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Classic Games (Games) Media Music

The Rise And Fall Of Game Audio 111

Thanks to Armchair Arcade for its article discussing why new game composers should look to classic game audio for pointers and inspiration. The author argues that classic Commodore 64 composer Rob Hubbard's work "is innovative precisely because he isn't trying to mimic 'real' music or make his computer sound like something besides a computer", before arguing of newer game audio: "How did game audio composers respond to this sudden technological boon? They began to imitate. Rather than innovate, they only did what had been done so many times before." The author concludes: "What concerns me is when they ignore the abilities unique to the electronic medium. It makes no more sense for a game audio programmer to mimic a string quartet as it does for a flutist to make his instrument sound like a kazoo."
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The Rise And Fall Of Game Audio

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  • Missing the point (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Nutcase ( 86887 ) on Saturday August 07, 2004 @10:39PM (#9911456) Homepage Journal
    Very few games are about music. Most are about something else. All of them are visual artworks. In any visual artwork, the music is secondary. It may be as important as the visuals, or even more important... but it is not the focus of the work. It is supplemental to it. It is enhancing to it. This is the same in Movies, Games, TV, etc. The music is meant to enhance the emotion in a certain way... be it sadness, or a pounding beat to get your heart pumping when you are blasting aliens.

    I guess my point is that games are just about the LAST place you should expect to see new forms of music, because they aren't made to create new forms of music. They are made to create fun games.

    As far as immitation - it's easier to get the reaction you want from sounds that are already associated with an emotion than from something completely new.

    If you want new forms of music in games, create new forms of music that have emotional resonance. Eventually they will be used in games. But don't expect the game designers to do it. That's not their goal.
  • by caitsith01 ( 606117 ) on Saturday August 07, 2004 @10:53PM (#9911498) Journal
    that audio in games is 'bad' or 'boring' today.

    For example, everyone is ranting on about the atmosphere in Doom III, and a huge part of that seems to be a direct result of the awesome, surround sound audio experience.

    A lot of other games recently have had incredible audio. Some examples that spring to mind include Deus Ex (atmospheric, surround sound, with great music), KOTOR (hard to make bad audio when you have the Star Wars themes and light sabre fight noises), Grand Prix 4 (motor racing in surround sound), and Vietcong (not a great game but it had cool music and sound). Less recently Red Alert 2 had great music, and I still think there's nothing quite like the sound of a fully fledged melee in Quake III, with rockets rumbling, railguns pinging, and shotguns banging away.

    We're all nostalgic for old games. Some of my favourites sound-wise include UFO/XCOM, Sam and Max, Speedball 2, and pretty much anything on Amiga. But this doesn't mean that modern games, with surround sound and near-cinematic quality are somehow bad or boring. Maybe the difference is just simplicity - when you have very limited ability to use samples and only one or two channels, you have to come up with something catchy and simple.
  • Ummmm... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by recursiv ( 324497 ) on Saturday August 07, 2004 @11:19PM (#9911581) Homepage Journal
    "What concerns me is when they ignore the abilities unique to the electronic medium. It makes no more sense for a game audio programmer to mimic a string quartet as it does for a flutist to make his instrument sound like a kazoo."

    What concerns me is when recording artists ignore the abilities unique to the compact disc format. It makes no more sense for a recording artist to use acoustic instruments than it does for a flutist to make his instrument sound like a kazoo.

    Please. As a musician, this is ridiculous.

    Why do you think there are so many synthesizers that aim to emulate the sounds of acoustic instruments as closely as possible? They make a nice sound. The violin has had centuries to be perfected. Some people make music out of square and sine waves. Some people use acoustic instruments. Some people sample. The thing that really matters is what sound it makes. If a situation demands a sound that is made by an acoustic instrument, then why in the fuck should you limit yourself to only sounds that "take advantage of the abilities unique to the electronic medium."
  • by AdamPiotrZochowski ( 736869 ) <> on Saturday August 07, 2004 @11:19PM (#9911582) Homepage

    \ Game audio shouldn't be the tunes you hear in your car

    How I wish all sports games would follow this. God, I hated EA's
    FIFA for playing top 40 radio hits from the previous year.

    \ Game audio should be convincing, engaging without being
    \ detracting, and should heighten enjoyment the first time heard
    \ without getting annoying the 10th. It should dynamically change
    \ based upon the character's situation, and should contain an
    \ original artistic spark.

    Only to add one more point, game audio should be rememberable. It
    should be so good that people sit in the menu and wait for it to
    finish. It should be something that you can whistle or sing to.
    This is what differences good music that people enjoy from great
    music that people try to play at the camp fires, or whistle in the
    subway or bus.

    /apz, I got eyes and ears, amaze me with your game
  • by recursiv ( 324497 ) on Saturday August 07, 2004 @11:22PM (#9911594) Homepage Journal
    Small point,

    but why does being able to hum a song make the song better? It makes it more catchy. It makes it more appropriate for certain situations, like theme songs.

    But why would you want bouncy theme music during a tense scary moment in a game?
  • by rhettoric ( 772376 ) on Saturday August 07, 2004 @11:49PM (#9911688) Homepage

    It makes no more sense for a game audio programmer to mimic a string quartet as it does for a flutist to make his instrument sound like a kazoo.

    If a string quartet makes the game more entertaining than it makes perfect sense. Computer games are immersive environments, and the goal has been to make them more and more realistic with the (I assume) eventuality that at some point "players" will be unable to distinguish between simulated and actual reality.

    I see no reason why game developers should strive to make their games obviously illusory. In fact, most of the gaming community has quite obviously voted with their pocketbooks for realism .

    Now, this doesn't mean that I don't think there is room for innovation in game audio, but it's absurd to think we should throw out techniques that have been successful in other media just because it's a computer game.

    Having a symphony orchestra kick in as you're avatar is walking along is more cinematic than realistic but again, the point is to entertain. Why shouldn't a game be as compelling and immersive as a film?

    Oh, and what's so bad about kazoos anyway? P.D.Q. Bach [] has done some pretty entertaining work with kazoos. This is often, in fact, the only original aspect of his work. P.D.Q. like the game devlopers, was heavily criticized for his "excessive borrowing".

    Copied or not it's entertaining which, after all, is the goal.

  • by b00m3rang ( 682108 ) on Sunday August 08, 2004 @12:14AM (#9911790) []

    I've got a sample CD made with this synth, and it can make some very complex and interesting tones. Game systems used to have character and personality based on what sounds their hardware could produce. Now they just seem to be used as a CD player and a straightforward sampler.
  • You're half right (Score:4, Insightful)

    by b00m3rang ( 682108 ) on Sunday August 08, 2004 @12:53AM (#9911905)
    You don't hear techno coming out of an opera singer's mouth, and you don't hear pipe organs in African drum circles. Certain genres are often associated with the venue of performance, and video game music once stood apart as its own art form. Recently it seems video games just play music from other genres, and there's nothing wrong with that, I just think that game-specific music seems to have been placed on the back burner.
  • still reading... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Bambi Dee ( 611786 ) on Sunday August 08, 2004 @11:26AM (#9913507)
    ...but I think I'm quite in agreement on some points.

    The reason I was so damn impressed with the SID wasn't just the expertise of a handful of composers but the way its unnatural, alternately gritty and spooky sound went together with the melancholic, psychedelic or just plain strange quality of some of the music. I'm thinking of darker themes like those of Warhawk, Zoids or Lightforce here, not the happier fare of Thing on a Spring or Giana Sisters.

    There was something truly unique about SID music that got lost when "everyone" got Amigas and games started to use sample-based "tracker" music. And now everything's just playback or at best a form of "DJing", or so it seems (must admit I haven't examined too many modern games). Many games do have great, atmospheric music -- more listenable in the long run than even my favourite SID music. But still... I was so in awe of this puny brown breadbox sweating out such strange and wonderful sounds live and on its own, so to speak. Even the electric mayhem sounds of Atari 2600 Missile Command had ...something -- the way this was truly computer-generated, not prefabbed elsewhere like the soundtrack on a video cassette.

    Nowadays every computer can reproduce every kind of recordable sound -- that's great, and I wouldn't ever want that development to not have happened, but somehow it's just not very unique or impressive -- using the computer as a tape recorder doesn't have much to do with the medium computer; listening to music in mp3 format doesn't make it this particular computer's "voice". I often say the same about graphics -- merely imitating reality isn't really the most artistic or interesting application of improved technology. It isn't real; why not use that to your advantage?

    I think I agree with the article there, though maybe the author should listen to some Autechre or cEvin Key or what have you instead of complaining about the repetitive, simplistic beat of dance or industrial music piped into clubs and dubbed over with offensive lyrics and banter. Most clubs aren't exactly places where I'd expect to hear intelligent electronic music. (Besides, when was The Cure a synth pop band?)

    There're software synthesizers, of course, but does this approach play a role in game audio? I found Trash242's (?I think) suggestion, posted a little further down (or up, depending), very interesting. Would be great to see it happen.

  • by DeComposer ( 551766 ) on Monday August 09, 2004 @01:29AM (#9917906) Journal
    There are a number of different factors at play here. Let's dispense with the obvious stuff first:

    Game audio includes a good deal more than just music; crucial parts of any gaming experience include the sound effects and environmental sound. Clearly, whether a particular sound exists in RL or not, it must sound as convincingly real as possible, otherwise some degree of immersion in the game is lost.

    Getting back to the music, there are two elements at work here: I'll call them mood music and thematic music.

    Mood music is essentially decoration: musical sound effects, if you will. Just as the spoken voice can convey different emotions, mood music uses reasonably well-understood concepts of tone to create and dissipate tension, thus altering the mood of the gameplay. When done very well, the viewer/gamer rarely notices mood music on a conscious level. It gets processed on an almost subconscious level, which is great because there's no "processing cost" to add this "channel" to the viewing/gaming experience.

    Thematic music, particularly in games or movies, is the music a composer writes to unify the work--give it its own character, if you will. As such, yes, it definitely needs a dominant, memorable melody. Two of the key techniques of a successful musical composition are repetition and surprise.

    Imagine for a moment that I'm a composer. What I'll do is take a strong melody and play with it, setting up the listeners' expectations. Once I have the listener comfortable with the main thematic elements: the melody, the harmonic progression, and the rhythm, I can alter those elements to greater or lesser degrees. This is what keeps the music from getting as stale as "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." I can even depart from the thematic elements altogether, albeit for a short time. Doing this radically change the listeners' expectations; it drags them out of their complacent listening and forces them to sit up and take notice. As such, this technique works well as an audible underscore to a dramatic transition in the movie/game mood or environment.

    At the end of the movie/game, though, a good composer will usually resolve to the main thematic elements. This helps tie the various experiences of the game/movie into a more cohesive whole and also helps to underscore that the game or movie is over.

Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later. -- F. Brooks, "The Mythical Man-Month"