The role of music in games

Some games understand the importance of dynamics, subtlety and just plain rightness when it comes to music.

My early experience of a deft touch of minimalism in game music occurred with the very first Tomb Raider game. My friend and I were caught up in a virtual world, staring at his projector screen in awe as Lara wandered through ancient ruins with nothing but the crunch crunch of gravel or clop clop of stone beneath her feet. The occasional brief musical stings as Lara entered a new area and a gorgeous vista opened up beneath her feet, were perfectly placed and brought a swell of anticipation whenever they appeared.

YouTube Preview Image

Other games have a George Lucas approach to music: there is always a soundtrack playing. The japanese seem to love this style. Many’s the game where one finds oneself wandering through a picturesque village with jaunty music plunking away on endless repeat. The music becomes part of the background atmosphere after a while, then when you enter the next area – e.g. the vast, uncharted wilderness – a stirring anthem of adventure bursts forth and your expectation of new encounters, excitement and danger suddenly kicks in to gear.

YouTube Preview Image

There’s obviously something appealing about the approach above (constant music) but I’m more of a fan of dynamics, personally.

A great example of soundtrack dynamics from film is in Peter Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”, during the sequence in Balin’s tomb, in the mines of Moria. When the orcs finally burst through the door and the battle is joined, the soundtrack that had been gradually building the tension of their approach drops out completely and all we hear is the thwack and whump of swords and arrows, interspersed with the occasional grunt and cry.

YouTube Preview Image

Peter Jackson (or the editor ; ) uses the music to bring us into the mindspace of the heroes of the Fellowship: before the battle, when they can hear the howls of the orcs outside and the hacking of axes at the door, the music escalates along with the tension they are feeling; then, as the fray begins in earnest, the heroes’ focus turns from their imagination – from anticipation – to their immediate predicament; to the urgency of life and death and the simple act of keeping their enemy’s sword from entering their body. They hear no ‘mind music’ of escalating dread and anticipation – they are in the moment: a frantic and uncluttered zone of conflict (and, by extension and musical cue, so are we).

After a time, and at a significant moment in the narrative of the battle choreography, Jackson reintroduces Howard Shore’s score and we are figuratively ushered back in, as an audience, to witness the spectacle of our heroes in action.

~ * ~

Those sorts of dynamics, when applied to games, interest me the most. The music in a game is one part of a multi-faceted whole that includes the visuals and the gameplay experience – and just like an individual instrument in an orchestral score it should be employed at a specific time of the creator’s choosing. In musical scores an instrument is introduced at points where its particular contribution is most perfectly suited to the emotion or feeling the creator is trying to express at that time. At other times, it suits the score for that particular instrument to be silent.

As I said, I can’t understand the benefits or artistry involved in the decision to have a soundtrack constantly playing throughout a story experience (please enlighten me below!) – but it seems to me to be the difference between being enveloped in a holistic, engaging experience or simply playing a game where the music is a convention, like the health bar and the opening menu – something that, if missing, would be sorely noticed but when present, seems simply to fade into the background like so much wallpaper.

Some would say, “George Lucas had a constant soundtrack and we still experienced a great emotional journey from his films”, but I would point out that the music was often composed specifically for the images and action on-screen and was thus dynamic in its makeup – a dynamism that game music often can’t emulate (as the Player could take ten seconds to walk across the screen to the next area or they could take thirty minutes – by which point the music has had to loop a number of times).

What do you think? Is a dynamic, nuanced soundtrack more likely to engage the Player on a deeper emotional level than a soundtrack that plays constantly throughout the game?

(Reposted from my original PlayMaker personal blog)

J William’s “Young Love” Re-release Promo

On Sunday I went to Illegal Musik’s photoshoot for the re-release of J Williams’ “Young Love” album.

Besides shooting a promo for Illegal (embedded below) I also intended to shoot the first item of our video magazine show, thinkdotreset.

Our presenter, Teri Pope fronted an item on Illegal Musik and the grind that goes into maintaining a career in the industry, from managing artists to managing an indie label. Mark – Illegal’s CEO – gave us a great interview and filled us in on the history of Illegal Musik but we had major technical issues with sound so we’ve had to put that item aside for now.

I constructed the Illegal Musik promo around Mark’s breakdown of Illegal’s approach – which is to make best use of the experience of creating and pushing Ill Semantics so they can provide support to their newer, younger artists. In that light I picked an old favourite Ills track of mine: “Outta Control”. It’s an awesome track with a great MPC constructed beat from CXL and a silky, groove-heavy hook from Patriarch (Mark’s MC alias).

If anyone cares, tell me what you think of the track – I think it’s great! : ).

YouTube Preview Image

Diamandis are forever

Wow, a new post so soon! Must be a slow night… (it isn’t…)

But one must post about Marina and the Diamonds (aka Marina Diamandis – yes, she is a solo artist), live on BBC1. Judging by the official video for “Mowgli’s Road” this greek-named, welsh warbler has a quirky sense of style and humour and pumps out some catchy, eccentric melodies. Awesome.

YouTube Preview Image

Cover Zen: Dizzee does the Ting Tings

Dizzee’s Bonkers is off the chain so I was digging around in the interweb archives.

He does a great cover of the Ting Ting’s “That’s Not My Name” and his lyrical slant on the concept is mint xD.

YouTube Preview Image

“Carrie-from-the-breakfast-show”‘s cover of Dizzee’s track Dance Wiv Me at the end is pretty doggone special too.

Cover Zen: Iron Maiden via Swedish Lounge Metal

Hellsongs are a “lounge metal” band from Sweden and their covers album “Hymns in the key of 666″ features a plethora of classic metal cuts of which this one, in particular, presently intrigues me. They may skirt the line somewhat when it comes to my “Rules for making great Cover Songs” (the musical link to the original songs can be tenuous at best) but someone in the band is clearly an old school metal fan and Hellsongs brings enough of their own charm to win me over xD.

The Iron Maiden original brings back memories of bad metal covers bands from a misspent youth and the entire album is full of ‘em! If this tickles your fancy be sure to check out the Black Sabbath, Megadeth and Slayer covers. There’s something quite wrong about the way lead singer Harriet Ohlsson sings “frozen eyes stare deep in your mind as you die” xD. Thanks fOo!

YouTube Preview Image


Leave of Absence

Whoa! Sorry for the prolonged absence, friends. I came down with a severe case of Spore so I’ve been down for the count (and falling asleep at my desk during the day because of it ; ).

I’m back onboard now, though (not that anyone cares) and my NZ music post is back on the agenda xD. Here’s a great cover of “By This River” by Brian Eno (‘the father of ambient music’) from his album “Before and after Science”. (Brian is responsible for the procedural music in Will Wright’s “Spore”.) It’s nice to be reminded why a tune is beautiful after so long.

Oi! Brian Eno is responsible for the Windows 95 startup sound. Brian says: “The thing from the agency said, “We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional”, this whole list of adjectives, and then, at the bottom, it said: “and it must be 3¼ seconds long”. I thought this was so funny, and an amazing thought, to actually try to make a little piece of music. It’s like making a tiny little jewel. In fact, I made eighty-four pieces.”

YouTube Preview Image

Grunter’s Pick: The Ting Tings

I don’t have a TV – I haven’t had one for years and my family never had one when we were kids. Dad used to read to us and we’d listen to the Sunday morning radio show which had fare ranging from Bad Jelly the Witch to the Matchstick Girl (such a morbid tale for kids).

Anyway! The point of that rambling nostalgia trip was that the only thing I miss about TV are the music channels; I had a TV for years after I moved out of home and it was always set to the music stations (except when certain people wanted to watch Shortland Street >_<). NZ’s had some great channels (yay for Max and C4!) – not all MTV pop – and I discovered great music during the years that I had a TV.

Now that I don’t, I have to rely on my main Eye on the Choob – Grunter. A man of varied tastes, Grunter’s given me the heads up on songs from Disturbed’s latest metal anthem to the alt-pop of the Ting Tings. After checking out their latest video I found this acoustic version of “Great DJ” (which I prefer), performed on Yahoo’s music channel. (Thanks Grunter!)

Note: replaced with live at SXSW video as other vid has been removed

YouTube Preview Image


Angus and Julia Stone launch a Paper Aeroplane

It’s an oldie, but brother and sister duo Angus and Julia Stone are Aussies and I’m gearing up to my NZ music post with some neighbourly action xD (and here’s an interview wherein you can hear their charming aussie accents : ).

The quiet, folky, acoustic number really appeals to me and they do it so well; both are singer / songwriters and each has their own style but their writing method (each composes alone, then brings the song in for help with structure and harmonies) ensures they retain a cohesion to their sound. I like it, yo.

YouTube Preview Image