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California museum aims to chart the course of gaming's music

The hills are alive with the sound of gaming


"The Sound of Games" music exhibit comes to Oakland.

As scores do for film, background music sets the tone for video games. Next week the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment celebrates this influence with the opening of "The Sound of Games," an exhibit showcasing why this aspect of gaming has become so meaningful to so many.

The Oakland, California museum will open "The Sound of Games" to media and others working in the art industry on September 6th, and to the general public on September 7th. The exhibit will feature playable versions of "significant games," including Mega Man 2, Super Metroid, Parappa the Rapper, and Vib-Ribbon, as well as games on the Apple IIGS and Atari ST computers.

"Just as in movies, music sets the mood," the museum's creative and technical director Jason Cutler told Polygon. "It's amazing to see the technological innovation in sound hardware and design over such a short period of time. We've gone from rudimentary beeps and blips to full orchestras and multi-channel surround sound in only a few decades. Our aim is to chart the course of this progression, show why it's meaningful, and how it has affected the games we play."

Cutler believes including playable versions of games rather than simply showing clips is a better way to demonstrate the soundtracks' interactivity.

The sounds and songs have become part of mainstream culture in such a way that most of us didn't think possible when we were younger.

"[In games] the music changes depending upon the scenario," he said. "In the original Super Mario Bros when the time was almost up, the music sped up, inducing anxiety as the player rushed to finish the level. Today's music games allow us to create the songs as we play, and even remix them on the fly."

Game scores have a significant impact on the community at large, spawning its own sub-culture. Music from composers such as The Legend of Zelda's Koji Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu of Final Fantasy fame have even earned their own concert series.

"It's created a new breed of music fans," Cutler said. "We now have symphonies playing sold-out shows of game music. The sounds and songs have become part of mainstream culture in such a way that most of us didn't think possible when we were younger."

Cutler said the games included in the exhibit were chosen based on a strict criteria. They had to be an "exceptional" example of game music on a particular platform utilizing advanced audio techniques or special hardware for its time, be a notable rhythm or music game that defined or shaped the genre, or a non-rhythm game where audio is a defining aspect of gameplay, he said.

"For example, we chose Mega Man 2 for the NES because it as a great example of music from that era and very memorable," Cutler explained. "We also included the Japanese version of Castlevania 3 because it has an advanced sound chip that only appeared in one other Famicom game (not to mention it has fantastic music!) Ys 1 and 2 for the TG-16 was selected because it was one of the first games to include a CD audio soundtrack, with extensive dialog and cut-scenes."

In addition, the museum will display the only existing copy of Deep Sea, a unique game in which players create soundscapes without the help of visuals. Players wear a special light-blocking mask and noise-canceling headphones. Going off audio cues only, they use a joystick to aim and fire at underwater creatures that threaten to sink an in-game ship.

"It's a surreal and creepy experience," Cutler said. "As far as I know, there are no plans to publish Deep Sea, and [the museum] is proud to have one of the only copies in existence."

The museum plans to host lectures and events related to "The Sound of Games" throughout September, including visits from prominent audio designers. The schedule is still to be determined.

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