Soundtracks play an integral role within many forms of media, and games are no exception. There’s no doubt that every gamer has a favourite track, or an original score that they listen to on repeat. Music plays such a significant role in gaming, that it feels as though it is criminally overlooked as a medium. I want to examine why soundtracks are so important, and what they mean to us, as gamers.
What I want to look at first are main menu songs/tunes. After all, the first thing any gamer usually experiences with a new game is the menu and almost all of the time that menu will be accompanied by music. Even to this day, if I hear the Halo 3 menu music I get real emotional. It’s nostalgic. It conjures memories of my happiest days online.
I think that first piece of music can also convey the feeling of the entire game. Take any horror game for example, and the first thing you’ll probably be greeted with is a medley of creepy synths, piano and maybe even some haunting choir voices. From the get go, the music is designed to make you feel as anxious or uneasy as you will be playing the game. Similarly, a more light-hearted game might adopt a more whimsical, positive tune at the start of the game. Who doesn’t feel happy when you listen to the Super Mario Bros theme? It’s all about setting the stage and putting you in a certain mind set for the journey ahead.
A game is built up by many different forms of art. Visual art is the most obvious form, writing is another, but auditory art is just as important. I was recently playing through the entire Halo: The Master Chief Collection and more than a few things struck me. What jumped most of all were the soundtracks. As always, I was blown away by Halo 3. Then came Halo 4, my second ever full play through. Overall, the game wasn’t as bad as my 16 year old self thought when it first came out, but some of the biggest moments were let down by lacklustre music. A far cry from the wonderfully constructed Halo 3 soundtrack which was a beautiful blend of epic, adrenaline pumping beats and tear jerking violins and piano. I’m not going to lie, I’ve genuinely shed more than a few tears playing that game and there’s no doubt that the soundtrack is the main reason.
Sometimes a soundtrack will be used to such devastating effect that you rush to YouTube or Spotify to experience it again. I was shocked to find out that in my apparent ‘top played songs of 2017’ I had 3 songs from The Witcher 3 and 3 from The Last of Us. I must have watched that scene where Ellie and Joel have a heart to heart a hundred times and the scene wouldn’t have been what it was without the heart wrenching guitar that plays in the background. By the way, that specific song is ‘The Choice’ by the brilliant Gustavo Santaolalla and Alan Umstead, and it’s the perfect illustration of how a soundtrack can be perfectly sculpted around a game’s voice acting and visuals.
In fact, I think that composers in gaming perhaps don’t get as much credit as their peers in other parts of the entertainment business. Composers like Jack Wall (Mass Effect, Call of Duty) or Koji Kondo (Super Mario, and pretty much every Nintendo game ever) might be household names within the gaming world, yet receive none of the mainstream adulation film composers lap up. Though perhaps this has more to do with gaming’s history of generally being undeservedly on the periphery of the entertainment industry.
What would a horror game be without the crescendos of eerie chords? Would Cuphead be as addictively brilliant without the vibrant, bopping jazz in the background? Try playing some of your favourite games with the music dial all the way down to zero. I tried and it was… weird. I mean really weird. It made roaming around in The Witcher go from engrossingly atmospheric, to just plain unnerving. Never have I appreciated the importance of a soundtrack more than in that moment.
There is one game for me personally that epitomises how to use a soundtrack and that is Life is Strange. This may not be the same for everyone of course, but I think that both LiS and LiS: Before the Storm use music in such an unforgettable way. It feels as though each song has been thoroughly analysed on how it impacts the story, as well as the player’s experience. Both soundtracks feel so naturally intertwined with the fabric of the LiS story. Even people who have never played the game could jump right in to the soundtrack and understand how emotional it is, maybe even get a sense of the narrative. That is the power and beauty of a soundtrack.
I previously mentioned this but I feel it needs reiterating; soundtracks are a form of art in themselves that can help the gamer feel emotionally invested in a story. To neglect the soundtrack is to neglect a part of the game, so I don’t think their importance can be overlooked by anyone, developers in particular. I look at a game like a nice home cooked dinner, good enough on its own but without any seasoning (the soundtrack) it can be a bit bland. Never forget to season, folks.
Maybe I’m just waffling off crap and maybe this is all subjective. I’ve met people who love soundtracks, whatever the media format. I’ve met others who couldn’t care less about them. I just know that soundtracks make me feel something. Nostalgia, anger, sadness, happiness. Music invokes emotion and what is a game without emotion?
Oh, here’s a friendly reminder to go and play a game without any background music. It really drives home the point I’m trying to make.