9 Milestones In The History of Video Game Audio

Video Game Audio Montage

Once an afterthought to game designers long ago, sound design is now an integral part of the experience and culture surrounding video games.  We may look back on the last decade as the golden age of video game audio, and as the medium continues to gain widespread acceptance, the nuances found in audio design will continue to grow.  

As with any other visual medium, sound and music are often forgotten elements — at least in the beginning. But that shouldn’t diminish the value these elements bring to the experience. The sound has a more subtle effect. “In fact, often the mark of superior sound design is that you don't consciously notice it at all,” said Glenn McDonald, Gamespot.com. “Instead, it goes to work on you subconsciously--heightening tension, manipulating the mood, and drawing you into the game-world faintly but inexorably."  

With a long, and sometimes strange, history, video game sound design may have too many points to cover. So without further ado, let’s take a look 9 milestones In the history of video game audio:

1.  The first game with sound in a Gunfight-1975

By the mid-1970s video games have been around for a few years, and the first few systems were silent. It wasn’t until Midway Games imported Gunfight (1975), a Japanese game from Taito, that games had sound. The title used a microprocessor and a one-channel amplifier to provide the game with “not-so-real” gunshots and a basic soundtrack.

2. The menacing soundtrack of Space Invaders-1978

One of the first games to have a soundtrack to heighten the stakes was Space Invaders (1978). The sound design is simple yet effective. The menacing soundtrack is attuned to when someone alien force is about to pounce on you. The pulsing tempo increases as the invaders draw closer, illustrating the desired emotional state: fear.

3. Super Mario Bros. starts a shift with intentional sound design-1985

Designed for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Super Mario Bros. (1985) is considered my many to be Koji Kondo’s first masterpiece. By using the system's 8-bit processor, Kondo created a watershed moment in gaming development. With constantly shifting tones to match the gameplay, the sounds design creates a new kind of experience, providing music and cues that provide direction and feedback. Video game sound design starts to move from movie conventions and towards a design that's all game.

4. Sega and MJ team up for a game-pop-music smash-1989

Designed using Sega Genesis's 16-bit processor, Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (1990) provides the best smash of video game and pop music. The game's sound is channeled through the system's six-channel stereo sound and features many of Jackson’s classics, including “Beat It,” “Smooth Criminal,” and “Billie Jean."

5. Joe Montana Sports Talk Football II with continuous play-by-play commentary-1991

In another Sega Genesis title, Joe Montana: Sports Talk Football II (1991) was one of the first games to use sample based streaming in the gameplay. The game features the first appearance of continuous play-by-play commentary. This is a departure from previous sports games, which had only “shout-outs.” Sports Talks , instead, has an announcer providing commentary describing the action on the field.

6. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time with the first cinematic scoring-1998

A list of game audio wouldn’t be complete without this title: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998). The importance of music and sound is even in the title of the game! Not only is Zelda known for its notable soundtrack, but music-making plays an integral part of the gameplay. As you control Link, you must play an ocarina to open portals or summon allies. This title debuted on the Nintendo 64 with its 64-bit system and powerful CPU, which handles most of the music and other audio effects. This was also the last game that legendary Koji Kondo composed the music for by himself.

7. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater with licensing music-1999

Around the year 2000, you can see the advancements in technology with Tony Hawk Pro Skater. The title was first released on PlayStation in the fall of 1999 and pushed the boundaries of sound. The game had realistic sample voices (some from professional skateboarders, including Tony Hawk himself), and full-length, CD-quality songs from the likes of the Dead Kennedys, Goldfinger, and Primus, which were all contracted with licensing agreements.

8. New middleware tools make audio design easier

Audio middleware allows for a more realistic and immersive experience in regards to sound, and one of those tools was used heavily in the producing of the game Limbo. This allowed the game audio designer to do many of the responsibilities given to the programmer — a person who may not be the actual designer. It allows designers to have more control over how, when, and where sounds are triggered in the gameplay.

9. The Future of Game Sound Design

The future involves creating experiences where sound design is in the details. With games like Owlchemy Labs’ Job Simulator, you can interact with dynamic sound experiences. Meaning, when you hit objects against a wall or drag things across a table you hear these small sound elements building into the larger experience.

While we can’t predict the future for what game audio holds, we do know there is more work to be done and new things to discover. With advancements in 3D audio, the things game designers can do with sound will be endless, and at OSSIC we're excited to be a part of what's next.

Picture credit: What Culture