It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest games are an ultimate amalgamation of all the artforms prior to it. After all, games are an ultimate amalgamation of all the artforms prior to it. Sound plays a large part in how interesting, immersive and interactive a game may be. This includes sound effects – the kind of sounds we encounter out and about in our daily lives – and music, whether it’s to capture the natural ambience of life or turn things up a notch on the dramatic scale. Of course, the way creators go about this vary, as do the way people receive and react to music in video games.
Games from generations so far gone that have been remembered well among my generation, and some even younger, include the likes of Tetris, Mario, Pacman etc. One thing they all have in common is that they can immediately conjure their theme tunes in people’s heads with so little effort – sonically engineered as jingles to stick.Often, they bring a positive memory along with, so while people might enjoy the experience of hearing their music, it might not actually be the music itself listeners find enjoyable.
Instead of luring people back to the game, sometimes the tactic is to put music under the player’s controls – indeed, who better than the gamer to pick what to get them in the mood to game? Acting as a platform for songs not created for the game has both raised profile for artists while developed a certain personality around certain game series. It’s almost impossible to have a conversation about Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series without reminiscing about the soundtrack, and FIFA has exposed a wealth of new music to millions to the point where some songs are known for being on the FIFA soundtrack more than anything else. Another series that seems to be doing alright for itself is Grand Theft Auto. GTA’s radio stations are something of a big deal, to the point where – like FIFA – the game actually becomes more than what it is, becoming a curator as an unexpected side effect. In the latest, GTA handed over the reigns of one (of many) in-game radio stations to experimental electronic beats pioneer Flying Lotus.
Then there is good old, cinema-style scoring and soundtracking, with intent to match the gameplay. The tricky part is that one can’t simply match a visual moment with its sonic counterpart, as layers might be gaming at their own pace, in different orders and manners (Deus Ex’s music would dynamically change to reflect the player’s actions). Certain sounds are triggered by actions and situations, but the moment the player is aware of what the trigger is, the immersion collapses completely. The score’s interaction with sound effects must also harmonise to emphasise immersion. Take Limbo, wherein the player is a contextless boy in a forest, pursued by a spider in one of the most spine-tingling sequences in recent gaming history – as the spider approaches, the ambient wind fades away and there’s no score, no noise and the boy is all alone.
Limbo’s acousmatic music is interesting, namely because it is deliberately ambiguous in an attempt to absorb and reflect back whatever the player is feeling, as opposed to shaping it – essentially musical tofu. It’s something of an anomaly, as the approach wouldn’t be suitable in every context. The hyper music of fighting games forces adrenaline into the situation and isn’t really something one would listen to outside of games (even if a minority are in disagreement https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=guile+theme+goes+with+everything)
With the rise of video games, due to various reasons, combined with the ease of sharing information in the digital age, there is a focus on the music’s own merit seeing as soundtracks might be bought outside of the game itself. The soundtrack to the notable indie title Fez helped launch the career of its creator, an artist called Disasterpiece, while Darren Korb’s work for Bastion has found success outside of the gaming realm.
There’s certainly something to be said for the music story-driven games like Bastion. Revolving around generating emotional response from players. audio is a huge aspect when it comes to telling a story. Garry Schyman’s wonderfully eerie BioShock compositions were woven with popular period music in the late 1950s, cementing the setting. BioWare studios were also known for their plot-heavy videogames, and each – from Mass Effect and Dragon Age to Jade Empire and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic – would pull out all the stops as far as music was concerned. The latter game’s soundtrack is a personal favourite of mine, and Jeremy Soule would go on to score that Skyrim thing.
Scores definitely work to build a legacy for a game, though it leaves one to wonder if one can appreciate the music in its own right without fleeting memories and experiences of them in-game. It’s the same conundrum with cinematic scores too – they were built for a specific purpose, to be felt in a particular environment. It’s interesting to note those specific moments that are remembered; Portal had a great soundtrack but only the credits song is remembered so much, and the same goes for Mass Effect’s title screen music. The title screen music is something players are going to hear every single time they play the game, so perhaps the most important piece of all to get right. Then there are themes, the pinnacle of the game’s legacy, the defining piece that may even eclipse the game itself. There is so much to consider when it comes to tackling music in games, and I’m always aghast to hear people say they mute it and stick iTunes on. I can only ever find that acceptable for Football Manager. I’ll leave you with the utterly fantastic, obnoxiously monumental and most memorable theme in gaming this century thus far: