Video Game Music’s Tremendous Power

Voice actor David W. Collins digging into the Super Mario Bros. ‘Ground Theme’ on his recently debuted Soundtrack Show podcast:

As a general concept, game music is very often written to loop back around, seamlessly. This composition is meant to loop endlessly into itself so you can play for hours and hours and hours. But the actual composition that we just listened to was only 80 seconds long. 80 seconds! And there’s repetition within that 80 seconds; there are repeating parts.

There are other pieces of music in this game — the underground music, the underwater music, the castle music, a series of music fanfares, etc. — but in total, the amount of music written for this game adds up to less than 5 minutes. 5 minutes of music. 40 hours of gameplay, give or take on average. 40 million copies.

Now we’re starting to get a picture of the power of video game music. The amount of times that we heard that 80 seconds. That’s what I mean about video game music’s tremendous power. It’s why we have to talk about it.

Don’t take repetition for granted. When done poorly, repetitious music can become jarring — quickly. When done well, a great loop can increase the feeling of immersion in the game’s world. When done well, a standalone soundtrack’s standard of two loops per song feels wrong.

Nintendo has a knack for this. Koji Kondo — composer of many first-party Nintendo titles, including Super Mario Bros. — is without a doubt a master at this. But even Kazumi Tokata painted his masterful stroke with the Wii’s heavily repeatable ‘Mii Plaza’ and ‘Wii Shop Channel’ themes, both of which continue to live on in today’s mainstream.

While today’s AAA titles can incorporate orchestral arrangements through to procedurally generated soundscapes, repetition in video game music was born with the medium and will continue to live on. For those of us who grew of up listening to 8-bit repetitions to orchestral repetitions, we’ve had the great fortune of experiencing the evolution of a music technology, medium, and experience, as I touched on in my piece 1985: Burst and Bloom:

The sounds, visuals, and interactivity provided a pool of imagination. The limitations of early consoles could not provide orchestral arrangements. Instead, repetitious patterns were drilled into our heads. They not only encapsulated the game we were playing, but they opened the world outside to a new soundtrack, creating a wealth of memories that could be tapped into from a few simple chirps. Hearing these primitive arrangements evolve felt like experiencing the birth of music. As hardware progressed, so did the complexity if the music. Repetitive pieces turned into grand and iconic themes, each game re-shaping the idea and importance of video game music.

Final Fantasy X, Kingdom Hearts, Mega Man 2, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, T&C Surf Designs: Wood & Water Rage, Vectorman — these are some of my favorites.

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