Feeling the videogame music vibe

I can usually find myself humming videogame music in my head. It can range from the “Tetris Theme”, Mario, Sonic, Zelda, Transport Tycoon, Doom, Phoenix Wright, Red Alert… and so on.

These are all catchy, playful tunes. They evoke a great vibe of playing the games – although I pretty much suck at Mario. I do enjoy the much more complex tracks which I have on my MP3 player. Usually orchestral, sometimes unique and definitely aimed to be repetitive and catchy in almost all instances.

When I ask game players I know what their favourite music, it usually is one which they have bested and enjoy. Theme or credit music makes for special choices, as well as certain boss battle music.

Like film, if done well it really helps put the right sensation into a game. Puzzle games usually go for a repetitive background-like tracks with a good timed pace to keep players going. Action games bring in fast paced orchestral or guitar tracks during action, and make use of appropriate music for cutscenes. Roleplaying games usually have themes for “Love”, “Tragedy” and “Big bad boss #1”. Strategy games usually have simple background tracks, depending on which side you play and perhaps the stage of the game.

However, there are downsides. Unlike films, the action is not timed to a set amount except for cutscenes (which gamers despise), and if there isn’t general background music there may be long periods of silence. For music to fully work I think better use of adaptive audio, and have a game theme running throughout which changes exactly on what happens on screen.

Of course, this won’t always work, but some games which use this really well; The Witcher mixes which battle track it plays and seamlessly fades between it and the background music when battle ends. Others don’t work as well but still have high quality music; Halo and Half-Life both employ the “play once” theory, and the music will play once the player crosses a trigger. Sadly, this is usually too short or long for the action or event is covering! Variety can play a good part with adaptive audio, with themes for different enemies or different actions (which The Witcher does, as well as having 2-3 snappy generic battle themes). These help immersion, since it is purely natural for a battle to evoke faster paced music, or some stealth to slow the pace down.

All too often some gamers are reminded of a game for the wrong reasons from the music (Psychonauts Meat Circus level – I’m looking at you!). Another reason to avoid generic background music, which can get overlong for later levels in the game, unless it is well composed or is immersive.

Credits music has been coming to the fore a bit recently too. From Gears of War and Call of Duty 4 raps, to the Portal credits by Jonathan Coulton, although I’ve heard some nice credits remixes in the original Baldurs Gate, and many people overlook the fact that of all the tracks in many games, the credits are both the longest and most richly composed.

Finally, it impresses me the sheer range of music in games as well; from games based around existing music (rhythm games; Elite Beat Agents, Guitar Hero and DDR to the radio in all of the GTA’s), to a cappella (LocoRoco), and many made to orchestral and composed band music (Most everything else). Some even go back in time – Bioshock using older classic songs on their jukeboxes as background music, and Fallout titles being themed by Ink Spot songs.

I’ve never had to turn off game music before, although at times I have such as long Pokemon playing sessions – the quality compared to film and TV is very much higher. Music is almost always optional – and no one can complain if you can turn down the music volume to 0.

I can only feel that music will become more involving in games, from the narrative and fun points of view. I enjoy the range from over the top, adrenalin-rushing tracks overlayed on action to ones that theme the world and wouldn’t be noticeable since they are so natural, such as bands playing in the background of a tavern.

There are a few hopes for improvement apart from the mentioned adaptive audio; for one that more tracks with singing get involved at appropriate places in games, which can work well as background music in said taverns (like in Beyond Good and Evil), an underused area, especially if it could be mixed into games as well as films based around musical stories. Another is having multiplayer games (generally FPS’s) allow for at least a user-customised jukebox – something that was available in Black and White and even interacted with the game (the creature danced to it!). For the silent multiplayer games, adaptive music might be another idea. MMO’s generally have music tracks, so good for them getting it right.

And out of playing the actual games? I listen to some game music for the sheer fun of it – even from many games I don’t own. From the Anachronox track “Blind Amibition”, which entirely rocks despite being short, as well as Phoenix Wright tracks and many others (although not a fan, Final Fantasy soundtracks are well known for being sold separately). These can stand on their own and be well worth enjoying without knowing anything about the game, and even get remixed!

Game music is getting better over time, I expect some great things in the future, so who knows what we’ll next be humming along to?

My first Round Table entry, on a topic I so recently covered I couldn’t resist – very rambling I guess, oh well 🙂