I added Corvus Elrod's Man Bytes Blog recently to my feed reader, having been lead there via one of his Escapist articles. He's a consultant working towards narrative in games and every month he "hosts" a round table discussion of blogs on a given topic. This month's topic These are the Soundtracks of our Lives was too hard for me to resist not giving my few copper monetary units on the subject, and I probably have too much to say here.
Game music really seems to be the defining soundtrack of my life: I love it, I listen it to too much of it, and it's hugely influenced how I approach games. I don't think I have anything too life shattering to say about any of this, but maybe I'll touch on something that might be of interest. I'm going to keep this semi-informal and not do too much research, so correct me if I make a mistake or let this lead to your own voice in the conversation.
First, let me show you a little bit of how much Game-related music I listen to. In my last.fm top 25 artists overall (of 3-Jan-2008) alone you can see the following game-related/game-influenced artists: Machinae Supremacy, Jared Emerson-Johnson, Celldweller, Nine Inch Nails, Freezepop, Starsiege, Jack Wall. There's more scattered in there, but I'll leave that as an exercise.
I would probably have even more game music that I listen to in my "normal" music listening sessions if a) I found good compilations, b) I didn't fear damaging the overall experience in separating some games from their soundtracks, and the obvious c) I had more money to spend on music.
I think games are particular blessed with a wide swath of great, brilliant works, and I think there are a few "trends" that I've seen might be a big part of that. I'm not an expert by any means, these are just the observations from some guy that listens to a lot of game music, buys games for their music and even learned most of what he knows about a particular old computer system from his learnings of its influence on music...
I think the obvious place to start is in comparing what most game music is not: Hollywood "incidental" music. Hollywood's "cinematic" scoring is a well worn, time tested set of formula that ultimately ends up with cookie-cutter scores that are about interchangeable should you attempt to listen to them out of context. (I blame John Williams for my cynicism in Hollywood scores and the reason, with a few exceptions, I don't generally buy them anymore.) Hollywood doesn't really care about the music in a film, it's an afterthought in most cases.
The intriguing thing is that game soundtracks have generally managed to stay away from formulas and leading the audience with the standard "emotion cues" and segues from game to game. Admittedly we are now in an era where "cinematic" scores are more common, thanks to the ability to compress an entire orchestral score into a small enough footprint for modern storage media, but I think even now we still are not seeing the sort of over-use of cliches and patterns that Hollywood is notorious for, and I think there is still a couple of semi-technical reasons for that.
First is the repetition inherent in the media. An entire film can be scored in a pass or two and the composer knows that the music will play out in exactly that way. Game music has to be designed to be heard a million times by the same gamer in some uncertain number of loops and revisits. It doesn't make that much sense to sound just like every other game in those important repeated musics and a gamer is going to get aggravated/frustrated easier if you pester them with some other game's themes. They may even quit right there to play that game you reference itself rather than your listen to your cloned work another time.
Secondly, it doesn't make sense for a game to heavy-handedly lead the gamer through his supposed emotions as many a film score attempts with its fairly tightly controlled vocabulary of common cues. A game is an experience that should draw a gamer into bringing her own emotions into the game play.
I think a major influence in game music history has been the tenacity of the "Programmer-Musician". On platforms with very limited forms of musical expression, when technology had not yet been ready for "real music", there were people willing to battle the elements and tame the constraints at hand. There's a wonderful cross-section of those with technical skills and musical talents and I think its done much to help keep gamers listening to interesting things.
The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) of my childhood had a grand total of 5 sound channels comprising 4 "instruments" and a "noise" channel. The instruments in question sound nothing like real instruments and are actually just simple wave generators. But there are many an NES soundtrack that haunt those of us that played that system. I can hum a Mario theme on the spot, and I can spot a reference to one very quickly and generally tell you which game that theme first appeared in. The only redeeming quality to the abysmal platformer duology The Cheetah Men is considered to be its immensely catchy theme song. I have a lot of respect for the chiptune artists that today continue to try to push limits of what's possible with just 4 "instruments" and "noise".
Most of what I know of the Commodore 64 (C64) is by way of my appreciation of the musics that it influenced. The C64 had an ahead of its time music synthesis system, that now too has passed into obsolescence, and it greatly influenced my early periods of music downloading (in those semi-anarchic pre-MP3 days). Most of what I've played of C64 games (in GameTap's emulation, primarily) have been based on what I remember from my listening to many of the songs from these games. I wouldn't have even tried Super Mario Brothers- clone The Great Giana Sisters if it weren't for my joy from Machinae Supremacy's remix of the themes.
General MIDI, a technical standard of a certain low common denominator, even, has had its wizards. Game music owes a lot to The Fat Man both for his music and his mastery of all things MIDI in a time when that was critical to game music. I admit that I bought The 7th Guest primarily for being struck by The Fat Man's haunting introduction for the game in a demo showing.
The obvious place where games can, and do, excel that no other medium can bring to music is interactivity. There's an amazing satisfaction in knowing that your actions in a game have directly affected the musical soundscape.
The obvious things to mention are your straightforward rhythm games like the Guitar Hero, DDR. These are interesting, but not as interesting to me, personally, because of the way they bend the gameplay to the music, rather than the other way around.
I spent a lot of time playing games with interactive music "before it was cool" with LucasArts' iMUSE "engine". LucasArts' heyday of graphical adventure games had a very powerful and versatile system to do dynamic segues, tempo changes, flourishes, and more in response to player actions. I still love replaying those games and the music is a very important part of each games atmosphere, especially in that no matter how you play it it still sounds great and flows together as one whole magical "film score of my digital play".
Right now I spend quite a bit of time haunted by Q? Entertainment and their philosophy of musical emergence. Q? takes interesting and fun game types and then works in how to have unique and exciting music emerge just natural from the gameplay. The difference between "sound effect" and "part of the music" is a very thin line in Q? games, and it's exciting and it's addictive.
Game music does hold a very special place in my heart as a gamer and as a lover of weird, eccentric music. Game music has already covered so much ground in terms of technical history, and I'm excited to continue to watch as things progress and evolve. Selfishly, I love being treated by exciting new music in just about every game that I play. Music certainly affects my buying patterns when evaluating games and affects my feeling of immersion when playing games.
To anyone that hasn't been in love with game music as long as I have, maybe something I've mentioned here might be an interesting jumping off place for discovering something new and exciting.