Music has an impact on people that many other mediums do not. It’s capable of both evoking emotional response with softer melodies and pumping blood through your veins with its faster beats. Music can set tone faster than anything else, be it visual aesthetics or good writing, is capable of doing. This is because it draws on a primal part of our brains and uses our own feelings and memories to craft the message it’s trying to convey to us, and by using our own mental brush to paint the image it brings a much clearer one to life.
The thing that prompted me to write about this topic this week was my recent playthrough of Metal Gear Rising, a game simultaneously panned and acclaimed for its soundtrack. For those of you that don’t know, Rising features a host of over the top hard-hitting rock and dubstep tracks created with the express purpose of upping the player’s adrenaline levels. The songs are a tad cheesy at times, notably when the lyrics kick on, but serve their role in that they get you pumped up during a fight. This leads me to a very important point – different situations warrant different kinds of music..
All of the tonal settings that I mentioned apply in gaming – be it the soft cadence of Tamriel’s flutes, or the orchestra that gets pushed down the stairs when Isaac Clarke shits his pants, music acts as a powerful tool that lets the creator punctuate a moment in their game. Evidence of music’s importance can be found in this alone – the sheer variety of soundtracks out there and the wide spectrum of games that they span are a testament to the fact that a lot of thought has been put into them. Furthermore, the tropes that we come to expect – heavy guitar tracks for action and a butchered string section for horror, for example – show that the music is effective in conveying what mood we’re supposed to be in because we can recognize that, “Oh, this is a scary part because there’s creaking and wailing” and, “Oh, I’m supposed to be super hyped at this moment because there’s a choir.” I’m not saying that we wouldn’t have the reactions based on context alone and without the music, but it’s important to realize how much of a role music plays in shaping how we view a game.
An interesting and enjoyable example of this is to simply put it to the nostalgia test. Listen to this, for example. Or this. Or this. Chances are that one, if not more, of those pieces of music brought memories flooding back to you faster than anything else could. The way the brain handles music and associates it with the activity at the time is a potent force, and it’s almost impossible to separate the soundtrack from the game in a classic like Zelda or Pokémon. This is so prevalent that Video Games Live is a thing – a series of concerts where orchestras play music from classical games. It was so popular that they put on over 70 shows in 2009 around the world. Whole stadia of people turned up to listen to renditions of their favorite video game music and to share that experience with others.
Music is so important that its absence can be jarring and unsettling, as was seen in the massively successful indie platformer Limbo - a game that sold over a million copies by the end of 2011. Now, Limbo wasn’t devoid of music; you can buy the OST, but some segments of the game were eerily silent. This is no doubt a choice made intentionally by the developers. When there is no ambient music playing and the only sounds that you hear are the character’s lonely footsteps as he plods along a strange and unforgiving world, you feel more lost than ever. We have come to expect a degree of background music, we’ve had that in games for decades, and when that’s taken away the player feels naked and uncomfortable without it. It’s not something you’d consider overly important, but it becomes pretty clear when it’s taken away. In the case of Limbo, this serves to emulate the character’s discomfort and confusion in response to the world around him, and it does this to great effect and does so subtly.
All in all, music is a medium that perforates through almost everything we do and video games are no exception. I still shed a tear when this piece of music kicks in, even though it’s been almost a decade since I first played the game. If that isn’t proof that music is a strong force in the art of creating video games, I don’t know what is.
Here’s our interview with Bioshock Infinite Composer Garry Schyman as en example of music in gaming: