Friday, 27 February 2015

Thoughts on Music in Video Games

Old 8-bit music channel tracks are cool from a programming point of view - sounds literally being generated and played as the game is going. This kind of stuff doesn't happen very often nowadays since samples, effects and the lot are very memory resource intensive so the loading times would be unreal (which they are if you've ever opened a file in FLStudio or Renoise or something).

I can understand that but it would be nice for games to implement more flexibility in music, even if its just ingenious looping of a relatively consistent song. A simple example would be the way drum loops are picked during a horde event in the Left 4 Dead series. It allows in a basic sense for each time you hear the music for it to be different, like procedural levels and characters in roguelike games. AKA, how can you add more replayability factor to music in a videogame. After all music and sound are vital parts of a gaming experience - listening is one of our five main senses, and the most potent one alongside vision.





Take Journey, that game where you wonder around and solve puzzles in a desert. thatgamecompany did a great job in dynamically tying in music with the story. Heck it even has a Music heading on Wikipedia, something that is almost never mentioned in video games. And indeed its soundtrack, like a videostream of any procedurally generated content game, only captures a single experience since the music relies on the game itself. I quote:
'The soundtrack was released as an album on April 10 on iTunes and the PlayStation Network.[26] The album is a collection of the soundtrack's "most important" pieces, arranged by Wintory to stand alone without the context of the player's actions.'
Now when the game's soundtrack is effectively a recording of finely tuned performance, you know the game is giving a more handcrafted experience than most, and is more akin to listening to a single persons take on a theme than one recording over and over again. Wouldn't it be cool if, when walking up to a door, a subtle change in musical pace and instrumentation would denote impending doom or a relaxing safe zone. Sure, an average player may not pick up on it, but a pro gamer might realise and pick up on this change, even subconsiously, and prepare appropriately. Or alternatively, imagine having a duel against a boss, but every successful hit caused a sudden burst of notes and a rising tension from the music until it culminates into a fanfare finale as you strike the finishing blow.

After all, a classic example is that ominous deep build up in a film's score as the camera takes some choice angles of a scene before something nasty happens; it could be a monster, some impending apocalyptic doom, or the protagonist's boss calling up saying they're fired. No matter the occasion, the atmosphere created gives us a sense of what to expect, and helps mould together the experience the creators wanted to impart.

I believe that games (like all media), at their core, are experiences. Joy, stress, relief, curiosity, anger, excitement - you will probably have experienced some range of these if you play a wide variety of games. Games are simulations. Simulations are a representation of life. And as a major part of many of our lives and experiences, I think music deserves some extra TLC, rather than a tacked on after thought.

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