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Toe-Tapping Zapping

Game soundtracks struggle for legitimacy in an industry obsessed with killing machines, not killer tunes

Thinking that a video game soundtrack is nothing but random bloops and bleeps is so '80s. Donkey Kong was then. Final Fantasy VIII, with its lush soundscape of symphonic melodies and choirs, is now. And the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has made it official: Gaming soundtracks are art. NARAS, after being lobbied by the gaming audio community the past two years, has decided to make room for it in some Grammy categories. Workers in the $11 billion-a-year industry want desperately to be seen as artists, and a Grammy validation could increase gaming composers' profiles exponentially -- and those of game developers and publishers.

Last year, when Grammy voters first considered gaming soundtracks, no game publishers -- out of either apathy or spite -- forwarded any nominees for the available categories, including Best Soundtrack Album for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media; and Best Song for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media. ("Other visual media," of course, includes computer, console and on-line games.) Intent on pursuing next year's Grammys, industry leaders meeting at the Game Developers Conference in San Jose earlier this year urged those who could to join NARAS and push game publishers to release soundtrack albums. Elton John, look out.

Part of the reason no gaming soundtracks were nominated may have been packaging. For Grammy consideration, soundtracks must be commercially released on a separate music CD or on an enhanced CD such as a CD-ROM. This doesn't always happen. Gaming soundtrack composers are pushing for a change.

The number of soundtrack or enhanced-CD releases has been increasing since 1997, when 30 such titles were available. Even so, the gaming soundtrack is viewed as such an oddity that retailers have no idea where to stash it. Myst (Video Game Soundtrack)may be in stores, but it could be under "sound effects," the composer's last name or mixed in with movie soundtracks. A quick check of some Houston record stores reveals that hardly any gaming soundtracks are for sale.

In contrast, Japan knows what to do with them. The country sells hundreds of thousands of gaming soundtracks each year. Web sites already cater to Americans willing to shell out $70 and shipping fees for something like Final Fantasy VIII Original Soundtrack. Japan has proved that separate markets exist for gaming soundtracks and for the games themselves. A blockbuster game soundtrack can move more than 500,000 units. The Final Fantasy VIII soundtrack went as high as No. 4 on Japan's main pop music chart, The Oricon, and the earlier Final Fantasy VII Original Soundtrack hit No. 3. Some gaming composers even rival pop stars in celebrity.

It's likely that the same kind of fans can be found in the United States, argues composer Chance Thomas in one of the original proposals sent to NARAS. Generation Y grew up with the Internet and spends more than $100 billion a year -- and a whole lot of that money goes toward video games. By 2010, Thomas says, the teen customer base will reach 30.8 million people. Says Adam Corn, who maintains the Web site Soundtrack Central: "If the game industry continues to grow, it will not be long before game soundtrack CDs regularly match the success of their movie counterparts, both critically and financially."

It's not that game companies don't want to release soundtracks, says the Fat Man (né George Sanger), an Austin composer. It's just not a priority. A pioneer in gaming audio, the Fat Man has been in the business since 1983 and has composed soundtracks for more than 130 games. He has released only three as soundtrack albums. "It's not like I had to argue with anybody," he says. "It was just a matter of getting people to return my phone calls or to pay attention to that market."

Fundamentally the gaming industry is fast-paced and competitive. Computers are upgraded nearly every year. The applications responsible for audio playback or gameplay can change just as rapidly. Console games, like those made for Nintendo, tend to be more stable, but with PCs, gamers want to use the latest gear. "In our business," says the Fat Man, "it is possible to be absolutely No. 1 one day and have your masterpiece, your product that revolutionized the industry and that everyone loved, unplayable two years later."

Game composers face the same technical constraints as computer geeks. With so many different kinds of hardware and software, there's no way to guarantee a piece of music will sound the same on all of them. On-line games, the brave new frontier, present even more difficulties, given the differences in modem speed and connectivity. To deal with this problem, some game composers specialize in writing music for only certain hardware platforms.

On many different levels, it makes sense to buy a gaming soundtrack if one wants to get a clear idea of the composer's work. The music can be presented intact as a fully arranged work, instead of randomly sliced sections determined only by a "listener's" skill level.

Unlike movies or television, games are nonlinear, which means their soundtracks are digested differently. Game players aren't tied to their seats. They may stay in front of the screen 15 seconds or 15 minutes. The challenge for the gaming composer is to make every minute enjoyable. The music obviously also needs to reflect and react to the player's game state, whether her character's food is running low or an enemy is approaching. John Williams knows when Luke Skywalker will triumph over Darth Vader and when to cue his most memorable melody; the Fat Man has no idea when, or if, his audience will ever win and consequently get to hear a victory tune.

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