Friday, 20 February 2009

Week 18 - Sound and music

Sound and music is as important in games now as it is in any other form of media. Like film, the sound of games has evolved from virtually silent to multiple channel orchestration. Old console games of the 70s and 80s had to keep sound and music to a minimum, the Atari 2600 only capable of generating two notes at a time. Sound effects were very basic and often the background music had to stop so the effect could be heard. Into the 80s, music became more of a specialisation and famous video game themes and composers emerged, such as Koji Kondo [Super Mario, Legend of Zelda] and Koichi Sugiyama [Dragon Quest], and of course Nobuo Uematsu. The short opening theme to Super Mario 64 is one of the most nostalgic pieces of music for me, despite never actually owning an N64. It was always something my friend’s brother would play and I’d sit and watch and long to own it myself, so I always feel vaguely excited and optimistic when I hear it, partly because I got a Playstation instead!

The DragonQuest games I feel are highly underrated, and totally overshadowed by FF as the long-running JRPG. Thinking of the world map theme in DQVIII has this similar nostalgia for me, because even though the game’s not that old, when I finished it I kind of just put it down and forgot about it. When I think of the music, doing mundane things in the game while having the hyperbolic orchestration in the background and the chirping of the dawn birds made it seem like I was this super important hero. In a way it’s similar to Elder Scrolls IV, it’s easy to loose track of time and wonder around at night thinking you’re awesome, until you’re kicked in the head by an imp or a mudcrab wanders up to you, etc. Anyway, the game has this really charming Japanese take on Western Fantasy and the music fits with that; it has a feel of mid 90’s anime of the same theme such as Slayers and that kind of thing.

Nobuo Uematsu on the other hand, has many fantastic compositions [Zongyi described it the best] of which I couldn’t possibly choose a favourite [okay, it’s Melodies of Life, and it’s also my favourite game because it takes itself the least seriously out of the PS-gen games and has Knights and Rogues and Princesses. Japanese vocal version because this was the only one I could find to download on the internet way back when. I only heard the English version once or something!]. The other games’ music, specifically FFVII themes just don’t have the same nostalgia factor for me anymore, as they’re constantly brought up again and again, and have never been laid to rest in peace without some fanbrat reminding us all that it is the best game ever made. I also used to love praising the game, you know, ten years ago.

Uh, bitterness aside, other MIDI-type music that had a lot of exciting atmosphere were things like the Doom and Wolfenstein 3d themes. I still think they’re some of the scariest games even though the baddies look like lego, because the imitation-heavy metal BGM holds the memories of me and my friends shrieking when shot from behind, then deciding it was way too tense and going to play some Rayman instead. That was probably the last time I played FPS. Around that same time I was really into DDR, which had tons of disposable pop songs that were popular at the time, but also some original Konami classics. If you were lucky, you might find an American import machine and get to listen to some garbled Engrish Jpop or the opening theme from Gundam Wing, which was pretty much pee-in-your-pants level of excitement for me at the time. From there on I was really into rhythm games, and the idea of playing a game based around music rather than music just being there for background and sound effect purposed was a pretty foreign concept. The most recent music-based game I’ve played is Patapon on the PSP, in which you act as a God and make a drum beat to command your cute little tribesmen. It’s really incredibly cute!
Here's a rather old article that goes into the purpose of game music in more detail.

Video game music has a kind of cult status now and has developed into its own culture catalysed by the internet, with many of it’s own artists and events, such as Blipfestival. The actual chips from older games can be emulated and used to make music in a technical approach, or famous pieces of music from games are remixed, sampled and covered by other artists. Amateur game developers also write original compositions, wherein all the actual game content is usually made by one person, sometimes masquerading as a ‘team’. A notable example is horror/murder mystery ‘sound novel’ Higurashi no naku koro ni/When they Cry by 07th Expansion [composed of 3 people]. The atmosphere is created with background music and sound effects, where the player has to collect hints and solve the mystery. The original features some pretty appalling artwork, but it just makes the various bloody scenarios even more disturbing. I wanted to find a translated clip to show, but Youtube only has Japanese. Here’s a good example of the cicada chirping sound effect, which never fails to give me the creeps, as does the psychotic Rena interrogation. Also, that high pitched white noise kind of thing is constantly there. Shudder.

Oh, the Good Times song! I listened to it and didn’t really recognise it immediately...But it’s been used in lots of songs, one of the most sampled pieces of music of all time. This makes it a very important and influential song. Isn’t it in Rapper’s Delight?

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