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Transcending Emotions: Music in Videogames – Part 1

You’re a rookie soldier in the middle of war. You are afraid of your environment and the only thing you really care about is your life. Exotic drums enlighten your path. The drum hits fill you with a heroic sense that lets you believe surviving is possible. However, between you and your goal there’s as many enemies as people in China; they attack you and the pace of the drums just get a lot more intense. So does your heart. Your team and you are about to get slaughtered but somebody calls air support and most enemies gets wiped out. The drums stop. The only thing you hear is your heart, and the faint sound of desolation. You walk towards the beacon you need to seize, and a group of violins start playing. Your heart start beating with emotion again, but now, desperation has been replaced with hope.

Have you ever felt how your heart moves to the rhythm of the circumstances, therefore enhancing significantly your experience? That, folks, is the gentle power of music.

Back in the day, music was just an afterthought in the whole video game paraphernalia. It was naturally to heavy for practical storage, and programming it was a little too expensive at the time. As a result, little to no honorable mentions emerged during the first years of gaming.

With the launch of the NES, however, things changed; as the console was capable of five channels (or tones, or notes) and one of them was even capable of simple sampling. This technology breakthrough let young composers to be a little more creative, and be as resourceful as humanly possible. As a result, the most memorable themes and tunes were created.

Do you remember what feelings this screen gave you?

Kondo San has created some of the most memorable tunes in gaming

The Zelda theme in the title screen, composed by music guru Koji Kondo, immediately gave you the sense you were about to enter a big, breathing world, and about to start a huge and epic adventure. Once inside the game, the incredible Hyrule theme (or Hylianische Steppe if you will) was a catchy and yet epic attempt to remind you of the importance of your quest, and how beautiful the land you were trying to save was.

Conversely, the Final Fantasy title theme was tranquil and solemn, sending a clear message of the beautiful experience you were about to get into. Nobuo Uematsu’s music arranged your emotions to be prepared for a complex story and quite micromanaging instead of slashing huge amounts of monsters.

Hirokazu Tanaka’s music for Metroid, for example, was very consequent with the game’s mood. It was a brilliant mix of sound effects and music, which let you know you were in a hostile, living organism that served as a world. Also, without the music, players wouldn’t be able to effectively realize they were alone, helpless and underpowered.

The “living organism” concept has been widely praised among critics

All in all, the 80’s and 90’s were full of great jingles that belong to long standing franchises even today. Metroid, Donkey Kong, Dragon Quest, and Final Fantasy still use the melodies and “leit motifs” of yesteryear, as a testament of the high quality of those compositions, and the way they affected how you played the game and how you felt about that.

The increased technology of the 32 and 64-bit era, brought new challenges to composers, as getting games in three dimensions meant new levels of immersion.

Newcomers in the music world were introduced, such as the very talented Grant Kirkhope, who composed his themes around the Nintendo 64‘s real time render abilities. The result was tangible in games like Banjo-Kazooie, where the music dynamically changed according to your location. This was specially noticeable inside Gruntilda’s castle, were the same catchy melody was played with a beach, prehistoric or even industrial theme, creating a great amount of moods within the same space.

Kirkhope set the bar for future musical implementations

Another interesting usage of music is seen (or rather heard) in Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, where John Williams‘ superb music was strategically deployed depending on your actions during missions, creating a cinematic effect not unlike the Star Wars movies themselves.

These innovations  and efforts effectively made video games a lot more immersive, and get them a lot closer to being an art form. But what other composers are worth noting in this beautiful branch of the industry? What games are considered a landmark in this respect? There’s a lot more to be discussed, so stay tuned for part two of “Transcending Emotions“; and don’t forget to leave your comments in the section below!

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  • Well put, video game music is a very important factor that sadly most people take for granted. In this generation specifically it wasn’t until Dead Space came out that people tend to remember how music/sound can really draw you into how you react with the game.

    Long live video game music.

  • crom

    lovely article !! I was thinking tho..the lack of music sometimes was great too …remember resident evil? the creepy silence surrounding the house and that cracking noise from every door opening !!