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14.1: Early Video Games and Sound- 1958-1970s

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    Sound and Music in Video Games.

    Tennis for Two, the first video gameSimilar to movies, most of us can't imagine playing a video game without any type of sound of music to accompany our fictional adventures. But the story of how video games came to be as we understand them today is similar to film's history: early games, much like early film, did not include music or sound due to technological constraints. Much like film, early video games either included no sound and music at all, or very limited sound effects.

    Pictured to the right is an image of what is widely regarded as the "first video game ever created," called Tennis for Two. This was created in 1958 almost as a joke, without any intention of ever pursuing the creation of a video game industry. The game was created by American physicist William Higenbothom after learning that the US government's newly created computers could simulate wind resistance. The game is similar to Pong: two players use a controller to simulate a game of tennis, and the game's programming takes into consideration trajectory, force, and even the notion of wind resistance. Like early movies, this game had literally no sound played in the background. If you're interested in seeing this game in action, watch this short video of the game being played, and you'll see a glimpse into the earliest stages of video games in our history. This game predates the game Spacewar! by four years, and the infamous Pong by about 15 years!

    You may be asking yourself what this "silent era" game has to do with video game music and sound? Well, before we can even address that, we need to first address the unique characteristic of video games: their interactive nature.

    When we watch movies or television, we are what is considered a passive audience. We have no control over the story, nor do we contribute to the story. We are simply passive audience members witnessing the drama unfold. The music and sound effects certainly enhances our enjoyment of the drama, and may even cause us to draw different conclusions about characters and certain plot points, but at the end of the day, we have no control over how the story progresses or unfolds.

    When we play video games, however, we are active members of the game. Whether we're playing a sports game like Tennis for Two, or running through imaginary lands trying to escape enemies like a Super Mario Bros. game, or putting together puzzle pieces like Tetris, or playing an RPG that tells an elaborate story like Final Fantasy or The Legend of Zelda, we're active participants in the game itself. The music and the sound not only enhances our enjoyment of the games we play, but it can actually influence our decisions in our gameplay!

    A classic example of this phenomenon is found in the 1978 arcade game Space Invaders. As aliens begin to descend down on the player, we hear a four-note pattern playing repeatedly. As the aliens descend more quickly, the music's speed also increases --- this causes heightened tension and anxiety in players, which may cause them to act irrationally. Though a simple trick, it works every time. Watch this clip of Space Invaders gameplay, and see just how much the music affects you as you imagine yourself playing this game.

    A more intricate example of how music affects our gameplay may be seen in 1997's release of Final Fantasy VII. Within the early stages of the game, the protagonists chase the villain Sephiroth across the globe. As in film, Sephiroth has his very own character theme—one of many leitmotifs in the game's soundtrack. In one chapter of the game, players find themselves on an enemy's ship, when Sephiroth's leitmotif begins to play in the background. This subtle musical cue signals to players that they need to make sure they're ready for an upcoming "boss battle" with him.

    Of course, the example of 1997's Final Fantasy VII is a much more involved example than our 1978 example of Space Invaders. By 1997, video games became much more involved and elaborate than their arcade predecessors, able to tell full epic stories that can take anywhere between 50-100 hours to experience. Space Invaders is a wonderful example of early arcade games that lived by a single rule: "games should be easy to play, but near impossible to master." Because these games were mostly played at pizza parlors, bowling alleys, or pubs, the games typically had a single premise to them: get the highest score possible before the game becomes too difficult, causing the game to end. As a result, the music was mostly short and not too complicated. Often, the music to these games were simply programmed by sound engineers, and not hired composers like we see today. Think about it: does someone really need to be a highly-skilled composer to program a single 4-note pattern in their game? Moreover, many early arcade games utilized sound effects more than music. Watch some of these classic arcade games from the 70s and early 80s: you'll notice that the music is limited and mostly accompanied title screens. Most of the sound heard when actually playing the games were sound effects—mostly created by sound engineers, not classically trained composers:

    Pong (1972)
    Asteroids (1979)
    Monkey Magic (1979)
    Defender (1980)
    Pacman (1980)
    Galaga (1981)

    Our example of Space Invaders is an important historical example because it was one of the first games that incorporated "music"—simple as it may have been. As arcade games in the late 70s and early 80s became more technologically advanced, capable of producing more colors and incorporating higher quality sound, they began to incorporate more music that sounded like music, with melodies and harmonies akin to modern popular music. Watch this clip of the 1982 arcade game Moon Patrol, and you'll hear what sounds like several instruments including a drum kit playing a basic 12-bar blues tunes. And while this is more elaborate than the Space Invaders example, the melody still could have been programmed by someone other than a "skilled composer."

    With the advent of home consoles in the 1970s like the Magnavox Odyssey, various Pong machines, and Atari 2600 (among others), these arcade games were able to be brought into the home (though the graphic and audio quality were much less sophisticated than the actual arcade games due to technological constraints). Regardless as to the medium in which these games were played—arcade machines or home consoles—the music and sound was much more limited than it is today.

    These simple melodies were pretty much par for the course when it came to video game music in the 1980s. That is, of course, until the advent of 8-bit consoles released in the early-mid 1980s. Systems like the NEC PC-8801 (released only in Japan in 1981), the Nintendo Entertainment System (released in 1983), and the Sega Master System (released in 1985) provided game developers the opportunity to create games that would take much longer to play, allowing for more elaborate and sophisticated stories to be attached to the games. Before we move onto the 1980s, watch the video presentation for this unit, where you'll learn more about these interactive games and more about the ways in which sound and music were incorporated into these games.

    For those interested in downloading a PDF handout of this unit's PowerPoint file, click here.

    (avove): "Tennis for Two," taken by Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) - Screenshot, Public Domain,

    14.1: Early Video Games and Sound- 1958-1970s is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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