Why It Matters: Music

Games are alive with the sound of music.


Fallout 3
Gears of War

Early this year, Kotaku's Stephen Totilo wrote a fascinating essay about how music in video games is nonessential. It's a good read and is well written, but I disagree with Totilo on a very fundamental level. Of course, he is technically correct: you can play most games with the sound off, and in extreme cases, I've done so due to awful voice acting or repetitive music. But to dismiss an important aspect of the gaming experience as nonessential undermines it; after all, games themselves are nonessential. We do not need them to function; they do not provide physical warmth (unless, of course, you use them to create a fort) or nourishment (they are not an appropriate source of fiber).

Yet like fine art, and literature, and love, and all the creature comforts that make our lives extraordinary, games entertain and enrich us. Music, too, is not a necessity, but it's a joy that has elevated human beings for countless centuries. And it's no less desirable in a game than it is on its own. In this way, the game is a microcosm of life itself: its soundtrack may not be essential, but it is an expression of emotion and intellect that should not be rejected simply because it isn't a requirement of life (or in this case, game) function.

And so music matters and is a core aspect of the gaming experience for most of us. Consider:

You know this music. When you hear it, it initiates a reaction. Music has power, and used properly, it can elevate a game (or misused, it can sink a game like a boulder).

I think games use music in one of four ways. Of course, some of these ways overlap; abstract music (say, the Mario tune above) still creates an atmosphere, and indeed, a Pavlovian response. (I dare anyone in their 30s to hear that and not have an immediate emotional response.) But I believe these categories work well and are a good place to start when considering how music exerts its power over a gaming experience.

Music as Atmosphere -- "It's like I'm Really There"

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You are Ezio Auditore di Firenze. As you ride your steed through the streets of Rome, a lilting tune in 5/4 time brightens the journey, just as the glowing sun brightens the cobbled streets.

You are John Marston. The strums of a guitar elicit images of rattlesnakes and cacti in the Mexican wilderness--you don't even need to open your eyes.

These are great examples of music matched with visual design to pull you into its world. In many cases, these are period pieces, in which music gives immediate historical context. BioShock is another terrific example: an interesting mix of '30s/'40s/'50s tunes and an original orchestral score from Garry Schyman. Atmosphere is BioShock's single greatest asset. It uses period music and art design in a unique fictional setting, and I can't imagine being swept into Rapture if I turned the music off--or indeed, if BioShock had gone with a purely original score. I'm reminded of my favorite film, Moulin Rouge, in which familiar music is used to tap into existing emotions. I think of this music as emotional shorthand, and in BioShock, it's incredibly effective.

On the flip side, I offer up Fallout 3 as an example of a game that did not leverage music to its advantage. An excellent game, no doubt, but the soundtrack did it no favors. Its symphonic swooning and light musical accompaniment didn't fit its postapocalyptic vision. It struck me as particularly "Bethesda-ish," in the sense that it might have worked well in an Elder Scrolls game, but it didn't fit the setting particularly well. Like BioShock, Fallout 3 used period music in an attempt to elicit a response, but there were scant few radio tunes, and they weren't used to any particular effect. I referred to this in Why It Matters: Storytelling, but it applies here too: games are best when every aspect of them is used to communicate a singular vision. Because the soundtrack was incongruous, and because the period tunes were so sparse, Fallout 3 doesn't make a musical impression.

Music as Communicator -- "Pavlovian Response"

There is a point at which sound effects and music converge: small motifs blend with a few notes or chords, and these motifs communicate important information. Listen to the first few seconds of this:

This little major-third warble haunts the Gears of War series and is immediately evocative. Bulletstorm's victory gong is a good one, using a short guitar crunch to signal the end of battle. There are longer themes used to this end, however. How about this:

It's possibly the most famous victory theme of all. Just hearing it says to me, "You just triumphed once again over those that would vanquish you." More recently, Rift has used music to great effect to get your heart pumping. Consider:

Here's one of my favorite battle themes of all time, causing me to whip around and see if there's a rollerrat lurking behind me:

Massively multiplayer online games (and other genres) frequently use music to communicate that you have entered a particular area. World of Warcraft is particularly good at this:

Final Fantasy XIV is not:

Part of the problem here is the matter of notes versus rests. In FFXIV, the music plays nonstop and never gets a chance to breathe. In composition class, one of the first things you learn is that rests are as important as notes. Just as a maze of cookie-cutter forest corridors is visually tedious, so too does this music wear on you in time. It retains the same time signature, the same key, and the same instrumentation from beginning to end. There is no tonal variety, which is emphasized by the fact that the music never stops as long as you are in the Gridania forest. WOW's music is more immediately evocative, more varied within a single composition, and it gives your ears respite because it does not continually play. Another thing you learn early in orchestration class: go easy on the oboes and English horns. Excess reeds are another reason this music gets so wearisome, so quickly.

Perhaps the height of music as communicator is found in games in which music and sound effects are one and the same, exemplified by Everyday Shooter, the recent Bit.Trip games, and this outstanding game:

The power in all of this music comes from its consistency. Tunes and even a few notes are always associated with a particular action, event, character, or emotional state. This association gives it power. It's similar to how hearing a particular song or smelling a particular scent can stir up old feelings in the blink of an eye. Gears of War without the satisfying "Gears of Warble" (as my coworker Chris Watters so affectionately refers to it) may not feel the same--at the very least, the warble is a recognizable part of that franchise's identity.

Music as Manipulator -- "I Cried Because the Music Told Me To"

This is one of the most superb examples of music as manipulator I can think of. I want to make it clear that I do not use the word "manipulate" to pass judgment--though I believe that games must earn the right to manipulate you. At this stage, Final Fantasy X had earned that right. Without the heartbreaking circumstance surrounding it, this scene might have rung hollow. But because you are invested, the music properly taps into that sense of sadness, remorse, and, finally, uplift.

I have mixed feelings on manipulative music. On one hand, I referred to Moulin Rouge above--a film that relies almost entirely on emotional manipulation. I believe that movie works because it encompasses a range of emotions rather than being simply maudlin. It works for me in particular because the musical shorthand is effective; using tunes I know well to immediately convey emotion and to tap into my own memories to add depth to them.

What do I mean by "earning the right" to manipulate? I mean that big, sweeping battle music and tear-jerking piano melodies work only when the game (or film) uses them to enhance existing emotion--not to create it. In film, James Cameron's Avatar strikes me as a good example of a movie that uses music to telepath emotion without earning the right. It's effective at eliciting that emotion, mind you, but it's a case in which emotion is induced with music and imagery. But the characters are plastic and the dialogue is dumb, thus making the manipulative nature of the soundtrack noticeable.

I have respect for a composer who can conjure emotion like this; he's doing his job incredibly well. But then it falls on the rest of the game to match that tone. An otherwise fine soundtrack might come across as a cheap ploy, rather than a poignant triumph. And, of course, some music is too overblown to be considered anything but overblown. A barrage of brass fanfares means nothing if it isn't contrasted with something more subtle, and I have little patience for Hollywood-style bravado. Unfortunately, that bravado wins awards--even though it requires the least amount of imagination on the composer's part. In any case, let's consider two examples. Warning: spoilers.

This is the most emotionally compelling scene in Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, and an exquisite example of the positive use of music as manipulator. By this point, you know these characters, and you are invested in their fates. The scene's early silence serves only to make the simple music even more effective. The soundtrack does not overwhelm the scene, because it doesn't need to. Developer Funcom trusts the player here. It knows that we care, and so the music intensifies the emotion, subtly--it doesn't attempt to create it out of thin air.

Then there's this:

The music during the romp fits just fine; the music afterward does not. You can initiate this scene early on, and Isabela is quick to jump into bed. She makes it clear this is just sex, and the--er--energetic frolicking and dramatic drumbeats indicate that this isn't romance. What to make of the swoons of the string section afterward, then? From my perspective, the music attempts to elicit emotion, but the game hasn't earned it. You can jump into bed with Isabela without knowing her all that well. Romantic chords don't seem appropriate, even if you buy that Hawke had developed feelings for Isabela at this stage--which isn't likely.

In both cases, we get excellent music. In only one case, however, does the emotional manipulation avoid feeling cheap. The effectiveness of the music doesn't fall just on the shoulders of the composer, but also on the entire development team. It comes down to matters of cohesion and vision. Once again, we see that one aspect of the design might suffer when it isn't supported by the others.

Music as Abstract -- "Pretty for Pretty's Sake"

Sometimes, music is there just to keep things from being silent. Early video game music worked in this manner due to technology limitations. Thus, the same music looped again and again, and the composer's duty was to make it catchy and interesting so that you didn't tire of hearing it. Thus:

Of course, this music needed to fit with the game, but for the most part, it was music for music's sake. We see it in modern games too, of course, most notable in sports and racing games. The music can contribute or detract, but this is based more on factors of personal taste, and whether or not the music fits the game.

Burnout 3 didn't need to use this song; it could have been any song that seemed to fit the mood, though this one is forever associated with the game now, at least in my mind. Obviously, this is a crossover into the music-as-atmosphere category, but the fact that many such games let you import your own soundtrack is an obvious statement: this is music for music's sake--insert your own as you wish. This is where your own musical tastes play a greater role than before. If you don't like Creed, you aren't going to like them in a game, no matter how well suited that (awful) music is.

And, of course, music can also annoy when used as a backdrop:

That's not what I want to hear over and over again in a puzzle game--particularly in one that requires some trial-and-error repetition.

Music has power, as I hope I have demonstrated above. Tell us what music you love and how it contributed to the game. Conversely, do you remember a game that suffered because the music made you want to shut it off? Let us know in the comments!

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