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The Evolution of Sound

Shawn Cooper

Today, the genre of video game music occupies a place of respect approaching that of cinematic scores. With the recent advent of soundtracks performed entirely by orchestral ensembles--such as that of Rygar: Legendary Hero--a new dignity seems to have been conferred. Mainstream awards, most notably the Grammys, have been extended to include 'visual media', a category meant to include video game soundtracks. The surge in popularity of video games and the increasingly influential (by dint of age and population) gaming community are becoming impossible to ignore. Despite these advances, there remains progress to be made. As yet, no game soundtrack has actually won a Grammy nor even been amongst the nominee finalists, and such soundtracks are not properly available to the North American public in the same way as a movie score.

Music in video games is, of course, not something new or innovative, though there have been many innovations in the field. Very short music, such as found at the beginning of a game, was available in arcade games in the 1970s. By the 1980s, the role of music in games had expanded serving as background as well as serving to accent events. Very few gamers would fail to recognize compositions from this era such as the theme to Super Mario Bros. for the NES. Indeed, if asked, most could even hum the theme on request. Other famous pieces, such as the theme to Final Fantasy, have engraved themselves firmly upon the genre as a whole. By the 1990s, with the production of the PlayStation, complex sampled music became ever more affordable and practicable. This manifested itself in the now-classic soundtracks to games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. With a medium many times larger than a cartridge, high-quality samples and even lengthy digitized recordings became increasingly common.

The 21st century offers ever more to the audiophile gamer. With consoles such as the Xbox 360 supporting downloadable content, the possibility exists for developers to take advantage of the new medium. In puzzle games such as Lumines, the player can download new music in addition to the usual fare of extra stages, challenges, and artwork. It is interesting to consider what these latest developments might mean for the genre--will they be as influential as earlier technological advancements?

Unfortunately, all the progress made so far has not been enough to truly put video game soundtracks on the same level as cinematic scores. It seems that the Grammy nominating body is not yet very educated in such music, and though iTunes does host some video game soundtracks (most notably those from Square Enix) few brick and mortar chain stores provide them, even though some of these stores provide other import media (such as the latest print and video anime). Whatever the reasons for these continued oversights are, this editorialist cannot but express his displeasure, and the opinion that video game music well deserves to be accorded precisely the same recognition and availability as that of other contemporary works.

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