Spoilers for Mass Effect 1-3 within!
Right, let's get this going. Since the start of this year I have begun to notice something peculiar occurring in my life. For the past few weeks I have found myself humming along to music. This was odd because I am one of those people who simply doesn’t ‘get’ music. I understand the theory of why people like music fairly well, people may enjoy the lyrics, the voice of the singer, the rhythm or the emotions a piece of music may create. I never feel any of that. It is probably ‘specific musical anhedonia’, a quirk of phycology (google it if you want, I don’t understand it enough to explain here). I say that because I have invested time into working out music with only limited success until mid-January this year. I started humming songs, much to the confusion of myself and those around me. Then I realised that the song idly irritating the people around me was The End Run from Mass Effect 2, which just added to my confusion.
That should not have happened, and had never happened before. So I have spent the past couple of weeks rigorously deconstructing how I went from being emotionally dead to merrily humming videogame music as I work. This means that I will be taking some detours and things may get a little complicated. Here are the results:
At the start of this year I decided that I would buy the Mass Effect trilogy, just to see what it was all about. Within an hour I was in love with it. It appealed to so much of what I wanted from a game. It had narrative storytelling, well written dialogue, gameplay I found enjoyable (if a bit clumsy) and most importantly, amazing sound design.
I know why sound design received so much attention compared to other aspects of the game. In the days before multimillion dollar game engines there were severe limitations on what body language and facial expressions a character could perform. It was therefore important to compensate for this with dialogue and sound design to fill in the blanks left by engine limitations. With Mass Effect, Bioware decided to use music as a means to do this. From the moment you see Saren shortly into the game and the slightly creepy ‘something’s not quite right’ music kicks in; you know that Saren will be the bad guy, at least for a little while.
This method of sound design provided me with a means to at least appreciate music. This was nothing new to me; Skyrim’s music provided that too. I enjoyed hearing The Road Most Travelled as I wondered around Solstheim; I could also understand that it created a feeling of nostalgia, though I never felt it myself. I seemed to have a problem with disassociating music from the context in which I heard it (don’t worry, this will get back to gaming in a second) which is something I later experimented with. Because games, either in digital or chess form, are my only hobby, good music in a video game was something that did have meaning, it had enjoyable context. As a result gaming became something of a refuge for the minuscule selection of music that I was capable of enjoying as it was impossible to separate the joy I get from gaming from the music playing at the time. But without the images of dragon slaying and draugr smashing, Dragonborn was not a piece of music that invoked an emotion, but was simply noise – meaning nothing to me.
When I realised this last autumn, I decided to exploit it in another attempt to understand - and this time I was reasonably successful. In late December last year I bought Elite: Dangerous. I enjoy it a lot however the soundtrack for it is very limited and there can be a large amount of milling around in space waiting to reach that spaceport that is - for some reason - 483,763Ls away. To fill the time I decided to revisit some of the music that I enjoyed from other games. Music from The Elder Scrolls franchise and the odd piece from Battlefield 3 made the cut. I found myself enjoying it because I could relate the feeling of killing Alduin and gunning down enemies with the feeling of destroying that Anaconda that I’ve spent half an hour tracking down, and so the music had some meaning to me. However this did not resolve the problem. I could still only understand the appeal of music in context to something else. Music had absolutely no value to me in and of itself – not even just to waste time (which I have for many years assumed to be the main purpose of music). So with this limited progress in mind, back to Mass Effect.
Mass Effect should not have been any different to Skyrim. When I first started playing, the music, whilst pretty neat, held no value when I tried to listen to it outside of the game. Vigil, an eerie piece of music designed to create feelings of mystery and invoke intrigue in the player, had no effect on me. On Ilos the music achieved its intended effect of making the planet mysterious but outside Ilos – nothing. Business as usual for me. However as I played more of the game I gradually became emotionally invested in the characters and more importantly in the Normandy, perhaps a little too invested.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the opening of Mass Effect 2 had its intended impact on me. I was shocked that everything I had achieved was being wiped out, and that I was powerless to stop it. As ever, the music played right on cue and the sound design did its best to make me respond to the situation. I felt hurt at the loss of the Normandy, my ship. The one I used to defeat Saren. To see it return in glorious fashion a short while into the game would have been rewarding in itself, but the music (The Normandy Reborn) struck me in a peculiar way. Prior to this scene I was always unable to separate the music from its context. Without relatable context, music was nothing. When I listened to The Normandy Reborn independent of the game – I felt an emotional response. Rather than being unable to separate the music from the game, I was unable to separate the game from the music – though I did not fully realise this at the time.
I decided to start playing The Normandy Reborn when in Elite: Dangerous and the results were strange to me. The feeling of seeing an old friend created in the Normandy scene was one I found relatable to my Viper (A heavy duty fighter). The Viper was my ship; it was reliable, fast and armed to the teeth. It joined me on adventures through the cosmos – The Normandy Reborn matched it perfectly. However when I upgraded to the Asp a couple of months ago the music lost no value. The Asp is no old friend; it was a completely new ship that I initially thought to be sluggish and boring to fly but the music somehow made me feel like it was just as good as my Viper. Without the music the Asp was a ship that, for a few days, I loathed flying. It was like an armed lorry until I played music while flying. The only conclusion I could reach was that the music held inherent emotional value to me independent of the Normandy scene – and that was extremely alien to me.
As I played through Mass Effect 2, I noticed this occurring with other pieces of music. Illusive Man, a piece that plays when in the presence of The Illusive Man designed to emphasise the power and mystery surrounding him, was one that retained the feelings in the game when played outside of it. When I listen to that music regardless of context, I will feel a nervous intrigue. This was strange and new; I seemed to be able to attach emotional significance to music independent of context. It was as if my brain suddenly learned how to do it, and started doing it with everything. Pieces including The End Run, The Suicide Run, The Attack, An End Once and For All, The Fleets Arrive and A Future For the Krogan all created an emotional response that I feel irrespective of where I hear the music.
Along with creating emotion, the music could suddenly cause me to forget others. This became abundantly clear at the end of Mass Effect 3 - the introduction of a new antagonist 10 minutes before the end was something that infuriated me, however hearing An End Once and For All made me forget my anger. Music has never done that to me before. Once the game concluded I had a realisation that I should be fuming with anger, EA had screwed up something great, Bioware’s writers had completely dropped the ball, but it was somehow alright because of some music - at least until it ended.
Though I have tried in vain to understand the appeal of music for years, playing the Mass Effect trilogy has somewhat enlightened me. When playing Mass Effect I could think ‘I can see why this works’ when I heard music without ever feeling it working (draw a comparison to EDI attempting to understand the concept of love if you wish). From the return of the Normandy I was finally able to feel the response that friends had hurled music at me to see, so thank you to the folks who put that cutscene together. Through Mass Effect I was able to finally understand what all the fuss was about as Dragonborn and Road Most Travelled strangely held new significance to me. I am viewed with credulity as I sit at a computer with my friends looking at me in confusion as I have headphones in my ear, listening to a playlist of music - something unthinkable as of last year.
Unfortunately I now have to filter out all the music I don’t like – something that is no longer completely natural to me – and my friends still think I’m weird for suddenly listening to a tiny amount of music. I also keep getting asked about newly released music that I couldn’t care less about. Understanding does have its downsides. Despite this, music is still strange to me – I am developing tastes and preferences, working out what creators I like and I still cannot fathom the appeal of genres like dubstep, metal or the popularity of pop music. Given the several years of work it took to truly understand the basics I honestly cannot be bothered to do it all again.
Music in games has far more to it than a backing track to the gameplay – and even in that capacity it can excel as games like Skyrim show us. So next time you play a game, just take note of the music – you might like it. I owe something of a personal debt to the brilliant minds who worked on Mass Effect 2's music, so videogame music is pretty damn good in my book. So what is your favorite videogame music? Tell me what I'm missing out on.
Feedback generally would be great, this is my first piece. Sorry if I've butchered the formatting.