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Replay: The Evolution of Video Game Music


So Alison, over the past decade video game composing has become big business. You know the music you hear if you play a video game? Please I play a lot of video games, let me tell you. I really like that music. The soundtracks to games have been released on their own, just like a movie score. And symphony orchestras are now performing the music in concert. Our friend and host of Weekend All Things Considered on NPR, Andrea Seabrook, reported on how video game music has come so far.

(Soundbite of video game "Pong")

ANDREA SEABROOK: This is "Pong." It was one of the first arcade games. The players hit a ball back and forth across the centerline. Its sound is not exactly symphonic.

(Soundbite of video game "Pong")

Mr. JACK WALL (Video Game Music Composer): Playing all those arcade games, I never even paid attention to the music.

SEABROOK: This is Jack Wall. He's one of the top composers of video game music today. We're backstage at the Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco. Back in the 1980s, Jack Wall was pumping quarters into a "Pac Man" machine like everyone else his age. But Wall says the music didn't really do much for him.

Mr. WALL: It just sounded like sounds to me. However, you know all the tunes. It's so funny. The bleeps and the bloops, they kind of like invade your brain.

SEABROOK: Like what?

Mr. WALL: I don't know, like the "Super Mario Brothers" theme. You know?

SEABROOK: Can you sing it?

Mr. WALL: (Singing "Theme" from video game "Super Mario Brothers")

(Soundbite of "Theme" from video game "Super Mario Brothers")

SEABROOK: It was catchy. It was fun. But it's not exactly serious music. I've caught up with Jack Wall and another famous game composer named Tommy Tallarico. They're in San Francisco on tour with "Video Games Live." It's a traveling show of game music, and it's played by top symphony orchestras. These guys are not kids. They're in their 40s, but they're totally hip. Designer t-shirts, jeans, sneakers. Tommy Tallarico wears a black leather motorcycle jacket. He says the music for those early games may sound trivial, but it wasn't. It was there for a reason.

Mr. TOMMY TALLARICO (Video Game Music Composer): They did a study, actually, and if you remember in "Space Invaders," you know, as the ships started to come down, the aliens, dun, dun, dun, dun.

(Soundbite of video game "Space Invaders")

Mr. TALLARICO: And as they got closer and closer, the sound got faster and faster. Now, what the game programmer did was that they took the person's heart rate and people would start, as they're getting closer and closer, people would start to panic.

Now, they'd do the same studies without the sound, and the people wouldn't panic as much. It goes to show and prove how significant audio and music are. It's not a passive, you know, linear medium like film or television, but when you're interactive like that it brings it to such a higher level for the senses.

SEABROOK: This is the purpose of all great music, Tallarico says, to change your heart rate, to move you, make you feel. At this point, though, video game music was still very limited by the computers the games were played on. PCs and game systems weren't powerful enough to handle much more than simple electronic melodies. The processing power they did have was dedicated mostly to the game. The music was background. Still, composers started drawing from more serious influences. Take "Tetris."

(Soundbite of video game "Tetris")

SEABROOK: This simple puzzle game swept the country in the early '90s. Its music comes from a Russian folk song. Then came a quantum leap in technology, the CD-ROM. Suddenly, games could have detailed video, whole animated scenes and music, real music.

(Soundbite of video game "Myst")

SEABROOK: This is "Myst." It came out in 1993. Jack Wall says it was the first time he realized the power of music in video games.

Mr. WALL: It was a funny game because it was the first time you ever played a game and had no idea what you were supposed to do. Remember? I don't know if you remember playing it, but you put the CD-ROM in, you hit start, and you hear the main theme. And it's dah, dah, dah, dah, and you have no idea what to do. And then you'd come up to something new and suddenly this mysterious piece of music, it was kind of like a clue, like, oh, I need to do something here. So, it kind of led you though this world, and the music very much is so important to that.

(Soundbite of video game "Myst")

SEABROOK: This music is complex. It's sophisticated. And it's a powerful part of the game's design. From here on, video game music is more and more symphonic. Jack Wall went on to score the third and fourth installments of the "Myst" series. A major influence, Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana."

(Soundbite of song "Carmina Burana")

SEABROOK: Now this is Wall's theme for "Myst III."

(Soundbite of "Main Theme" from "Myst III")

SEABROOK: Game music had gone from bleeps and bloops to this.

(Soundbite of "Main Theme" from "Myst III")

SEABROOK: Much more like writing a film score, says composer Tommy Tallarico, only better.

Mr. TOMMY TALLARICO (Video Game Music Composer): In a film, even the great John Williams has to, at some point, sit down with George Lucas, and George Lucas has to say, OK, John, at 52 seconds, the music has to do this because the Darth Vader walked through the door. And then at two minutes, it has to do this because the Death Star blows up.

Whereas a game designer will come to me, and they'll say, you know what? Here's the situation. We have a hundred guys on horseback with swords all coming to attack you. Write me a three minute piece of music. Now my barriers are broken down. Now ideas are in my head and I can start to create.

You know, video game music isn't passive. It's not background music. We're foreground music, you know? And it's for this reason why I've always said that if Beethoven were alive today, he'd be a video game composer.

MARTIN: NPR's Andrea Seabrook reporting. A link to the whole story is online at npr.org/bryantpark. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.