Immersion vs Realism vs Music

by James M. Potter

Is music in games ‘realistic’? Should it be?

One of the most important words being bandied around by games developers at the moment is immersion. It is an absolutely key concept for any designer who wants to create an experience that will draw in the player for as long as they play the game, and, crucially, keep them coming back.

One of the ways some games attempt to engender a degree of immersion is by mimicking as closely as possible the look and feel of what we perhaps rather arrogantly call ‘the real world’. The first-person shooter genre is a particular fan of this approach. Setting aside certain bold attempts at a more surrealist or satirical art design (Team Fortress 2 springs to mind), the most successful FPS games in recent years have been marked by attention to detail, and the thorough working-out of how events would proceed in worlds which closely resemble our own: in other words, realism. It’s not difficult to find examples of this new verismo, driven by advances in graphical hardware that make it ever easier to emulate the real world: the Half-Life 2 franchise, Call of Duty, Battlefield, to name but a few popular examples.


Crysis was noted for its attention to detail and realism. Note the HUD in bottom left and right corners

Everything about these environments is calibrated to correspond closely to a real-world event. Rifles kick in proportion to their strength; spent shell casings fall to the ground according to closely-mapped physical laws. It is all designed so that as little disbelief as possible must be suspended by the player. Even the user interface has now been rationalised into the ‘realistic’ game experience – nowadays all games must provide a convincing excuse for the presence of ammo counters and shield strength indicators suspended in corners of the screen, and normally this is achieved via the device of the ‘Heads-Up-Display’ or HUD. Crysis, for example, takes the popular option of linking this to a sort of ‘technology suit’, similar to Half-Life’s Hazard Environment Suit (HEV). Targeting cursor? It’s an augmented-reality display over your eyes. Shield-gauge? It’s a live readout from your suit’s sensors. These things aren’t so far from reality that they wouldn’t be accepted as rational by the player.

One thing is missing though. One irrational part of the game experience which has gone completely unrationalised still remains. It’s there, so obviously non-diagetic and not part of the game environment that the designer needn’t to have gone to all that trouble with the targeting cursor. You may have guessed already. Yes, it’s the music.

In some ways music is the last component of the modern ‘realistic’ game experience to be resolutely unreal. After all, it’s fairly uncommon in real life for you and your squad to be creeping through an Iraqi insurgency HQ whilst a subtle orchestral accompaniment underscores the tension. In the more overtly supernatural world of a sword-and-sorcery RPG one can perhaps imagine that a magically sympathetic musical score might accompany you on your deeds of derring-do – but in a gritty, ‘lifelike’ first-person shooter?

Music seems to occupy a unique space in games of this type, not being subject to the rules of realism. The need to enhance mood with musical score therefore takes precedence over any concerns developers might have with realism – it’s too important to them, even indispensable, as a tool for creating the proper mood. They don’t need to justify it; perhaps its presence and its effectiveness are self-justifying.

In this view music is seen as an aid to the all-important immersion. It follows that there must be scenarios where music is harmful to immersion rather than helping it. Implementers of music must tread a fine line. Soundtracking a tense gunbattle with the theme from The Archers would (probably) undercut what the director is trying to achieve in the player’s response (not to mention being farcical).

Of course, there are methods which circumvent the problem of ‘unrealistic music’ to a greater or lesser extent. In their Half-Life series, Valve have perhaps recognised that music can just as much pull the player out of the experience as draw them in, especially in an otherwise very convincing game world. Use of music is kept to a minimum in most of these games and is only occasionally dropped in. When it does appear, its musical content is fairly anonymous – a propulsive, electronic beat – and normally serves to get the blood racing in a particularly tense firefight or getaway, only to fade almost as soon as you had begun to notice it. Perhaps this reflects the developer’s unwillingness to risk destabilising the immersion of the player in their world.

Another solution adopted by many developers lies in incorporating diagetic music (ie, that which emanates from a physical ingame source, such as a tannoy or radio). Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series in particular is known for this technique – it limits music sources to car or store radios, which nevertheless means that the player is able to hear a lot of period-appropriate (and therefore immersive) music as they drive around the games’ vast environments.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

GTA: Vice City's music comes entirely from 'real' in-game sources such as car radios. It's very effective at making the player 'feel' the 80s setting of the game

It would seem, then, that game developers hold a variety of positions on the role music should play in immersing the player. RPG games seem to consider it essential (witness the 4-CD soundtrack albums of games such as Final Fantasy VIII). On the other end of the spectrum, there isn’t enough of a score to a Half-Life game to bother releasing it on CD.


There’s more to be said on this topic, of course, and it extends out well beyond the FPS genre, which has formed a useful case study. I’d like to discuss, for example, Assassin’s Creed II, whose evocation of 15th-century Venice is startlingly accomplished and minutely detailed in every respect except the musical score, which remains resolutely modern in tone. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – but I’m interested in this disjunction, with music as the last thing to go, the modern emotional prism through which the player hears the game. If that doesn’t indicate its importance for the gaming experience, I don’t know what does.