Holy smokes, has it been an interesting couple of weeks for me. I recently reviewed Nintendo Quest, where Jay Bartlett set out to collect all 800+ NES games in 30 days. That led down a rabbit hole which will lead to an interview and many hours spent listening to Gamercast (their podcast). Now, I have watched “Beep” and it seems again like my worlds are colliding. I love sound, I worked in sound almost exclusively for a decade, and I adore video games. So, a documentary about the history of video game sound sounded like a dream. Was it that good? In a word: YES!
Let’s start with the simple yet powerful fact that the film is directed by Karen Collins. Both film and video games are environments in which, sadly, female content creators have been pushed out and hunted almost to extinction. So the fact that a female director has created one of the most significant video game documentaries of the decade is, at least for me, a source of no small joy.
And it’s not just the fact that Karen’s a woman, either: the film has a narrative cohesion that is second to none, creating something akin to a character arc for sound in video games, which, considering the fact that sound isn’t a living thing (it isn’t even an object), is a feat to be admired for sure. It’s also beautifully shot (though the list of camera operators is quite long, and includes a lot of volunteers) and the soundtrack… oh, my.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s backtrack a bit.
“Beep” aims to tell the story of sound in video games, from the early beep-bop days of the arcades and first-gen home consoles like the Atari 2600, to modern day, full-orchestra soundtracks. It does so in chronological order, through interviews with some of the most notable video game composers of all time.
It really is hard to oversell just how key these players are in the game of sound design and how important their role has been in the history of video games. You can read a full list of interviewees here, but chances are, if you’ve played a video game in the past 30 years, you’ve heard their work.
OK, being a music and sound producer, I may be more than a little biased on this, but… come on, who doesn’t know the Mario tune? Who hasn’t cried with the orchestrated numbers from FFVII?
At the risk of revealing a little too much about just how middle-aged I am, I will say that, while the early XX Century pinball stuff went a bit over my head, as soon as the Atari 2600 stuff started I kept yelling “I played that!”. Then the Sound Blaster/PC stuff came on and I really felt like I was watching my history being told on the screen.
“Beep” crams a lot of content in under 2 hours of runtime: of course it touches on landmark titles and composers, but interestingly, it goes surprisingly deep on the technical side of things. How many voices each chip had, the workaround the composers/programmers had to find to overcome the limitations of the hardware and how that helped shaped the sounds we heard, etc. It shows a rather interesting (and accurate, I believe) point of view: the interconnectivity between the games we played, the people who make the music for them, and the platform for which they composed.
This might be “Beep”‘s only downfall: it gets tremendously nerdy (juicily so) and it may scare people off or outright bore them. But for the people who understand musical composition, software, hardware… I truly believe I haven’t seen a game documentary this good in years.
Lastly, I want to talk about the soundtrack: I kept thinking about how good it was while watching the film. Upon further research, I realize that it’s not only done by Leonard J. Paul, a fellow Canadian, but also it uses procedural generation! I myself developed a system which “translates” statistical data into classical music, so it’s almost like this documentary was made for me.
You can listen to the beautiful soundtrack (and buy it), here:
As a closing, I’d like to say that for this humble writer, “Beep” may very well be perfect. This is, of course (as is any review, really) a highly subjective thing. The documentary touches on so many things I like that it makes it very difficult to find fault with it. It changed the way I’ll approach composing and making games. It may be nerdy. It may be niche. It may be many different things to different people.