The world's first videogame console, the Magnavox Odyssey, was mute. Its Kubrick-esque logo and smooth curved white and black casing, like the dashboard of a newborn space shuttle, may have been pure science fiction, but it was a system that asked players to simply imagine the sound effects to go with their on-screen actions. 38 years later, the latest videogames feature dynamic soundtracks, often performed by real orchestras conducted by the actions of the player, modifying rhythm and tempo to match the changing visuals.
From the blips and bleeps that marked gaming's emergence from the primordial soup, the medium's soundtracks have evolved in various directions, some matching the cinematic splendour of a Hollywood epic, others supporting their playfulness with bounding melodies. The result has been a tapestry of approaches as rich and diverse as the games their composers hope to characterize. The industry now attracts talent from top Hollywood composers, such as Metal Gear Solid/ Modern Warfare's Harry Gregson-Williams, to chiptune bands such as Anamanaguchi (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game) to independent DJs and producers, such as Baiyon (Pixeljunk Eden).
But despite this hotbed of technical innovation and an influx of respected composers from other industries, the world of game music has to date remained obscure outside of its confines. Could this be set to change? Earlier this year, the prestigious Ivor Novello awards, which celebrate songwriting and composition across various media, introduced a videogame category, a spokesman saying at the time: "The Ivors have always sought to reflect the ever-changing world of songwriting and composing. Writing music for games requires a number of specialist skills such as non-linear and multi-layered composition, worthy of recognition."
Richard Beddow and his composing team for Empire: Total War were nominated for the inaugural award, something he hope signals that video game composition has entered a new era of acclaim and acceptance on wider stage. "The Ivors in particular is an important award for a composer of any medium because it is an award judged completely by the composing and song writing community – your peers judge you," he says. "So I'm very happy and humbled to have received a nomination for the award this year."
Beddow was always attracted to difficult careers. As a child, he wanted to be a fighter pilot, switching to musician when he realised he had a head for amplitude, not altitude. "I knew it was going to be a difficult road to travel," he tells me, "but I had the bug and just didn't want to do anything other than music. Everything I did was steered towards improving my musicianship. I took up additional instruments, music theory lessons, Associated Board and Guildhall exams, spending all the money I saved on music technology. I looked for university courses that would not only continue to help me improve as a musician but also provide me with a sound engineering background as I knew with how important technical proficiency was becoming in the area of composition."
Beddow joined Criterion Studios straight out of college in 1997. Prior to completing his degree, the young composer sent a VHS demo reel to various TV, film, radio and videogame companies in the hope of work. Of those that returned his call, Criterion seemed the most interesting to work with. It's a route into the industry shared by award-winning composer Richard Jacques, who has scored over 80 games over the course of his 16 years working in the industry, including contributions to Jet Set Radio, Super Smash Bros., Headhunter and Mass Effect plus, most recently, James Bond 007: Blood Stone.
"I began my career in the video game industry shortly after completing my music degree; my first role was as an in house composer at Sega," he explains. "I knew from a very early age that I would be a composer of music to picture, since this is where my passion lies. I enjoy composing for all forms of media, and the video game industry challenges me in many different ways, so it was a very natural fit."
For Jacques and Beddow alike, those challenges that are unique to videogames are what makes it such a fascinating industry in which to work. "Videogames are an interactive medium, whereas TV and film are linear based media," explains Jacques. "So when creating music for videogames, I want to create an appropriate score that reacts to the on screen action in a completely musical and seamless way, utilizing the latest technology and middleware support to give the player a sense of total immersion."
"From a compositional standpoint linear media has the advantage of providing the composer with the structure to follow, to allow the music to punctuate, highlight and fit to the visual," says Beddow. "With video games generally there is no set structure: the game player controls the pace of progression and the musical score has to support this. As such, games require musical scores to change or adapt along with the games progression.
"The music must therefore be constructed in a way to allow it to adapt and move easily from piece to piece. The underlying system will have to provide a way to deliver the musical assets in a dynamic way, which can in some way adapt to how the game is progressing whether by cross-fading, layering or branching music tracks."
This use of dynamic soundtrack is unique to videogames. But not all of the techniques a game composer is called upon to use are that different as Marty O' Donnell, composer for the Halo series and Richard Jacques' favourite videogame composer, explains: "I've written soundtracks for all manner of things from soft drink advertisements through to videogame soundtracks for the likes of Riven. In every case my job is to invoke emotions that convince people to engage with the product.
"The core difference with a contemporary console title is the technology; in videogames players can now control the action on screen and so there needs to be dynamic flexibility in the way my compositions are presented. But essentially the basics of my job are the same whether it's inviting people to buy children's vitamins or kill swathes of brutes. The job is always to write thoughtfully and in an interesting way."
Beddow agrees: "Generally speaking. I wouldn't actually say the core process of composing differs too much between interactive and linear media. The key difference is that the entertainment time of linear media is typically short, often 90-120 minute for a Film or less for TV productions.
"Due to its short time span, composers of linear media can afford to be both very thematic and re-use a lot of material littered throughout the programme thanks to the limited amount of time a viewer will experience it. With video games, where it's possible to have in excess of 20 hours game play, unless you have a mammoth budget to create countless music tracks for certain situations in a game, repetition will be a factor and as such you need to use techniques to combat this."
To avoid the problem of repetition, Beddow avoids writing melodically in areas where the likelihood of repetition is highest and, that most powerful trick in the compositional book: creative use of silence. "It's important to create space within the soundtrack and equally as valid a tool as others when used in the right places," he says. "The last thing you want is a wall to wall tapestry of music without a break."
Of course, there's a limit to how much silence you can use to flesh out a 20-hour epic, and the sheer challenge of creating so much music is a challenge. Beddow, who employs a writing team to support him on the Total War games, explains how he begins such a daunting task: "Musical ideas generally come to me in a couple of ways: by improvising at the keyboard and trying things out, or by hearing the ideas in my head then writing them down. I like to draft out the entire structure of the piece of music, even if thinly to establish the flow before delving in to the detailed orchestration.
"Once I am happy with the general structure I will then begin separating out the notes to the various sections of the orchestra. When working on a game score it can be useful to work on the "main theme" track first, especially if you want to be able to use variants of it or fragments of it in other tracks, but this isn't always necessary and really depends on the project - for instance a racing game may not make use of a main thematic track on anything other than the main menu or in an opening movie, some games such as beat 'em-ups sometimes don't even have main theme tracks."
For Jacques, the initial approach depends on the project and team. "Every project is different from the next," he says. "In general however, I begin working from concept artwork, game design documents, and early development builds of the game, as well as animatics for the cutscenes. It is important for a composer to have experience in games as a well as a good imagination and an ability to make the right creative choices."
Beddow agrees that visual references, no matter how basic, are essential: "I like to gather as much visual material as possible as this helps inspire the writing process. This may mean getting hold of concept art, still images or video sequences from various sections of the game. It's very useful for in-game music to have video captures of the levels in action so you can get a feel for how your music is working in that environment. The more information the composer has the better informed they will be and that should translate to the music.
"Once the tracks are complete, if I'm recording them with a live orchestra I will prepare MIDI files for the orchestrator, that is - I will tidy up rhythms and note lengths and re-order the score in a traditional orchestral layout with the articulations clearly marked so the orchestrator knows what instrument and playing style I want on every note. The orchestrator will then produce the sheet music from which the musicians will play."
Until the advent of CD-ROM-based videogame consoles, few games could afford the memory space for recorded music, instead opting for MIDI-based soundtracks. Marty 'O Donnell was one of the first composers to use a live orchestra to record his score, for the Xbox launch title, Halo. "Every game I've ever worked on I've fully believed will come to be regarded as the best one in all of history," he tells me. "But as I sat behind closed doors in 1999 and saw the vision of the first Halo game I was...it was just so powerful. From the first I wanted that soundtrack to be epic.
"At that time only a tiny proportion of games employed live orchestras for their soundtracks; mostly it was MIDI orchestras to cut costs. I went to Bungie and pleaded. I said, if you can cover the costs I can get the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (I'd worked with them for a few advertisement projects in the past) and I will make something truly special. It paid off. That said, I didn't turn a profit on the first game..."
But while games may be adopting more of Hollywood's grand execution, they have some way to go before they can truly compete, according to Beddow. "Games often have a wonderfully rich array of music, sometimes more so than in other media because they have many levels that offer incredibly diverse music," he explains. "However, budgets are still generally very different between games and say film worlds, and as such I think we are still some way from being able to truly compete with Hollywood soundtracks on sonic terms simply because of the budgets they have available for music production."
For Jacques, however, the key is not about being able to complete with Hollywood on sonic terms, but rather in terms of quality of score. "It has been very encouraging in recent years to see video game composition gain a wider audience and greater success," he says. "It proves that there are some very talented composers working in the industry today, who are creating scores that rival those of any 'A' list movie composer. I have been fortunate enough to perform at various shows across the world, as well as having my music featured in concerts and exhibition galleries as well as on radio and TV. I think there is always more we can do but certainly the music of video games is starting to become highly acclaimed, and rightly so."