The Music in my Head

So this week I was in a Barnes and Nobles book store collecting the latest in the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik, an excellent series that I heavily recommend, so much so that I read the entire five books so far of the series in one week. In any case, the fifth book, "Victory of Eagles" was freshly released enough that it was not available in the nearby library, so I purchased it.

Great books aside, Barnes and Nobles also sells music and movies, and at one point I wandered to music section to take a look around, and to look a new soundtracks. I enjoy listening to soundtracks, and game soundtracks are no exception. This time, I decided to check for the Halo Wars soundtrack. I figured I'd listen to it and then make my decision of purchase or not purchase, mainly because it was not directly produced by Martin O' Donnell as best I knew. I found it in the system, but not on the shelves, so I asked the cashier for assistance locating it. And then it happened, I mentioned that I was looking for a video game soundtrack, and was immediately on the receiving end of a very odd stare.

Long story short, they didn't have it in stock, but it did make me think about the progression of game music and its movement as a whole, as well as its difference as a whole, from other soundtracks for film and theater.

When video games where first introduced to the public back in the 80s, gaming technology was nothing near as advanced as it is today, and music in many early games was either very simple or didn't exist. As technology moved forward, the ability to add music to games improved, although it was still composed of simple chiptunes that repeated at set intervals. By standards of the 'public' mind, it wasn't much, most to this day decline to consider it music, but at the time, it was all games had, and composers made the most of it, giving us what are now considered by many to be classic songs, such as the Super Mario Bros Song, The Legend of Zelda or Megaman. Moving forward a generation in consoles, more advanced chipsets gave composers more options, and gave gamers songs such as the Icecap Zone from Sonic 3, the Brinstar Depths of Super Metroid or the Stickerbush Symphony from Donkey Kong Country 2, a game with music well received enough that soundtracks were sold.

However, video game music took a jump in a new direction as CD's became the new media of choice for games, increasing the space available more then a hundred-fold. With all this new space to experiment with, game music was greatly enhanced, able to move past chiptunes and towards prerecorded and live music, or at least, much more advanced music then had been seen before in games. It was at this point that game soundtracks started to appear much more regularly, especially among PC titles, where developers were capable of jumping to the CD far more quickly then their console counterparts. While console gamers still embraced chiptunes, PC gamers were jamming away to songs like Command and Conquer's Act on Instinct and watching Full Motion Video.

As these trends have continued to move forward, the modern musical quality has progressed to a point past movies. Super Mario Galaxy's soundtrack was performed by the "Super Mario Symphony", assembled just for the games soundtrack, similar was done with Halo, and Blizzards World of Warcraft. Today's game soundtracks I would argue, are superior in several ways over conventional soundtracks.

Movie soundtracks are static. By this, I mean that the music never needs change, as the movie never changes. No matter how many times you watch it, the main character will never choose to go left instead of right, and in a similar fashion, the music fitting each scene also never needs change. It is recorded once to fit a particular event or happening in the movies plot, and since the scene it is composed for never changes, the composer doesn't need to give it any additional thought outside of that particular scene.

Game however, are at the mercy of the player. Excepting scripted scenes, game composers must run the risk of the player changing the flow of the game at any moment, creating problems with the movie soundtrack structure. A rousing composition for a chase scene may turn back on the composer if the players find a way to avoid the chase entirely and instead sneak around the entire event.

In response to this, game soundtracks tend to be more open then movie soundtracks, often written to embrace a wider variety of musical themes and emotions then a movie scene. Composers choose to handle this differently. In Bungie's Halo series, a sophisticated audio engine was put in charge of "assembling" the music based on the way the players moved through the game, creating customized soundtracks from large amounts of source music. In this method, the music changed with each play through of the game. When put together later, one area of the game would include all of the themes heard in the "Truth and Reconciliation Suite.

Other game composers aim to compose broader music, designed to fit the feel of the atmosphere of the games world rather then the players particular actions. For example, the music of Retro Studio's Metroid Prime carries a hint of isolation along with a unique environmental 'theme', using the players emotions to enhance the effect of the music and the game. In this way, I hold that game music has an edge over other soundtracks, as it employs more versatility, emotion, and personal interpretation then most music. While movie soundtracks are written to push and enforce a particular feeling on the listener to accentuate what is being observed, game music is written to encourage personal adaptation and interpretation, moving with the player to bring a theme to bear as do other soundtracks, but then moving a step further to allow the player their own interpretation of what that entails. Instead of one road, it offers many, and allows the player to choose.

For example, I recommend listening to each of the following songs, looking elsewhere to avoid seeing the title while you listen to the music. what emotions do these songs bring to your mind, what settings and scenes appear in your head? Post them in the comments and see how different your interpretations are.
Song one
Song two

Both songs are from the aforementioned Metroid Prime, now you know (unless you looked).

This is why I enjoy my various game soundtracks. Each one is unique, and serves as a jump point for interpretation past what it was written as. I still enjoy movie soundtracks from time to time, but the room for personal interpretation in Video Game Soundtracks is much larger then Hollywood's finest, and focused, material.

And just so you know, the first song (Phendrana Drifts) always makes me think of an icy cave entrance with snow drifts or a walk in freezer, while the second one (Tallon Overworld) makes me think of a mossy, overgrown, moist and low light forest.

What'd you think of?

GAMES I'M CURRENTLY PLAYING: Sins of a Solar Empire: Entrenchment (PC), Audiosurf (PC), Overlord: Raising Hell (360), Gears of War 2 (360), Super Metroid (SNES)

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