In 1927, the film The Jazz Singer was released; it was a ground-breaking moment in the history, becoming the first ever film to contain audible dialogue, spawning the “part-talkie” revolution in film which bridged the gap between the silent movie era and the non-silent – or “talkie” – era, which has existed now for nearly a century. Video games have had a similar transition in the course of their history, although the shift has not been as dramatic nor vital in this medium as it had been for film. Technically, the first game to contain voice acting was Space Spartans, which was released way back in 1982 on the (now defunct) Mattel Intellivion home console. However, voice acting wouldn’t really become prevalent until the fifth generation of consoles, and even many games of that generation didn’t contain any audible dialogue at all, often due to the limited space, memory and power of the consoles and their software. In this vacuum, the video game soundtrack was completely necessitated, and, by extension, thrived as a integral part of the gaming experience.
In the absence of voice acting, the video game soundtrack bore more of the responsibility for conveying feeling and atmosphere, and while movie soundtracks are a key element in conveying the feeling of a particular scene, the consistent presence of voice acting in film for over half a century has alleviated much of the pressure on the music in expressing the emotion of a scene, as the script and dialogue takes centre stage as the most important device for doing so.
So with only silent written dialogue to work with, if that, it was up to composers to add the element of excitement, joy, fear or drama to the action. This meant that if there was an appropriate and well written piece of music present for a particular moment in a game, it not only stood out more, but also meant more to the gamer; it defined the game or a particular moment within it for the player and, even years or decades later, triggers fond and nostalgic memories whenever it is heard.
This, of course, as alluded to earlier, is more prevalent in older games, fifth generation and below. For an older generation of gamers, the theme which plays during the main stages of the first Super Mario Bros. game on the NES is so intrinsically woven into their psyche that 35 years later even a lapsed gamer who hasn’t played it or any other game in over three decades would most likely be able to hum every note in what is, when given a neutral analysis, a pretty erratic, convoluted sequence of melodies.
The main theme for Super Mario Bros. had to be catchy and memorable, and it was. It could be argued that the main theme for a film or television show could be just as memorable and, also, instrumental. And that is true, however the urgency placed on the video game soundtrack existed throughout that title, within its various stages and boss battles, and the same can be said for countless other titles. Anybody who has played a Final Fantasy game knows the arpeggiated theme that has appeared in some variation during the opening credits of every game in the series; no context, no story, no dialogue, just an introduction to the product common in many forms of audio-visual media. Aerith’s theme from the seventh game, however, is used beautifully to articulate the feeling and story of a particular point in that title, and resonates with the gamer as much as the plot or dialogue of that particular moment because it is arguably the most effective device at the developer’s disposal – a device that is, incidentally, used beautifully and effectively. Final Fantasy VII, and that particular theme, is just one example of thousands of games from the 80’s and 90’s that relied heavily on its soundtrack in the absence of audible dialogue and realistic visuals.
However, even with the technological advancements in video games, allowing for more voice acting and better graphics, the video game soundtrack is still as vital as ever. There are a couple of reasons for this: for one, video games are an interactive experience, meaning that the player can, typically, advance through a stage at their own pace, often leading to spaces of relative inaction where there is no talking and the story doesn’t progress at all; so, rather than creating moments of bland silence, the soundtrack acts as a continuous stimulus, making traversing a map or puzzle solving more enjoyable. Also, there are many games, typically in the RPG genre, where there is so many subplots within an already lengthy story that it is simply not feasible to fill every interchange with voice-acted dialogue (a great example of this is recently released current gen title Persona 5). Another reason is that, simply, the video game soundtrack is a tradition which has no reason to be relegated to a lesser sensory function within the medium: the fans love them, the games wouldn’t be the same without them, and they still serve a valuable, indispensable function.