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From Chiptunes to Cinema: The Evolution of Video Game Music

Halo Infinite: Masterchief
Halo Infinite: Masterchief / Courtesy of 343 Studios

During the 64-year history of video games, we’ve watched soundtracks evolve from small infectious ditties to full cinematic scores. It’s gotten to the point now that the music of some of our favorite games is critiqued almost as heavily as the gameplay. A great example of this is Journey, a game that rose from a humble indie to a legend that survived through multiple generations. The Journey soundtrack music was such a hit sensation that it became the first sole video game composition to ever be nominated for a Grammy. But to go from one-dimensional techno rhythms to Grammy award-nominated compositions shows exactly how big a leap music in the video game industry has taken. 

To talk about this more in-depth I sat down with Chaotrope, a professional video game composer who’s done work on titles like Tuneria, Nirvana: The Game of Life, and Good Night, Knight, which is currently available in the Nintendo eShop. Chaotrope didn’t hold back anything regarding his feelings on the subject.

“I think music is one of the most important parts of a game. It helps with immersion. It helps with setting the tone” - Chaotrope

Space Invaders took immersion to a new level. The background music helped establish an intensity to the game unlike anything seen before. Until its release, games were entirely silent outside of in-game sound effects. As the enemy ships came closer the music became faster. This added a level of urgency by making it more apparent that time was running out. 

Koji Kondo, the composer behind the Super Mario and Legend of Zelda franchises, is a living legend in the world of video game music. Kondo gave fans a view into his psyche when crafting the soundtrack for the original Super Mario Bros. He credits the sound design to his attempt to create something that would “enhance the gameplay.” Kondo’s sentiment displays the intertwined nature of music and gameplay.

The original Resident Evil is famed for being the first truly terrifying horror game. Not only was it visually creepy but the eerie music brought a suspense to the game that made people question if they needed the light on to play the game. The PlayStation exclusive Twisted Metal featured a heavy metal soundtrack that helped players become Sweet Tooth, the clown-faced maniac participating in a savage demolition death derby. Although the sound quality is questionable compared to today’s standards, the guitar licks cut deep as you attempt to take down the competition.

“The whole genre of chiptune is just kind of happenstance. It wouldn’t exist without the limitations that were on the old consoles.” - Chaotrope

Rally X composer Nobuyuki Ohnogi is widely thought of as the “Father of Game Music” for his use of a melodic soundtrack in-game. Every old-school classic you can think of follows his formula as a means to craft the soundscapes that defined the generations to come. Using Ohnogi’s formula, Nintendo ushered in what became known as the chiptune era of video game music.

Chiptunes are a computer-generated form of music. The name was coined because of the need of a special kind of sound card that came in the form of a computer chip. This special chip allowed the technology to be able to handle the processing load needed to recreate the beeps and buzzes of a regular CPU. Many pioneers of the video game industry are deemed as chiptune artists. 

8-bit music makes use of 5 waveforms: sine, pulse, triangle, sawtooth, and noise. The sawtooth is generally sharp and is used for melodies or bass. Pulse is on the extreme side, producing either sharp or hollow sounds. Sine waves produce very soft sounds, however they can generally only be heard at high frequencies. The triangle wave is used for lower bass notes and has a thin sound to it. Each waveform produces a separate sound and is entirely dependent on the specific chip sound. Stacking multiple sounds on several tracks within a pattern will form a song.

As the hardware began to evolve, so did the music. From 8- to 16-bit there is a noticeable jump in sound quality. Music began to sound less like harsh bleeps and more like electronic chords. Composers still worked with the same waveforms to construct their songs, but with an additional two tracks it gave them the room to add percussion elements.

Composers like David Wise (Donkey Kong Country), Masato Nakamura (Sonic the Hedgehog) and Minako Hamono (Super Metroid, with Kenji Yamamoto) pushed the sound cards at their disposal to the limit. The songs were moody, powerful and full of life. 

The first instance of commercial music in video games happened in the 16-bit era. When Micheal Jackson’s Moonwalker released on the Sega Genesis, instead of the actual versions of “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” fans got synthesized versions of the songs as the replacement.

“The technology era totally changed things, because the way composers make music changed from, you know, having a sound card to being able to put in the notes on a program. It’s a slow evolution but I feel like computers were the big changer.” - Chaotrope

It wasn’t until the late 90s that we saw the first instance of consoles with CPUs strong enough to handle the musical load — thus the chiptune era came to an end. Now, without the limitations of a sound card holding composers back, the possibilities were truly endless. With the help of the cutting edge technology at their disposal, the developers behind the Hitman franchise decided to commission the Budapest Symphony Orchestra to score the entire game. Hitman: Blood Money was a pioneer of the current game soundtracks that we think of today. 

The game that completely shifted the landscape of game scores was Halo: Combat Evolved on the original Xbox. Microsoft gave sound directors a ton of room to work with, promising “movie-like” sound quality upon the console's release. Halo audio director Martin O’Donnell’s production expertise brought an uber-dramatic atmosphere. Deep cellos, lush synthesizers, and sweet violins work together to turn this story into a true space epic. Each move that O’Donnell employed was cerebral. In a video interview that he did with HiddenXperia, he pointed out that he wanted a “universal vision for everything that came out of the player.” The Halo Original Soundtrack was released in 2002 and received major critical acclaim. From that point on there was a drastic pivot in the way that developers designed their soundtracks. Halo was now the standard.

Fast forward to 2021, gamers have grown accustomed to their favorite games featuring over-the-top cinematic scores. Franchises like Uncharted, God of War, and Assassin’s Creed, along with countless other triple A franchises, have built their soundscapes off of the blueprint left by their predecessors. Reviews for the God of War soundtrack describe it as “one in a million,” stating that it “really takes you on Kratos and Atreus' journey almost as vividly as the game itself.” 

“They definitely have a lot more games in indie that would work with chiptune that have pixel art, or old school graphics.” - Chaotrope

The true beauty of indie game compositions is that with boundless creative freedom we see them function as retainers of the classic style of games from art style to musical composition. A wide assortment of indie games on the market feature what many can consider modern-day chiptunes. A perfect example of this would be Stardew Valley, an indie farming simulator that has one of the most heralded soundtracks of the past decade. Fans point to the music's ability to accurately depict the coming and changing of seasons. Even without the magnificent upbeat symphonies of summer or the dark eerie pianos of a cold winter's night, the game's creator Eric "ConcernedApe" Barone was able to capture and captivate the hearts of thousands.

Chaotrope points out the music of Celeste, a 2018 indie game that made a lot of noise across multiple platforms. He highlights the way that all of the songs are based around the exact same melody, however the end product is that they’re all incredibly unique. It’s ironic he says that when it seems in the spirit of chiptune music for the soundtrack to be just that: a limited resource that’s changed into unique and dynamic art. He said the game taught him a lot about “motifs and how they can be used to create cohesion in a soundtrack.” 

For decades developers have upped the ante on the standard for the music featured in video games. However, if we’re talking about the intentions of these composers whether they be chiptune artists or indirect orchestral conductors the goal is the same: to establish an emotional connection in the gamer that improves the gameplay experience.