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Music In Gaming

July 11, 2012

BE WARNED: Spoilers for Mass Effect 3 follow in this article!

More and more, we are given something whilst playing a game. This is more than just great stories, memorable characters and hours of enjoyment. We are treated with a new and growing aspect of game production: music.

Music in all its other forms has always been seen by its fans as an expressive and emotionally involving medium. For example, music became a driving element behind some of the greatest films, used to guide our emotions and give us a more involving experience. Such is now true about games, as well.

Long ago, game music consisted of a simple and catchy series of beeps and zany noises (mainly because there wasn’t enough memory for big orchestral awesomeness). Just look at the Mario theme from Super Mario Bros back on the NES, a wonderfully similar piece of music, but one we immediately identify with Mario.

Obviously, game music tends to stick with the traditional use of music in films. Just like Darth Vader’s Imperial March theme, us gamers will tend to recognize character themes very quickly, even if we aren’t great fans of the game itself. The music acts as a stamp, letting you know what game character or franchise you just booted up. Imagine popping on Pokemon, Uncharted, Assassins Creed, Halo or any other big name production series nowadays and missing out on the unique musical sting, the one you end up humming to yourself when you arrive at the title screen. If those were removed, something would feel very wrong, very strange, as if something intangible had been removed from the game.

Of course, it’s not just the title music that supports the game but the soundtrack within the game, as well. Perhaps those pieces could be called the most important aspect of the game’s soundtrack, as they usually engage you into the game world more than you really think. Would raging out as Dark Jak when facing the metal-head leader seem nearly as awesome without that thumping melody playing in Jak 2? Would going toe-to-toe with Zeus at the end of God of War 3 feel as epic without the brutal choral chants welling up from your speakers? Would ramming your sword into a dragon’s face look as glorious without the inspiring main theme ‘Sons of Skyrim’ rumbling along with every blow in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim?

Without the orchestral expertise of Kow Otani, would surviving against the giant colossi seem nearly as heroic in Shadow of The Colossus? Would blasting your way through a head-humper zombie horde in a hospital, all the while being pursued by the Combine, seem nearly as fun without heavy bass tones of ‘What Kind of Hospital Is This?’ in Half Life 2 Episode 1? Would taking down the Collectors in Mass Effect 2 feel quite as satisfying without the stunning musical track aptly named ‘Suicide Mission’ behind it?

No. No, I say. Without these dramatic pieces of music, the lovingly-crafted boss battles and gameplay would fall flat. Maybe you could tolerate it, but honestly, next time you go one-on-one with your favourite boss, turn the music off. See how you feel. I don’t mean to say that games would completely suck without the music. Instead, I believe that the music needs the game, just as much as the game needs the music. A soaring epic masterpiece wouldn’t be nearly as fantastic and awe inspiring if you hadn’t played it alongside the spectacle of the game itself, whatever it may be.

Those painstakingly-crafted musical scores are written with the knowledge that they will hold up the gameplay to a new level. Without great musical efforts, maybe Half Life 2 (including Episodes 1 and 2), Portal, Skyrim, Uncharted, Deus Ex, God of War, Mass Effect and many others would feel a little more empty (believe me, there are plenty of examples I’m missing out). it would feel like the developer missed the icing on the cake. These games all have truly inspirational and beautifully crafted pieces of music that any player can’t help but love.

Of course, some game music can be used for more than just action scene flavouring. They can also be used to set a scene, to get you to experience the world in a certain way.

There are the faded tinny whistles and violin of Red Dead Redemption’s soundtrack made those long horseback journeys feel all the more isolated out in the dusty west of New Austin.

There are the ominous tones of Heavy Rain drawing you into the mystery and drama as Ethan Mars’ emotions are broken after his son’s kidnap in Heavy Rain.

There is the ambience of the vast emptiness of the ancient lands of the Colossus, tuned so finely that the world seems to be full of life: but not civilisation.

These examples help draw you into the experience and grip you with a sensation that defines the game itself, whether it is a Wild West genre, or something completely new and unique.

In other ways, music can make the quietest of scenes possess the biggest impact. One example can be found towards the end of Mass Effect 3. Shepard and Anderson are bloodied and bruised, having finally connected the Crucible to the Citadel. They can sit, finally, after weeks and weeks of planning, fighting and surviving against the Reapers. They can just sit. Anderson speaks, saying how much pride he feels for knowing Shepard. He silently passes away next to Shepard who, with a sobering look, watches out into space high above the Earth. This is completed with the Reapers and Alliance cruisers flying smoothly against the backdrop of the burning Earth. I’m Proud of You is less than a minute and a half, but it has created one of the lasting memories of my Mass Effect 3 experience.

This isn’t to say that all game music is orchestral in nature and production. Sometimes, the use of pop culture music is inspiring. Two such instances are Little Big Planet 1 and 2. The designers chose to use lesser known pop music in a way few games do. Mixing Little Big Planet‘s off-kilter design with truly fantastic and catchy tunes allows the world to pop out and lodge in your head, making some of Little Big Planet’s memorable levels. Just check out a few:  The Go! Team’s Get it Together, which matches so brilliantly with your first Little Big Planet excursion into the Garden World, or the bizarre Sleepyhead Lyrics by Passion Pit, which was used to unveil Little Big Planet 2 onto the world. Or, even better, the mix of orchestral and sync remixes which made Catherine’s puzzles a lot more than mere puzzles, helping to drive the emotion and determination of Vincent that the writers built up.

Game music doesn’t just stop with the big bad at the end and when the hero leaves victorious from your screen. No, there are the credits. This is an opportunity for the music developers to give you that proper goodbye. Credits are meant to leave you wanting more, or feeling deeply satisfied and happily sombre. Great examples of these are the credits of Ratchet and Clank :Tools of Destruction, the inFamous 2 credits  with Fade Away by The Black Heart Progression (which seem all the more sad after the good karma ending), Killzone 3’s metallic synth credits theme and, let’s not forget, of course, the wonderfully charming Portal and Portal 2 credit songs: Still Alive and Want You Gone by Jonathan Coulton. These kind of credit themes and songs act like epilogues to your experience and let you look back over the story and remember all those parts that made you really enjoy the game. It lets you absorb and reflect on your experience and leaves you wanting to play just that little bit more.

Mainly, my point is that these are all great bits of music that you can hum along with much like any brilliant movie score. For an unseen part of game development, music and soundtrack production is perhaps one of the most important and involving areas today, and what’s brilliant is that it is legitimately recognised – and not scoffed at – by professional musicians … well, not all of them at least.

Let’s not forget that not all of these soundtracks are confined to games. Orchestras around the world such as the Eminence Symphony Orchestra delight fans and non-fans alike by playing iconic pieces of gaming music, such the main Zelda Theme, Final Fantasy VII’s One Winged Angel (composed by Nobuo Uematsu) and Shadow of The Colossus’ The Opened Way.  These great renditions cement the legitimacy of what used to be a simple and compromised area of game design, but is now being lovingly brought into the world with the help of both musicians and gamers.

I can imagine some readers now shaking their heads in shame, knowing I missed out their own favourite piece of gaming music, but honestly, I mentioned those examples because those are the ones I love to listen to, and that doesn’t mean that I hate your favourite game music. Like all music and games, it’s a subjective area. You don’t need me to tell you what theme to love and what to hate.

And if you think music in games is irrelevant, grab your favourite game and turn the music off. Then tell me I’m wrong.

Image Link: DeviantArt: Bastion Soundtrack Cover by JenZee

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