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Course Introduction and Inverview with Tim Summers

Dr Kenny McAlpine sets out the outcomes for his short course on video game music and interviews ludomusicologist, Tim Summers.
Now while Scott’s electronic kit is a great example of the sort of technical innovation that underpins adaptive music and its performance, technical creativity and innovation has been at the heart of video game music since the very beginning, and that idea is at the core of this course. The story of video game music is an unusual one. Stylistically it’s diverse, taking in everything from Baroque to Blues via epic orchestral, Death Metal and Drum and Bass. And yet, game music still has a characteristic sound that derives in large part from the processes and techniques, the algorithms, that are used to create it.
In the 8-bit days, that sound would have been defined by the sound chips and the custom software drivers that developers used to create in-game tunes. Today, it’s the adaptive methods, the patterns and the loops that define the sound. And that is the line of inquiry that we’re going to follow. Once you’ve completed the course, you should have a good understanding of the development of video game soundtracks, from the very first generation of microcomputers and consoles through to the present day.
You should be able to explain how the technical constraints of early game consoles and home computers shaped the qualities of the music that was written for them, and you should be able to discuss different approaches to writing and implementing interactive music for video games. It’s a relatively new field of study, but it’s one that is absolutely fascinating. Technology and interaction add a completely new dimension to traditional musicology. I spoke to Tim Summers, a musicologist from Royal Holloway and the author of Understanding Video Game Music, to get his perspective on the subject. Tim, what is it about video game music that makes it different from other types of media music? That’s a very complicated question.
I think if we want to figure out how the music is different, we should look at how video games are different from other moving image media. So, one of the most important obvious differences is to do with interactivity. So, when we get video game music, it’s music that responds to what I’m doing as a player. It can celebrate my victories. It can commiserate with my defeats. But it can also give me information on how to play the game. If I’m playing a stealth game and suddenly the enemy comes around the corner, the music changes. It can react to that.
It reacts to the games give me information on how to play it, I’m encouraged to listen to it to do that. There are other aspects of that interactivity that can make video game music different. If I want to have very close reactivity in the middle of the game, layers coming in or musical changes, composers have to write in such a way as to facilitate that. And with that interactivity, it can be difficult to know how long any one thing will take and duration will last. So you have to write music that can cope with being looped and heard repeatedly.
There are also aspects of the medium, beyond the technicalities of actually writing the music, about the effect that it has in games. So compared with something like film, there’s generally a lower density of dialogue in games. So, music can often stand out more. But also games can be quite limited. This is obvious with older and indie games where the graphics aren’t photo realistic. But even when they are, there are constraints about what you can see or where you can go, what you can do. And so, video game music often, I think, helps to build these worlds, extend beyond what you can just see in front of you, beyond just may be what you see as a first person.
It tells you beyond what is immediately obvious. And that’s very important when you’re playing games because having an idea of what the game space looks like is incredibly important to your experience of playing games. So, it sounds like it serves multiple functions and across different genres of game, too. It all sounds very complex, and it sounds like actually it poses some real challenges, both technical challenges and creative challenges to musicians who have to compose the music, but also then to people like you who try to analyse it and understand it. Yes, absolutely.
In musicology, we are quite used to being able just grab the score off the shelf of your Beethoven sonata and say you’re looking through, oh, here we go, bar 21, that’s when this happens. Fantastic. But if we were to compare and write out in musical notation how you play a segment of Monkey Island, say – Monkey Island 2, fantastic musical system, very adaptive – and the way that I play it, they will be quite different. Things will take different lengths of time. And so, that’s that challenge of indeterminacy. But then at the same time, that makes us then think critically about other kinds of musical performance. All right, there’s that Beethoven sonata.
But is it really the same each time we play it? Or does music actually change? It is different each time it is resounded. So it challenges us to think about our other musical practise, as well as just performance and games. And one interesting consequence of that then is that the player becomes at least a co-participant, if not a co-author, in a unique musical experience. Yes. I think it depends on the kind of game as to what agency they have. If you look at something like Ocarina of Time, you do actually get to become a composer by writing your own little tune, at one part in the game.
But even beyond that, being able to have that agency to alter a musical output, having a musical entity that responds to your activity, can be very empowering. And in this way it can be quite similar to, again, other kinds of musical practise. How when we play in ensembles, we play an instrument. We have that opportunity to engage with music. So maybe we could even think of the video game a little bit like a musical instrument, a sort of musical instrument in itself. That also highlights one of the exhilarating things that I love about music, and it’s the idea of play being central to music performance. You know, musicians have always played with ideas, they play their instruments.
Is video game music really just part of a longer established tradition of musical play? I would say so, yes. We don’t want to simplify play and say, oh it’s just all the same. Play is a very complicated multi-dimensional thing. But yes, I think there are aspects of that, improvising on a musical instrument within constraints. It can be quite similar to improvising when you play a video game. How do I tackle this level in a game? And every body plays it slightly differently. And that opportunity to react and interact with music when you play those games and the actions that you take to change the musical output.
And that becomes a dialogue in a game, where I take an action, the music changes. I respond, sometimes I’m responding to that musical change, and so we become bound together in that kind of interactivity that can be absolutely thrilling. But the other aspect of this is to do with how it encourages to really listen and engage. That kind of connection, that playful connection, is even more important in games when I’m trying to look for information to understand the rules of the game, look for information to help me win sometimes, but also to enjoy the character that I’m playing, enjoy the world that I’m interacting with. There’s that impulse to really listen and engage and say, what does it mean?
How do I understand this music? That’s part of why video game music becomes so important to players. Say, yes, they listen to it a lot, but they’re being pushed to actively engage with it in that way. And so what you’ve just described there is really very rich, subtle, and nuanced. And one of the things that really excites me is that we’re really just beginning to scratch the surface of this area of study. Yes, it’s a very young area. We’re still asking really fundamental questions.
But it’s my hope that it’s an opportunity for us to sort of leave our egos at the door and – I mean it’s video games – we’re all here to have fun and to explore this thing that means so much to us. So it’s my hope that we can engage with each other, disagree well in a respectful and collaborative way and not too personal, and we can just play nicely together. Thanks, Tim. Next, I’d like you to visit the discussion board and post an introduction. Set out what you would like to get out of this course and then describe your favourite or most memorable piece of video game music. Why did it make such an impression on you?
Now I’ve added an initial post to get you started. Head there now and I’ll see you again shortly for the next activity.

Before we begin to explore the history and development of video game music, it’s worth taking a moment or two to think about what makes game music different from other forms of music, particularly other forms of media music.

Here, I interview Tim Summers, an academic and author from Royal Holloway, who specialises in the musicology of video game music.

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