Music is that which drives emotion, subjugates the human psyche, and establishes the tone of an unfolding narrative. Whether purely subconsciously or consciously recognized, music drives the way humans will perceive a certain situation in a movie, in a video game, or even in life. Simply playing Christmas music over the atmosphere of a party can set the tone for a charming and warming evening, juxtaposed to the harsh elements of a storm that betrays the Holiday atmosphere outside. The same influence can be had in video games or movies; the dreadful silence of a horror scene as the controller pulsates to the beat of the heart is a powerful tool for developers. Conversely, the cheery and soft melodies developed on a repeating, peaceful texture in games such as Animal Crossing are equally as powerful for settling the player into the charm of the game. The synthesis of the point is melodies, harmonies, and music development which moves the player into the moment. Music in video games may not make a game excellent, but music develops the setting, builds emotion, and provides a tool to tell a story with no words.
The Importance of Music in Video Games – Developing A Story With No Words
Setting the Table
The table dressing for video games is intertwined within music; that which can deliver a memorable moment, or let a good script dwindle away into mediocrity. Consider the player, music will either tie the player into the game’s script, or leave them staring at their phone during a momentous cut scene with total disinterest.
And that table dressing is so important because it dictates to the player the emotion they are supposed to be feeling. For those who have played Pokemon, the grinding noise of the twirling screen as the player enters battle amidst wild grass is anxiety inducing. Everyone knows the noise, and by learned events throughout the game, has a certain reaction to those noises. However, as much as that reaction is learned, the contrast in the sudden twist of the music tells the player, “it’s time to battle.”
In another classic RPG example, Final Fantasy has always epitomized the ‘RPG battle music transition’ by using a battle melody, often been reused throughout the series. No matter Final Fantasy I or 15, the intensity of the battle music and repeating harmony of standardized rifts tells the player the game intensity is picking up. Just as the game tells the player to pick up the intensity, one of the most known Final Fantasy melodies is the battle victory music – a cheery and victorious tune that evokes reward and success after each battle.
Take any of the Nintendo mainstays as an example, but particularly Mario or Yoshi’s Island. Those games are not RPGs with different climactic points, rather jovial platformers with a central tenant of gameplay which runs throughout. The player is often not met with such wild emotions as a nuanced story, but there ought to be a tune which reflects the atmosphere. Part of the success of Nintendo has been due to the atmospheric music they capitalize their platformer themes on. Yoshi has always had bright, jumpy, and jovial music. Mario has much the same with music that makes the player want to jump.
No matter the game or atmosphere, video game music ought to have a unique trait which assists the player in understanding of the scenario which they are playing in. While games are not made with music alone, the very essence of music adds depth to the joy, fun, and electricity of the moment.
Now that some general examples are laid out, the remainder of the article will epitomize the nuances indebted to certain video games throughout history.
Super Mario Galaxy (2007 – Nintendo Wii)
To find a game which brought forth classic tempo, an orchestra, and beautifully jovial melodies more so than Mario Galaxy would be a futile task. When Mario Galaxy launched in 2007 for the Nintendo Wii, the game took the world by storm due to the creativity of the scene. The moment the player touched down in the vast galaxy, an equally vast imagination unfolded in the player’s mind.
The music in the game was truly vast as well. The producers had epitomized context, atmosphere, creativity, and the sense of broad starlight. Mahito Yokota and Koji Kondo not only developed music which begot awe from the player, but the very melodies and harmony matched exactly with the timing of the platforming. The turn of the generation for Nintendo allowed them to combine music into the level design.
Yokota and Kondo intrinsically designed the music to unfold at the same pace the player would be exploring certain levels. The best example is Gusty Garden Galaxy, an orchestrated piece which matches the jumps and progression of Mario. The platforming was unique, but the music added another layer of depth and completed the task of immersion. Whether that immersion came in the darker Battle Rock Galaxy to the nature of intense base, the spinning and chaotic melodies which is Loodeloop Galaxy, or the sticky and developing tunes of the HoneyHive harmonies, Mario Galaxy presented music so exquisite, it might as well have been a mural of the game itself put onto a wall.
The Legend of Zelda Windwaker (2002- GameCube)
Every Legend of Zelda game has had incredible, atmospheric, and accurate to presentation music. (Zelda NES will be touched upon soon). However, partly due to writer bias, there may be no Zelda which has interloped the specifics of a game’s culture and the sense of adventure than Windwaker. The soundtrack respects the world’s culture and setting, develops upon those ideas, and then capitulates the player into adventure; that is what makes Windwaker such an incredible feat in the video game world.
Produced in 2002 for the Nintendo GameCube, composers Kenta Nagata, Hajime Wakai, Toru Minegishi, and Koji Kondo helped to define the world which was Windwaker. From the outset of the game, the incredible oceanic and Irish influences in the world design are evident – what is even more evident is the gameplay developed upon the grand ocean which lay before the player.
Listening to the Windwaker opening song specifies the nuances of the environment – the vast oceans, the Celtic origins, and defines the world as a group of characters who are blissfully unaware of the impending doom upon their sweet ocean. The Legendary Hero, used as a voice of the past in the storyline, evokes mystery and mystic by combining string instruments in a slightly varied version of a theme past Zelda players would be familiar with. The high and lows in the music tell a twisting tale, almost haunting of that which has come and gone. Even boss themes such as Molgera assist in combining a sense of urgency (the harmonic bells) with the aura of mystic and legendary adventure floating over the entire game.
Castlevania (1986 – NES)
Travel to the land of Transylvania and to the origin of video game music on the NES: Castlevania, Vampire Killer. The NES had the challenge of needing to combine 8-bit music with 8-bit graphics for an intertwined presentation. The opening notes to Castlevania accomplished this task by developing urgency in the upbeat music, but keeping the creepy tone of Vampires. There could only be so much done with the limitation of 8-bit music, but the base aspect of Vampire Killer accomplishes the intense role the player is about to take on. The music raises the player into the large task set before them, inserts them into the creepy atmosphere, but adheres to an arcade tale all the same.
Donkey Kong (1981 – NES)
Go five more years back to a true arcade where repetition was not only in the very gameplay, but also developed in the music. Donkey Kong’s looping stage theme may not be the most resilient theme in video game history, but it established the demanding task of introducing the player into the game’s goal.
The music on the NES might very well gloss over the player due to the repetitious beats and simplicity. Yet, all the while it demands the player climb, climb some more, and then do what? Climb. Yes, the simplicity in the introduction theme song brought the player peacefully into the game, and repetition overtly let the player focus on the challenge before them. Not exquisite, but foundational and role pivotal.
Legend of Zelda (1987 – NES)
The Legend of Zelda was adventure, the music was adventure, and Zelda has been adventure ever since. No better tune may attribute the wizardry, vast map overlay, and 8-bit magic of frustration amidst awe than the Legend of Zelda Overworld theme. Koji Kondo established the wholistic tune and fundamentals of intertwining game purpose with the more expansive goals of the developers.
The Overworld theme has changed slightly throughout the years, but the legendary music serves to epitomize the task which lay before the game’s hero, Link. The central focus of the song develops upon the idea of adventure and heroism, while the interlude builds on the up and downs inherent to adventure. In summation, Kondo had the task of intertwining deep themes in a song based on the new heights Legend of Zelda designer Shigeru Miyamoto and Takshi Tezuka wanted to take the beloved NES; he not only accomplished that feat, he set in stone industry expectations.
Final Fantasy VI (1994 – SNES)
(Disclaimer: this is Final Fantasy III in North America, VI in Japan, but now known as VI in North America as well after a belated release date). Final Fantasy has beautiful music throughout, all arising from Nobuo Uematsu intertwining the magic of RPG creativity into thoughtful music. However, Final Fantasy VI may be the most thoughtful of them all – just listen to the Opera Maria and Draco.
Between the Overworld theme, Dancing Mad, Phantom Forest, or the jovial and hilarious Mog theme, each aspect of the music was deliberately designed with an attention to detail few composers can accomplish. A complete discourse on how each character’s theme develops upon their own tragic story could be had.
However, to save spoilers (the game is now 24 years old, but if you have yet to play it, do so, even if for the sake of the music), just isolate the Opera Maria and Draco. The game’s world design, theme, and nuances are heavily influenced by Italian and Renaissance era culture, hence the importance of the artistry in opera. No matter, the developers build exquisite characters on those ideas, making each one a protagonist of their personal battle.
The magic in Final Fantasy VI’s music is interlaid within the context of character, and in Maria and Draco certain characters play roles in an opera that extrapolate upon their personal battles experienced throughout the game. The scene is hilarious, tragic, and all the while a rush of insanity for the player. To slightly spoil, during the opera sequence, the player must take on the role of the opera’s actors, and then ensue in a breath-forsaking timed task to foil certain plots and battle a boss.
The opera is hilarious, thought-provoking, and meaningful to every character. The story is only heightened by the story told within the opera music; a tale Uematsu paints of love, urgency, failure (which the player is bound to have plenty of), and success. The concluding tones of the Opera are beautifully arranged to indicate the height of action. However, there is a certain sadness added to the context of misunderstanding, that which is not yet complete, and the ever-turning stars of fate which have torn Maria and Draco apart.
And those tones of fate, doom, the vast unfairness of the situation pain the most succinct picture of what makes Uematsu’s songs throughout the Final Fantasy series essential to the video game music compendium.
The Last of Us (2013 – PlayStation 3)
Naughty Dog developed The Last of Us as a dark, gritty, thematic adventure – a story of hope, power struggle, and the vanity of human kind. A pervasive cloud hangs over the entire experience, induced from the subtle strings in the opening theme. The Last of Us has been praised insistently for storytelling, but far under sold is the importance of each carefully crafted soundtrack to the situational context. Composer Gustavo Santaolalla took a lot of the afore mentioned subtleties of music composition, and capitulates the player into not only a game, but an experience.
The unfortunate aspect of including the Last of Us here is the ‘dead-horse’ effect. For all the great aspects of the game, there are equally disastrous side effects now picked apart four years post launch. However, the soundtrack did an incredible job of combining the game play elements (survival, shock, and horror) with deep emotion (play the opening scene to set the expose), and thorough character development. Santaolalla interluded specificity for each character and scene with the overall dark and gritty tune of the game to complete the painting developers were searching for.
From the outset of the impending doom told by the strings, to the mysterious harmony lying beneath the surface, the situation is set forth by the chaos amidst a familiar word; a world the characters were used to, but can now only see through the precepts of tragedy. The player cannot but feel an incredible sadness from the opening moments. The songs throughout carry the elements of a dark cloud, but never preclude far off into depression. Underneath everything, only hidden in the array of notes, is a glimmer of rising hope painted by the soft tunes of harmony.