Documentary to explore audio nostalgia of video games

By Brian Crecente

Nostalgia sometimes comes in a thick soup of buzzes, beeps, trills and, of course, wakka-wakkas.

That cacophony of sounds paint an audio landscape that any child of the 70s’, 80s’ or 90s’ can pick up in an instant: The arcade.

Music and sound are as important an element of gaming as the filmic visuals of video games and the mechanics that drive play, and now they’re getting their own documentary and book.

Beep: A Documentary History of Video Game Music and Sound is being launched via a Kickstarter out of Toronto. The documentary, book and website promise to explore the full history of sound in games. The project will start with the metallic taps of Victorian-era mechanical arcades and move through to pinball machines, to the early beep-boop sounds of the progenitors of arcade games and finally to today’s symphonic extravaganzas.

“We’re going to explore how music changes, the psychology of audio, how it’s integrated into games and who’s using games to make their own music,” said Karen Collins, Canada research chair in interactive audio at the University of Waterloo and director of the project. “Most of us can hum a game’s song, we know the themes, but ask someone who wrote those songs and we don’t know their names.”

Collins started her research into video game music and sound more than 15 years ago. She said she was halfway through writing her PhD on industrial music when she started to notice that there were a lot of similarities between it and some video games.

“It struck me that video games had the same tonality and that no one was looking at video game music,” she said. “This is something that needs to be looked at. The people who are doing it are so talented and they just don’t get the credit they deserve.”

Her project has attracted the attention of some of the best audio and music people in gaming with more than 50 musicians and audio experts already signed up for interviews, and broad industry support for the idea.

Brian Schmidt, executive director of the GameSoundCon convention, said that music and audio in games serve a lot of different purposes, some obvious, some not so.

“From a player perspective, music can kind of manipulate you,” said Schmidt, who created sound for a number of pinball machines and arcade games including Hook andNARC. “Music can really pull at your strings and get you going in the direction the game designer wants you to get going.”

Sound can also be used to inform players, he said. For instance, when a player has a power-up, the audio might change until the power is gone. Or if a player is dying, the audio might change to note that.

“You can both play with the emotions of a player in a subtle way and also directly inform them about what’s going on,” he said.

Finally, audio and music is a great branding tool for games, he said.

“Everyone can hum the Mario theme,” Schmidt said. “If you start to sing the monks from the Halo theme, everyone will sing along with you.”

Collins’ push to document the sounds of games and the people who created them was driven in part by a realization that the music and the creators were starting to disappear.

“It’s a great time to document this stuff before we start to lose it,” she said.

Her hope is that in preserving this information she will be able to better educate gamers and perhaps attract a broader mainstream audience to the joys of gaming sound.

Tommy Tallarico, who has created audio for more than 250 games, spends 300 days a year serving as exactly that sort of ambassador to the gaming and non-gaming public.

Tallarico said he backed the Beep documentary and introduced it to his nonprofit video game music organization because he’s such a big believer in it.

“I think it’s fantastic,” he said. “It helps legitimize everything we do, not just video game music but the entire video game industry.”

If the Kickstarter is fully backed, which seems very likely, Collins said she hopes to have the project completed by the end of next year and to start shipping the book and video by early 2016.

Tallarico hopes that the release will help to immortalize the sounds of games like Pac-Man, Space Invaders and Donkey Kong and also introduce it to a whole new generation of gamers, gamers who might only be familiar with modern titles like Minecraft and League of Legends.

“You have to represent the classics,” he said. “That’s what I love about the idea of the film.”