Can you imagine Star Wars without John Williams score? Think about it. Pretty bleak hey. You end up with a serviceable plot slavishly cribbed from samurai films, full of B movie nonsense dialog. The set, character, and visual effects design would still be incredible, but it’s filmed and presented in such a plain, workmanlike manner that it’s difficult to take much notice. The one element of Star Wars episode IV that sets it apart from other films of it’s genre, budget, and era is the music.
If you watch any movies made before the 70’s you will start to notice a trend. There are the occasional standouts, typically in the musical genre, but a lot of the music is largely interchangeable between one film and another. There are a few standard scene closing techniques that are used again and again to point out different changes in tension. The score acts as a pivot for these movies, but it’s not woven into the fabric of the scenes.
If you look up lists of the greatest movie scores, or just take stock of the ones that are permanently embroidered on your brain, the list skews very heavily toward the 80’s. Most of this has to do with the steady advance of technology. Creating, refining and matching music to the images on the screen became much, much easier. It became a solvable problem. It wasn’t that the music was better. People have been good at making music for a while. It was that the technology of music making and film editing had leveled up. They could work together in ways that were difficult or impossible before.
Before the NES there are almost no memorable video game scores. There are sound effects and audio stingers, like the wakka-wakka of Pac-man or the dirge of the Space Invaders, that still resonate, but no real musical scores. During the 8 bit and then 16 bit eras there was a convergence of technologies that entangled music and gameplay in a memorable way.
Most of the time the music would simply play on constant loop under the game being played. creating a piece of music that wouldn’t be grating over the many hours a player could be listening to it was a true talent. Rather than have the themes tied to emotionally charged scenes in a movie, game music would drill itself into you through sheer repetition.
There was another convergence that strengthened game music during that time. It was all at once and advance and a limitation. While storing digital sound was possible, space was at a premium on cartridges and early disks. Encoding the music, and playing it back through the same synthesizer chips that were also used to create all the games sound effects was much more practical. The positive side effect was that all the sounds, instruments, impacts, and shouts, come from the same source. Every sound in the game was unified with the same palette. The sound effects are the music. By the end of the 16bit consoles gameplay, art, music, and sound all existed on the same level. They created one consistent experience.
Then CDs came along and broke all that. Suddenly musicians could create orchestral scores without limitations. They could record with any instruments, add vocals, whatever tools their film counterparts could use were fair game. For quite a while, it meant that scores for games actually got markedly worse. The game and the sound had fallen out of sync. Early polygonal games can be described as anything but visually artful. The sound and music had leapfrogged the visuals, and they were both weaker for it. Attach a John Williams score to some Tom Baker Doctor Who and you get the idea.
Of course, technology always wins. It didn’t take very long, one console generation and even less time if you were a PC gamer, before the visuals caught back up. Now there are dynamic sound systems that can fade themes in and out of the score depending on the players interactions. Songs don’t simply loop under the actions, they shift and change, punctuating key scenes, wringing just the right emotion out of just the right moments. Film composers started to really get the hang of this art around 40 years ago. Now games are doing the same thing, only dynamically in real time.
I could point to the main themes to Halo, Mass Effect, Metal Gear, Assassins Creed, and on and on. Musical scores for games are getting so good that most low budget indie games can sell a copy of the soundtrack for the same price as the original game, and be justified in charging it. I have gotten more enjoyment out of the soundtrack for some games than actually playing them. It’s really a great time for game music. Can you imagine Halo without Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori’s score?
Best Games - Trio the Punch - never forget me
Some people go a long way for a joke. The makers of Trio the Punch went a long, long way for a joke that only they would get. Then they packed that joke up in an arcade cabinet. People could pay to play that joke and almost no one would find it funny. Trio the Punch is the Andy Kaufman of arcade games.
Usually I write a Best Games about a game that is so good that I think everyone should play it. A game that will have universal appeal. Trio the Punch doesn't care what you think. It doesn't care if you like it. It has nothing to say. It is a fiercely, unapologetically bad game. The development team is probably still surprised they got away with making it. It probably still makes them laugh.
I think every game developer should regularly revisit Trio the Punch - never forget me. You will come away from it having learned nothing about creating good games. That's okay, Trio the Punch doesn't care what you think.
So there are a couple new consoles coming out in a few months. I think I’ll buy a new video card instead.
I was never really much of a console gamer. That statement typically stirs up visions of PC gaming snobbery. Bearded dudes bragging about dual SLI rigs that push frame rates in the hundreds, while they play era accurate flight sims and grognard only, hex based, strategy wargames. That’s not me at all. I was the kid who desperately wanted to play any and every game, on every platform. It just happened that the platforms I had were computers. Usually strange ones that few people had heard of. Every time I would go over to some kids place, and they had a NES sitting under the tv collecting dust because they had grown bored with, I don’t know, magical wonder and awe I suppose, it would make my soul hurt. It might as well have been a puppy, and their whole family was making a conscious effort to ignore it. I would make trips to stores specifically to play the display model of whatever machine they currently had running. Multiple times a day.
By the time I was in university, the 16 bit machines were in high gear. I kept up with all the new releases, reading magazines centered around consoles I didn’t own. I would occasionally rent one of the machines, felt the SNES looked slightly better than the Genesis, but I never sided with either camp. At the time shareware had come the the pc, and I was playing Doom. I suppose, by default, I was a PC gamer, but I never felt like one. I just loved games.
Time marches on, and I become an old, nostalgic man. I’ve followed the industry consistently for over two decades. I have the current round of consoles, and we have played them a fair bit. As is my usual modus operandi, the 360, PS3, and Wii were all out for several years before I even considered picking them up. I will do the “wait and see” for this upcoming generation too, but I have a hunch that I may never feel compelled to get them.
It’s been thrown around that the new consoles are “really just a PC”. This has actually been true for quite a while. The original XBox was “really just a PC”. The 360 and PS3 had more in common with older Mac machines than windows/x86 computers, but they can both be convinced to run Linux. The new consoles not only have similar hardware to your standard windows desktop, they are fraternal twins. They really are just PCs.
I suppose the important thing to think about then, is what does this mean for games. If a game could conceivably be moved from PC, to Xbox One, or PS4 with almost no changes, what platform will developers build their games for? Unless they are paid to create an exclusive for one platform or another, they will build the game for the platform they build the game on, the PC.
Oh sure, putting a game in as many places as possible will still make good business sense, so conforming to the limitations of the consoles will be important. They are slightly less powerful than a gaming PC and the de facto method of input is the controller. That is the spec games will be built to. Even for a game targeted to a console, releasing on PC becomes too cost effective to pass up.
Here comes the caboose of the nostalgia train. There was a time, not so long ago, when press would gleefully proclaim the death of PC gaming. No stores stocked PC games in any volume, and they usually occupied a three tiered shelf beside the staff doors.
A few things have happened since then, and now most major releases get a solid, often superior, PC release shortly after the console version. Digital stores are bursting with games in a full spectrum of price strata. There is no, one size fits all price, genre, or audience for PC games. My PC is decent, but not even close to top of the line. I’m not aware of a single game available that it can’t run.
The new consoles are basically PCs and PC gaming hasn’t been this healthy since the 386. Looks to me like we will all be PC gamers soon. I’ll just get out ahead of it, and opt for the video card over the console.