Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Why Music Matters

Imagine what a video game would be like without any music. No sound effects when you are walking down a hall or epic orchestral movements when slaying the final boss. Music is such an essential part of experiencing a video game, but it's also one that can easily be overlooked. Sometimes the best music in video games is the music that you don't notice. The tracks lingering in the background being played for ambiance. In stark contrast, some of the most memorable video game music melodies come from games that originated in the 80’s and 90’s with their overpowering beeps and boops limited to low fidelity. Some of our favorite games from our past would be far less memorable or enjoyable without their soundtracks.
Think back to older days when playing the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Many memorable melodies originated from games like The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Super Mario. Back then, the consoles could only process 3 notes at one time, so composers had to make a melody that was catchy and unforgettable. Weeks after playing The Legend of Zelda I would still hum the main theme, remembering the world I explored, or whistle the victory anthem from Final Fantasy thinking about the monsters I defeated. That music served to further engross myself in the game, which made me feel even more immersed in the story and excited when I defeated an enemy or discovered something new. That fact is made all the more important when you realize you were nothing more than sixteen pixels of limited color in a world that oftentimes looked nothing like the vision it was struggling to represent. As more advanced technology allowed for more music and sound effects, the same themes and melodies that were great back then evolved to include more instruments, chords, and music tracks.
Link to the Past Dark World
Now there are usually multiple tracks for one area of a game, changing as you move through a world and interact with its characters. While melodies are still important and meaningful, a lot of the atmosphere in games comes from how the music is used to further hold the attention of the player. In Bioshock, each moment is accompanied by the right sound effect or music track to really put the player on edge and create tension. The Metal Gear Solid franchise uses music, and oftentimes lack of music, to both create a sense of suspense when sneaking through a building, hiding from enemies, and to create an impactful story when a very large orchestral movement plays in a pivotal moment of the story. But music doesn't always have to shove the player into a certain state of mind, but sometimes lead them there with the lightest of touches. Take Journey, the first game ever to have a Grammy nominated score, where the music becomes a tool to convey the story in a very passive way. You can feel the weight of the snow when trudging up the mountain while the music conveys a sense of sadness and apprehension and experience the joy and excitement when flying around watching everything rush by. Music is such an essential piece of what makes a good game great because it ties our visual senses and emotions together that much more strongly. In contrast, when the music is subpar, or doesn’t necessarily match the game itself, it ends up detracting from the overall experience and can often ruin a game for people.
Sometimes the difference between a good game and a great game is its sound, be it background music, sound effects, or voice overs. It deserves as much attention as the meticulous critiquing of the game mechanics or story. Take the Mass Effect series, games often lauded for their sound. Mass Effect tends to play music that is a great compliment to whatever you are doing at the moment, but not so much that is tries and steal the spotlight. It's a game series that seems to recognize how much attention the player should pay to the sound and doesn't overstep it's boundaries. There are plenty of other games that have similar game play or story elements, but they aren't as memorable or talked about. Be it due to the game not being satisfying, not offering Mass Effect's features or what have you, it can often be traced back to less engrossing music making environments feel less full of life, guns sound less good to fire, or voice actors making you want to hit mute as quickly as possible. A lot of unspoken satisfaction comes from a good soundtrack or really well done sound effects, much more than most gamers realize. I wouldn't have been nearly as engrossed in games like Skyward Sword or Zone of The Enders if the music didn't keep me as engaged as the mechanics and story did. Even something as simple as Link's yelling when doing a huge attack makes you feel like you're actually doing something. As technology advances in gaming every year, music will just keep getting better and better as well. Imagine looking back 20 years from now and regarding the music that is so amazing now as old as the original 80’s 8-bit tunes we remember.

Skyward Sword Music

As games get better, including more content, and music to accompany that content, it will be interesting to see how composers and sound designers incorporate music in new and innovative ways. With Stereo Surround Sound getting cheaper, more consumers can experience fully immersive gameplay, where you actually hear footsteps coming from behind. Or you hear a noise off in the distance and actually turn your head to see if anything is there. While that kind of immersive sound is available now, in the future, that kind of experience could be standard with every game you play. I’m not sure if or when that kind of experience is actually going to happen, but it is good to see that many games, even the small ones, have really good soundtracks because the music is just as good as the gameplay and both are intertwined together to form the gripping entertainment that makes video games worth buying.

Music and sound effects in video games are just as crucial in game development as game mechanics and story are. Music is a part of how a game can suck you in from the first few minutes, and keep you playing through the best and worst a video game has to offer. Be it one track that plays constantly in an area you can't get enough of like Legend of Zelda, or the subtle, driving tracks that often go overlooked from games like Metal Gear Solid, or Journey, sound can make or break a game in a player's mind, even if they aren't aware of it. The best part is that there is nowhere to go but up, since the music quality and technology can only get better with time. Personally I look forward to see what other video game music tracks I'll be humming along to in the future.
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