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Phreak Out 4- Blips, bleeps and noise
by Phreak 24/02/02

Wah, wah and double wah, I'm really, really depressed. What, no anger? Piss off, you cheery bitches. Anger is last year's black, and too much of a good thing will really mess with your publicly perceived image. Or something. Yes yes, I am teary eyed and tragically morose due to the old 'games as art' argument. Why? Well, it's really annoying listening to morons whine on about the beauty of a game without even mentioning the audio aspect. What? Are they habitual mute button abusers or something? Silly sods...

Cart based soundtracks
These people have obviously never heard of Hiroki Kikuta, Koji Kondo or Hideaki Kobayashi. These people care not for the effort that an appropriate score requires, nor the talent that allows a cart-based soundtrack to still outclass most CD based music nearly ten years after release. It's hard for these people to understand that, at least in the field of games, music has been working against itself. If it is to grow, become more than just a side issue, then it needs to learn from the mistakes of the past, and work out which direction to take.

Useful Tools
In the early days, it was all blips, bleeps and noise. There was no room for aural eloquence, simply because the technology didn't allow for it. Sound was merely functional, keeping the player informed as to what was going on. Those beeps in Pong are not merely for entertainment, they're a valuable tool. Keeping your eye on the block is one thing, knowing instinctively that your bat has returned the ball and you can line yourself up for the return is quite another. The engine hum in Lunar Lander, the steadily increasing drone of the Space Invaders, the siren sounds of Pacman's power pills; all useful tools, whether that be for enhancing judgement, or provoking an emotional response for that burst of adrenaline. These were the foundations of early video game music.

The gaming equivalent of a party piece
Unfortunately, the next big step in sound generation was merely seen as a novelty. Digitised samples made a debut in the arcade with titles such as Sinistar and infiltrated the home with Mattel's Intellivoice add-on and games such as Impossible Mission. All in all, this technology had no bearing on gameplay whatsoever, serving only to give a flashy touch, the gaming equivalent of a party piece. Had this technique been used to the full, it could have had some interesting repercussions, yet the timing just wasn't right. Archaic hardware and a method limited by design didn't help matters one iota. Sampling just isn't the same as music, y'know? It just doesn't have the potential, or the adaptability that realtime generation and chip-based music has.

Several years further down the line and sampling is pushed into the background. It is chip-based music that rules the roost, and thus a golden age begins, one that has yet to be topped, in my opinion. Not only did we have scores that wove themselves to the action, thanks to Lucasart's Imuse, but also the double whammy of the Megadrive (techno MIDI mastery) and the SNES (sweeping orchestral beauty). These two consoles proved that technical limitations could not smother the creativity of the industry's best, quite the opposite in fact. Then what happened? Some tosser decided that a u-turn was the best idea, so it was back to sampling in the form of CD based tracks.

The Offspring
Linear, limited, no room for scope. It's obvious why CD music was considered as the next step forward: it's very easy to do. There's no real effort in burning a couple of tracks to a CD and calling it a soundtrack. Chip based music was seen as laborious and limited in CD-ROM's formative years, but only in terms of sound quality. Personally, I find CD based music totally incongruous to gaming. I've heard so many hot-shot badly chosen ska-poppy-punk tracks fade-out abruptly that it makes me want to throw up. If I wanted to listen to The Offspring, I would have bought their fucking album. Now, I expect very little from game soundtracks when I used to expect, and receive, so much. Occasionally, there's a welcome surprise, but more often than not, these surprises appear on a machine that wasn't built for sound, the N64. It's funny what a GPU can do to aid your soundtrack, as Kondo is well aware.

A wall of sound
Y'see, it all comes down to my central believe that if you remove the hardship, then people will become complacent, lazy and self serving. Game music has gone downhill, that's for certain, but can it improve with the next generation of hardware? It's possible. Finally, hardware manufacturers seem to have woken up to the fact that a licensed soundtrack just isn't good enough, as is reflected in the sound hardware in the PS2, X-Box and the GC. Of recent, there have been few shining stars in terms of music, and even fewer of them are streamed from CD to speaker. If only developers would bite the fucking bullet and allow sound chips to shine, rather than relying on a technology that allows for little adaptability or interactivity, then we might have a wall of sound, rather than a fence.

Badly spelt rants or back pats to: Phreak@phreaquency.freeserve.co.uk