Oct 10, 2013
Who doesn’t like music? It is a widely diverse and thrilling medium in itself, but as different forms of media has evolved, so has the audio.
Movies have colossal, epic scores for the biggest titles, often great pieces of art in their own right, aside from the visual movie aspects. As the divide between movie and video game closes, these similarities become more apparent. Despite this, music is often overlooked, instead focusing on the graphics, gameplay, or the story.
With epic story driven games, so close to what we would associate with the film industry, the musical aspects are vital to its overall feel, aesthetics, and impact upon the gamer. The auditory experiences are just as important as the visual.
With little revenue, smaller game companies often overlook the importance of music in their games, and it is always worth considering. Audio definitely improves immersion of gaming, and with smartphones and tablets on the rise, mobile gaming is looking up. But how do you improve immersion when you are not purely focused on the television, with your surround sound set up? When playing a game on the train, it is a completely different experience to relaxing in the living room., and so music may seem like a waste of time. But it is certainly more than worth the effort.
Music does not make a game. There is no denying this. But would they be the same without them? Final Fantasy is a well loved franchise, but would it be the same without Nobuo Uematsu at the helm of the music? It’s gotten to the stage where music is so important that franchises are bringing in huge names, such as Hans Zimmer on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and Black Ops 2 involving the Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, praised for the soundtracks from The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Soundtracks are purchasable from the games themselves, such as the latest Tomb Raider entry. This proves that people truly appreciate good music, so much so, they are willing to purchase the accompanying music outright, alongside owning the game. That there, is dedication. They are recognised for their own artistic merit, and are beginning to win awards as gaming is now seen as a proper art form. This includes the indie game Bastion, winning Best Song in a Game at the 2011 VGA’s.
The overall feel of the game depends on the music, and can alter the mood dramatically. The harrowing opening sequence of The Last of Us, or the Metal Gear Solid franchises, would be altered forevermore if the music did not suit the needs.
In my experiences, music can truly bring a game to life. It can make a virtual world feel real and vibrant. My first experience of stepping out into Cyrodiil when beginning The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was like no other, as a colourful forest was backed by soothing music, as I was totally absorbed by the game. Skyrim managed to extend this further, reflecting the harsh reality of the snowy mountains of the region.
Other notable franchises are Fallout and Bioshock, which made use of old records playing in certain points of the game, creating a odd retro-feel. Bioshock’s Rapture uses these recordings to create an uneasy feel, as you explore the underworld city that is stuck within the past, and emphasises the dread that sent the people crazy and tore one another apart. Columbia in the Infinite iteration has similar musical numbers, which are explained by the time travelling aspects of the storyline. This includes a Barbershop Quartet, doing renditions of real songs, such as the Beach Boys, creating a post-modern feel which makes it closer to reality.
A lot of driving games also have to choose real-world tunes wisely, to suit the needs and audiences of the games. I still remember cruising to Riders on the Storm in Need for Speed Underground 2, and a lot of heavy tracks (like Avenged Sevenfold) in Most Wanted, suiting the different stylistic choices of the game. Now, the NFS franchise has adopted different music, still focusing on techno or rock, including 30 Seconds to Mars or We Are The Ocean. Choosing the right songs can be vital. For me, I would never even consider listening to those two bands, yet I found myself addicted to the songs included within the game.
Grand Theft Auto is also famous for it’s use of radio stations and music. The wide array of genres and presenters really adds to the random exploration, or taxi-based missions. With your own choice of music, you can fine-tune the experience to suit yourself, and find a few gems in the process. It features legends such as Johnny Cash, and newcomers such as Wavves. The fact it replicates a live radio station also makes the world of Los Santos feel so alive, living and breathing, so much so that you have radio presenters constantly. And with the latest news reports coming in from actions you’ve taken in game, it truly feels that the entire virtual world responds to your every action. The soundtrack also adapts seamlessly to missions or high speed chases, altering the music in the background without you even noticing. This means there is no silence for the gamer to drop the immersion, yet Rockstar managed to keep up the adrenaline rush with suitable music for high speed chases, or killing sprees. The use of audio is also mind blowing, with alternate lines for each character when replaying a mission, to the specific sounds of the forest or the desert when exploring. The different sounds of engines, helicopters, planes, it all adds to creating a new reality. You can even talk to people on the street, who reply to you (often angrily), and this vast amount of audio and recording has cemented GTA V as an incredible game.
Rockstar highlights how music can ensure you focus on the correct objective, as if the mission is fast paced, the music will adapt accordingly. This is key, because if you are running or driving fast, and mellow music is playing, it would remove you from the experience entirely.
Even in the old days of pixelated gaming, music was important. Sonic had a soundtrack that was key to it’s success, with so many little tunes that are still easily recognisable to his day. Albeit, Sonic music has changed dramatically, with Sonic Adventure adopting pop rock music by obscure bands to reinforce the high paced adrenaline that Sonic faces, (and for some reason associating Knuckles with hip hop?). And try and find someone who doesn’t know the iconic Super Mario theme. Those in charge of developing the music in Pokemon were paid handsomely, as despite it’s simplicity, finding a tune to be repeated which didn’t annoy everyone after 10 minutes of gameplay is quite the feat.
One specific genre that requires music is horror. Imagine playing Resident evil without the eerie vibes. It just wouldn’t be the same. It would essentially be some guy walking around a forest/abandoned warehouse/graveyard. The atmosphere that is necessary to put you on edge, and make your hairs stand on edge, would just not be present. Dead Space is a franchise that has evolved over it’s three iterations, but it also relies on music to create the drama which the games are praised for. Starting off as a pure survival game, it had stabs of panic created by music when attacked, yet also made use of silence and odd noises (dripping, screaming, unexplained sounds) that genuinely terrified me. Take the latest entry, and it combines this with action sequences full of musical sequences to heighten the manic gameplay. Contrasting slightly, Amnesia: the Dark Descent managed to scare the trousers off me, by adapting distant noises with little music. This made it the creepiest game in existence, with little action, providing distinct, unique gameplay and general feel to the game. This proves how important audio is in general, aside from using music as mere background noise.
In contrast to making a game all serious and gloomy, making a game jovial and fun is just as important. A Mario game without the soundtrack or the gleeful outbursts of ‘wahoo’ or ‘yippee’ would prove to be a very different experience. LittleBigPlanet also made good choices in the music department, with famous entries such as one track by Battles, creating a overall fun feel with apt music to back it.
All in all, music has always been an important element in gaming. Yet now that video games are closing in on the film industry, scores and audio in general are absolutely essential to providing the best experience possible.