Music is one of the primary methods by which video games evoke an emotional response in the player. In order to elicit the response that the designers want, a piece of music is usually played during an event that appropriate syncs up to it. Happy songs are played for happy roaming around a quiet peasant village, celebrating after overcoming a difficult challenge, finally getting the girl and riding off into the sunset, and so on. Sad songs are played during sad deaths and defeats that the characters must face along their journey. Music can run the gamut of emotional expressions, it can be pensieve, optimistic, mischievous, and even scary, and which emotion it conjures up in the player is dependent not only on the song itself, but in what context it's heard.
Just like how paints on a palette can be mixed together and juxtaposed to create contrast that defines objects, the juxtaposition of a song and the event which it accompanies can be adjusted to make new and unique combinations. If a game designer wants to evoke a feeling that is more complex and multifaceted, they often will have a song play in the background that doesn’t fit the action on the screen at all. If this song is associated with a specific person or place in the player’s mind, then that association will also be brought to the forefront and further highlight a specific contrast that the game is trying to make.
The most common variation on this technique of soundtrack dissonance is when a pitched battle or action scene is accompanied by a softer tune. This is used all the time in action movies, when the sound cuts out of a frenzied fight and is replaced by one woman wailing a dirge in the background, or a quiet piano or violin piece. The contrast between the beauty of the music and the gritty image of war can be very powerful if done correctly.
While this technique has become something of a cliché due to overuse recently, there are a few specific scenes in video games that illustrate how to do it correctly.
(Note: MAJOR SPOILERS ahead for Chrono Cross and Final Fantasy VII. You have been warned.)
Chrono Cross is known for a few things among gamers: having an amazing soundtrack, beautiful visuals, and an impenetrably, unnecessarily convoluted storyline. Despite the sheer density of its pseudo-philosophical pandering though, CC does manage to have quite a few very emotional scenes. One of the most memorable is the fight against Miguel.
It already has one important contrast in the setting of the boss battle: in front of Nadia’s Bell from Chrono Trigger, now among the ruins of a destroyed timeline and a bright, glaring sunset. To see something that was a symbol of peace and prosperity in the first game among such destruction is striking to say the least. Then Miguel shows up and starts a monologue on time, death, and the nature of free will and predestination. It’s a lot to take in, but then out of nowhere, after declining to stay forever in a place where time stands still, he attacks you and you’re forced to fight for your life.
During the entire previous scene, the song “People Imprisoned By Destiny” plays. A slow, mournful tune, it’s very appropriate for the introspective navel-gazing it accompanies. However, once the battle starts up, the song never cuts out to the actual boss battle theme, and it continues to loop through one of the most frustratingly difficult fights of the entire game. This continuation also makes the player think more about why they’re fighting the battle in the first place, since a song that first accompanied sad thoughtful scenes will make the player think of those same sad, thoughtful events, as well as Miguel’s words about destiny and fate not five minutes before. The contrast between all of these elements helps to make this boss fight one of the most memorable of the entire game.
Another example (from another Squaresoft game, no less) that is also widely recognized by gamers is the fight against Jenova LIFE in Final Fantasy VII. What makes this fight notable is that it happens immediately after Aeris gets shish-kabobed by Sephiroth in City of the Ancients. Personally, when I played this game, it wasn’t the actual moment of her death that made me start crying, it was this boss fight with her theme playing in the background instead of the normal Jenova boss theme. Hearing that music just twists the knife in deeper, and drives home the feeling that she’s gone and will never fight alongside you again. What also makes it very powerful is that Cloud and the rest of your party is probably thinking the exact same thing.
Good storytellers show the audience instead of telling them in exact words, and the use of Aeris’ theme here shows us just how disconnected the characters are from the actual fight at hand. Instead of the expected boss music firing you up for an important struggle, her theme instead evokes memories of the past, defining her character by the hole she leaves behind.
The previous two examples gave particularly important fights or events extra depth by having a song accompany them that guides the player’s thoughts towards other times, and contrasts those memories with the grim reality of the current struggle. Both of these instances work because of the specificity of the memories evoked (with Chrono Cross) or the song used (Final Fantasy VII). This technique can also be broadened and adapted to play off of more innate expectations on the player’s behalf, rather than triggers that are specific to events wholly contained within the game. Bioshock and Fallout 3 both do this by making use of recognizable, old songs that are often associated in pop culture with happy nostalgia for the “good ol’ days.” These songs are then played while you explore deserted wastelands, war-torn ruins, and see the sharp contrast between the optimism of the past with the gritty, decayed reality of the present.
These golden oldies are only a shallow veneer for the rotten state of things, and quickly wears thin the farther the player digs into the dystopian setting. In a similar fashion, happy and bright songs can almost sound mocking when the world in which you find yourself isn’t happy or bright at all.
Sometimes these upbeat songs are just another way that the game takes sadistic glee in your suffering as you push forward, only to be punished time and time again. Like a child pulling the wings off of a fly, the game will make your life as painful as possible, but always do it with a smile on its face, not caring one bit about the torture it inflicts on its victim.
Because some games take pleasure in your pain, and some games are I Wanna Be The Guy.
Fuck you, Green Greens. YOU LIED TO ME.