On Wednesday an incredible feat happened for the video game industry. The soundtrack of Journey composed by Austin Wintory became the first game soundtrack to be nominated for a Grammy Award, nominated for Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media alongside some stiff competition from The Adventures of Tintin, The Dark Knight Rises, The Artist, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and Hugo.
Once an afterthought of game design, video game music is now fully realized in pop-culture: Internationally renowned orchestras perform entire concerts of music composed specifically for video games. Nowadays soundtracks regularly feature star studded performances from rap, hip-hop, rock and punk bands. There is even an emerging market for 8-bit and chiptune bands, which perform pieces that a developer in the 80’s could have only dreamed of.
The ability to develop music in video games has made exponential leaps in a relatively short period of time. With the arrival of the 16-bit eras and the expanded storage capacity of CD-ROM, video game music emerged as a place for soundtrack composition to thrive. Once the technology had caught up, entire games sprung up centering around music, games like Dance Dance Revolution and more recently Guitar Hero. With these titles, interacting with the soundtrack is the very focus of the gameplay.
In 1981, Atari released Tempest: Sound and Fury. Its soundtrack featured two chips to emulate eight “voices” arranged in various combinations. More importantly, however, Atari released the first ever stand-alone audio soundtrack for a video game.
Throughout the latter half of the 80s big name composers like Koji Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu, broke ground with Super Mario Bros. and Final Fantasy, respectively, but their work is still limited by 8-bit sound. The NES, Gameboy, TurboGrafix-16, Sega Genesis, Super Famicom and NeoGeo all come out with better and better audio, but are all still trapped by using an 8-bit sound processor. Not until 1991, with the release of ActRaiser for SNES is a game able to successfully incorporate a symphonic score.
All of this culminated in the release of Final Fantasy VI for SNES in 1994. A testament to Uematsu’s brilliance, the soundtrack demonstrated the increasing sophistication of video game music. For many, this marked the start of video game compositions that could be appreciated as music.
In 2000, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) allowed interactive arts to compete for a Grammy award. Individual composers or record labels looking to nominate video game soundtrack music could submit it to one of three categories: Best Soundtrack Album; Best Song; or Best Instrumental Composition for a Motion Picture, Television, or Other Visual Media. Three categories always bristling with competition, mainly from movies.
In 2012 NARAS undertook a massive overhaul of the Grammy categories revising the number of categories from 109 to 78. A change that would be crucial to the success of video game music, is that now video game soundtrack could only submit entries to 3 categories: Best Compilation Soundtrack For Visual Media; Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media; and Best Song Written For Visual Media. You can rule out Best Compilation, leaving only two possible categories. It was not looking good for the games industry, but lo and behold, just when the future looks darkest, Austin Wintory shines brightest.
Whether Journey wins or not, this is a significant step forward for music composition in the video game industry.