15 Jun 2007

State of Gaming: From Beeps to Symphonies

I'm sure for many of you old gamers out there, game music has mostly been in the form of annoying beeps that repeat over and over again as you try, for the umpteenth time, to clear a level.

Well, that was then.

We have since overcome the technological limits of the 8-bit and 16-bit generation. Most games have audio in 5.1 surround sound now to immerse the player in an alternate world. Creative Technologies and their numerous versions of EAX has lent a hand in the evolution of sound quality over the years. Even so, developers still never fail to amaze us with incredibly lousy sound effects and repetitive music that is just plain annoying. The first game that comes to my mind would be Pokemon (my sister is playing Pokemon Diamond on the DS Lite as I type...). The music isn't too bad, but it's kinda repetitive. This is a problem with most RPGs though. It would be inconsistent if a town has many different tunes to it, but a player would start to get irritated if he hears the same tune again as he returns to town for the 1384th time to sell some drops.

Anyway, bad music aside, lets talk about the good ones.

One of the earliest, and most recognizable, game tune would be Mario. The catchy little tunes worked those 8-bit consoles to their limit! The several tunes for each Mario level all became instant classics in the gaming world. No self-respecting video game music concert would be without the "Super Mario Medley". Along with other memorable classics such as Zelda, Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy, these tunes set the standard for all game music composers to follow.

Here's a video of Martin Leung, a video game pianist for the Video Games Live series of concerts, performing "Super Mario Medley":

On the PC front, sound cards from Creative Technology made computers a "talking device". Did you know Michael Jackson visited Sim Wong Hoo's Comdex Fall booth in Las Vegas back in 1989 for 30 minutes because he was so captivated by the Sound Blaster card? The Sound Blaster went on to be the De Facto audio card standard, selling 100 million units in 10 years. At that time, it was games like Final Fantasy VII that changed the video game music scene. It wasn't so much about clarity or quality of the audio, it was purely just musical creativity and production quality. Compared to the consoles at that time, music in games for PCs weren't that big a deal. That was because computers could already play close to studio-quality audio. FF7 on the other hand had midi music. However, like its PlayStation counterpart, pieces of compositions like One Winged Angel became classics. It was compositions like these that make people start to feel that video games took music seriously. Unlike the music you hear on the radio and MTV, video game music (along with original movie scores) are like classical music; Timeless pieces of work that retain their popularity for years/decades/centuries. Composer Harry Gregson-Williams primarily composes for Hollywood movies like Shrek and Narnia, but he also composed the opening theme for the Metal Gear Solid series, showing how the production values of video game music is continually going up.

Here's a video of Eminence Symphony Orchestra, a video game symphony, performing Final Fantasy classic "One Winged Angel". This piece is almost always played as a final or encore piece at ANY video game music concert:

Following the birth of better sound cards for the PC and consoles (5.1 surround sound support for the Xbox), game creators were given alot more horsepower in the audio department than they knew what to do with. High quality surround sound audio? Check. So where do we go next from here? There can only be that many 'birds chirping' and 'trees swaying' audio layers. They decided to take in-game music a step further to match Hollywood quality. As you can see, the main difference between movies and games were that games were interactive. Players could speed up or slow down the action depending on whether they wanted to attack head-on or sneak pass enemies. To make the atmospheric music suit the action like a glove, game audio designers programme their music to change on the go. I'm not a music expert nor an ace programmer so I shan't go into the specifics, but basically that means shifting tempos and whatnot to suit whatever action the player throws at the game. One game that makes use of this technology/technique is Halo. The music rises and fades effortlessly as you take out the Convenant horde (not so effortlessly). It was a great game not just for its gameplay, but also for its story and overall atmosphere, undoubtedly bolstered by a fantastic score (and 'interactive music'). In fact, its so popular that 4 million copies of Halo 3 has been pre-ordered in the US ahead of its September 25th release date.

So what have we learned? A good game requires good music. That's for sure.

Here's a video of a group of students performing Halo's theme song for a school talent show, proving once and for all that nerds can be musicians and musicians can be nerds:

And good music requires soundtrack CDs and concerts. That's right. Concerts. Music from the Final Fantasy was ripe for orchestras and choirs, and the fans were aching to hear One Winged Angel performed with a full orchestra, so Dear Friends was born. A series of concerts held in the US from 2004 to 2005 for Final Fantasy fans and it was a great success. It wasn't exactly a world first (Sydney's Eminence Symphony Orchestra started in 2003, with their 1st concert featuring Final Fantasy music), but it was one of the most prolific concert series due to guest appearances by Nobou Uematsu, long-time composer of Final Fantasy music. Here in Singapore, part of Eminence (2 violinists, 1 pianist, 1 guitarist and 1 percussionist) and Yasunori Mitsuda performed at the Victoria Concert Hall on 23 December 2006 to the tunes of various games and anime. This was just an appetizer for what was to come in 2007. As part of the Singapore Arts Festival, PLAY! A Video Game Symphony will be performing to a sold-out crowd on 15 and 16 June at the Esplanade. Just read Net Crawl: The First for links and more details about this concert. Expect the works of Jeremy Soule (The Elder Scrolls), Harry Gregson-Williams (Metal Gear Solid) and Nobou Uematsu (Final Fantasy) in an unforgettable night, produced by the same people who did Dear Friends.

Here's a 6 minute behind-the-scenes look at PLAY!:

I'll be there for the 16 June, 7.30pm show. Can't wait~!

No comments: