Players: compose yourselves

by James M. Potter

Game designers use music in games to try and control or shape your reaction to in-game events and circumstances so that it fits into their vision. But what happens when players aren’t content with this, and substitute their own music for whatever the composer/sound designer has provided? The game experience can change in innumerable subtle and unpredictable ways according to what sounds the player is hearing.

In a fascinating recent study (which you can read in full here), Alexander Wharton and Karen Collins show just how disparate the game-playing styles of players can be when they are given (or choose) different music. As the authors observe, game creators are starting to recognise the desire of players to control what they hear by building this into their games:

“[…] when Microsoft introduced their Xbox360 console in 2005 they made it mandatory that all games produced for the Xbox360 must allow for player-customizable soundtracks. That is, the player must be allowed to plug in a CD, their iPod or another MP3 player and the game music would be shut off and the player’s music would play instead. It is theoretically possible to do this with Sony PlayStation and other consoles (PSP, Wii), but few game developers have used the function. In other words, there are a variety of ways in which a player can incorporate their own music into a game today. However, currently no studies have explored this phenomenon or the impact that this has on the player.”

…until now, that is, and anyone intrigued by that sample is highly encouraged to read the whole article. The most important thing is how, in one given level of Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage, the ways players progressed through the level changed so markedly depending on the musical stimulus.

The players considered the music they chose most successful when it seemed to tie in with what was going on on the screen. Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’ from The Planets suite was a popular choice, its martial style chiming with the military operations of the game.

Some players reported that the game felt more mechanical and less involving with no music playing. Some however considered this more realistic and therefore more immersive. It’s interesting that those who tried to second-guess what kind of music would most suit the feeling of the level rarely got it quite right, suggesting that there is still a role for the composer in providing an appropriate score which accurately reflects or enhances the player’s situation:

“Players lacked experience in understanding the complex interplay between music and a game, and were unsuccessful in choosing music that they thought would help them to achieve a desired effect.”

Until players are able to more accurately choose apt music, games which seek a degree of immersion in their characters, story and world will still need to employ expert composers and sound designers, who perform a difficult and invaluable service.