Music In Video Games Essay, Research Paper
Throughout the history of the video game industry, there has been many changes concerning music in video games. Music in video games progressed greatly within the life of the industry from 1972 to the present. These progressions can be seen as improvements in quality which includes an increase in the number of output channels, an increase in song length, a great improvement in the quality of timbres, and also a general shift from non-programmatic music to programmatic music which fits a game. If one takes a close look, one can see that all of these improvements are either directly or indirectly resulting from improvements in the technology which is used to produce video game music. These improvements in technology include the increase of the number of bits of a Sound Central Processing, the increase of Audio Random-Access-Memory, the switch from the use of frequency modulation to digital sampling, and the use of compact discs for playing music during a game. By closely examining the contribution of the preceding technological advancements, one can see that technology has indeed caused great improvements for music in the video game industry.
The first technological enhancement which greatly enhanced the quality of music in video games is the number of bits which a sound Central Processing Unit (CPU) has. The sound CPU is a component in a video game system which controls every single sound which a system produces. This, then, obviously includes music. Specifically, the CPU controls what sounds are to be played at what time, their volume and dynamics, and each sound?s length and rhythm. In a sense, the sound CPU acts as a conductor who has absolute control over every single instrument in his orchestra. The increase of the number of bits serves to improve music quality by increasing the number of channels of sound which can be played at the same time. This will just be like increasing the number of instruments in an orchestra. As in the romantic period, an increase in the number of instruments can lead to a richer and more varied blend of sounds which can be used to cause effects of drama and human emotions during game play. This increase in emotional portrayal can also be seen as the first step towards the rise of programmatic music in video games.
Another technological improvement in the industry which improved the quality of music in video games was the increase in the amount of Audio Random-Access-Memory (ARAM). The ARAM is a memory storage area which performs two main functions. The first of its functions is to store data concerning the layout of a song. This data contains information such as which voices will be played at what time, specifications concerning a song?s rhythm, dynamics and structure, and any other information which is used by the sound CPU when it produces sounds. When compared to music in the mainstream musical industry, the ARAM can be seen as the musical score which musicians read in order to gain the information to play a song. Since the ARAM stores a song?s structure, increasing the size of the ARAM will obviously have a profound effect on the overall length and the variations in structure of a particular song. The result is that an increase in ARAM will yield songs which are longer and contain more variations within its structure. These changes are particularly important in video games since “a monotonous melody which repeats every few seconds can lead to boredom and even frustration in a player.”1 Therefore, video game programmers are now becoming more and more aware that programming long varying songs can keep a player from becoming bored and switch to another game. Thus, this partially increases a player?s liking of a particular game.
The other function of the ARAM is to store information which defines the timbres in a song. Sound, like many other things which occur in nature, actually consists of waves which travel through a medium and then hit our eardrums, causing them to vibrate and sending messages to our brain which is interpreted as sounds. Like all the other waves in nature, sound waves can be mathematically defined as a set of equations. Mathematical equations are exactly the way in which a video game system stores its sounds. The sound wave equations are used to define the timbres in a song. Through a process called frequency modulation synthesis (FM synthesis), programmers define timbre by creating and working with wave equations from scratch. Similarly to the increase in the length of a song, an increased ARAM can also be used to store longer wave equations which more precisely define a timbre in a song. Better defined waves mean an improvement in timbre which can bring a further sense of programmaticism to a song. This is true because of the fact that different instruments can be used to effectively portray certain emotions and situations. For example, a bassoon is often used to set a comical mood while an airy and thin sound such as a flute can be used to set a mood of fear and horror. Again this increase in the sense of the programmatic nature of songs helps to draw a player deeper into the video gaming experience.
To produce sound waves, the process of FM synthesis was already mentioned in the previous paragraph. During the life of the video game industry, however, digital signal processing was introduced at around 1990. The emergence of digital signal processing marked another step in the process of timbre production because it enables programmers to use a process called digital sampling to define their timbres. Digital sampling is a process which involves digitally sampling (or recording acoustic instruments and then using the data obtained to produce wave equations of timbres. The result is a realism in defined sounds which surpasses even FM synthesis. The rise of digital sampling has even increased to a higher degree the programmatic nature of songs in video games because of extremely life-like sounds. As D. Wise, head music programmer and composer of the game Donkey Kong Country once said:
Music is supposed to draw the player into the game…For us, the use of digitally sampled sound gave us the ability to better depict a setting?s mood, something which beeps and clicks could never have done.2
The final technological advancement which greatly affected the music in the video game industry is the use of compact discs for playing music during the playing of a video game. In the newer 32-bit systems and CD-ROM based systems, the production of video games has become as simple as recording a song onto a CD and then playing the song when it is needed in the game. Not only has this process greatly simplified the steps which programmers take to program music into video games, it also has brought about true CD-quality sound to the video game industry. Playing music from a CD is also so flexible that the possibilities for improvements are almost endless and unimaginable.
So, as one can now see, technological advancements were indeed the cause of most improvements in the field of music in the video game industry. These technological improvements, which are the increase of the number of bits of a Sound Central Processing, the increase of Audio Random-Access-Memory, the switch from the use of frequency modulation to digital sampling, and the use of compact discs for playing music during a game, have now expanded the horizon of music in the industry and opened up many new possibilities. Even though the industry itself might not last as long as the mainstream musical or computer industries, one can see that it has clearly left a mark in the history of humankind?s development and usage of music. To conclude, the words of Tommy Tallarico, another video game music composer and programmer, perfectly summarize what is happening in the video game industry:
When people think of video game music, they have always thought of little bleeps and blips. But now, the industry has changed so radically over the last couple of years as far as music is concerned that it has evolved beyond anyone?s expectations.3