Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Bleep Bleep Bloop: Music and Video Games

Originally broadcast in February 2011 on BBC Radio 4, and brought to the attention of Moon Witch Cartridge by a recent Steven Poole column in EDGE, Bleep Bleep Bloop: Music and Video Games is an illuminating 30 minute examination of the current state of videogame music. Its central focus is the commercial explosion of videogaming, the subsequent rise in mega-budget videogame development and how these two factors have led to a growth in Hollywood-aping orchestral scores.

Opening with the reminisces brought about by hearing the Game Boy Tetris music posits an angle that is never really explored by the documentary, that of today’s lavish videogame soundtracks lacking the evocative powers of the work musicians used to create when faced with the limited technology of 80s/90s computing. As presenter Paul Bennun says, these early videogame themes were the “nursery rhymes of the modern age”, built on catchy tunes and repetition as a necessity of design.

Perhaps I’m showing my age, but it’s difficult to see the majority of today’s technically brilliant, albeit largely character-less orchestral productions, ever getting lodged in my brain in the same way as the videogame music, from the early-80s to the present day, that has tended to embrace idiosyncrasy and uniquely ‘videogame’ textures (recent examples would include Space Invaders Extreme and the soundtrack to Katamari Damacy). There are of course notable exceptions (the Zelda games, for one example), but in general I find the auditory language* of these 'Hollywood' scores too close to the emotional cues of cinema to have any lasting resonance. But then, that’s not really their point. As Paul Bennun notes, the purpose of the big-budget contemporary soundtrack is to give you the feelings of “awe and excitement”, to immerse you in an experience as sensory (and fleeting) as a Summer blockbuster, and in that they tend to succeed. In all fairness to Bleep Bleep Bloop though, the documentary’s emphasis is on the development of videogaming music, and not the gulf in nostalgic potential between two highly contrasting styles.

The issue of cinema is inevitably raised often, most pointedly by emphasising the obvious differences between a form that doesn’t give direct control to the viewer, and one that is all about the interaction on offer, and the dynamic potential that this affords contemporary videogame composers. The game on which one of the programme’s main interviewees Joris De Man worked on, Killzone 3, may be a prime example of the dull, bombastic audio beloved of this generation's triple-A titles, but he has some interesting takes on the challenges today’s composers face.

The feeling you get from hearing Joris speak is that the type of videogame music discussed here is stuck between two conflicting sides; the in-game music needs to be dynamic, reacting to the on-screen action, and can therefore never really settle into a rhythm or recognisable melody, whilst the more conventional linear pieces tend to be used for cut-scenes, where the visual language is already largely inherited from the editing and camerawork of cinema. There are of course some exceptional contemporary examples of videogame music, but these tend to appear in videogames somewhat removed from the cinema-influenced examples that are Bleep Bleep Bloom’s primary focus (the likes of the traditional beauty of the music in Kirby’s Epic Yarn and Bit.Trip Runner’s deliberate retro charm come to mind).

The programme ends by attempting to align the nature of gaming music with the manner in which we all now, to varying degrees, have an interactive relationship with the way we consume, listen to and use music in our everyday lives. As the conclusion suggests, videogaming’s relationship with music is still developing, far beyond the remit of a thirty minute radio programme. But there’s already quite a history there to explore, and Bleep Bleep Bloom isn’t a bad place to start at all.

- Listen to Bleep Bleep Bloom: Music and Video Games here.

- On a related note, Moon Witch Cartridge will be attending this event, Ear Candy: Video Game Music, at the Barbican in the middle of May, which should be the perfect extension to the themes already discussed in the Radio 4 programme.

* I don't know if this is an actual term, but it sounds a bit clever.

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