You know, I wanted to be a musician when I was younger. I think we all wanted to be famous at one point or another. I had dreams to be this famous rock star that would travel the world and make music that everyone loved. I remember hanging out in my basement, putting on my cape (blanket), cranking my tunes (Sesame Street and Friends – whatever!), grabbing what I could and sing into it like I was larger than life! I’ve been a massive fan of music in general since my early years and was even gifted my own mic and guitar when I was 12. Playing the guitar and actually singing in tune, however, were more trouble than I imagined and I was immediately put off by my own performance. I left the guitar playing and singing to others but I never left the music entirely. When you’re young you enjoy singing along to popular music and proving to your friends that you know all the lyrics to every top 10 song on the charts. Yet, as you get older, you realize that the music you’ve been listening to all these years means something more. The different tones, keys, chords, and notes were all placed in a particular sequence for a reason. The music is designed to tell a story or to paint a picture, yet, often accompanies some form of media. Whether it’s something visual (like a painting), something interactive (like a movie or video game) or even something written (like a poem). Music brings out color in an otherwise black and white photograph! Music also allows for public expression that opens itself to different forms of interpretation. Could you imagine playing a video game that didn’t have any music? I can’t! It almost feels as though video games were meant to have music. Video games need music to keep us engaged. You know, my tastes in music may have changed over the years (Sorry Big Bird!) but the one thing that has remained constant is my love for video games and the music created for this medium.
Alright, let’s break this down. What makes video game music so good and borderline nostalgic at times? If you guessed that the music should be catchy and repetitive you’re part of the way there. Sure, there is a requirement that the music must be repetitive, but the music also needs enough swagger to shift at a moment’s notice like in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. From the soft keys of a melodic piano and the chirping of birds as you cross the countryside to an upbeat salsa like dance rhythm when swords clash. I don’t know about you but when music goes from soft and relaxing to quick and energetic my first reaction is either to whip out whatever weapon I might have on hand or to run. That fight or flight mentality, in either case, is an immediate response to music derived from gameplay and almost certainly what the developers had in mind when they designed their game. Lately, however, I find more games make use of this musical bridging to immerse the player in the game. You see, gaming is not just about playing but also about the experience. Sure, there are many out there who claim that video games are more about gameplay, story, and graphics, but what evokes emotion from the player more so than music? Without referring to any one particular example, we can almost all agree that playing a cheery and memorable tune like the Super Mario theme when depicting the slow drawn out death of a favorite character would not have a favorable effect nor would it have you crying. Crying with laughter perhaps, I mean, it would be hilarious if the Aerith Death scene from Final Fantasy VII had Mario music to it…
Anyway, every time I find myself recommending a game to someone, I almost always make mention to how I felt about the music. Recently, I was trying to get my brother to play Nier: Automata. Now, granted I’ve only played the first couple hours of the game myself but the music is one of the first things that stood out to me and what I tried to sell to my brother. I even sat him down, searched the soundtrack on youtube and had him listen. He is certainly no audiophile, so, much of Keiichi Okabe’s score was lost on deaf ears but I did get him to say that he’d at least rent the game. Again I ask the question – what makes music so attractive? So memorable? My answer would be that we as the players find some way to connect emotionally with the flow of events in which the characters from the game participate. As the players, we further invest a lot of time into getting to know the world. Associating various locations with the music is something I like to do. When I have to remember a location I will make a mental note of how the music sounded. A map certainly helps but landmarks are way easier for me to learn to get my bearings. While we rummage through the land, or the dungeons, the music is looped over and over again and thus we can maintain our focus on the task at hand. I read an article recently that argued that video game music could be listened to while you’re at work or studying. I mean, we can all agree that this is true because that’s why we are all here, is it not? The music is captivating and designed intentionally to not become annoying as we listen to it over and over despite it having only a subtle degree of variance. The music keeps us motivated to continue playing, to take revenge on that one boss that murdered your family (ex: Shenmue), to laugh when things seem absurd (ex: Conker’s Bad Fur Day), or to distract us from the difficulties that may lie ahead (ex: Cuphead). Video game music, when used in the appropriate context, can relay a wealth of information about the scene, the level, or the characters.
The different means of communication between different entities has always been an interest of mine whether through speech alone or other means the resulting effect leaves me with many questions. For instance, we need only look at a video game like Journey to comprehend how the emission of sound at different pitches and tones form the basis for communication for entities that do not speak the spoken word. I’ve often wondered how we sound to others that don’t understand vocal communication. I mean, when I listen to birds chirping at one another all I hear is what I understand as music but is probably just them arguing with one another! Anyway, I have no intention to carry on about communication in this article but I just wanted to give you some foresight into how I interpret music in video games. Video game music has never just been music to me but an experience. People often tell me that gaming is for kids yet there is a lot we can learn from video games and more importantly the music found therein. What many don’t realize is the amount of effort that goes into making a game exceptional. So, before you shelf your next game, take a minute to sit back relax and enjoy everything that went into the game, including the music.