October 22, 2020
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Music In Computer Games
May 7, 2001 | Michael Thibault

You stand in the computer store staring at the bottom of the box. Your computer at home meets the minimum system requirements printed on the game package, but your experience as a gamer tells you that your computer is going to need some tweaks to make this new first-person shooter playable.

You dig the money out of your pocket promising you’ll work a few extra hours this week to make up the difference — besides, that phone bill can wait.

You get home and have already ripped open the box and taken out the jewel case just as your desktop comes into view.

Installing is a breeze and you are tempted to double-click that new little icon on your hard drive and start playing, but you remember that your RAM is dangerously close to the minimum requirements for the game. No sense disappointing yourself with a sluggish game right off the bat, let’s see what you can do to ensure your machine runs the game at optimum efficiency.

You double-click on the Read Me file.

“Thank you for purchasing …” yada, yada, yada. You scroll down. Ah, here it is: “Performance Tips.”

Hmm, lower resolution? No, not if I don’t have to, you say to yourself.
Lower texture detail? God no, I want to see everything!

Ahh, here we go. Turn off music. No problem, you say, and without a second thought you’re diving into the .ini file to get rid of that in-game music.

Sound familiar?

We’ve all been there. Faced with games that overwhelm our systems, we are forced to experience them at less than optimum situations. And often it is the music that is the first to go.

Detractors will say that it doesn’t matter anyway because in-game music is often annoying and repetitive. If that’s true, then who’s to blame? The ease in which we allow ourselves to turn in-game music off, and the ease in which game designers allow us to turn it off, creates an interesting situation for game developers and gamers alike, who must ask themselves: what priority have I put on having high-quality game music?

There’s no doubt that audio has a large role to play in a multimedia experience like a computer game. We want to hear those footsteps echoing down the hall, and have that explosion’s boom fill the room when we send a grenade into that chemical factory.

But music is a different matter. And often it is taken for granted. One big reason may be that music integration technology isn’t where it should be.

Unlike in film where the music changes according to the action on the screen, game music is often just looped tracks — and who wants to hear the same 45 seconds of music over and over and over and over?

But again, where does the onus lie when it comes to ensuring that we continue to progress in the technology that will allow music to interact more effectively with games?

Who should lead the charge? Game developers? Gamers themselves who could demand much more? How about game music composers?

Who knows?

Not me surely, so I tracked down a couple of game music composers to get their views on the state of the video game music industry. And these aren’t just “two-Casios-and-a-microphone” hacks, these guys are heavyweights.

Mike Beckett is the one-man show behind Nuclear Kangaroo Music, which is responsible for some of the best game music ever to grace a game, the Bugdom soundtrack. Beckett also wrote the music for Pangea Software’s Nanosaur, and has his infectiously-hummable tunes in the company’s newest creation Cro-Mag Rally.


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