In the first generations of video gaming, implementing music was far from an easy task. The big breakout home platforms were limited to producing electronic beeps, and while a good artist could produce amazing results, it was impossible to recreate CD-quality audio. Even if systems like the SNES were mechanically capable of this level of output, a typical storage size of 8 megabytes would limit them to just a few songs in compressed formats.
As DVDs and hard drives became common on consoles, and as console sound technology improved, the music from consoles became indistinguishable from dedicated forms of playback like stereo systems. The entire spectrum of musical forms was unlocked, freeing the console world from the blips and beeps of the early generations. Yet, despite offering the potential for symphonic-quality tracks, many genres, games, and series stick to early-gen roots. Why, with unlimited potential, is this so common?
Style Represents Era
No form of artistic expression employs a strictly linear form of progress. Styles come and go, they rise and fall in popularity, but that doesn’t diminish the effort and effect of even the most limited early forms. Rock-based finger paintings might not hold the sway today that they did 70,000 years ago, but using such restricted tools and canvases doesn’t make these efforts any less important.
The depth of art is more than what a layman sees at first glance, it also involves legacy and an understanding of the steps that took us here. Video games leverage this idea at the core of their beings. What we used to think of as the restrictions of eras have now become styles in their own rights, with their own set of concepts and rules that help maximise a title’s emotional resonance.
The most obvious form we recognise the application of style in is with games that adopt a retro style. 8-bit tracks have become so ingrained in the gaming zeitgeist that their mere style triggers nostalgia, even among those not alive to experience early titles when they first arrived. Making the most out of a game means leaning on this nostalgia, and intentionally seeing limits on music that might, to the newcomer, seem arbitrary.
Freedom and Restrictions
For a look at the opposite end of the spectrum, consider forms of interactive entertainment that lean on the highest quality audio experiences possible. Rock slot games like Kiss Reels of Rock and Def Leppard Hysteria are built on offering contemporary illustrations of famous bands. Because of this, their music fully embraces the latest modern technology and the highest fidelity possible. This suits their goal, and so it’s perfect for what these slots want to achieve.
Returning to older-styled games, a modern retro title like Undertale opts to lean heavily on 8-bit limitations for most of its music, busting into more modern instrumentals in moments of intensity. Such an approach starts with the base style of the game and then expands musical complexity to mirror the growing emotional turmoil within what that character experiences. This game is about hidden depth beyond simple beginnings, and by referencing the evolving music style of video games, the artist Misaki perfectly captures that spirit.
With all the potential unlocked from game developers today, the challenge isn’t just about what to include, it’s about where to hold yourself back. Games aren’t built in a vacuum, and the deepest art can come from the simplest forms imaginable. To some, the early gaming musical eras might seem irredeemably simple, but styles like cubism have also experienced the same broad criticism.