Music part. 2

Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Last week I left you with a bevy of memorable game music to ruminate on. This post might be better appreciated with some of those pieces playing in the background. Go ahead, pull up something from Shadow of the Colossus, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, whatever. It'll help if you've played the game whose music you're listening to but it's not necessary.

Listen closely to that piece. What images does it conjure up? What memories does it stir? How, for lack of a better phrase, does it make you feel? Right now I'm listening to the God of War theme. When it plays, I can remember carving a swath through Gorgons, Cyclops' and harpies. I see Kratos battling Zeus. I feel powerful and dangerous.

Good game music deepens our connection to the characters, the game world and the mechanics of the game. Through the raw evocative power of music we can allow ourselves into the environment created by the game, to linger in the moments most crucial to the character we play.

Music plays a different role in every game we play. A great deal of that role is surprisingly defined by the emphasis in the game. In games like Mass Effect with enormous amounts of dialogue and story to occupy the forefront, music takes a more ambient role, bringing a cohesive atmosphere to the environments and situations.

Compare that to games like Metal Gear Solid where the music takes a far more active role in motivating the player to action. Think of your favorite action game. It has a theme, I'm sure. Can you remember it? Are you humming it right now or searching through your library to find it? I thought so. That's what a good action games soundtrack should sound like. It should leave a lasting, almost iconic stamp in your mind, remind you of your time playing, make you feel like the hero again.

There is a soundtrack to almost every game we play. Whether they blast us with huge, bombastic scores, or unnerve us with haunting background music, the real test of a good game score is in its tone. A score can be as professional and well recorded as possible, but if it doesn't fit with the scene, it might as well be static. The best example of this the radio in Grand Theft Auto. Sure, there are some hilarious moments when people seem to bounce off your hood in time to the music, but more often than not, the music on the radio doesn't fit the tone of the game, or at least with the current scene. You find yourself endlessly switching stations until you find one that you can sort of get behind for those two songs. Honestly, I turn the thing off most times.

I've also had a lot of difficulty with the score for most online games. Yes, they are appropriately epic, but when I'm slaughtering bunnies for furs or XP I don't need to sound like Richard the Lionheart marching off to war. It's silly and it takes me out of the game. Again, I usually substitute my own music for whatever is actually playing through the game. Maybe that's one of the reasons I can't really get behind most MMO's.

I'm sure you've already figured out most of this on your own. You know your game music well enough to know what you like. I do have one challenge for you. Look at your game library for a bit. Find a game whose soundtrack you don't really remember. Play it with the music turned up and the rest of the sound off if possible. Get acquainted with the game's score, someone worked very hard on that. If it works like it should, you ought to be able to understand the game world just as well as with the sound on. I recommend Assassin's Creed.