We are so used to thinking about videogames as a visual medium (we even call them videogames), that is easy to forget, and good to be reminded, that music and sound effects are an important – no make that essential – part of the experience of play. ‘Audio-video games’, perhaps? Not so catchy, but probably more accurate.
A few years ago, I wrote a piece for Imagine Publishing’s 360 Magazine called Ear Candy. It started like this…
It’s difficult writing about videogame music because you have this terrible feeling that nobody is really listening.
Not because we’re not interested, but because we’re all too busy looking.
This is the next-generation, after all. And we know that Next-Gen equals High Definition equals Photorealism equals better. In the Next Generation, graphics are King.
Mark Rein of Epic Games has ‘the vision thing’,
I mean, give me a break; close your eyes and play a game and tell me how much fun that is. The thing that makes the game more believable for you, that makes you more interested in the game, the reason why Burnout is a better racing game than Pole Position is because of the graphics
OK, he’s got a point. Playing Burnout with your eyes closed is pretty shit (although altogether more challenging). Videogames without video would be, er, radio. No argument there.
But just try something…
Fire up Burnout. Open your eyes. Mute the sound. And then play…
Hey, that’s not fun either. No engine noises, no tyres screeching and the crashes just don’t look real anymore. There’s no weight behind them when you can’t hear the sounds of twisting metal. They’re the same graphics, but the experience is utterly different. Mr Rein, Hearing is believing.
And it’s not just sound effects. Where did the tunes go? The music that was pumping on your car stereo, that was making your heart race, getting your adrenaline flowing, it’s gone. Driving around in total silence. It’s like being in a really fast, inappropriately reckless funeral procession. Everything’s oh so quiet. But worse than that, it’s less exciting.
And it is not only Burnout. Try it with any game. Halo, Perfect Dark Zero, wipEout, Doom, Resident Evil, and it’s always the same. Games are less fun with the music off. Because, games aren’t just graphics. They are multi-sensory. We watch them and we hear them and we interact with them – all at the same time. You can’t take anything away without ruining the experience. The music makes the graphics work makes the music work makes the game work…
So, just like in film, just like on television, music helps create the emotional effect of the game. It sets the scene, it excites us, it calms us, it makes us happy, it makes us nervous, it creates suspense and horror. Music moves us, it takes us on a journey, it’s part of the rollercoaster ride of playing. Even if we don’t notice the music when it’s there, we sure as hell notice when it’s taken away.
The most obvious way that ‘audio’ impacts upon our gaming experience is music. It can perfectly complement, adding depth and atmosphere as with the audacious and not-a-little-bit pompous Metal Gear Solid soundtrack, for example. Similarly, music can also jar. Recently-released footage of A Boy and His Blob is, without doubt, visually arresting and aesthetically intriguing, but the often rather grandiose orchestral score, despite echoing the soundtrack from the original ABAHB game, seems to strike a different note that is not wholly in keeping with the wistful aesthetic in musically referring to Japanese RPGs like Chrono Trigger.
However, whether good, bad, technically impressive or creatively inspirational, the sounds of videogaming are important and incredibly evocative. Here at The NVA, we’re very aware of the important role that music and sound effects play in creating the videogame and are dedicated to celebrating, preserving and providing exposure for game sounds. And we are not alone.
One of the most high profile projects (especially for a lifelong Rob Hubbard fan like me) is the ‘High Voltage SID Collection’ (HVSC). The HVSC FAQ describes the aims:
The HVSC Project is an attempt to accurately archive the most popular C64 SIDs into one complete collection. The project was started in May 1996 when a few ambitious people decided to merge the many SIDs collections available on the Internet into one masterpiece. The previous SID collections contained many bugged SIDs, repeats, and inaccurate credits not to mention being highly disorganised. Thus this task was not a simple “copy & paste” unfortunately. An additional challenge for us dealt with being compatible with other platforms. The only way one true collection can exist is if we remain compatible with the major operating systems currently in use.
As we merged the collections we began to realize that many famous SIDs were missing. This led to the HVSC Crew and many others to begin searching various C64 software archives for more SIDs to rip. Due to this effort the collection began to grow at an enormous rate. As we progressed, we then noticed that many inconsistencies and questions started to surface. For example, we would find a music credited to a famous composer yet the style of the music was completely different than his normal style. One sure way of solving these mysteries was to contact the original composers. Over time we gradually tracked several of them down and received a tremendous amount of information. As you may have figured out, we are SID archeologists patiently piecing together SID history with only fragments of information.
The SID chip, for those who don’t know, is the ‘Sound Interface Device’ that made the Commodore 64 computer sing. Actually, that’s probably not true. It was the sound chip. Composers like Rob Hubbard made the Commodore sing. The surprisingly versatile 3-voice synth that lurked inside the C64 and the raft of composers like Hubbard, Martin Galway, Ben Daglish et al that created the most imaginative music gave rise to a fan subculture that enjoyed the music as much as the game. Many are the times I and friends purchased games just for the soundtracks. We made mixtapes of favourite sidtunes and even tried to create our own masterwerks.
[picture credit http://retro-treasures.blogspot.com/2007/11/commodore-64-music-maker.html]
Of course, the true master had very different techniques:
Most importantly, the HVSC is not simply a technical undertaking or one that is motivated only by a sense of fan completeism, though that is important. This is as much about the emotional responses to videogames. As they note,
You may be asking yourself, “Why go through so much effort for SID music?” Only a person who never owned a C64 would ask such a question. Many people long to hear these old, classic tunes that they enjoyed in their youth. You don’t believe us? Look at the amount of Television sites that recall many a program that as a child you treasured and how much memories you get from that. With SID music, this is true equally if not more so. Thankfully with the abundance of SID emulators this is now possible. What was thought to be lost is now found. Let the tears of joy proceed as you listen to perhaps the most accurate and comprehensive computer music collection in existence
On a similar note, a new resource has just come to light. Classic Arcade Sounds is a videogame audio archive. With a difference. This is a collection of audio recordings made between 1982-1988 in videogame arcades across east coast of the USA. Nothing particularly unusual about that, perhaps. The difference is that these are location recordings that reveal not only the music and sound effects of classic coin-op games such as Donkey Kong, Joust and Defender, but also the ambience of the arcade and the players’ talk as they encounter these games. Listening to these recordings, one is transported back to the arcades of childhood and reminded of the importance of these places as palaces of gameplay. Arcades were places where you could play exciting games and also, watch other people playing. Why would you want to watch other people playing if games are, as we are similarly used to hearing, all about the feel of play and performance? As I have noted in my most recent book, arcades are/were places where players learned technique, tactics and strategy from experts by observing their play. Arcades are places where skills are honed and where masters pass on their knowledge and expertise to a new breed of players peering over their shoulders.
Videogame sound then, is important in its own right just as it is important as part of the totality of the multimediality of the videogame. It is also a hugely useful and effective means of evoking memory and recall. Projects like the HVSC and Classic Arcade Sounds – and The NVA – help us remember the significance of our ears as well as our eyes.