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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)