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Atmosphere in Games - Part 4 - Music

Part 4 in a 10-part series about atmosphere in games - what it is, how to improve it, and how it breaks down into the various aspects of a game.

Matthew Bentley, Blogger

June 26, 2013

6 Min Read

Atmosphere in music

Atmosphere in music

(image by kuschelirmel on deviantart)


There are certain games which use music as a game mechanic, which is fun, and makes sense for a game where the fourth wall doesn't matter - however mostly games use music as an emotional undercurrent outside the gameworld itself  - and there is a history of that usage going back to TV and film. Music doesn't describe the game, it describes the feeling of a game.

To partially reiterate what I've already said in the previous entry on sound, the most atmospheric music will have it's dynamic range conserved but will keep it's average volume reasonably consistent, where appropriate, so as to not to distract too much from gameplay. Actually avoiding limiting and compression on music will make it much easier for the player to hear your sound effects, and to feel like the music and sound effects are part of the same world. When they start competing for loudness, all you're going to get is an earache and a lack of gameworld cohesion.

A secondary problem with music in video games is a lack of imagination on part of the production manager. I believe composers should be the ones who decide what kind of music the gameworld represents and only receive hints from the core production team. This allows the composer to come up with schemes and ideas that fit the gameworld, not just the default mindset of "Ok it's military scene let's get some snare rolls and horns in there"-style pigeonholing. When I look back at 90's games, there was a much less clear idea of how music should be constructed for games and as such composers had more free reign. Sometimes they got it horribly wrong, but at least it was interesting.

When Braid developer Jonathan Blow talked about the music for the game, he mentioned that he felt standard 'game composers' wouldn't be able to deliver the kind of music he wanted- this is an indication of how stale, uncreative and unproductive the business of game music has become. I believe the solution to this is more education in film music. This is not to say that the memes of film music (dominant orchestral use, subtle underscoring) should be replicated in the gaming world - I believe this is contrary to the style and feel of most games. However there is such a depth of knowledge in the film music world about how to score a scene, what aspects (emotional, physical, mental) to score to, and that knowledge of 'approaches' should cross over to the game music world.

Having this understanding by the core production team might break people out of the orchestral/rock/electronic defaults that gamers are - to the detriment of the industry, and players - accustomed to. Freeing up this side of the development will greatly increase the sense of immersion and atmosphere in games, by making music that is interesting, listenable, and not just churned out from a sausage factory. We've started to see this in some AAA titles where more well-known composers from other fields of music (popular, film) are brought in to score the soundtrack, and this can only result in good for the entire industry. But on the indie level, there is still ample lack of understanding that a soundtrack is not just some background music, it's the emotional and atmospheric core of your game. Nothing communicates what kind of emotions the gamer should be experiencing better than music, and done well, it can transform an adequate game into an experience.


Some games which get it wrong:
Iji (indie, freeware) - I initially played this without music inadvertently, and when I finally the music going, was surprised to find how out-of-touch the loud rock soundtrack was with both the cognitive nature of the gameplay and the moral hesitance of the heroine. It scored exclusively to one aspect of the action in the game, and not it's emotional undercurrent or more cognitive aspects of gameplay.

Warcraft 3 (AAA, payware) - It was astonishing to me just how bland and wallpaper-ish the soundtrack was for this fantasy 'epic', though the gameplay itself was fun. If you want a good example of cookie-cutter mentality in game music gentrification, this is a good one to look at. However, with the expansion pack, they managed to get some pretty good tunes in there - one feels the composer was under less stringent scrutiny for this addon.

Black and White (AAA, payware) - Although the 'bring-your-own-music' feature of the game was both creative and interactive (your pet creature remembered tunes) and brought an additional level of interest to the game, if we look at it purely in focus of providing atmosphere, we can see that a lack of world immersion resulted from it not having an appropriately contextual soundtrack. Still a fun game though!

Some games which do it adequately:
Need for Speed Underground 1 & 2 (AAA, payware) - I mention these because they take an interesting though hit-and-miss approach to in-game music. Pretty much they just take popular music from various genres (rap, electronic, metal) and blast them throughout the game. But it works. In the same way that playing 'driving music' on your stereo works while driving, it works in this game, and depending on whether you like the genres (you can select which genres you want through the setup menu) you'll build a synergistic positive association between the game and the music. In a way it makes it feel more like driving in real life, which builds atmosphere somewhat. I can't say the same thing for the cutscenes. Though I haven't played them personally, I know GTA2 and it's sequels did a similar thing.

Some games which get it right:
Diablo 1 (AAA, payware) - The original dungeon-crawler, with arguably the best use of music in a video game of the 1990's. From the moment you enter the caverns, the sense of atmosphere, apprehension and tension radiates from the soundtrack - and as you progress further into the earth, the music slowly changes tack to match the horrifying surroundings. It's hard to say if the game would've been as popular without it's score. Starcraft, from the same company, similarly had a profoundly good score which matched it's contextual world in non-conventional ways.

Knytt Stories (indie, freeware) - The greatest use of music is sometimes no music. For the most part this game is score-less, until you enter certain areas, when light touches of music grace the game with a gentle sense of atmosphere, folkishness, or tension.

Halflife 2 (AAA, payware) - Though I didn't enjoy this game, it had some of the most creative uses of scoring in video games of the 2000's, blurring the line between SFX and music with it's quasi-alien-industrial electronic stabs. The overall lack of music made it's intrusion far more effective when it was present, though I would've liked to've seen more of it.


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