Video Game Soundtracks: A Fine Line
Just as they do in film, soundtracks play a major role in helping create a sense of immersion in video games. In film and games alike, music is often thought of by a producer or director as another character that helps set the mood and drive the story. But while video game soundtracks serve a similar purpose, we’ll discuss in this article how they do so with much more subtly.
When you think of your favorite video games, I would wager you can hum the music from most of them. Super Mario Brothers. Skyrim. Any number of Final Fantasy, Metal Gear, or Witcher titles. How did they get ingrained in your memories? Why would something that isn’t receiving the bulk of your attention during the course of playing a video game snag valuable space in your memories?
It has to do with delicately balancing the fine line between being complimentary without being distracting. The music can’t take too much away from the action, dialogue, or quest, but has to enhance it all at the same time. You need to time that jump just right, or, switch the piece of the puzzle at the right time, fly a ship through a canyon without crashing, or aim your last arrow at that orc’s head and make sure it finds its target. If the music is too loud or abrupt, or doesn’t fit the setting, it can not only break your immersion, but screw up your game play.
But what’s interesting, is that if music does its job and compliments your game play properly, then it will still find a way to burn itself into your mind. As you jump along, fire your weapons, hunt for enemies, and solve mysteries, you are more focused in those moments than you are in most other situations. And with that focus and concentration, comes your mind’s tendency to register and remember the music just as it does the most riveting game play. In being subtle and complimentary, music can be one of the most powerful elements of a game.
The relationship between music and games is very reciprocal. A game without music, or without good music feels unfinished. Music with a good game makes for an experience that is arguably more immersive than the most amazing films. You’re actively involved and interacting with a world in which music is a character alongside you. You’re not merely a passive observer.
One of the most challenging parts of composing video game music is just making sure it fits. There are tons of ways that a composer can fail at that, whether it’s mishandling melody, rhythm, volume, tempo, or instrumentation. If a composer deals with one of those aspects poorly, the game play experience can be completely ruined.
For example, let’s go back to Super Mario Brothers. It’s very upbeat, fairly quick, and only has a few instruments at any given time. And after that initial “Dun duh duh, duh dun DUN. Dun,” the music drops out of the way to let you bang Mario’s head against bricks, blocks, and stomp on turtles. You can focus. You can play. But you can still sing every note that plays in the background, can’t you?
On the other end of the spectrum, take Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. You’re immediately thrown into a wild onslaught of real voices, full orchestra and percussion. It’s exactly what this game needs. It’s epic, massive, and fits the sandbox-like world of endless potential and complexity.
Now, yes, there are some, thirty-three years between those two games, and the technology behind video games and making music for them has changed, but that doesn’t matter. A modern game can be just as simple as the Super Mario Brothers theme. How about the Angry Birds theme? Very similar to the Super Mario Brothers theme, as far as scale and instrumentation go.
And if we go back thirty years again, we can also find examples of epic, lavish video game soundtracks as well. Legend of Zelda! Even with the fairly rudimentary MIDI instruments, there is still plenty there in terms of melody, rhythm, and grand immersion that holds up more than three decades later.
So, there’s a bit of fun discussion on video game soundtracks! What’s some of your favorite video game music?