Music in games: Where we are now

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[Hey all. Hope you’re doing well. We’ve got a piece here from Cowzilla. It’s a relatively lengthy, but give it a read. He’s got some great points about how there’s a lack of innovation in music. Sure, we’ve got some great luminaries, but there’s also a ton of stuff that needs to be worked on. Be forewarned, the BioShock section has some spoilers. Enjoy! — DMV]

Music in video games has come a long way from its early days of beeps, boops and other tiny file sounds. Well it has come a long way in sound quality, but not really anywhere else. Unlike many other aspects of gaming that are evolving and challenging how we play games like game controls, graphic design, actual plots and character development, music seems to be staying pretty stagnant as a whole. I’m not saying the quality of the compositions and the level of expertise of composers isn’t getting better (though most beloved themes are still 8-bit, but that is another discussion), it is the way that music is used in games that hasn’t changed.

Music in any medium is meant to evoke stronger emotions out of the listener. Simply playing a song can do this so applying a score or song over a movie or game in effect defines how the scene should feel. Scary movies are a great example of this, tense music makes what would normally be a person walking around into a scary scene, usually the tense music leads to a fake scare but it wasn’t the scene that got you it was the music ramping you up. Gaming music does this too, as you play tension is built via stronger themes, spooky music or the grandiose sounds of a boss battle.

The problem with gaming music is that it is stuck in generic mode. Gaming music doesn’t challenge the norms or the player it sits comfortably in the norms of musical scores and plays exactly how you should expect. Think of the last five boss battles you have fought. How many had ramped up drum beats and a quickly paced score? I’m going to say all five. So what is the problem with this, you ask? Songs like that get your blood pumping, inform you that this bad guy is the real deal and make any moment more tense much like they do in film and a movie. There really isn’t any problem per se with this but, unlike music in film, gaming music never really attempts to do anything more than fit into the scene. Check out these boss battles from Final Fantasy. Not much of a change in musical style, even though the gameplay, graphics and control have come so far.

Now the golden rule of almost any composer for a score is that the music should not overwhelm the scene. In fact I’ve talked with composers who have said if someone comments on their score they feel a little disappointed because it is supposed to blend into the background. But this is not always the case; sometimes music can make a comment on a scene. It can be a funny comment, a juxtaposition of ideas or simply a way to draw attention to a certain point. Martin Scorsese is known for his juxtaposition of sound and film, placing songs into scenes that don’t seem to fit but via this contradiction he makes the scene more powerful and influential to the viewer. It forces the movie watcher to think about the scene instead of just go along with the idea and emotions the film maker is presenting.

I couldn’t find the clip but here is the song.

A great example of this is Scorsese’s use of “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” in The Departed. The scene it plays over would normally call for a more tense score as DiCaprio is both scared and confused about what will happen next but instead of that Scorsese chooses to blare a yelling song over the scene, instantly confusing and scaring the audience and forcing them to almost feel the discomfort of DiCaprio. It works wonders even if it is incredibly jarring to what is expected.

The most well known form of this juxtaposition, and so overused it’s hardly a contradiction anymore, is classical slow music over a violent fight. Before this was the go to thing for an action movie to do the idea behind this was that there was a sort of beauty and sadness to the ugliness of violence and action and by applying a deep, enveloping, and beautiful score to a scene that would otherwise be dirty and violent you show off the emotions behind flaming guns. Without dialogue a contradictory feeling comes from the music, a statement that wouldn’t have been there.

Check this John Woo gunfight from Just Heroes — the music is slow and sad commenting more on the effects of the violence and the slow motion movement more than pumping you up for the action. Not his best action sequence or score but it makes the point.

Another easily recognizable form of making a comment via music is when a comedic film will play a score or soundtrack up to get a laugh. Say an overly sappy love song is applied to a montage where two male friends have just had a fight and are now wondering around alone, an otherwise serious scene pulls laughs because of the music in it.

How does this all apply to gaming? When was the last time you laughed at something because of music in a game? When was the last time a score or song challenged what you thought about a game? Other than the now cliché slow music over fast action, gaming doesn’t seem to want to push many boundaries as far as scoring and music go. There, as I see it a few reasons for this.

The first being that gaming is an interactive medium and thus scores have to be able to play for as long as it takes for a person to get through a level or world or battle, thus music must be able to play in a loop and musical cues are incredibly hard to apply because a gamer might come at something from a different angle where the music cue totally misses the action cue. Halo and Halo 2 had this problem, where you might get a bitchin’ guitar lick to cue a battle but because of how you played into the level the battle isn’t anywhere near you, destroying the effect. Still even in games like RPGs where musical cues can be set up far more easily they don’t seem to do it. What if you hit a random battle with a massive monster but comical music started playing? You wouldn’t know how to approach him, would it be over quickly, is it just a joke; is he about to destroy you despite the song? All these questions rose simply from a song.

The other problem is that gaming music is usually a score. We often connect emotional feelings to songs we know well and lyrics can add an even greater level of commentary to what is going on in a game. Licensed music is expensive though and fails completely at being able to be looped well. It would be sweet though if games used more of it simply to create ideas and gameplay. I song with lyrics could even give you a hint as to what you are supposed to do or how to play a game.

The final reason is that there is no real push for more dynamic music in games. Gamers shout about story and gameplay and graphics all of which are advancing quite well but the use of music is getting left in the dust. We as a community defend out pastime as art vehemently but don’t push when that art doesn’t seem to challenge anything. Of course many games are multimillion dollar deals and much like film you don’t want to take to many risks with money like that, so a score that you know will work is much better than one that is challenging or thought provoking.


These are all problems and most are not insurmountable, there just has to be a drive to get to them. Some games have event tried and some have actually done well. The two mainstream games that pop immediately to mind as working to use music in interesting ways are Halo 2 and BioShock. One, the former, doesn’t do as well as it should and the other, the latter, is what inspired this rant with its impressive use of music to create not only atmosphere but commentary on the game.

First let’s look at Halo 2. The game wants to have a momentous score a la John Williams with much of the cliché sweeping music playing of classic massive battles. The aforementioned guitar riffs are another example of how the developers placed an emphasis on the music to send a point. Guitar kicks in, battle about to take place. The first problem is that with the games massive open worlds during many parts musical cues don’t work that well. The second is that their music doesn’t do anything special. At one point a song comes on in a temple that seems light hearted almost but doesn’t work with anything going on. It seems like an attempt at setting the mood during gameplay that got away from them. You can’t just put a score somewhere and have it work; level and score need to work together. Still the scale of the score fits well with the game and much of it works incredibly well it just doesn’t push any boundaries. As is the general complaint with Halo is technically fantastic but artistically and creatively not pushing any boundaries.

Now for BioShock. From the very first, as “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” was playing after a plane crash, you could tell the designers were doing something different. With that simple tune they simultaneously launched you back in time, made a joke about your predicament and contradicts the feeling of solidarity by presenting a song that is socially popular. Incredible. The game doesn’t stop there. After you beat the first “boss,” that doctor whose name I forget, you leave the room and a sorrowful version of “It Had to Be You” starts playing as you walk away from the battlefield. Not only is it a depressing thought, an ironic comment since this is a love song and you’ve just slaughtered someone, but in a stroke of genius beyond anything I could have imagined, it is actually foreshadows the ending. That’s right — a game with foreshadowing via music. It quite literally had to be you. Finally, and I’m sure there is more, when you arrive to the place where the little sisters are playing, “God Bless the Child (Who Has It’s Own)” is playing. The song is a classic about children who can support themselves and the lyrics are there this time. It instantly adds another level to the scene as you are forced to consider the parents of these children and how they’ve been living on their own, plus question your newly discovered paternal lineage and whether or not you can make it on your own.

All this through music. BioShock also succeeds incredibly well in its score, especially since musical cues are far easier to execute in enclosed areas with doors opening. Still at certain parts where scary music played, I was completely swept into the atmosphere of it all and ready to jump out of my skin much like with the scary movies I discussed before. This isn’t new in video games but BioShock did it really well. This is another reason the end disappointed me so much. In a game that launched storyline, player interactivity and music years ahead the final boss is still a massive monster with a pounding score behind him followed by a ten second “oh shit we have to wrap this up” conclusion.

It is pretty obvious that not all games should adhere to this. Halo in fact probably doesn’t want to make comments like this, it wants to get you riled up and make scenes feel all the more epic so juxtaposition of music and gameplay isn’t really a necessity for the game and a John Williams-esque score works perfectly well, but as games like BioShock, with more in depth plots and fantastic atmosphere comes out music in games is going to have to catch up and start making a point of being more artistic and not simply there to be there.

I want to make clear that I am not complaining about the state of gaming music. The main theme for Brawl makes me wet my pants every time I hear it and there is some amazing stuff going on in the world, I’m just saying that games can do so much more with music and become even better. Thanks for making it to the end, if you actually read it all what do you think? Any games that actually use their music to make a point or a comment on what is happening in the game?

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