Music and games – a very brief introduction…

by James M. Potter

Music is called on to perform a wide range of functions in today’s video games. It can be anything from harmless background noise to one of the most powerful weapons in the developer’s armoury, helping to forge a sense of place, time, emotion – ultimately, telling the story.I believe that the roles video game music plays can be distilled into two main types (though I would argue that most straddle both in some way or another). 

First, what I would christen the sonic wallpaper type – music whose main purpose is to fill the silence that would otherwise be punctuated only by sound effects. That doesn’t stop it from being accomplished and pleasant to listen to, but it’s not usually designed to further your involvement in the game in a meaningful fashion, just to accompany it, like a floral-print wallpaper. Of course, that’s the theory, and there are certainly plenty of games where this wallpaper more resembles that diabolical orange paisley in the study – you know, the one you’ve always meant to get rid of. Music for puzzle games has to tread a particularly fine line in this regard, between being sufficiently innocuous and not annoying the listener on the 100th loop. Tetris does it well, with a catchy tune in inoffensive textures; numerous others don’t.

The other type – and to my mind the more interesting – is what I would call immersive music. This can be further subdivided into two kinds: situational immersion, and emotional immersion, though both are intrinsically linked. This is predicated on the idea that what the game developer wants most is for you to be completely involved in their game; its story, the places where it is told, the people through whom it is told, the sequence of emotions that defines the arc of any good tale. This is most obviously the case in role-playing games, a genre whose success depends so greatly on its ability to put you in the shoes, boots or sandals of the hero. First-person viewpoint games often rely on the same dynamic, indeed all the more so as your viewpoint is one and the same with that of the character you inhabit.

Music for situational immersion, then, is just one more device a developer can use to place you firmly where they want you – the centre of their world. Graphics grow ever more advanced, allowing more and more accurate or realistic rendering of in-game environments, but a key ingredient in the player buying into this illusion of place is atmosphere, and here sound design plays a vital role. Sound and music are often used to enhance the impression of a historical period, be it the fifteenth-century Florence of Assassin’s Creed II, or the gritty battlefields of countless World War II shooters. It can more generally evoke a sense of place, forming a key part of the differentiation of areas in World of Warcraft, or lending character to the prehistorical lands of myth in Black & White. There are thousands of examples of games which use music thoughtfully to help players locate themselves geographically and temporally.

It gets even more interesting, though, when music is used explicitly for its emotional impact. All the latest graphical excesses, weaving Matrix-like worlds of delusion and causing CPUs to overload across the world, cannot help the developer one bit if he wants to influence how the player feels about it all. Music (or its absence, carefully controlled) is a much more effective tool for guiding – or manipulating – the player’s emotions. Fear and anxiety, glory and victory, sympathy, hatred, even love: all these can be husbanded by the judicious deployment of apt music.

But how does a composer approach this impossibly daunting task? How does he steel himself to take another human being’s fragile emotions in his hand and caress or distort them – to bend them to his will? On a more practical level, what techniques are used to do this? What actually makes video game music good? Can it ever rise above the merely ‘functional’ to the realms of beauty or, dare I breathe the word, ‘art’? Tune in to the next instalment…