Top Tier: With music as our guiding light, part 1

March 26, 2012

Ever have an emotional investment in the soundtrack for a game? From sweeping scores to simple 8-bit melodies, some gamers can’t help but feel a connection between the world they are exploring and the aural pleasures that are filling their ear drums. Music can immerse the player within the experience, breathing life into what would be senseless action without the proper cues.  It doesn’t always work, but the lasting impression music can have on the player can really change their outlook on the game as a whole.

One of the first things to do when scoring a game is to find the type of reaction you want to invoke from the audience. In a game like Halo: Combat Evolved, the music needs to facilitate the idea that Master Chief is part of a large struggle for survival.  The main theme for Halo (composed by Martin O’Donnell) is a very powerful piece. The beginning of the song is haunting and ethereal. Those first 30 seconds are easily worthy of an epic.  The tribal drums and string sections really carry that sense of urgency needed. It helps make what the player does through the game feel truly important.

Another important thing to note about the music in Halo is that it doesn’t break the believability of the surrounding world. Halo is a space epic, but it is primarily about military warfare. Generally warfare is not perceived as a good thing and is taken seriously, so an orchestral score works wonders for the game. It would not have captured that same feel had it been composed of MIDI keyboard segments or wailing guitars.

A great example of a soundtrack that is executed horribly perennially is the Dynasty Warriors series. Primarily composed of silly guitar rock songs, the game never really made that leap from the era when that music was cool. It’s important to note that Dynasty Warriors has never really taken itself seriously and the music is a corny tradition at this point. If the game did a more satisfying job of making you feel like the baddest mother trucker out there, I would say that the score fit, but with the brain dead A.I., you aren’t really impressing anyone. That, and when you thinks of ancient Chinese history, I doubt artists like Yngwie Malmsteen or Joe Satriani come to mind.

Using a core theme for several pieces is another way to really enforce cohesion. Bit.Trip Runner is an amazing example of this. Not only is the theme reused in interesting ways world to world, but the themes themselves build up over the course of a level. This serves as an absolutely rewarding experience for the player, as it makes them want to progress so that the music can build into a galvanizing opus.

Other games like Odin Sphere use that recurring theme to reinforce important moments in the game’s story. A sort of audio clue to help the player along as musical timing is essential to setting mood. An otherwise-dull scene can strike a player right in the sweet spot with the perfect audio accompaniment. Take any scene from a video game where an inspirational speech is made, and remove the music. Unless the scene is well-acted, it is more than likely going to fall flat on its face. Music can tell the audience how to feel just in case they miss the mark.

Soundtracks can also help illustrate a character’s personality, and next week I’m going to in depth on how they help put meat on the bones of even the blandest of blokes.