Thursday, February 14, 2002

As PC sound quality improved, game composers increasingly sought recognition of the legitimacy of their art. Throughout the early 90s, various attempts were made at making game music more mainstream and accepted. In some cases, composers attempted to create more serious music. LucasArts' Loom, which was released in 1990, sported a MIDI soundtrack with nothing but arrangements of Tchaikovsky works, culminating in a final section played to the tune of Swan Lake. Michael Land's music for The Dig (LucasArts 1995) was almost a movie soundtrack, with a blatantly apparent (and intended) Wagnerian influence.

Some companies weren't so successful in their attempts to legitimize or commercialize their music. Sierra On-Line released King's Quest VI in 1992, and wrote a pop song with the game's romantic couple singing a duet, akin to "Somewhere Out There". They launched a massive marketing campaign linking the song to the game, and then sent CDs of the song to disc jockeys all over America. I don't think I heard the song played a single time in the months around the game's release.

This attempt to disseminate game soundtracks in spite of their games continues today. Since 1998, the senior music producer at Sierra has been petitioning for the addition of a "game music" category in the Grammy Awards, although I'm not sure how far that has progressed. In 2000, Blizzard Entertainment took an animated cutscene from its game, Diablo II, and played it in the previews of various mainstream movies. This allowed its animation, graphics, and music to be considered for awards as a video short.

Meanwhile back in the 90s, the expanded storage capabilities of CDs brought about the end of mass MIDI use. When gamers heard how much better game music sounded as CD audio, more and more companies followed the LucasArts method and recorded their music as extra tracks. This procedure had two major flaws. First, the music had to fight for space with the actual game data, which was growing exponentially larger every year. Most CDs with real games on them only had enough extra room for about a half hour of CD music. This brought back an interest in looped themes, and limited the scope of soundtracks within games.

CD music also destroyed music played on the fly. Where MIDI music could segue or alter based on in-game events, CD music was limited to starting, pausing, and stopping. It was best used for games where a constant theme played in the background, like real-time strategy games such as Blizzard's Warcraft II in 1995.

MIDI music's popularity was briefly prolonged with the introduction of inexpensive daughter-cards by Roland and Yamaha, which attached to an existing card and provided support for wavetable synthesis, the high quality sampling method used by Roland's more expensive modules. Wavetable synthesis is still used today as a musician's tool, but the large disparity in quality of daughter-cards kept MIDI from remaining the primary musical tool. Today, most soundcards come equipped with wavetable synthesis right out of the box, but it's rarely used except in the demo MIDI files that come with your computer.

Instead of MIDI, game composers turned to real recorded music, often recorded in a traditional studio with a mix of acoustic and electronic instruments. The first popular game to break away from the MIDI mold was Origin's Crusader: No Regret in 1995. It used sampled sounds to create a pumping techno beat for its arcade action. The action-techno style of music was first popularized with the Doom series, and has been used in numerous shooter games since.

Also in 1995, LucasArts released Full Throttle, a game about a misanthropic biker named Ben. The soundtrack for this game featured music by the heavy metal band, Gone Jackals (MP3, 813KB), obviously recording the music in its entirety, rather than recording just the sounds used to create the music. 1998's Grim Fandango also used this approach, creating a soundtrack of swing and bebop influences that perfectly complemented one of the most sophisticated adventure games ever written (MP3, 406KB).

Finally, in the "pretty but stupid" category of games was Origin's Ultima IX in 1999. Although the game itself doesn't warrant much attention, the soundtrack is notable for utilizing the efforts of a full orchestra. Because the songs of the Ultima series have so much history, very little leeway was permissable for the composer, resulting in lush but traditional songs. This soundtrack marked the next peak in game music, when sampled and recorded musical scores had reached a plateau of quality.

Tomorrow: Nintendo 64 and Ambient Music

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