The Evolution of Game Soundtracks: Aesthetics and Attitudes

Quake wasn't incredibly pretty by today's standards but it did have an awesome soundtrack.

Quake wasn't incredibly pretty by today's standards but it did have an awesome soundtrack.

There are so many moving parts to what makes a great game- or one that has shortcomings- and audio is certainly one of those parts. Bad or poorly-paced sound and music can totally ruin what would otherwise be an immersing and enjoyable game. Going minimalist and using little to no music, ambient sound, or sound effects doesn't always work. But then you have those iconic sounds that anyone with functional hearing strongly remembers: picking up coins in the Mario games, getting points in the Sierra classics, the satisfying tune that came with finishing levels in Zelda...the list goes on.

The same can be said for music, which is what I'll be primarily be focusing on. From the memorable chiptune loops of the NES era to the atmospheric scores in newer franchises like The Witcher and Mass Effect, the music is more than just something that has a pleasing sound. Quality compositions can just serve as ambient window dressing, or evoke emotions while driving the narrative.

When it comes to game music though, there's some interesting disconnects in the development process. I covered problems that indie developers tend to have with game audio and why they overlook it as a result for Gamasutra a while back, and one of the biggest issues is that composers and sound designers tend to be viewed as a service rather than an integral part of the development team. In-house audio jobs were incredibly rare back in the day, and still are for the most part. But when developers view audio as a service or an afterthought, they forget about what a strong role music and the right sounds play in atmosphere and overall experience.

While it's challenging to know when to bring on a composer? You can't deny that game soundtracks, even and especially in indie games that aren't exactly known for having gigantic budgets, have evolved technologically as well as in terms of the quality and level of evocativeness.

Additionally, so have the ways that people who play games view those soundtracks.

Saving Your Game Just to Hear Certain Songs (Or The Torture of Being Unable To)

Back in the old days of adventure games, save slots were bountiful and had several uses aside from helping you figure out how you just dead-ended yourself. Little known to other adventure game fans at the time, it was common to save your game just to hear the music in one segment or screen of the game. Seriously, it shattered my world to find out when I was older that I wasn't the only one who did this! Who could resist saving their game at the oasis in King's Quest V just to hear the music?

Other types of games brought out similar urges in people who played games all the time, and what made the experience frustrating was when they didn't necessarily have save slots for you just to hear that music upon going back to that slot. For songs that played on a random playlist loop, in areas where you couldn't save, cutscenes, endings, and other areas of the game, this was incredibly frustrating.

More or less though, this was back in the days when people didn't really talk about this stuff. I've touched upon why games weren't seen as something worth preserving and audio was packed up with that. Films and TV shows got soundtracks and "inspired by" albums, sometimes including the scores in addition to the other songs the record label was allowed to distribute, but game soundtracks? You mean those things FOR KIDS? Nawwwww.

But since this was before the days of YouTube, SoundCloud, and shit, we did what every 90's kid did: made a mixtape using our boomboxes, TalkBoys, TalkBoy pens, and whatever else we could get our grubby paws on while muttering "This is bullshit" as we strained to listen to the static-y output while our parents wondered what the hell we were trying to accomplish.

Bands and Composers Wanted to Catch on Early

While this obnoxious attitude that video games are meant only for children still persists in many circles, this attitude was starting to be challenged by both developers and gamers come the mid-90s. CD-ROMs were now a thing and developers could put so much more STUFF on them than those White Castle-esque sacks full of floppies. (Huh. Floppy sacks.)

Wanting game soundtracks was still largely a concept that would get you a lot of weird looks, and definitely not something you'd find at The Wall or Sam Goody anytime soon. But as games started to get more ambitious-- often to the medium's detriment given how much we laugh at Night Trap and Phantasmagoria today-- other creators definitely began to notice. Famous voice actors were already appearing in games when the medium was young, but musicians were starting to take notice of this burgeoning medium that suddenly gained a crap ton of disk space. Among the most notable examples of this would be iD's Quake and LucasFilm's Full Throttle.

The LucasFilm classics featured incredible soundtracks by Michael Land and Peter McConnell, and the duo made a major splash in game music with the creation of the iMUSE interactive sound system. iMUSE would sync up the visual action on the screen with the player making their exit to another scene so the tracks would blend together seamlessly. This was fucking mindblowing for the early 90s, and it's something still talked about in game audio circles today as it proved to be a major influence on not just future game tracks, but also mechanics.

So it's no surprise that the LucasArts dream team would try a new revolutionary tactic when it came to game audio: the usage of licensed music. Full Throttle featured Bay Area hard rock band The Gone Jackals and select tracks from their 1995 album Bone to Pick. Songs in their entirety were used such as "Legacy" and "Drop the Hammer" for the intro and ending respectively, while samples from "Born Bad" and "Love Comes Crawling" were used in action sequences in addition to original scoring and ambient sound composed by McConnell.

With fans clamoring for a real soundtrack so badly, it's no surprise that Bone to Pick wound up being the band's best-selling album. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies even outside the United States to the point that Blue/Black Records did a reissue of The Gone Jackals' 1990 debut album. So, needless to say, bands were noticing this and despite the combination of mystique and stigma that came with being featured in a video game? It was becoming a more coveted concept among indie bands as well as those signed to major and minor labels.

And for game developers, they took the critical acclaim of Full Throttle and voracious sales of Bone to Pick as a cue to take things a step farther given how Tim Schafer and Peter McConnell just opened up the gateway for using licensed music.

Quake, which came out a year later in 1996, built on the concept. Featuring a driving soundtrack from Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, who also did voice work in the game, iD did a complete 180 from Full Throttle. In an old interview with American McGee, people actually bought Quake without even knowing about Reznor's involvement. In the opening sequence for Full Throttle, the band's name is prominently featured mid-intro and people eagerly talked about them after the game came out. However, because games hadn't quite come into their own just yet in 1996, iD didn't advertise having the clout of Nine Inch Nails so that it wouldn't feel like a lame cash-in attempt given the massive success of DOOM. They were mutual friends who shared a love of games and industrial music, so it just seemed like a good match.

Interestingly, electronica, industrial, and other musicians would indeed go on to create original game soundtracks as the medium was slowly gaining legitimacy. American McGee would also go on to work with Chris Vrenna from Nine Inch Nails on American McGee's Alice come 2000, so he definitely had a part in getting prolific musicians involved from the get-go in paving the future for game soundtracks. However, the cat's been out of the bag for a while now as to Reznor working on Quake, and both iD and NIN fans alike have embraced the music used in the game. By that point of the 90s though, the "mixtape" torture got better but hadn't quite ended yet, given that in the CD-ROM era many games also had playable tracks which would work in both internal and external CD players and the Quake series added this feature unexpectedly towards the end of development.

But game soundtracks gaining legitimacy? Not quite there yet.

Let's Play: Technology Marches On

Games, and subsequently game audio, had some preservation issues in spite of these newfangled CD-ROMs. But as technology and culture shifted and the industry went through its awkward teenage years right before the birth of new media like YouTube and sundry, the way that people viewed this media and games began to change. Having these musical talent in varying degrees of renown definitely helped lend more legitimacy to the whole concept, but as indie developers were slowly coming to life-- so were other forms of media and the way that people learn about and perceive games.

It's mostly agreed upon by the internet at large that the first Let's Play came about in 2007 courtesy of Something Awful, with SA user slowbeef uploading a YouTube video of him playing and commenting on the 1990 NES title The Immortal. Earlier forms of Let's Plays through text and screenshots were around on the SA forums, but this video is really what broke the mold for other people to make similar videos and commentaries. For many people who grew up in the early 90s, it was also pretty damn mind-blowing to see that other people talked to their games and now entire communities could form around this.

So in addition to Let's Plays, the offshoots like longplays, short footage, and then the act of putting up entire soundtracks in video form started cropping up. With the sheer amount of plays that they were getting, now game soundtracks were gaining more recognition as audio worth preserving-- and buying independently of the game, or bundled with it.

The Present and Future of Game Soundtracks

In the old days, there were the obvious technical limits like not having an easy means to rip sound files. The CD-ROM era changed this, but now you didn't necessarily have to rip files yourself if you just paid a little extra for an MP3 album or physical copy if you want to listen to it somewhere other than YouTube.

With the advent of Let's Plays, the birth of indie developers, and more legitimacy being granted to games as a whole, people definitely view and access game music a lot differently than they used to. Following in the footsteps of Full ThrottleHotline Miami opened up the floodgates for using both licensed and original retrowave tracks for indie games. It's definitely at the forefront of getting people into games who may not have necessarily been drawn to something like it, since we now have a new element in game audio we didn't have before: search and social functions.

Way back when, that music was sequestered within the game and the only way you could hear it was playing to a specific point or opening a savegame. Now you can find it on the composer's or band's SoundCloud, BandCamp, etc. pages in addition to YouTube channels, Let's Plays, and the vast stratosphere that is social media. A compelling track can now turn someone onto a game: that's actually how I got into Hotline Miami myself because I heard that epic title track by Jasper Byrne on Twitch. All it takes is someone posting it on Twitter late at night and you can unwittingly get a new audience for the game.


We'll see what the future holds for original and licensed music in games, and how deeply involved other creators get with the developer. With both parties leveraging their respective followings, it can be mutually beneficial but also opening up doors for further collaboration. While there was something unique about only being able to hear a song when opening a game, the fact that other people can now use music as a means to discover games is something that doesn't get utilized enough.