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What’s the score? – The role of music in videogames

Music

As we plunge into, what we all expect to be, another vintage year in the history of videogames, our minds cast themselves back in time, and attempt to make sense of what we have just witnessed. A year that big budget titles wowed us into submission with dazzling displays of visual delight and cinematic thrills. A year where independent titles indicated an emerging market for a more ‘home brew’ approach to both design and gameplay. The year felt like a grand sweeping statement for games. It was concise and perfectly structured but it had three exclamation marks and a smiley face at the end. The grandeur of a lone man’s epic quest to free his one love in a harsh and unforgiving land. The vast mesas, and the deep river canyons reminding you of your inconsequential existence in the face of God’s handiwork. The pettiness of your toil never more apparent as the looming shadows of the giant red mountains envelops you. Am I talking about Red Dead Redemption or Super Meat Boy? Does it even matter? Yes, it would be fair to say it was a great year for gaming!

When we look back at the games we’ve enjoyed over the past year, how do we remember them? As snapshot images of vistas and characters that have managed to imprint themselves on our memory? Or perhaps you can recount a great plot twist from a more story driven title. A memorable car chase? The perfect knife kill perhaps? Chances are, most of our memories of a year in gaming are based on what our eyes have seen, what our thumbs have twiddled and, for those of us that were paying close attention, what our ears have recorded. Be it the sombre melodies of Jose Gonzalez accompanying us though the daunting and unfamiliar Mexican landscape. Or perhaps it was the jazzy introduction to Sympathy For The Devil, heralding the arrival of the American Navy on the Mekong River. The upbeat rhythm and politically savvy lyrics ironically mirroring the intrigue and chaos which surrounds you on your journey. Yes indeed, music did have an important part to play in the forging of 2010’s memorable line-up.

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Music has been an important factor in the creation of many of this last year’s best games. As important as I feel music is to a games overall tone and poise, I was shocked upon reading the musical co-ordinator of Killzone 2 estimated the average spend on a new titles sound sits around the six percent mark. Can this paltry figure be accredited to how little importance designers place upon a games musical accompaniment? Is it a realistic figure when we consider how games are marketed, and then how we as consumers select games to purchase? Realistically, how many of us can honestly say we chose to shell out forty pounds on a game because we heard the music in it was great? Probably about as many that were pleasantly surprised by a Leona Lewis track being nestled inside Final Fantasy XIII. Not that many then.

Over time, in-game music begins to paint a more vivid and familiar picture of a long lost title. The 16-bit era is an excellent example of this. Slowly, the game’s audio becomes much more significant than the mess of pixels and sprites that have gradually become muddied in my cluttered and frantic cerebral cortex. Despite being a collection of jumbled up ones and zeros emanating from a diminutive 24 MHz APU, these songs became as important to my childhood as my first bicycle and the first record I bought. I’ll always remember the music that greeted me upon completing Streets of Rage 2 for the first time. A simple ditty played to you in celebration of your accomplishment. In any other context, it would be instantly forgettable, background noise even. As I have been awarded it for my endeavour and skill however, it was a triumphant fanfare of ascendancy! As sweet to my young ears as any symphony or guitar solo that would follow it. In my moment of victory, I would swear no music would ever come close. You can imagine my reaction to hearing Dark Side of the Moon for the first time! I’ve never gesticulated so much in my entire life!

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This all happened an age ago. When a collection of blips, bleeps and bloops could be seen as more than something that was quaint and laughably simple. It is odd though that all the most recognisable videogame scores are from this era. Super Mario Brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog are both hugely popular titles, so it comes as no surprise that many of us recognise the music that accompanies them. What is unusual, is that as technology advanced and it became possible to feature CD quality sound within games, the music that was created became less memorable. This is not to say that it became any less proficient, but as time went on, in-game music had the chance to become more than the recognisable fingerprint of a popular franchise. It now had the opportunity to move the player with the dexterity and grace a conductor holds over their audience.

Even before the first shot has been fired in Halo: Combat Evolved, we are treated to a superbly judged orchestral piece, that creates a sense of great foreboding, and goes to highlight the grandeur and ceremony of your undertaking. As your introduction to Halo, this section of music provides not just atmosphere, but strengthens the whole tone of the game, without the need for an acre of back story and a tome of prior knowledge. A choir has set the context of the entire game. Its effectiveness is matched only by its simplicity. A wonderful, beautiful moment for all who encountered it.

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The inclusion of a huge orchestral choir is only suitable for a particular breed of games. With its vast, momentous tone, Halo would not have benefited from the inclusion of quirky pop songs or grinding metallic rock music. Why is it then that some games choose to include all your favourite sing-a-long classics, as opposed to an original score? From a marketing point of view, it makes sense to have something recognisable on the back of the box. Pop and rock music has been the norm for less story driven titles for some time. The Tony Hawks Pro Skater franchise touted the inclusion of all the latest punk rock and hip-hop artists within its many games, and used it as a major selling point. Due to its popularity in Gran Turismo 3, the Feeder track Just A Day was released as a single and was, for a time, their best selling release. The power of money is an overriding factor in the production of most games. Securing market interest by offering potential buyers something familiar, must be a strong case for the inclusion of popular music. In sports or driving games this makes perfect sense. Titles such as this will only be played for a set amount of time before it resets and the game or race begins again. What then of a game that is more story driven but chooses popular music over an original score?

In Splatterhouse, players are given the opportunity to eviscerate, disembowel and wreak bloody murder to the grinding sludge of guitar-laden metal, courtesy of Mastadon. In Grand Theft Auto IV a wide selection of popular music is available via the games in-car radio system. Everything from high fashion techno-pop, to down and dirty twangs of the New York indie scene and the seedy grime of East Coast rap beats. It was available for you to flit between whilst conducting your acts of social disorder and misanthropic violence. It acted as your confidant and tour-guide as it piloted you though the mean streets of Liberty City. The music selected in both these examples helps to draw the player into there respective game worlds. The radio stations in GTA IV fleshed out the already well-built skeleton of Liberty City, giving it character and meaning. The grind-core marathon, which featured in Splatterhouse, however, eventually grew tiresome, as the perpetual grunts and growls wore my ears down to a pair of bloody stubs. Perhaps that was the intention.

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Repetition will always be the problem with using popular music in videogames. How many times can we hear the same track before we grow tired of it? Endless repetition of the same song will eventually ruin both the music and the game. This is traditionally not a feature of a full orchestral score, possibly due to its lack of lyrics and complex structure. Trying to justify the expense of an original score must feel like an uphill battle for developers. In all my examples, the traditional score has sat at the back of the game. Not overpowering the title, but subconsciously adding depth and tempo to the flow of play. It’s not something publishers tend to brag about too much either. We are constantly bombarded with information regarding technical specifications and 24-hour plot and gameplay updates have slowly become the norm. Even vocal performances from known actors are often emphasised and shouted about in forum to magazine pages. Very rarely are we updated on the development of the audio. How has the sound been arranged and captured? Which orchestra has been chosen and why? The creative process undertaken to create an original score must be a very personal endeavour on behalf of the composer, yet we never hear a peep out of them.

Is it simply a case that music just isn’t as important to games as graphics or gameplay? It is true that on the immediate surface of a game, music is not the first thing that captures your attention. Why would a developer sink a huge proportion of their budget into an aspect of the game that can be switched off in the menu screen? Ultimately, it’s because videogames are still seen as a business, before they are seen as an art form, and the key to a successful game will lie somewhere between great graphics and fun gameplay. Everything else must come second. Unfortunately, this usually means the in-game music is not always of the highest quality. How many film sound tracks are sold every year? I imagine the figure eclipses that of videogame soundtracks. As with everything in business, the talent follows the money.

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This does strike me as a huge shame. I find nothing more engrossing than a great videogame with an involving plot and a deep, well assembled soundtrack. Music is the very definition of emotion. It is unfathomable in its complexity and intoxicating in its creativity. Music and videogames should go hand in hand beautifully, each complimenting the other. The role of music in videogames is that of symbiosis. Music is best featured brooding in the background, rising and falling in keeping with the ongoing narrative. Have we missed the importance of great musical accompaniment to our games because it’s not the reason we purchased the game in the first place?

At the moment, the videogame industry is extremely lucrative. Publishers will always tout their product with whatever line of corporate filler that makes the headlines, and capture the eye of a potential customer. At the moment, music is just not seen to be that important to the faceless, potential, mass-market purchaser. Will this change? I think that in the future it will. We’ve already seen how gamers are beginning to want deep and comprehensively emotional titles. A great tool for developers to add depth to their titles is to include a more indulgent and concise musical score. Equally we’ve seen a rise in auteurism and figurehead worship in videogames. As industry names and faces become more well known to us, it can be only a matter of time before a superstar composer will be held aloft by a studio. Someone whose name and music we can recognise at first listen, and eventually want to purchase.

What is more important than all of this, is that we realise how important music is to our hobby. We must give more merit and credit to the musicians and composers who, though their work, heighten the emotion of a medium crying out to be recognised as a valid and genuine art form. Personally, I will remember 2010 as the year that losing my son in a mall was turned from an annoying triviality, into a scene of utter foreboding that dripped with tension. This was all thanks to the wise implementation of a superbly composed string section that built and rose my hopes of finding him, only to drop me off the edge of a cliff at the culmination of the scene. We all have our favourite musical moments in videogames. As we look towards the future in 2011, let’s hope developers realise the importance of this instrumental and artistic facet, which has meant games can move us in a way never thought possible. With this in mind, I look towards the future with great hope.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in January 2011. Get in touch on Twitter @RichJimMurph.

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