Sound's effects

From 8-bit melodies to full orchestras, video game music has undergone an incredible evolution. It's making games more immersive, but it's also sparking new careers for people with the right mix of skills.

From 8-bit melodies to full orchestras, video game music has undergone an incredible evolution.

A scene from Final Fantasy XIII. (Square Enix/Associated Press)

Fast-paced electronica pulses as weapon-wielding characters race down a hallway toward the villain. He’s perched on a throne by a large window. The music fades as the protagonists draw closer, allowing their antagonistic dialogue to take centre stage.

A dramatic string motif begins as the enemy demonstrates his powers by attacking one of his own guards, who falls to the ground. The music intensifies as he easily wards off attacks from the good guys; its tempo quickens as he reveals an elaborate, evil plot. Finally, a menacing choral refrain begins as he completes his transformation into a huge monster, which sets up an epic battle sequence.

As this scene from Final Fantasy XIII proves, today’s video games are on par with movies in terms of high-powered graphics and engrossing storylines. As a result of evolving technology and higher expectations from players, videogame soundtracks have also become deeper and more complex.

"Nine years ago," says Noémie Dupuy, business development director of Montreal audio production studio Wave Generation, "we were talking about smaller games with memory limitations, so they would propose for a game maybe 10 to 20 minutes of music. But now, more and more, because we’re talking about big games [with] one to two hours of music in the game, we’re talking about real music scores."

The team behind the 2010 action-adventure epic God of War 3 used a full orchestra and choir to create an ominous, menacing score suited to the game’s mythological subject matter. Composers are also turning to large musical ensembles to score more lighthearted titles, such as Super Mario Galaxy 2. It’s easy to imagine today’s game soundtracks in films.

That wasn’t the case a few decades ago, when game characters were eight-bit sprites rather than fully rendered human figures. The reason is the same: the technology just couldn’t handle it. The amount of music that could be stored in a game cartridge was one limiting factor. The number of sound channels available to play it was another.

In the 1980s, composers "didn't have a lot of options," says David Lloyd, founder of the game music remix site Overclocked Remix. The earliest game music was generated by consoles’ computer chips, which used a limited number of channels to produce different sound waves. "In order to basically make the most of that," Lloyd says, "you really had to write some good melodies."

Themes from older games such as The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros. and Metroid are familiar even to people who haven’t played them. "I remember playing Mega Man 2 and my sister, who's not really a gamer at all, said, ‘You know, this is pretty good music for a video game,’" Lloyd says.

That’s because "limitation breeds great art," says Brent Black, a musician and writer known for putting lyrics to famous video game themes. "[Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda composer] Koji Kondo only had four channels of plinks and plonks to create his first masterpieces, and so the music had to be so good it actually transcended the limitations."

Early game music "had to be good because there was a huge element of repetition," Lloyd says. He points to the Super Mario Bros. theme, which consists of a handful of musical hooks, all of which are introduced within one minute.

It takes "a specific skill set" to work within such a limited medium, says Paul Levasseur, a graduate student finishing up his master's degree in composition at the University of British Columbia. "People who got into doing [early] games weren’t necessarily highly trained composers. You’ve got John Williams, who does movies, and that fellow has tons of training."

He contrasts that with the background of composer Nobuo Uematsu, who scored most of the Final Fantasy series. "He’s a rock musician," he says. "He didn’t have the same sort of background as, say, John Williams, and because of that he was forced to rely on melodic hooks."

The move to optical media gaming systems – i.e., disc-based games, which can support much larger files than cartridge-based games – gave developers more room to experiment with graphics, game size and musical styles. The ability to include higher-quality audio — and more of it — allowed composers to incorporate multiple musical genres in a single game. It also enabled the licensing of existing popular music. Jérémi Valiquette, director of Ubisoft Montreal’s sound studio, says it’s become more common for sports and racing games as the music industry "is seeing opportunities in there."

Those opportunities have led some in the music industry to contribute original music, like electronica producer Amon Tobin, who scored Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (2005) and Infamous, a Sony title from 2009. Other times, composers move in the opposite direction. Some of Michael Giacchino’s earliest credits were video game soundtracks, which led to TV and film credits, including an Oscar for his work on Up.

Now that games can feature several hours of high-quality recorded music rather than a handful of looped synthesizer themes, it’s possible to play through a title requiring dozens of hours of gameplay without hearing the same melody more than a few times. Composers often find more options to be an asset, says Levasseur, who will start composition studies at the doctorate level this fall.

"If I was working on a game, I would want to be able to use chamber music, orchestrated, orchestral scores," he says. "I’d want to be able to use a rock band or metal band if necessary and I’d prefer electro-acoustic to be able to do that sort of creepy soundscape stuff, because that makes the experience much more, I guess, immersive."

Whatever tools composers have at their disposal, the methodology behind scoring a game remains different from that of a movie.

"With games," says Michael Huang, a composer who’s worked on both games and films, "it's more non-linear. You are just scoring for a particular mood for the player. Film and video are more linear — you have to score according to the action on screen." The flow of a game is typically dictated by the player, so the music needs to accommodate that.

"In a film, the score is the emotional container of the content you're passively receiving," Black says. "In a video game, the score is the emotional container for the story you're actively living."

Lloyd agrees. By playing a video game, he says, "you're taking on a persona," and living vicariously through a character. "It's interactive. It's more transporting. It's more enveloping, so I think there's a different connection to the music. You sort of think of it as your music as opposed to the music from a movie."

Kerry Wall is a writer for CBC News. Her ringtone is the Wind Scene music from Chrono Trigger.