Music in video games is something we can agree it’s very important. It’s easy to say what it brings to a game, but is it easy to do? Let’s talk about the effects of soundtrack music on the video game experience.
Video games are a great way to escape real life. I’m sure that every person with some experience in playing video games has had a sensation of escapism not too dissimilar to reading a book or watching a movie.
The idea of escapism is to – either intentionally or not – distract yourself from the real world, whether that is through exploring a fantastical fantasy world of Elves and Orcs, a Science Fiction shoot-em-up adventure through the cosmos, or a colorful world dominated by mushroom creatures and turtles, exploring it’s vast biomes and expansive sewage systems.
With the player at the helm of a character in a video game, there is arguably nothing else like it when it comes to immersion in entertainment; you are intrinsically in control of almost every action that your character makes.
Music in video games as a support for escapism
No matter by which means you wish to escape, in video games, there is almost always a musical score that accompanies you on your journey. For me, this music serves many purposes. Music in video games is there to highlight the emotions present in a scene and complement the context of the game in general.
It is there to hint at the intentions of a character, that of which could otherwise be difficult to convey through pixels alone. However, it is also used to further support the suspense of disbelief. A suspense of disbelief is integral to good storytelling, as it allows the player to forget that they are playing a game, and let them immerse themselves in the world presented to them. This philosophy is discussed in great detail in Winifred Phillips’ book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music.
It’s easy to say, but is it easy to do? Let’s take a look at some examples of video game soundtracks and where they attempt to take the listener as well as immersify the player in their fictional worlds. I would like to start with a classic Xbox game, Halo: Combat Evolved. Many of us know the iconic male choir that greets us as we reach the main menu; if you don’t remember, have a listen.
The opening tells us a number of things that help to give the game, as a whole, a sense of character and location. Composer Martin O’Donnell’s use of an all male choir could immediately convey that there is an element of masculinity and power, which could relate to the protagonist, Master Chief, and the high energy all out war with the alien races on the ring world of Halo.
We could also discuss the choral nature of the piece, hinting at the theme of religion, which contextually is a hugely important aspect of the game’s story which also spans over the coming sequels. Two very strong themes are introduced in the first moments of booting up the game, without even starting the campaign. We hear this motif as well as similar arrangements almost every time we as the player discover something new about the truths behind the ring world’s existence, especially as we learn of the covenant leaders’ plans of activating ancient “holy” artifacts.
Segue into something a little more light hearted; Banjo Kazooie on the Nintendo 64. This opening theme is wildly different to the last example, but still has valuable hints and clues into the nature of the game itself. Amongst the rolling Banjo and call back on the Kazoo, obviously linking directly to the main characters respectfully, we hear a cluster of other instruments brought into the equation to play their own solo section of the intro.
Each time a new instrument is introduced, visually, we see a new character on screen to play along with the music. First of all, the instruments used in this piece seemingly have little connection to each other. We see a number of instruments such as a fiddle, a tuba, and a glockenspiel; one could argue that Grant Kirkhope may have chosen these to highlight the wildly differing character types, inferring that there is an element of mayhem and disparity amongst the cast.
What you may ultimately notice is that a lot of these conscious choices and scoring techniques are not unfamiliar to what we have heard in music for decades. For instance, in Jeremy Soule’s various compositions for The Elder Scrolls series, we wander through the world of Tamriel, a fantasy world with wide landscapes of fields, rivers and mountains. As you traverse the mystical land and explore it’s deep lore, your adventure is accompanied by orchestral quips and motifs, almost reminiscent of what we hear in the beginnings of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ English Folk Song Suite.
Soule’s music often leads with a flute or oboe alongside swells of strings and brass. This musical idea can also be heard in Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, the start of which leads with a flute moving in and out of tonality as if to symbolise a lost Faun in the woods. All examples transport us to a vibrant and idealistic idea of the wilderness, an English countryside, or a tranquil forest; full of secrets and untold wonders, in a similar manner in which Howard Shore takes us to The Shire and the quaint town of Hobbiton in Lord of The Rings with Concerning Hobbits.
So, what about the idea of immersion and the suspense of disbelief within these examples? In both The Elder Scrolls and Lord of The Rings, the worlds are relatively similar. Both worlds explore tales in which many humanoid races and mystical creatures exist. But not only do they exist, but they thrive. They have economies, eco systems, their own ways of life. We see different levels of class and wealth within both of these worlds, we explore towns and provinces, all leading us to believe that this is a living, breathing world. We are suspending the fact that this is a made up world because all of these qualities lead us to think that it is plausible. Much like this, the music and orchestration that accompanies our heroes on their journey is familiar to our ears. We all know how an orchestra should sound in real life, and this adds a depth of realism to these otherwise fictional worlds.
There is an element of pastiche in these soundtracks where musical elements such as instrumentation and tonality not only plant the listener in a location or period of time, but convey a feeling of familiarity to a movie, video game, symphony or concerto that stands to represent similar themes.
We are constantly reminded of another work of art through indirect references within music; whether it is a sequence of notes, a particular chord structure, or a certain instrumentation. As composers, we often rely on these tropes because of one thing: we know it works. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Perhaps we are limiting our imagination by sectioning musical ideas into labelled boxes. However, many musicians agree that structure and guidelines for music in video games incite creativity, starting with a reliable step-ladder to then grow into new ideas.
Whether you decide to innovate or imitate during your music writing, there is no right or wrong answer. We must remember that it is the listener who we are taking on a journey. So long as we immerse the player in our make-believe world, you can take them back to familiarity, or deliver them to new possibilities and expectations.