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  • Game Sound: An Introduction to the History, Theory, and Practice of Video Game Music and Sound Design
  • Paul Hoffert (bio)
Karen Collins . Game Sound: An Introduction to the History, Theory, and Practice of Video Game Music and Sound Design. MIT Press. 2008. 216. US$29.00

Game Sound is a welcome addition to the currently thin canon of books about video game music and sound. The author has mined hundreds of relevant interviews as well as academic and industry articles, excerpts of which are quoted and referenced. The book is liberally peppered with illustrations of music notation from game music scores.

The author introduces the subject by noting that, since video gaming is a more recent media type than film or television, the academic frameworks for analysis are not yet agreed on. A video game is defined as a rule-based system with a variable and a quantifiable outcome, influenced by the interactions with one or more players. Interactivity is defined as acting with agency to influence the progress of the narrative and/or the visual images. The term dynamic audio is used throughout to describe both interactive (with the player) and adaptive (to the game's state) audio. The Intro concludes that 'technological and cultural forms [are] . . . the result of complex interactions between technical possibilities, economic incentives, representational norms, and cultural demands.'

Chapters 2-4 comprise a history of music and sound in video games, organized roughly chronologically. They cover the rise of video games, the technology advances from 4- to 8- to 16-bit audio, and the eventual incorporation of CD/DVD readers into video game platforms. Detailed explanations are given, with many with graphic illustrations for sound-generating microchips and the physics of analogue and digital audio generation, including audio wave tables, samples, synthesis, and filtering, as well as oscillators, envelopes, modulation, carrier waves, and modulating waves. The adoption of sequence-based and repetitive looped music [End Page 289] is reasoned as a consequence of limited memory and computational resources in early video game circuitry.

A combination of open industry standards (MIDI, General MIDI, and Standard MIDI) and proprietary software were invented to enable composers to compose and store large amounts of game music in greatly compressed formats. For example, Lucas Arts' iMuse middleware provides for decision points in the music that can be triggered by game play to turn on or off music parts, transpose parts, change instrumentation, and/or jump to new music parts. For example, a composer can change the melody and instruments during a fight scene, depending on which character is winning from time to time, while maintaining the bass and rhythm tracks.

The inclusion of advanced hardware such as CDROM players in game platforms enabled cinematic-like orchestral recordings of real instruments to be blended with complex synthesized music. DVD technologies brought 3-D surround sound capabilities to games. Handheld and mobile consoles are discussed briefly, but the recent explosion of video gaming on smart phones and media tablets such as Apple's iPad occurred after this book was printed.

The meat of the book begins in chapter 5, which details the business and process relationships among a game publisher, game developer, and their creative team - producer, audio director, art director, designers, and programmers. Each game production begins with a design document that details the storyline, maps, graphics, animation, programming, and audio (music, dialogue, and sound effects) as well as sub-design documents for each craft. The author discusses music and sound temp tracks, cue sheets, and emotion maps for creating and releasing the tensions of happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust, anger, and fear.

The functions of game music are discussed, including structural, anticipatory, spatial, and commercial uses. The dozens of video game genres are helpfully collected into super-genres of strategy, sports, shooter, role-playing, racing, action, adventure, arcade, fighting, flight, family, and children's. The author uses media theory to explain complex sound and music issues such as diegesis, immersiveness, mood induction, and information conveyance.

A chapter on compositional techniques for games identifies media-specific solutions that can minimize a player's musical boredom from the otherwise too-repetitive sequences, as well as techniques for transitioning among musical sequences...


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pp. 289-290
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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