Note: If you have not already, check out last week’s discussion on the element of plot.
This week the staff takes on the use of music in video games. Most gamers are familiar with iconic tunes such as the themes from Super Mario and Legend of Zelda. It is arguable that the experience is much more different when these games are on mute or even when we swap their soundtracks. So, why is this? Here is the question I presented to the writers last week:
“What kind of effect does music create when playing video games? When is it necessary, if ever, to have background music and when does it, if ever, get in the way? What is your favorite video game soundtrack?”
Please comment below if you have any opinions to offer. Thank you!
As a musician, I appreciate any effort put into a memorable soundtrack. Though subtle, music is capable of changing the experience of any game. For example, the developers of Bioshock combined the use of low, unobtrusive, but still spine-tingling music with spurts of joyous, ironic swing tunes to create an unforgettable atmosphere of awkward terror. (Essentially what I hear on first dates). Another series I believe uses music very well is Pokemon. The game uses music as an indicator to where the player is located and what the player is doing. Each city, building (Pokemon center, shops, houses), activity (biking, surfing, battling) and most routes have their own special theme and alternate between each other as the player travels. I think this concept of giving landmarks their own music is interesting and helps with the flow of the game, especially since the player constantly changes environments while playing.
I think background music is useful for filling space and adding to the sort of fantasy feel that comes with taking on the in-game persona. It can get in the way if the scene calls for silence or peace or if it overtakes the sound of the actual game. However, developers are generally aware of when and when not to use music, so it’s rarely ever a problem.
Some of my favorite soundtracks are from Super Mario World, Pokemon: Red Version and, though I didn’t play it, The Earthbound/Mother series.
Music has always been a very fascinating part of video games. It’s even been used in various arcade games, including Dig Dug, Mappy, and Donkey Kong. And depending on the type of game, music can be quite handy. It gives the player a good vibe of the game’s theme and it often helps the player focus. There are even music-based games that require you to test your rhythm and timing (e.g. Dance Dance Revolution).
Me? I enjoy the Rhythm Heaven games (the first was for the GameBoy Advance and is exclusive in Japan), the English versions of which were released on Nintendo DS and Wii. Created by the geniuses behind WarioWare, Rhythm Heaven is a series of rhythm-based games with original tunes and extra catchy tidbits. I would strongly recommend players interested in musical games to give these games a try. They’re totally worth it. If they had a soundtrack for the games, their music would be great for road trips, exercising, and airplane flights, and that’s how I feel about the series and its Japanese influence.
Tanner wrote an article in response to this question, which you can find here. Here’s an excerpt from his article, explaining the music choice above:
"When I think of a great soundtrack, the first game that comes to my mind is Hotline Miami. The songs weren’t unique or popular and they didn’t have any catchy choruses or popular bands, just 80’s synths and funky bass lines from people who had no idea their music would be in a video game.
But it absolutely worked. Looking at Hotline Miami strictly from a gameplay perspective, it’s a fun game. Listening to the soundtrack without playing the game is a bit weird – sporadic at times, but I would listen to a few songs again. However, through the simple act of playing the game with the music in the background, it all clicks into place."
My dad once said, “Music is the ladder to the soul,” and I believe that. I grew up in a musical home and am a musician myself. For me, music can make or break a game. I want to be moved by music. I want to feel the emotions of the characters in the score. When discussing specific effects music can make in games, I think that creating nostalgia has got to be number one, followed by eliciting strong emotion (though the two can be interchangeable at times).
Music has never got in the way of my game play, but I have turned it off if it becomes redundant or if I really have to pay attention to my teammates in Skype. I know some people who flat-out don’t play with music on, but I’m rarely one of them.
My posts are going to start sounding like love letters to Mass Effect, but bear with me here for a second. There are a few songs in Mass Effect, specifically, Leaving Earth, that I was absolutely moved by. I could listen to the song without playing the game and feel the void of hope, the absence of victory, the power of the enemy, and finally the resolve to save loved ones. I looked up the composers for ME3 (where Leaving Earth was featured), and was both shocked and unsurprised that Clint Mansell wrote Leaving Earth. I was shocked because Mansell is one of my favorite film composers, and here he is writing music for a video game, and unsurprised because Mansell is unparalleled when it comes to evoking mood with music.
I can’t say that I have a favorite soundtrack. It might be Mass Effect 3. I have powerful nostalgia for other games, but as a comprehensive body of work, from end to end, Mass Effect had such a theatrical theme throughout all three games, that nothing can compare. It’s hard to designate one soundtrack for any game because games have multiple composers. It’s much easier to ask, “What is your favorite game theme?”
Music is not the most essential aspect of video games. It definitely depends on the individual game, but overall it’s not the biggest aspect. There are games, like shooters or some high action adventure games (like Assassin’s Creed games) where music is almost a non-factor. Those games have such focus on gameplay and visuals that sound does not mean too much to me. But then there are games, mainly puzzle or adventure or even racing games where I really appreciate the music and sound that are included. Games like Pokemon, Final Fantasy, or even Mario games have really good music to go with their games. I have not encountered a time when the music is distracting because I think that developers are less worried with it as they are with other aspects. My favorite video game soundtrack belongs to either Mirror’s Edge or Pokemon Emerald.
Music is as important to games as it is to movies and television. It has the power to make or break the game, and a good soundtrack has the ability to change the game’s tone and emotional impact. A game’s soundtrack cues players into how they should be feeling (i.e. battle music vs exploration music) and can amplify emotions that the player is already feeling (sad music for sad moments, triumphant music for “you won!” moments, etc.).
I think Fallout is a really fantastic example of how intensely music can affect the player’s experience. The Fallout games take place in post-apocalyptic irradiated wastelands, and the environments you explore would be very creepy if not for the jolly ’40s songs playing on your in-game radio. If you strip the game of its music (which the game will occasionally forcefully do, in instances where your radio can’t get a signal) you get a very chilling, almost scary experience. On the other hand, there’s something really cool about triumphing over enemies to songs like “(I Got Spurs That) Jingle Jangle Jingle“, and wandering the wastes to “Blue Moon“. The music in Fallout adds something tonally to the game that really could not have been achieved in any other way.
While I have a ton of favorites (most of which I listed off in the latest episode of Trust Sircle, which should be published here soon!), my personal favorite game soundtrack is Okami. As a game centered around art, it’s no surprise that Okami has an incredibly beautiful and all-around badass soundtrack. It’s very rich and full, and it supports the game’s classical Japanese theme with a lot of very gorgeous classical Japanese sounds. It has the perfect mixture of relaxing tracks, fun tracks, and tracks that really pump you up and get you ready for INTENSE BATTLE SEQUENCES. Hearing each song on the soundtrack brings back memories of when I first played a really amazing game, and it holds a really special place in my heart.