monsterboy: Yuna from FFX staring into a rainbow sky, with the text "a child-like wonder". (childlike wonder)
The debate ever rages on over whether videogames are art, and, I imagine, will rage on until the medium is sufficiently old that it automatically becomes venerable. I don't intend to retread that argument here; I just wanted to point out an aspect of it that I've rarely seen discussed in terms of this debate-- the artistry of videogame music.

When we argue whether "games" are "art", we tend to treat the "game" as a whole product. We ask, is a work which involves a combination of music, graphics, interactive elements, and (optionally) storyline capable of being "art"-- but never counter the "is it art" question from the perspective of whether the individual components are art. Certainly it seems well recognised now that videogame music is art: think of all the concerts devoted to it in recent years, the internationally-renowned orchestras who've performed it. But people rarely bring that into the equation when we're discussing whether games themselves are art.

And I think that's a shame, because not only is game music art, it's a unique art form, and I think people fail to realise just how different it is from other types of music. At least for anything written before the CD era, the list of restrictions placed on game music composers looks like one of those self-imposed minimalist challenges that tend to run in art house circles. A piece of pre-CD game music must:

  • be composed using a limited palette of sounds (with older consoles, possibly just a single beep or a few basic sounds at varying pitches!)
  • include no vocals (at best, only vague, synthesised standins for them)
  • be short, to avoid taking up memory (more on this later)
  • loop seamlessly
  • not annoy the player even after hours of repetition

Any one of these is a high bar to reach: combining all five, particularly the unholy trifecta of "non-annoying", "created using a primitive, consumer-grade synthesiser", and "short", seems nothing short of a Herculean task. Yet game composers manage it, over and over again, to the point where almost any gamer, when asked for their most beloved melodies, will feature some videogame songs on the list.

And let's come back to that "short". This is imprecise, being that most early videogame tracks only ever appear on soundtracks in versions that are looped at least twice, precisely because they are so short. But I pulled up a few of the most famous early videogame melodies on YouTube, and paused the video where I heard the melody repeat for the first time. From this admittedly amateurish sampling, I determined that:

  • The original Super Mario Bros. "Ground Theme" is 40 seconds long
  • Tetris' A-Type theme is 38 seconds long
  • Sonic the Hedgehog's "Green Hill Zone" is 53 seconds long (last generation of consoles before the CD, even!)
  • The original Zelda overworld theme is 38 seconds long.

Contrasted with a typical piece of classical music, which has on average between 10 and 20 minutes to make its thematic point, and a typical pop song, which has three to five, a typical early piece of videogame music has under a minute, and doesn't have the advantage of lyrics.

While it's possible to argue that many songs, certainly many pop songs, make their thematic point in under a minute, videogame music doesn't stop there. It also has to make that minute something you can listen to for hours without being bored or finding the music outright grating. You'd expect that most gamers would come away from their favourite games feeling frustrated by the music, or that a typical gamer would even turn it off.

And yet quite the opposite occurs: we love these songs. We remember them, we remix them, we go to concerts to seem them performed live. Let's make this real: we go to concerts to listen to orchestrally-performed versions of what was originally a 40-second loop of a four-channel synthesiser (technically five, the fifth being the sample channel, but it wasn't used in many games), consisting of two square waves, one triangle wave, and white noise. You can look at it visualised here if you want to see exactly what's going on (warning: flashy visuals). That's impressive.

As well, there's the style of music to take into account. A lot of the most beloved videogame songs, particularly from RPGs, take on some aspects of classical music, in part because it fits the setting but also in part because, without vocals, you have to rely on the instrumentation to convey meaning. Yet with all of that having to be packed into a one- or two-minute loop, you get many of the characteristics of a pop song coming into the equation, too. Videogame songs have catchy hooks, melodies that can be repetitive while still being enjoyable (because they have to be), and they have to deliver it all quickly.

So what you've got is a kind of "pop classical", in many ways, a while before the Mediaeval Baebes thought of doing it (as much as they're awesome). And again, that's something that I don't think gets recognised enough: videogame music doesn't just crib from existing genres, it, by necessity, invents genres of its own. (And let's not even get started on the chiptune genre, which is basically an exploration of the specific style(s) of videogame music that doesn't involve having a videogame around it.)

So yeah. Videogame music: it's made of awesome, much like almond milk. Do you guys have any particular favourites you want to share?
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