Music in the gaming world: From silence and plinky tunes to in-game gigs
The first videogame had no sound effects. Today, music helps tell the player what to expect; lets artists from Ariana Grande to Lil Nas X reach new listeners.
Videogame soundtracks have come a long way, from the beeps and blips of 50 years ago to the licensed tracks and sold-out in-game concerts of today. It’s a story that has been shaped by innovation, driven by technology, and reflects parallel changes in the music industry.
As with so much of the visual media, it’s a story that began in silence. Today, music tells players how to feel. Is this a moment of tension or exploration, devastation or folksy melancholia? Is there danger coming? But the first videogames had no sound effects. Pong, released by Atari in 1972, just issued an electronic blip every time the ball hit the paddle.
The main reason for this was the consoles. The Magnavox Odyssey, the first commercial home videogame console, was released in 1972 and could only display monochrome shapes; it had no audio.
This changed with the hugely popular Atari 2600. Released in 1977, it generated two tones. Suddenly, a mosaic of music was possible. In 1978, Space Invaders became the first videogame with a continuous soundtrack (four descending notes that sped up as the enemy approached). It was the first in-game sound that interacted with players to create an atmosphere that propelled action.
By 1980, games such as the maze chase Rally-X and the hugely popular Pac-Man had introduced melody. In 1985, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) took a big step forward, offering full five-channel sound output. Suddenly, music was being composed for game worlds.
Nintendo hired the visionary Japanese composer Koji Kondo. He would create beloved masterpieces for franchises such as Super Mario (1985) and The Legend of Zelda (1986). While the latter is a simple melody that was composed in a day, the Mario soundtrack would prove that, even within the constraints, music could help define and promote a game.
Kondo worked out an upbeat, almost swing-like melody, using three notes at a time, for the opening level of Super Mario. For the underwater sections, where Mario swam through enemy territory, there was a lighter waltz. And throughout the Overworld, as Mario collected coins, there was the triumphant metallic ping. These are tunes still in use and widely recognised today.
Sound got richer through the ’90s, as games moved from 8-bit to 16-bit and 32-bit storage and finally the CD-ROM. In an increasingly crowded market of relative sameness, music became a way to make a game seem unique.
The Japanese game company Sega (of Sonic the Hedgehog, 1991) worked with Japanese composer Yuzo Koshiro, who blended house, techno and trance to create electronic dance music tracks for beat-’em-up games such as Streets of Rage (1991). By 1998, Scottish-American composer Grant Kirkhope had created special themes for every level of the adventure game Banjo-Kazooie (a bouncy, playful tune as the red bird Kazooie hopped about on land; a reverbing one for underwater explorations; a fadeout of instruments as it flew high in the sky).
As plotlines became more complex, intricate orchestral scores now served to alert the player to imminent danger or prime them for an emotional moment. By the early Aughts, videogame soundtracks were being released as music CDs. Bestsellers included Halo: Combat Evolved (2002), which combined a wide range of musical styles, from a string orchestra to chanting and percussion; and Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation (2012), which blended African drums, the flute, and a string orchestra to represent the dual French and African ancestry of the lead character.
Baba Yetu, the theme song for the 2005 strategy-based game Civilization IV, put the Swahili version of The Lord’s Prayer to music and went on to win the first Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s), in 2011. Created by American composer Christopher Tin, it was also played during the signing of a historic peace accord in Mozambique in 2019.
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Today, music stars from Lil Nas X to Dua Lipa are creating songs for games, but they aren’t the first. David Bowie created 10 tracks for the 1999 adventure game The Nomad Soul (and lent his voice to a character). Paul McCartney collaborated on the soundtrack of the shooting game Destiny (2014). Aerosmith re-recorded four of its songs for the 2008 game Guitar Hero: Aerosmith.
Since the mid-1990s, gaming franchises such as Road Rash, Need For Speed, Grand Theft Auto, FIFA: Road to World Cup and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (THPS) have worked to market music, drive sales and introduce new audiences to musical talent. Road Rash featured grunge tracks by bands such as Soundgarden. THPS introduced new audiences around the world to non-mainstream music genres such as ska, hip hop and punk rock. The FIFA soundtracks have featured both up-and-coming artists (Peggy Gou; FIFA 2019) and established musicians (Bad Bunny and Gorillaz; FIFA 2023).
The onset of the pandemic saw some of the biggest music stars reinvent and reach out in new ways. These ways included virtual concerts, metaverse performances and new music released in-game. Rapper Stormzy released the music video for his track Rainfall within the action-adventure game Watch Dogs: Legion (2020). In 2021, Ariana Grande performed some of her greatest hits (Raindrops, 7 Rings, Be Alright) while headlining the Fortnite Rift Tour three-day concert series. Grammy-winning rapper Lil Nas X composed the anthem Star Walkin’ for the League of Legends 2022 world championships.
Even without the pandemic, this is an evolution the industry was expecting. In 2018, in an interview with The Guardian, Steve Schnur, head of music for game publisher Electronic Arts (EA; owners of the FIFA gaming franchise) said, “We knew that videogames could become what MTV and commercial radio had once been in the ’80s and ’90s. Any given song in FIFA, whether it’s a new track by an established act or the debut of an unknown artist, will be heard around the world nearly one billion times. Clearly, no medium in the history of recorded music can deliver such massive and instantaneous global exposure.”