Games have come a long way since the earliest video games were created in the 1960s and 1970s. A title called Spacewar! is credited with being the first-ever computer-based game. It was created by Steve Russell and other computer scientists at MIT in 1962, running on the PDP-1 minicomputer.
While it was cutting-edge at the time, Spacewar! No doubt looks primitive today. It was essentially three small white sprites on the screen: two spaceships and a star. Your aim was to destroy your opponent’s ship with torpedoes while avoiding returning fire. In addition to having very basic graphics, one crucial thing was missing from Spacewar! – sound. In the decades since this first-ever video game was played on early machinery, developers have found ways to incorporate music and sound effects to help tell their story, alert the player’s attention to events in the game, and make environments more engaging and realistic. They first used MIDI devices to do this but have since moved on to enlisting high-profile artists to provide the soundtrack which also creates awareness for the games. Either way, sound and music typically have the same purposes.
Music and sound effects are often used by developers to signify that something has happened within the game, alerting you to take action or to show that you’ve completed a certain objective. Just about all different types of online slot games use sound effects to distinguish between a winning and non-winning outcome and to show when the reels are still spinning. Music or sound effects may change when a bonus mode is unlocked, signifying the distinction between the different parts of the game.
Similarly, many retro platform games like Mario use sound effects to show you when certain powerups have been unlocked. These games also often change the music when you’re close to the time limit, adding an additional element of tension to the game and warning the player that they need to hurry up if they want to finish the level before the clock runs out. Taking examples from more modern games, police sirens can alert you to the fact that you have a wanted level in Grand Theft Auto, while the ominous beeping noise in Call of Duty signifies that an opponent launched a nuke and you have only a few seconds left to complete an objective or take out another player.
Sometimes, music and sound effects can be used to set the tone of a level or the entire game. This might be to differentiate a bonus round from a standard level, signify a change of setting, or show that you’re fighting a boss. In Super Mario Land 2, the different themed zones have levels with their own music. Some are set in space, some underwater, and others in an industrial setting. To make it easy to distinguish between them, Nintendo assigned each level a piece of unique background music, something that was important for Game Boy games like this as the screens were unable to display color.
Rockstar Games did something similar with each of its Grand Theft Auto titles. Music can only be heard while the player is driving a vehicle, creating the effect of it coming from a car radio. The player can even switch between the “stations” to get a different genre of music. This gives the player a degree of freedom when it comes to setting the tone of the game at that moment. If they’re cruising around the beach area of Vice City, then some 80s synth-pop might be the perfect soundtrack. But when they’re racing around the streets trying to escape the cops, the punk rock station might be more appropriate. Rockstar also used its selection of songs to communicate the era that the games are set in. For example, Vice City uses 1980s songs, while San Andreas has a selection of early 1990s tracks.
Some games require an element of “grinding”, a period of time where a player must work hard to build resources or complete a task. Music can be important in making this functionality more fun. Gran Turismo, the racing simulation series for PlayStation consoles, uses music during races to entertain players while they compete. In longer races, many players like the music as an addition to the engine notes. At periods of a race where the player isn’t involved in battles for position, the upbeat music can keep the game exciting. This “grindy” element is also a huge part of RPG games, where players often find they need to level up characters and abilities in order to progress. Music helps to immerse the player in the environment during what would otherwise be a mundane part of the game. Just another way that music is essential in modern gaming.