The Early Days
Video Game Music!
The History of Video Game Music!

By: Glenn McDonald
Designed By: Collin Oguro

As with film, television, and other primarily visual mediums, sound and music are often the forgotten elements in video game design. That may be because sound affects you with more subtly than do splashy visuals or hyperspeedy gameplay. In fact, oftentimes the mark of superior sound design is that you don't consciously notice it at all. Instead, it goes to work on you subconsciously--heightening tension, manipulating the mood, and drawing you into the gameworld faintly but inexorably.

Consider the ominous ambient sounds of Resident Evil, the effects of which compound the tension and horror as you happen upon those relentless zombies chewing up your Alpha Team comrades. Even early games like Space Invaders earned much of their addictive appeal by getting into your head with thumping, repetitive sound schemes. As the aliens got faster and closer, the music got faster and louder. Properly designed, sound and visual cues work together to produce an experience greater than the sum of their parts.

Dedicated gamers have come to appreciate just how integral good sound and music can be to the overall gameplay experience. Early arcade classics such as Pac-Man and Defender relied on superb digital sound schemes to provide us with ditties, melodies, beeps, and buzzes we'd never heard before. With the introduction of the 16-bit and 32-bit eras and with the expanded storage capabilities of CD-ROM, video game music moved into the realm of true composition. Video game soundtracks now constitute their own category in music outlets both online and off. Mainstream cross-pollination continues as well, from "Pac-Man Fever" to the recent phenomenon of techno and rock artists who contribute to game soundtracks.

In 2000, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) decided to let interactive games compete in the annual Grammy awards. Individual proponents within the game music industry are lobbying for a video game-specific category in the future. So far, however, no organized lobbying group has come forward, according to a NARAS spokesperson. As it stands now, individual composers or record labels can submit video game soundtrack music independently in one of three general categories: Best Soundtrack Album; Best Song; or Best Instrumental Composition for a Motion Picture, Television, or Other Visual Media.

As technology progresses and as overall game design continues to evolve, video game music promises to be a fertile area of development and growth.

How important is music and sound in video games?
It can make or break the game.
I barely notice it.
Ask me at the end of this feature.

The very first video games, alas, had no sound component whatsoever. In 1958, William Higinbotham, an engineer at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a US nuclear research facility, fashioned a crude tennis-type game on an oscilloscope. Five years later, Spacewar--MIT student Steve Russell's protogame--featured two dueling spaceships controlled by toggle switches. It was created on the hulking PDP-1 computer, a $120,000 mainframe the size of a Buick. Both, however, were silent.

Eventually, things started getting interesting. So join us now for a leisurely "scroll" down a Brief Timeline of Video Game Sound and Music.

Special thanks to Steven Kent, author of The First Quarter: A 25-Year History of Video Games and Donald A. Thomas, Webmaster of the online video game museum I.C. When (
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