The Dummy Guide to video game music, Part II


In the first instalment of the Dummy Guide To video game music we looked at the early days of gaming-related noise. In part two, we explore the development of sound from the Playstation and N64 onwards, and its influence on underground producers of today.

The shift to streaming

Streaming gave games the freedom to include any sounds they wanted to. If they wanted a heavy metal soundtrack, they could ask a heavy metal band to record one, rather than try and make one themselves and accidentally mash it up with disco. In his book Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution, Steven Poole writes that “a modern development company might devote many hours to accurate sampling of different cars’ engine noises for a driving game to make the who audio-visual performance as immersive and (deceptively) ‘authentic’ as possible”.

The era dominated by the Playstation), Nintendo 64 and home computer marked a shift away from experimenting with new sound forms towards refining existing ones. With streaming, some developers realised that a cinematic soundtrack could potentially turn their medium into an entertainment industry to rival Hollywood sophistication. Quake (1996) explored this opportunity, enlisting Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor to provide its soundtrack long before he was winning Oscars for his work. Nobuo Uematsu conducted an orchestra for ‘Liberi Fatali’, the operatic opening music in Final Fantasy VIII (1999), a far cry from the 8-bit sounds of the first game. And Akira Yamaoka masterpiece soundtrack to the horror landmark Silent Hill (1999) blended industrial noise with murky sub bass to create an uncomfortable, genuinely disturbing atmosphere that was closer to the abstract sound design of David Lynch Lost Highway (1997) than any traditional video game soundtrack.

Silent Hill (1999)

Video game music, or music video games?

One of the most interesting developments of the fifth generation of consoles was the popularisation of the music game, which came in many forms. One was the rhythm game, replacing the popular dance platform arcade format with a living room dancemat. Games like Dance Dance Revolution (1999) and its various spin-offs were some of the most prevalent rhythm/dancemat games, paving way for the likes of Guitar Hero (2005) and Rock Band (2007) in the future. Rhythm games were based off a format established by the totally out-there PaRappa The Rapper (1997). Essentially a spin on the classic Simon Says format, PaRappa The Rapper told the story of a paper-thin rapping dog named PaRappa as he tried to win the heart of a flower named Sunny Funny. Don’t ask. The game had some ridiculous and amazing songs throughout, and its sequel, Um Jammer Lammy (1999), was possibly even better.

PaRappa The Rapper – Flea Market (1997)

Another pioneering music game was Jester Interactive’s unpretentiously named Music series. In the landmark title Music 2000, the ‘player’ (I use that word with caution, as it wasn’t really a ‘game’) was presented with a library of music samples and a timeline to arrange and manipulate them on, with enough possibilities for making really original tracks. Many of this generation’s most influential producers started out making their sounds on Music – Hudson Mohawke, a slew of grime beatmakers and famously Skream all learnt their trade on it. “A mate from school told me he was making tunes, and he introduced me to it on a Playstation program, Music 2000.” Skream said in an interview with The Quietus in 2011, “I couldn’t believe how easy I thought it was, I was like ‘Wow, that’s how people make tunes…’”

Speaking to FACT, garage legend Zed Bias describes his initial bafflement with early grime’s lo-fi sound: “8-bar, which turned into grime, that was another scene that totally passed me by. That again was Music 2000 on the Playstation, and you could really tell.” Music’s timeline-based interface and emphasis on tinkering with samples was easy-to-grasp and not much different to digital audio workstations like Logic, Fruity Loops and Ableton, making the jump from Playstation producer to laptop producer not just easy, but natural. Titles like Music 2000 paved the way for other music non-games in the future, such as KORG’s DS-10 (2008) (an MS-10 synthesiser clone played on the Nintendo DS) and the Timbaland-endorsed Beaterator (2009), an update of Music for the MPC age.

Benga makes a beat on Music 2000, aged 17

Licensed soundtracks and the marketing machine

In the latter half of the 1990s, record labels recognised the potential of using streaming technology to affiliate their own artists with the video game market, licensing full studio recordings for use in new games. Whether it was Wipeout (1995)‘s rave and big beat crossover (courtesy of Leftfield and The Chemical Brothers), or the inclusion of acts like Primus and the Dead Kennedys in dropout favourite Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (1999), licensed soundtracks could prove to have just as much staying power as an original score. It helped music moguls out a lot too, especially as their own industry started to collapse – Good Charlotte went from selling 300,000 copies of their album to 3.5 million after the inclusion The Anthem on Madden NFL 2003 (2002).

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (1995)

With the release of the Xbox, gamers were able to take the licensed soundtrack a step further by allowing you to customise your own soundtrack. On the Xbox, players could rip songs from their own CDs to the console’s hard drive, with certain games allowing you to stream these songs instead of the soundtrack it came with, meaning you could have your music playing to the right volume, from the same audio source, EQ’d against the sound effects of the game itself. Aged 15, a lot of my time was spent playing Crash Mode on Burnout 2 (2003) with friends, soundtracked by the Test Icicles and The Rapture albums that I’d ripped earlier – far better than the borderline unlistenable pop punk that the game came with.

With the current generation of consoles, you can stream your own music on any game, not just those that allow it, and you can take it from external hard drives, or stream it from iTunes libraries, or from other computers, removing the laborious process of ripping the CDs yourself. This total freedom reflects the wider shift in media sectors towards user interactivity, giving the illusion that the barrier between content creator and user has been removed. This has, of course, meant that some developers put little effort into their own soundtracks – why bother if you’re just going to put your own songs on instead? Often, as is the case with your average sport or racing title, they won’t have any original music at all. But this has also meant that some developers are becoming more creative with their own music selections to counteract the banality.

Curator culture has got to the point where a series such as Grand Theft Auto will be expected to have a quality soundtrack, full of assorted gems across many eras. Julio Bashmore, one of house music’s prodigal sons, is described by Mixmag as “a kid who got into old-skool house through a virtual radio station on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City”, which demonstrates how formative to a gamer’s tastes a well-selected soundtrack can be. The GTA series has become so cool with its music that the ability to listen to your own songs has become moot – why would you want to stream your own tunes on GTA IV (2008), for example, when you can listen to a radio station of incredible camp disco tunes, presented by Karl Lagerfeld? GTA developers Rockstar are renowned for the efforts they make in their soundtracks. Their excellent spaghetti western pastiche Red Dead Redemption (2011) apes classic scores by Ennio Morricone, whilst recent title Max Payne 3 (2012) has an original soundtrack provided by noise titans HEALTH.

HEALTH – Tears – Max Payne 3 OST (2012)

Soundtracks are now being utilized as marketing tools themselves. Recently, Namco’s Tekken Tag Tournament 2 (2012) had a remixed version of its soundtrack released alongside the game itself, featuring reinterpretations by hyperactive electro producers such as Busy P, Siriusmo and Crookers. They even hosted a remix competition in tandem with Junodownload for aspiring producers to unwittingly interact with the game’s marketing machine. This approach is fast becoming common practice: you can enter a similar contest for the forthcoming Halo 4 (2012) soundtrack, allowing your music to be heard alongside fist-pumping official remixes by Caspa, Sander Van Doorn and Bobby Tank.

Gaming as a modern musical form

Modern computers, smartphone and tablet technology and platforms such as the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 ‘arcades’ have allowed indie gaming communities to develop games that reach an audience beyond their usual niche. Some artists are using this freedom to explore new forms of musical expression – Gwilym Gold app-based album Tender Metal is born from the notions of interactivity that gaming established, and literally sounds different on each listen, whilst Adam Harper’s recent essay Music or Game? explores the boundaries between gaming and music, considering the way that games can create new listening experiences. New technologies are allowing the underground contingent to return to that early notion of exploring new forms of sound that video games initially promised.

And as game companies actively try to court and align themselves with alternative musicians, musicians themselves are doing a similar thing in reverse. Hudson Mohawke’s debut album ‘Butter’ received an accompanying game to go with it, the hilariously named Butterstar Galactica. The game, soundtracked by a HudMo DJ set, seemed almost to be a way of acknowledging the influence that gaming had on his music and bringing the whole thing full circle. Similarly, Gatekeeper recent full-length ‘Exo’, released on Hippos In Tanks, received an accompanying video game-style environment designed by Tabor Robak. This inclination towards world-building seems to be a part of the gaming musician’s mindset. Rustie, who littered his Essential Mix with Nintendo sound effects and whose tracks have names like Inside Pikachu’s Cunt, also seems to share this approach, with the sonics of his album ‘Glass Swords’ unmistakably belonging to the same world that was depicted on its cover. Just as a game world will remain aesthetically consistent throughout its running course, so is the universe that these musicians create, one that their music uniquely belongs to. Bok Bok, whose modernist artwork for Night Slugs is in part formed by these virtual environments, describes this in an interview with XLR8R: “sometimes those locations in game worlds can have such a vibe, they can give you tingles.”

Hudson Mohawke – Butterstar Galactica (2010)

Ikonika, who has released bass-centric heavy-hitters on labels like Planet Mu and Hyperdub, describes the unconscious influence of video gaming on her music. In an interview with FACT, she describes playing the Mega Drive as “pushing buttons and making sounds…when you’re playing computer games you’re making a beat in the rhythm of the game. It’s really similar.” Ikonika’s debut album, ‘Contact, Love, Want, Have’, incorporates a gamer’s influence into the music in a way that seems more effortless than the chiptunes of Crystal Castles’ first album, and is full of track names that follow gaming tropes – Insert Coin, Continue?, Final Boss Stage and Good Ending are all referenced, as well as Tekken character Yoshimitsu. The influence of gaming on these musicians seems to go beyond mere homage: it’s as if a gamer’s mindset informs their very process of music-making. Describing the reason he returns to gaming for inspiration, Steve Hauschildt sums it all up: “It’s not for nostalgia’s sake that I remain interested in exploring video game music, there’s a deeper awareness that comes from its unbridled creativity that keeps me going back for more.”

The overlap between the gaming and music industries is vast and full of cross-references and influences, but we hope that the outline provided above is sketched in just enough to give an idea of the whole. Go here to read Part I of the guide.

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