rom/cdromu/fatman.html>.

"FAQ's." The Fat Man. 2 March 2002. 11 May 2002 <http://www.fatman.com/faqs.htm>.

Homepage of The Fat Man (composer George A. Sanger) and Team Fat, one of the most experienced and well-known game music production teams in the business. The site answers FAQs, provides samples of Team Fat's work, and has links to other sites of game audio interest.

Fido128. Online posting. Game Rankings. 28 April 2002. 12 May 2002 <http://www.gamerankings.com/itemrankings/itemcomments.asp?itemid=5445>.

Game Rankings provides a way of gauging how popular video games are based on the ratings and reviews given by site members. Older games (earlier than late 90's) may not be listed. A useful reference tool.

"Film Music." Grove Music. Ed. Laura Macy. 2nd ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 12 May 2002 <http://www.grovemusic.com/index.html>.

Gabel, Tomer. Rev. of Loom. Moby Games. 11 Jul. 2000. 4 May 2002 <http://www.mobygames.com/game/view_review/platformId,2/reviewerId,60/gameId,176/>.

Moby Games is a constantly growing database of video games (mostly computer games and newer console games -- GameCube, Xbox, PlayStation 2). The site's entries for each game provide vital statistics (credits, year of release, hints, trivia) and reviews by site members. Not quite exhaustive, but getting there, slowly but surely.

Kurtz, William. Online posting. Game Rankings. 7 May 2002. 12 May 2002 <http://www.gamerankings.com/itemrankings/itemcomments.asp?itemid=5445>.

Langley, Andrew. Interview with Michael Land. The Michael Land Homepage. Jan. 1998. 5 May 2002 <http://michael-land.mixnmojo.com/inter.htm>.

- - -. Interview with Michael Land. The Michael Land Homepage. Aug. 1998. 5 May 2002 <http://michael-land.mixnmojo.com/inter2.htm>.

Linkola, Joonas. Interview with Michael Land. LucasFans. 20 June 2001. 10 May 2002 <http://lucasfans.mixnmojo.com/features/interview_michaelland.html>.

Another member of the "Mixnmojo" fan network, LucasFans features several interviews and information about Lucasarts games. Hasn't been updated in a while.

Marks, Aaron. The Complete Guide to Game Audio. Lawrence: CMP Books, 2001.

Literally one of a kind, this book is the only printed resource devoted to game audio. Ostensibly a how-to book for people trying to break into the game music industry, Marks's book contains enough behind-the-scenes info and insight into the world of game music to satisfy even a non-professional. Comes with a CD featuring interviews, audio and video samples, and demos of music composing programs.

McDonald, Glenn. "Gamespot Presents: A Brief Timeline of Video Game Music." Gamespot. 2001. 20 April 2002 <http://gamespot.com/gamespot/features/video/vg_music/>.

Gamespot is an extensive network of sites devoted to console and computer games. For current and detailed information, there are few websites that can compare. The site's "Brief Timeline of Video Game Music" is an excellent overview of the history of game music up to the year 2001 (though it does leave out computer game music).

"Michael Land Biography, The." The Michael Land Homepage. Sept. 1998. 2 May 2002 <http://michael-land.mixnmojo.com/bio.htm>.

Nielsen, Martin. The NES FAQ. 1997. <http://www.icwhen.com/faqs/faq_nes.txt>.

"Nobuo Uematsu's Biography." Nobuo Uematsu: The man, the legend... Michael Huang. 15 May 2002. 15 May 2002 <http://www.nobuouematsu.com/bio.html>.

Ross, Rob, "Interactive Music...er, Audio," Gamasutra. 15 May 2001. 10 May 2002 <http://www.gamasutra.com/resource_guide/20010515/ross_01.htm>.

Sanger, George Alistair. "The Sound of Money (Down the Potty)". Gamasutra. 15 May 2001: 3 pp. 3 May 2002 <http://www.gamasutra.com/resource_guide/20010515/sanger_01.htm>.

Satterfield, Shane. "Gamespot Presents: GameCube Dossier." Gamespot. 2002. 10 May 2002 <http://gamespot.com/gamespot/features/video/gamecube_dossier/p2.html>.

Sheff, David. Game Over Press Start to Continue. Wilton: GamePress, 1999.

This book contains the tell-all true story behind Nintendo's rise to power in the 80s and 90s, covering both the Japanese and American sides of the company. Game music is not really mentioned, but the book provides a fascinating look at the way the game industry works, and is an excellent resource concerning Nintendo's history.

Shoemaker, Brad and Shane Satterfield. "Gamespot Presents: Xbox Dossier." 2002. 10 May 2002 <http://gamespot.com/gamespot/features/video/x_box_dossier/>.

"Stories and Legends." The Fat Man. 2 March 2002. 11 May 2002 <http://www.fatman.com/faqs.htm#s4>.

Wolf, Mark J.P. "Genre and the Video Game." The Medium of the Video Game. Ed. Mark J.P. Wolf. Texas: U of Texas Press, 2002.

A collection of essays on video games and their narrative conventions, particularly as they relate to film conventions. The book contains an essay by Wolf on video game genres which is particularly helpful for classifying games, both video and computer. The book also contains an appendix of print and online sources for video game information that is very comprehensive.

Appendix A: Game Music CD Notes

Where possible, music has been presented as it sounds in the original game. In some cases, original music has been paired with orchestrated versions for the sake of comparison. The game's platform is listed after the title, followed by the date of US release. The games are listed in order of date released.

1) Super Mario Bros. (NES Game), 1985 - Music composed by Koji Kondo

In-game version of "Main Theme/Mario Theme." The game that started it all. There's nothing quite like it. Notice how Kondo uses all the NES's channels in this piece, even setting up a bass counterpoint underneath the main melody.

Excerpt from orchestral version of "Main Theme/Mario Theme." It's hard to take the Mario Theme too seriously even when it's coming out of a live orchestra, and that may be what makes Kondo's composition so much fun.

2) The Legend of Zelda (NES Game), 1986 - Music composed by Koji Kondo

A) In-game version of "Main Theme." Players of The Legend of Zelda were put in the shoes of a young Hyrulean named Link, whose task is to rescue Princess Zelda from the evil monster Ganon. This music is heard continuously whenever the player is above ground. See Matthew Belinkie's paper for an analysis of this piece and its level of complexity versus Nobuo Uematsu's music.

B) Orchestral version of "Main Theme." An orchestral remix of the classic "Legend of Zelda" theme. The brass/percussion fanfare sounds almost like something from John Williams's score for the movie Superman. Translated to an orchestral setting, Kondo's music doesn't have quite the rich texture of Uematsu's compositions, but this discrepancy may be due to the fact that Kondo was composing on the NES, while Uematsu was working off the SNES and PlayStation.

3) Loom (PC Game), 1990 - Music sequenced by George A. Sanger

In-game version of "Swan Theme." The rallentandos, crescendos, and decrescendos that Sanger employed in this translation of Tchaikovsky's famous theme were all brand-new to the game music world at the time, but his work proved that game music could be held up to the same standards as traditional classical music.

4) Monkey Island 1: The Secret of Monkey Island (PC Game), 1990 - Music composed by Michael Land

A) MIDI version of "Title Theme." Compared to the version in Monkey Island 3, this MIDI rendition of the popular reggae/calypso-styled Title Theme sounds pretty primitive, but compared to what computer game music had been like before, it's light years ahead. The game was filled with catchy reggae tunes that complemented its healthy sense of humor.

B) In-game version of "Monkey Island Jungle Theme." This piece is from the CD version of Monkey Island 1, released a few years later. Monkey Island is the eventual destination of the player (the game begins on "Mêlée Island") and main character Guybrush Threepwood, where he must deal with vegetarian cannibals, ghost pirates, and a three-headed monkey. One can hear how the advent of CD games and Redbook audio improved the quality of synthesized music in games significantly.

5) Final Fantasy 4 (SNES Game), 1991 - Music composed by Nobuo Uematsu

A) MIDI version of "Overworld Theme." Released as Final Fantasy 2 in the US, this game involved the player retrieving crystals, befriending monsters, and eventually traveling to the moon. This piece is heard whenever the player is using his airship to fly around on the main map screen. The pulse of the harp and percussion offset the slow melody in the strings and flute; the piece is clearly about traveling and urgency, while also capturing the wonder of being able to fly across the world (however small that world may be).

B) Orchestral version of "Overworld Theme." This orchestral reworking of FF4's "Overworld Theme" is from Uematsu's "Celtic Moon Album," wherein he took melodies from FF4 and had them played by an Irish fiddle group.

6) The 7th Guest (PC Game), 1993 - Music composed by George A. Sanger

MIDI version of "Darkness." A spooky puzzle-solving game, The 7th Guest's atmosphere was greatly enhanced by Sanger's impressive score. Though the game was a puzzle game that did not require quick decisions or fast reflexes, pieces like this one heightened the tension of the game, making it seem as though something would jump out of a dark corner at any moment.

7) Final Fantasy 6 (SNES Game), 1994 - Music composed by Nobuo Uematsu

A) MIDI version of "Terra's Theme." This music plays at the start of the game, while the credits are scrolling down the screen; it shows up again and again throughout the game, always in conjunction with the main character, Terra. Melancholy and longing can be heard here, but also a small feeling of hope and possible redemption.

B) Orchestral version of "Terra's Theme." Source unknown. It is becoming more and more common for Uematsu to include lyrics in the music he writes for Final Fantasy; he once said he is most skilled at writing 70s-style Japanese ballads. It is indicative of Uematsu's skill as a composer that his music can be played by a live orchestra and vocalists and work as a piece of music separate from the game.

8) The 11th Hour (PC Game), 1995 - Music composed by George A. Sanger

Excerpt from in-game version of "In Front of Doc's." The sequel to The 7th Guest, this game also featured puzzle solving in a horror/suspense setting. Sanger's live instrumentation raised the quality level of this game's music while still holding to the original game's sense of eerie atmosphere. This piece has a country feel to it, yet it remains curiously ambient, never quiet solidifying into one melody.

9) The Dig (PC Game), 1995 - Music composed by Michael Land

A) Soundtrack version of "Another World." Lucasarts's popular sci-fi graphic adventure. This music is heard in the game when the player first lands on the alien planet. Land's sweeping synthesized strings are prominent here, as well as a gentle choral effect. Since this music accompanies the player's first view of the game's primary setting, Land instills the music with a good deal of emotion -- awe, wonder, and even fear (as some minor chords work their way into the mix toward the end of the piece). The themes established here reappear throughout the game's soundtrack.

B) Soundtrack version of "Ghosts." This music plays when the player encounters strange light emanations at several points during the game, nicknamed "ghosts" by the main characters. The tense ostinato melody at the start of the piece gives way suddenly to rumbling waves of the lower strings, suggesting a flickering image darting around the edge of one's vision before appearing fully. Land's use of woodwinds to create a strange "fluttering" effect that grows louder and softer gives this piece a particularly supernatural sound, while the high-pitched strings in the background provide an ethereal framework to the piece. Compare Land's use of the oboe here to its use in the music of Monkey Island 3.

10) Earthworm Jim (Sega CD Game), 1995 - Music composed by Tommy Tallarico

In-game version of "Andy Asteroids Theme." This game puts the player in the role of Jim, an earthworm with a super-strong bodysuit, in his quest to rescue Princess Whatsername from the evil Psy-crow. This music plays during a level in which Jim must chase after Psy-crow on a rocket sled; the melody and instruments used are energetic and cartoonish to fit with the game's animated action. Tallarico was the first game music composer to put non-musical samples (the dog and cow sounds, for example) in his work.

11) Relentless: Twinsen's Adventure (PC Game), 1995 - Music composed by Philippe Vachey

In-game version of "Title Theme/Menu Screen Theme." Even though the music in this game was synthesized, it still retains a remarkably warm and natural sound, due largely to Vachey's expert compositional abilities. This piece has a "film score" quality to it, but I can't imagine what sort of movie it would belong to. I haven't played this game for years, but I keep returning to its CD and listening to its music; part of its charm is its innocence and gentleness.

12) Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness, 1995 - Music composed by Glenn Stafford

MIDI version of "Humans' Theme #3." This game was a strategy/battle simulation game (a genre I did not address but which can be found in Mark J.P. Wolf's book) that pitted the player either as the noble Humans against the vile Orcs or as the invincible Orcs against the puny Humans. The game featured different music depending on which side the player chose, with the humans' music sounding like traditional "medieval hero" overtures and the orcs' music like frenzied war-like themes.

13) Final Fantasy 7 (PlayStation Game), 1997 - Music composed by Nobuo Uematsu

A) MIDI version of "Airship Theme." Similar thematically to other Final Fantasy games, FF7 again has the player riding around on an airship. Consider how Uematsu improves on the "Overworld Theme" from FF4; composing for the PlayStation gave him the ability to write with a much fuller sound, experimenting with richer harmonies.

B) In-game version of "One-Winged Angel." This music is played during the final battle of the game, and it is the only instance of live instrumentation used. The repeated word "Sephiroth" is the name of the game's main villain. Uematsu's style sounds particularly cinematic here (and Wagnerian), and one could easily imagine this music being played during the climax of an action film.

14) Monkey Island 3: The Curse of Monkey Island (PC Game), 1997 - Music composed by Michael Land

A) In-game version of "Title Theme." Once again reprising the role of Guybrush Threepwood, aspiring pirate, MI3 featured the same level of humor and fun graphic adventure gameplay that gamers enjoyed in the first two games of the series. Played at the start of the game, MI3's title theme was the first time the theme had been played by live musicians. The music sounds unarguably better in live format than it does in MIDI, but the catchiness of the tune derives from the structure of the original theme.

B) In-game version of "Barbery Coast Theme." This music plays whenever Guybrush is in a certain barbershop owned by a group of pirates. The theme changes depending on which of the pirates Guybrush is talking to (not heard in this clip). Notice how Land reworks the Title Theme into this theme, thus providing a sense of continuity and atmosphere.

15) Quest for Glory 5 (PC Game), 1998 - Music composed by Chance Thomas

In-game version of "Overture." The last in a series of games by long-time graphic adventure company Sierra, this game stands out as one of the first in the industry to utilize a full symphonic orchestra, rather than a smaller collection of instruments. The music for this game also stands out as having a stand-alone soundtrack that sold better than the game itself.

16) Skull Monkeys (PlayStation Game), 1998 - Music composed by Terry S. Taylor

Excerpt from in-game version of "Worm Graveyard Theme." Perhaps the only recent game with music as hard to classify as SMB, Skull Monkeys features the original compositions of Terry Taylor and his band. All the music of the game is at about this level of weirdness, though some of it is slightly weirder. Despite its thoroughly unique soundtrack, Skull Monkeys was not a very high seller, though it often wins a place in the hearts of those who do play it.

17) System Shock 2 (PC Game), 1999 - Music composed by Eric Brosius

In-game version of "Engineering Theme #1." System Shock 2 was a rather unique first-person shooter in that it also included classic RPG elements such as gaining experience levels and character classes. This music played in an early part of the game whenever enemies would appear; after the area had been cleared, the music would fade out and switch to a less frantic (but no less nerve-wracking) theme.

Appendix B: Game Music Composer Survey

Dear ,

I am a senior at Vassar College doing an independent project on music in video games. My aim is to examine the interactivity and blending of genres that is unique to game music, and, in doing so, open the way to further study of that music as a facet of popular culture. In an effort to understand game music from the perspective of its composers, I ask that you take a few minutes to answer these questions, with the understanding that I may reproduce your responses in my paper if you allow it.

I. Music

1) What role does music play in a game's popularity?

2) Is there a particular type of game that relies more heavily on music than others?

3) What advantages are there to writing game music as opposed to film or television soundtracks? What disadvantages?

4) Is there an inherent difference between music for console games and music for computer games?

5) Why is game music important?

II. Yourself (Optional)

1) What music education have you received?

2) What kinds of music do you listen to?

3) What would be the ideal game for you to score?

Thank you for your time.

Eric Pidkameny

Appendix C: Student Survey

Hi! I'm currently doing an independent project on video game music, and I want to gauge how much people notice the music when they play video or computer games. Please take a minute to fill out this survey and return it to Box 2585, or email your answers to erpidkameny@vassar.edu. Please send it in by Friday, May 10th. Thanks!

1) Are you:     Male     or     Female

2) How often do you play video or computer games (circle one)?

Every day

Several times a week

Once a week

Once a month


3) Can you remember the music from any game you've played?     Yes     or     No

4) Have you played any of the following games (circle all that apply):

If you can remember the music at all, put a star by that game:

LoomThrasher: Skate and Destroy
Super Mario Bros.Relentless: Twinsen's Adventure
Final Fantasy (I through X)      PaRappa the Rapper
Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3Skullmonkeys
Monkey IslandCastlevania: Symphony of the Night
Spy HunterSonic the Hedgehog
TetrisWipeout XL
The Legend of ZeldaThe Dig

Did any of the music in these games make them more fun? If so, please list the titles, and describe what you feel the music added to the game.

If you have played a game not listed above that had music you especially liked, please list it and describe what you feel the music added to the game.

5) Is music important in video/computer games (circle one)?







[1] Burgess, Simon. "Re: Game Music Project." E-mail to the author. 27 April 2002.

[2] The Medium of the Video Game, "Genre and the Video Game," p. 118. Wolf's definition for the "Puzzle" genre is also relevant, as certain aspects of that genre -- "solving enigmas, navigation, learning how to use different tools, and the manipulating and reconfiguring of objects" -- appear frequently in graphic adventures.

[3] Lucasarts' graphic adventures, such as Loom and The Dig, have always featured particularly intuitive and elegant point-and click interfaces, and its games are among the most popular and most continuously popular; the Lucasarts fan community at mixnmojo.com is one of the largest and most comprehensive of its kind.

[4] The Medium of the Video Game, "Genre and the Video Game," p. 128.

[5] Ibid., p. 130.

[6] Ross, Rob, "Interactive Music...er, Audio," Gamasutra. http://www.gamasutra.com/resource_guide/20010515/ross_01.htm

[7] In the foreword to The Medium of Video Games, Ralph Baer, creator of the Magnavox Odyssey home console and one of the founding fathers of the video game industry, states that Higinbotham's game was actually nothing but "a more-or-less standard physics demonstration," and that "revisionists have turned that demonstration into a ping-pong game." Likewise, Steve Russell's Spacewar is referred to as a "highly creative" but "unauthorized, after-hours project" that was unpatented. He refers to Nolan Bushnell's Computer Space (1971) as the first true video game. See The Discovery Channel Online's account of Higinbotham's invention at http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/gigeast/Video/inventors.html

[8] "Film Music." Grove Music. Ed. Laura Macy. 2nd ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 12 May 2002 <http://www.grovemusic.com/index.html>.

[9] I.C.When. Ed. Donald A. Thomas, Jr. 21 Jan. 2002. 9 May 2002 <http://www.icwhen.com/book/the%201980s/1980.html>.

[10] Sanger, George Alistair. "The Sound of Money (Down the Potty)". Gamasutra. 15 May 2001: 3 pp. 3 May 2002 <http://www.gamasutra.com/resource_guide/20010515/sanger_01.htm>.

[11] 13 years later, Atari released "Tempest 2000: The Soundtrack," a CD featuring music from the Atari Jaguar remake of "Tempest" -- the CD "is believed to the first commercially sold soundtrack of a video game," http://www.icwhen.com/book/the%201990s/1994.html

[12] Nielsen, Martin. NES FAQ, 1997. http://www.icwhen.com/faqs/faq_nes.txt

[13] 43% of the 47 students surveyed said they could remember the music to Tetris, and 66% could remember the music to Super Mario Bros. See "Student Survey" section below.

[14] Marks, Aaron. "Re: Game Music Project." E-mail to the author. 1 May 2002.

[15] In this way, game music is very similar to a particular subset of film music: cartoon music. Take a Warner Bros. cartoon, for example, with Wil E. Coyote and Roadrunner; the soundtrack shifts constantly based on Wil E.'s actions and emotions. As the Coyote chases after Roadrunner, the music is vigorous and optimistic; as he unwittingly runs off a cliff and notices his predicament, the music suddenly shifts to an uncertain or dissonant melody; as he falls to the ground, the music falls with him in quick, descending runs; and when he hits the ground and walks away bouncing like an accordion, the music is both sympathetic and deprecatory. The music ends, only to begin again in the next scene; Wil E., like all cartoon characters, has infinite lives.

[16] 28% of the 47 students surveyed remember The Legend of Zelda's music, 15% remember Final Fantasy's.

[17] McDonald, Glenn. "Gamespot Presents: A Brief Timeline of Video Game Music." Gamespot. 2001. 20 April 2002 <http://gamespot.com/gamespot/features/video/vg_music/p5_01.html>.

[18] Ibid.

[19] For an analysis of each format and its use in interactive music, see "Interactive Music: Merging Quality with Effectiveness" by Alexander Brandon, http://www.gamasutra.com/features/sound_and_music/19980327/interactive_music_quality_intro.htm.

[20] Though Dance Dance Revolution sports an innovative interface, it is not entirely unique; one of the add-on components to the NES was a "dance pad" that allowed one to play track and field games and aerobic exercise programs using one's feet.

[21] "Gamespot Presents: A Brief Timeline of Video Game Music." http://gamespot.com/gamespot/features/video/vg_music/p6_01.html.

[22] Several survey responses that had played Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 and could remember its music singled it out as having a particularly good soundtrack.

[23] "Gamespot Presents: A Brief Timeline of Video Game Music." http://gamespot.com/gamespot/features/video/vg_music/p6_02.html.

[24] The NES, or Famicom (Family Computer) as it is known in Japan, was originally intended to be a multitasking home computer that would "link Nintendo households to create a communications network that provides users with new forms of recreation, and a new means of accessing information." See p.76-79 of David Sheff's Game Over Press Start to Continue (GamePress, 1999).

[25] "Gamespot Presents: A Brief Timeline of Video Game Music." http://gamespot.com/gamespot/features/video/vg_music

[26] Satterfield, Shane. "Gamespot Presents: GameCube Dossier." Gamespot. 2002. 10 May 2002 <http://gamespot.com/gamespot/features/video/gamecube_dossier/p2.html>.

[27] Shoemaker, Brad and Shane Satterfield. "Gamespot Presents: Xbox Dossier." 2002. 10 May 2002 <http://gamespot.com/gamespot/features/video/x_box_dossier/>.

[28] "Gamespot Presents: Xbox Dossier." http://gamespot.com/gamespot/features/video/x_box_dossier/p1_01.html

[29] "Gamespot Presents: A Brief Timeline of Video Game Music." http://gamespot.com/gamespot/features/video/vg_music/p6_02.html

[30] See "Rez" in "Game Music Case Studies" below.

[31] Belinkie, Matthew. "Video game music: not just kid stuff." Video Game Music. 15 Dec. 1999. 12 May 2002 <http://www.vgmusic.com/vgpaper.shtml>.

[32] Gabel, Tomer. Rev. of Loom. Moby Games. 11 Jul. 2000. 4 May 2002 <http://www.mobygames.com/game/view_review/platformId,2/reviewerId,60/gameId,176/>.

[33] See "Nobuo Uematsu" in "Notable Game Composers" below.

[34] Land, Michael. Excerpted from The Dig Soundtrack and CD-ROM Demo by Angel Records (http://michael-land.mixnmojo.com/dig.htm. See "Michael Land" in "Notable Game Music Composers" below.

[35] Langley, Andrew. Interview with Michael Land. The Michael Land Homepage. Jan. 1998. 5 May 2002 <http://michael-land.mixnmojo.com/inter.htm>.

[36] Langley, Andrew. Interview with Michael Land. The Michael Land Homepage. Aug. 1998. 5 May 2002 <http://michael-land.mixnmojo.com/inter2.htm>.

[37] "The Dig." The Michael Land Homepage. Sept. 1998. 5 May 2002 <http://michael-land.mixnmojo.com/dig.htm>.

[38] Aldis, Neil. Rev. of Rez. Music 4 Games. 2002. 6 May 2002 <http://www.music4games.net/r_rezdc.html>.

[39] Review of Rez. http://www.music4games.net/r_rezdc.html

[40] Kurtz, William. Online posting. Game Rankings. 7 May 2002. 12 May 2002 <http://www.gamerankings.com/itemrankings/itemcomments.asp?itemid=5445>.

[41] Fido128. Online posting. Game Rankings. 28 April 2002. 12 May 2002 <http://www.gamerankings.com/itemrankings/itemcomments.asp?itemid=5445>.

[42] It is interesting to note, however, that Rez was originally developed and released in 2001 for Sega's own console, Dreamcast, which was recently discontinued.

[43] Thanks to Rod Abernathy for calling my attention to the game.

[44] "The Michael Land Biography." The Michael Land Homepage. Sept. 1998. 2 May 2002 <http://michael-land.mixnmojo.com/bio.htm>.

[45] Linkola, Joonas. Interview with Michael Land. LucasFans. 1998. 10 May 2002 <http://lucasfans.mixnmojo.com/features/interview_michaelland.html>.

[46] Cambron, Melanie. Interview with George Sanger. GIG News. Jan. 2002. 8 May 2002 <http://www.gignews.com/goddess_fatman.htm>.

[47] Sanger hosts a yearly conference called Project Bar-B-Q, dedicated to brainstorming innovations in the field of game audio and interactive audio in particular. See http://www.projectbarbq.com/ for more info and the results of previous conferences.

[48] "FAQ's." The Fat Man. 2 March 2002. 11 May 2002 <http://www.fatman.com/faqs.htm#4>.

[49] "FAQ's." The Fat Man. 2 March 2002. 11 May 2002 <http://www.fatman.com/faqs.htm#3>.

[50] Cambron, Melanie. Interview with George Sanger. GIG News. Jan. 2002. 8 May 2002 <http://www.gignews.com/goddess_fatman.htm>.

[51] "Stories and Legends." The Fat Man. 2 March 2002. 11 May 2002 <http://www.fatman.com/faqs.htm#s4>.

[52] "Stories and Legends." The Fat Man. 2 March 2002. 11 May 2002 <http://www.fatman.com/faqs.htm#s4>.

[53] http://www.discmakers.com/rom/cdromu/fatman.html

[54] Disc Makers. Interview with George Sanger. Disc Makers. 2002. 12 May 2002 <http://www.discmakers.com/rom/cdromu/fatman.html>.

[55] "Concert Dates." Nobuo Uematsu: The man, the legend... Michael Huang. 15 May 2002. 15 May 2002 <http://www.nobuouematsu.com/concert.html>.

[56] "Nobuo Uematsu's Biography." Nobuo Uematsu: The man, the legend... Michael Huang. 15 May 2002. 15 May 2002 <http://www.nobuouematsu.com/bio.html>.

[57] Belinkie, Matthew. "Video game music: not just kid stuff." Video Game Music. 15 Dec. 1999. 12 May 2002 <http://www.vgmusic.com/vgpaper.shtml>.

[58] Belinkie, Matthew. "Video game music: not just kid stuff." Video Game Music. 15 Dec. 1999. 12 May 2002 <http://www.vgmusic.com/vgpaper.shtml>. - Liner Notes to attached Cassette, Side B, #3

[59] Coxon, Sachi. Interview of Nobuo Uematsu. Nobuo Uematsu: The man, the legend... Michael Huang. 15 May 2002. 15 May 2002 <http://www.nobuouematsu.com/nobrpg.html>.

[60] Holland, Jon. "Re: Game Music Project." E-mail to the author. 5 May 2002.

[61] Donehoo, Doyle. "Re: Game Music Project." E-mail to the author. 26 April 2002.

[62] "Film Music." Grove Music. Ed. Laura Macy. 2nd ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 12 May 2002 <http://www.grovemusic.com/index.html>.

[63] Maitland, Fraser. "Re: Game Music Project." E-mail to the author. 29 April 2002.

[64] It is worth noting that George Lucas, director of the Star Wars movies and producer of Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones trilogy, started the game company Lucasarts (originally named "Lucasfilm Games"); both the Star Wars and Indiana Jones film "worlds" have been the subject of a majority of Lucasarts's games.

[65] For an in-depth look at how video games appropriate and refashion film conventions, see Chapter 4 of Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin's Remediation: Understanding New Media (MIT Press, 1999).

[66] Burgess, Simon. "Re: Game Music Project." E-mail to the author. 27 April 2002.

[67] Belinkie, Matthew. "Video game music: not just kid stuff." Video Game Music. 15 Dec. 1999. 12 May 2002 <http://www.vgmusic.com/vgpaper.shtml>.

[68] Van Dyck, Jeff. "Re: Game Music Project." E-mail to the author. 30 April 2002.

[69] Grefberg, Gustaf. "Re: Game Music Project." E-mail to the author. 26 April 2002.

[70] Marks, Aaron. "Re: Game Music Project." E-mail to the author. 1 May 2002.

[71] Nugel, Ingo. "Re: Game Music Project." E-mail to the author. 12 May 2002.

[72] Louis, Levon. "Re: Game Music Project." E-mail to the author. 26 April 2002.

[73] Chosak, Mark. "Re: Game Music Project." E-mail to the author. 26 April 2002.

[74] Van Dyck, Jeff. "Re: Game Music Project." E-mail to the author. 30 April 2002.

[75] Grefberg, Gustaf. "Re: Game Music Project." E-mail to the author. 26 April 2002.

[76] Marks, Aaron. "Re: Game Music Project." E-mail to the author. 1 May 2002.

[77] Abernathy, Rod. "Re: Game Music Project." E-mail to the author. 27 April 2002.

[78] Holler, Markus. "Re: Game Music Project." E-mail to the author. 2 May 2002.

[79] Holland, Jon. "Re: Game Music Project." E-mail to the author. 5 May 2002.

[80] Belinkie, Matthew. "Video game music: not just kid stuff." Video Game Music. 15 Dec. 1999. 12 May 2002 <http://www.vgmusic.com/vgpaper.shtml>.

[81] Martin, Billy. "Re: Game Music Project." E-mail to the author. 29 April 2002.

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