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Recovering the History of Sound in Video Games

by Allison Meier on September 2, 2014

Video Games Live orchestral performance of the Tetris theme (photograph by Roxanne Ready, via Flickr)

Video Games Live orchestral performance of the Tetris theme (photo by Roxanne Ready, via Flickr)

The sound of video games has transformed from something seemingly mechanical accenting action to incredibly elaborate acoustic landscapes setting the mood for play. To preserve this history, and show why it’s worth exploring, a new documentary and archive project are underway.

8bit Gramophone (via BEEP)

8bit Gramophone (via BEEP)

Beep: A History of Game Sound — currently crowdfunding for production on Kickstarter — is directed by Karen Collins. A sound designer and the Canada Research Chair in Interactive Audio at the University of Waterloo, she has written extensively on audio in video games, including in the book Playing with Sound: A Theory of Interacting with Sound and Music in Video Games, released last year by MIT Press. Beep is aiming to be the first film on video-game sound history, and also a means of gathering interviews with key figures in its development that will be available as an archive.

As the funding page for Beep states: “We can’t go back and interview early film composers, but we can interview game sound designers and composers from the early days.” The majority of those people are largely unknown, even to gamers. “Most of us could hum the theme song to Super Mario Bros., but how many people know the name of the composer who wrote that music?,” says Collins in the Kickstarter video. (It’s Koji Kondo, who also did The Legend of Zelda and a prolific number of other Nintendo games.)

Image for "BEEP: A History of Game Sound" (courtesy the filmmakers)

Image for “BEEP: A History of Game Sound” (courtesy the filmmakers)

In a technologically nostalgic way, the impetus for Beep is aligned with projects like the Museum of Endangered Sounds. Created in early 2012, the online “museum” is focused on the preservation of sounds from now obsolete electronic media, whether it’s AOL Instant Messenger, Space Invaders, or Encarta MindMaze. Exploring the museum, you start to think of how the sounds of technology have gotten more subtle, from jarring 8-bit noise to gentler, composed sounds. However, in video games, the progress of play is so concentrated on visuals that it can be easy to overlook how audio has been essential to making gaming experiences engaging. Back in 2011, “Baba Yetu” by Christopher Tin for Civilization IV received a Grammy, the first video-game music composition to do so, suggesting that the music of games may be expanding into the mainstream.

The ground Collins is hoping to cover with Beep is ambitious, stretching from Victorian mechanical games to arcades of the 1970s and ’80s, to contemporary responses like the Video Game Orchestra, which gives the full instrumentation treatment to game sounds in live performances. As video games get more recognition as an art form, it will be integral to their history to have a record of these sound creators.

Beep: A Documentary History of Video Game Sound is fundraising on Kickstarter through September 30.

h/t Designing Sound

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