The Power of Music
Music in Video Games appears in many different forms. A lot depended on the game genre, the set tempo and of course the context. A lot of the time it seems that a Video Game cannot exist without music, but is that always the case? Sometimes, especially when playing Stealth-style video games you prefer to switch off the music. This is not because the music is bad, but because you prefer to hear every sound around you, and music might distort that. However at the same time the very same games that are easier to play without music can lose a bit of their charm. In the end, how big is the role of Music in Video Games? I would go so far as to say that without music the vast majority of Video Games would not be as popular as they are now. I would like to name a few cases where music really pulled some emotional cords for me, while also stating a few examples of games that did not have music, or were more fun without it.
Music in Video Games
There are many examples of when Music did a great job of setting the mood. Let me kick-off with one big title, Fallout. Since the very first one the music in different locations creeped on your spine, usually making you fell uneasy (though not always). In Fallout 3 and New Vegas this has gone a step forward, in a very good direction. Not only can you listen to “Ambience Music”, but you also have a radio to listen to actual songs and ballads as you travel through the wasteland. Perhaps the best way to describe what I found so appealing is by using an example. I would be walking down the Mojave Wasteland, searching for a new spot to explore, and loot. I would do so while listening to some cheery tunes as my eyes scanned the sand dunes, derelict structures and ruined cars. Then as my eyes focused on something out of the ordinary I would switch off the radio and begin to sneak, allowing the “Natural Music” to take over, which still set the mood, but was far calmer and most importantly very quiet. In that respect APB: Reloaded is very similar. You can drive around listening to your custom music list in your car, but when it comes down to the action and hop out the music stays behind, so that you can focus on the battle (though you can still listen to it while you drive-by).
Horror games love playing with music and sounds. Amnesia The Dark Descent did it, but the music co-existed so well with the ambient sounds it all seemed to melt together. You would sometimes not realise you are listening to music, only because you were so focused on your surroundings, while it slowly drilled on your subconscious. Bioshock did it, Dead Space did it. The sort of music that makes you think that behind every corner something is about to pop-up. In horror games the music would sometimes tip you off when something is about to happen, yet other times it would simply fool around with your mind (just like in the movie “There will be Blood”).
Of course, we should not fail to mention the Action games, and there are a LOT of action games, and all of them with excellent soundtracks. Perhaps one of the most intense soundtracks that I had the pleasure to listen to recently is that from Payday: The Heist. The music on each level changes depending on whether a Police Wave is about to come in, when it’s underway, when the situation is calmer, etc. All the while it keeps you on your toes, the anticipation hanging in the air like a guillotine, waiting to come down. Other games such as Painkiller did not experiment as far as Payday when it came to “changing music”, but the Painkiller music was heavy, intense and it fit the game perfectly. It was bloody and gory, and the music reflected it. I mean, while you are freezing some demonic monstrosity into an icecube, then crushing him with a shotgun pellet, why would you NOT listen to Heavy Metal?
Strategy Games have music, often reflecting the different “Races” or sides of the conflict you could be playing as (not always though). Sometimes when a battle was in progress, or a siege the music would change to reflect the conflict. Once again, this is a very broad category. Heroes of Might and Magic, Europa Universalis, Company of Heroes. Economic games had their music, and although it was more aimed at allowing you to enjoy the game, sometimes the themes fit the game very well. One of the best examples in my head? Theme Hospital. The music was so merry yet tying down into that “Toon Hospital” feel it fit the game perfectly.
Although I cannot remember the cases of there being bad soundtracks maybe it is just the case of my mind getting rid of the “bad” music (after all, there had to be some errors with music in games). Let’s move onto the next topic then, games without music (or very limited soundtracks).
Games without Music?
Interestingly enough there are a number of Mods that do not use music, with great effect. One example? The Hidden: Source. I mentioned The Hidden Mod time and time again, and here I do not forget to bring it back up. In The Hidden you do not have any music. All that you hear are the surroundings, and with good reason. The Hidden usually does not make any noise, unless he touches something. A falling barrel, broken board, the sound of his taunting or thrown grenade. It is one of those games where music would actually make gameplay a lot harder, even if offering a more interesting environment. Counter-Strike did not have music, everything playing out to the music of guns being fired left and right, hostages being rescued and bombs deployed. Portal had “music”, but it did not follow you around constantly, like in most games.
The “other” side of the coin
There are obviously much less examples of music-less video games, however just like Video Games with music they offer a similar experience. Music is pre-dominant, as a mood-setter, but we sometimes do choose to turn it off, so that we can focus on our environment rather than the “Orchestra”. It is not the fault of the music, but when we want to focus we prefer to hear every little noise. Some games could not be played without music. Strategy games could be very dull without appropriate tunes to keep you going. Economic games would especially turn into “dull simulators”, since the music is often cheery. If we looked over the financial reports or constructed new factories in silence… it just wouldn’t be the same.
A lot depends on the type of game. Action games, Strategy games, they might call for music to accompany us. Stealth Games? Maybe, but a lot depends on the musical genre. How could I fail to mention RPGs? Especially Fantasy RPGs where music is often bonded together with the visuals? (I think that when I say “Skyrim” everything is explained)
In Short Summary
The question, how big an effect does music actually have on us? Do we really feel happier when listening to music? Does it increase our adrenaline in action games? Is it necessary to set the mood of the game? According to research music does have different effects on us. It could make us “think” more violently, or relax us. Cheer us up, or make us fearful. In Video Games though, in what proportion do the Visuals influence us, and how much does the music? How do they cooperate together? All that we know is that they do, and more often than not Music in a Video Games is very useful, even if not always crucial. In the end, and in a lot of cases, we prefer to listen to Music while playing, especially when we feel that the music fits the game, rather than play through it in silence. After all, some of those “Silent Games” could eventually force us to play our own music while playing.
Alex “WriterX” Bielski