The history of video game music is a rather interesting one, which is strongly influenced by the restrictions that early gaming hardware in the 1980s placed on composers. Because of the way video game consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System or the Sega Master System handled audio at the time, composers were very limited in terms of the amount of complexity and density they could utilize in their music. All of the sound had to be generated directly from the hardware which meant that real instruments were entirely out of the question, leaving composers to work with chiptune, synthesized sounds. Also, the amount of lines that a composer could use were quite restricted; one only had about three lines for tonal content, because one of them would be taken up by percussion tracks, leaving one for melody and two for harmony. In addition to this, composers had to sequence each note individually using a tracker, meaning that they lacked the ability to record their notes in real time or even utilize MIDI inputs. These large limitations, however, became instrumental in defining video game music’s character and identity. Because as a composer you only had access to three or four melodic lines, it was imperative that memorable melodies and strong harmonies caught the attention of the player, while simultaneously matching the action on the screen. Making sure that these compositions fit what was matching the action was crucial, otherwise it would break the players’ immersion within the game. Video game music overall greatly helps the player be more involved, going so far as to even cause them to lose track of time (Zhang). As such, iconic melodies have cemented themselves in the minds of many people, such as the Super Mario Brothers theme, or the Legend of Zelda. But many other iconic game soundtracks in the infancy of video games were written by women, such the original Mega Man score by Manami Matsumae (Lacina), or Harumi Fujita’s Ghosts and Goblins. In fact, the entirety of Capcom’s sound team in the 1980s was women (Frank). The first Castlevania score was composed by Kinuyo Yamashita, who interestingly was credited under the pseudonym James Banana, which was a reference to the Dracula film composer James Bernard (Castlevania (1986) NES Credits.).
In the early 1990s, marked by the shift to 16-bit consoles such as the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis, the restrictions for video game composers started to lift a tad, with higher quality instrument samples on the sound chips of the new consoles, and the available track numbers increasing by a handful. During this time period, we had composers like Minako Hamano scoring Super Metroid, the first major game series to feature a female protagonist, and we also have Yoko Shimomura, who at the time contributed to popular Super Nintendo games such as Super Mario RPG and Street Fighter II. Shimomura is a particularly unique example because she is one of the most prominent video game composers of all time, and she has been active since the late 1980s, and has followed nearly every major development in the evolution of video game music.
From the late 1990s up through the 2000s, major advances in technology changed the landscape of video game music forever. Because video game consoles switched to using a disc format as opposed to cartridges to store game data, this meant that exponentially more space was available not only for game assets, but for music as well. Video game scores for the first time started being recorded with live instruments and full orchestras, and we started seeing some of the same lush and richly complex textures present in other types of music. During this era Yoko Shimomura rose to prominence for her contribution to RPG franchises such as Final Fantasy and the Mario and Luigi series, but her most famous and recognizable works come from the Kingdom Hearts series. For many of these games, nearly five or six hours of richly complex would underscore the action as the player embarked on epic journeys and battles through fantastical worlds, creating a sense of immersion that had never been experienced before in the world of video games. For example, in later entries of the Kingdom Hearts series, the main title screen theme, “Dearly Beloved” was played by a full orchestra, giving the player a grand welcome before the journey even began, a development that was only possible due to the evolution of technology during this time period. Shimomura’s Kingdom Hearts score also reflects another major development in video game music: interactive music by means of horizontal resequencing, where tracks would crossfade into another track based on specific game states. The music in Kingdom Hearts masterfully utilizes this technique, changing the music depending on whether the player is exploring the area or fighting enemies, giving the game a huge sense of forward motion that it would not have had otherwise.
Another woman worthy of mention who has worked with Shimomura is orchestrator Sachiko Miyano, who has helped Shimomura out with recent games such as Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III. For example, in the DLC expansion pack for Kingdom Hearts III, called Re;Mind, Miyano orchestrated and remixed 12 previous themes from the past games in the series, breathing new life into old compositions. Many of these previous compositions utilized sampled instruments, but now are being played by full orchestras thanks to Miyano’s work. Because of the nature of the job of an orchestrator, contributions by women such as Miyano tend to go unrecognized, such as is the case of Penka Kouneva, who was the orchestrator for best selling franchises like Gears of War, The Sims, and World of Warcraft.
In recent times however, due to many factors such as the decentralization of the video game industry with the rise of indie development studios, allowing women to create spaces for themselves within the industry as well overall attitudes towards gender shifting in the past few decades, women have begun to come into the forefront for their contributions into video game music, with many of them creating award winning scores. One such example is Winifred Philips, known best for her contributions to God of War, LittleBigPlanet, and Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. Her work has gotten her nominated for over 30 awards, including the “Global Music Award”, and the “Hollywood Music in Media Award”. Soundtracks like Philips’ have a very cinematic modern sound, with a huge emphasis on percussion, spiccato strings, accompanied by loud and triumphant brass. Another composer who has followed in a similar vein is Eímear Noone, known for her contributions to Blizzard Entertainment games such as Overwatch, Diablo III, Hearthstone, and World of Warcraft. In addition to this, Noone was the first female conductor at both the Oscars and the National Concert Hall in Ireland (Burlingame), and just like Philips, Noone has also won the “Hollywood Music in Media Award” for “Best Video Game Score”.
Interestingly enough, with an increased number of resources available at game developers’ fingertips and the ability to generate realistic and detailed looking environments, some studios, especially indie game studios have opted to go for a more retro aesthetic in both design and audio. The most notable example of this is Celeste, which was released in 2018, but opts for a pixel art style aesthetic, with synthesized music to match. Celeste’s composer was Lena Raine, who is also very well known for her work on Guild Wars 2, as well as the best-selling sandbox game Minecraft. Raine’s score comes at a time where interactive scores are much more common and easier to implement as well, and it helps contribute to creating a captivating and moving score. For example, when the player discovers a secret area within a level, certain layers may drop out or come in, adding a sense of tension or wonder. Tracks build and layer on, tracking the player’s progress throughout the level, which helps accentuate the drama of the story and nudge the player on to continue with the adventure, leaving them in anticipation of what comes next. Polyphony is also expertly used in many of the tracks, with themes masterfully layering onto one another in order to create a wonderful sense of storytelling which the images and gameplay could not create alone. Soundtracks like Lena Raine’s could not have been possible in an earlier time, where technological resources were much harder to access for developers as well as composers, and the only possible option was for people to work at a big studio such as Nintendo, Capcom, or Sega. No doubt the advancement of technology and the democratization of music helped women in terms of achieving prominence within the music industry, and especially so for video games.
Women in video game music, while it may seem so due to the increased visibility of female video game composers, is not a new development; women have been alongside their male counterparts since the emergence of video games, creating melodies and soundtracks that are beloved by many, and being recognized by more people as time goes on. Acknowledging the contributions that women have already made to video game music will greatly help in understanding what needs to be done in order to make strides for women not only in the sphere of video game music, but in the music industry in general, and will pave the way for more women to make their mark in the world of music.
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Frank, Allegra. “The Unsung Women of Video Game Music.” Polygon, Polygon, 24 Mar. 2017, https://www.polygon.com/2017/3/24/15049744/breath-of-the-wild-music-composer.
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Zhang, Jiulin, and Xiaoqing Fu. “The Influence of Background Music of Video Games on Immersion.” Journal of Psychology & Psychotherapy, Longdom Publishing SL, 13 Feb. 2019, https://www.longdom.org/open-access/the-influence-of-background-music-of-video-games-on-immersion-2161-0487-1000191.pdf
Sara Ranlett, CC BY-SA 4.0 US