7 min read

The Mental-Magic of Ambient Music

A short entry about the immersive and transportive qualities of ambient score in games. How it can aid in enhancing the themes and motifs of narrative and provide essential emotive feedback helping locations and characters seem more real to us.
The power of a finely crafted piece of music combined with a finely crafted game world can make for a fairly persuasive escapist illusion. Countless times I’ve been given pause to take in a virtual vista or emotional moment that breathed to life through the music. Ambient music in games is very different from creative elements in other forms of media. It serves a unique purpose and has a subtle but powerful ability to transport player investment and sense of place in the game world. This kind of music can often be truly transportive and engrossing in a way that’s totally unique to the interactivity of gaming.

The Year: 2003. The Game: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. 

Exploring a city on an ocean planet I remember experiencing a cool subjective reaction to the score. It came after being diverted away from the area with the music and after some plot development later returning to it. Entering the area I found the same soft arrangement begin to play again; a gentle looped ambience track featuring a lyrical harp and tranquil strings (very ‘ocean planet-y’). But it sounded different now; the recent developments in the narrative meant that character-morale was at a low point, our heroes had been through an ordeal, and for some reason the music now seemed to acknowledge this. No longer solely performing the role of a background theme it now sounded tailor-made to convey a reflective quality on the characters and story; where they had been on their journey and where they might go. This was all happening in my head, of course, but as a result of great design choices. The feeling was specifically sentimental and poignant in the moment but still epic enough in its general composition to remind me that the game was also still a big ol’ operatic sci-fi/fantasy adventure. (Very ‘Star Wars-y’).

Ahto City Music (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic)

It’s moments like this that one can really appreciate the attention to theme and motif that goes into the composition of ambient music, and how far the role it plays can go towards telling a story of its own (if the the player interprets it so). Not long after experiencing this cerebral batch of story-speculation, rumination, and introspective character-analysis brought on by the music, I disengaged myself from the game and looked around my then bedroom. So heavily involved had I been with participating in the games’ world and story, that my sense of the actual world had been numbed right into the twilight-hours. It’s a strange feeling to stop like that, after being immersed for so long, a moment ago I had been part of an adventure in another time and place, with people that aren’t real, fighting for a cause that means nothing. And it had all been accompanied by a sweeping and emotive orchestral score that belted out the music of adventure and discovery as if it did all mean something. It’s sort of like waking up from a dream and having that moment where you realise how crazy all that stuff you’d just seen was! Sure enough, back on went the headphones, where I found the beautiful music welcoming me back as if I’d never been away. Bring on sunrise.

Mindful Composition

Now we all know Star Wars is extremely easy to get sucked into at the best of times! But in this case it’s aided so heavily by the excellence of Jeremy Soule’s score that it works to truly enhance the ever-changing tones of the games story and locations. When a composer understands the narrative and journey-beats as well as this, it clearly shows in the level of how dramatically the player feels about the characters or events at any given moment. The music not only has an authentic sense of place in the world, it also helps to guide the player’s awareness on their journey. When the score gives the world and its events more weight and context, it infuses them with meaning, the player becomes easily more invested and willing to participate with the world. When this happens, a media-to-human entertainment experience like no other has been created, movies and books can’t do it, comics and radio-plays can’t do it. Ironically the thing that can come closest to putting you back in the world is the music on it’s own, and even this without the games world to accompany it is a different feeling entirely. Although the creation of audio for games is similar in a many regards to the creation of audio for linear media like film, ultimately the goals for design and implementation are very different. Sound experienced in nonlinear-media like games offers an extra level of complexity that comes via player interaction. A much more direct quality is inherent in experiencing these kinds of sounds, one that contains various feedback properties that aid the player in navigating the mechanics of the game. And only games have this. ‘Those silly video games? Pac-Man, Mario, and all that shit?’ Yup, the very same. Bring on the future.

The Magic of Theme

Background music from decades past served mostly the same purpose as today, only not as diversely due to the technological limitations of the time. Despite these limitations, many games, from the 16-bit era especially, RPG’s like Chrono Trigger, the Zelda and Final Fantasy series, greatly succeeded in creating wonderful themes that will remain some of the best examples of brilliant musical atmosphere in gaming. Composers were able to successfully give life to worlds and deepen a narrative using only a few hundred kilobytes of memory. The magic of some of these early themes is today endorsed by the fact many of them are re-performed by giant orchestras to dazzling effect. I use RPGs as examples due their story-driven nature and reliance on music to convey feeling. Often the complex, lengthy exposition and conversations in these games simply needed great themes to embellish the illusory tales with oxygen and life.

Zelda Main Theme (NES)

Zelda Main Theme (Orchestra 25th Anniversary)

The music in early platforming games like Mario and Sonic was primitive but had big presence and was great at creating pace. It created an ersatz-guide to suggest to the player the intensity of how the game should be played. i.e. When the timer started to run out, the tempo would increase to imply speed, the scarier or more difficult areas had music that was rhythmically slower to imply caution, whereas boss fights had more energetic and upbeat compositions that demanded attention. Licensed music in racing games is a great example of musical pace-setting via tempo and energy (whilst possibly being one of your favourite tracks). In modern games the rapid advancements in technology keep allowing for much better quality at all stages of game music production. Now recorded with the best gear at the utmost quality it can exist in any genre with absolutely any instrumentation, arrangement, and still provide many functions. It can provide audible cues and feedback to the player, create great atmosphere, furnish characters and locations with individual themes and motifs, raise or lower player tension, pump adrenaline, increase alertness, and manipulate emotion in countless ways. It can even change contextually depending on what the player does in-game, all in extremely high quality, especially compared to those early days. Music provides an essential role in the creation of a game and contributes an untouchable level of context to virtual worlds of any and all kinds. It has become completely woven into the fabric of the gaming experience and just keeps getting better and better and better and better.

- Kyle Johnson 






Latest Jobs


Playa Vista, California
Audio Engineer

Digital Extremes

London, Ontario, Canada
Communications Director

High Moon Studios

Carlsbad, California
Senior Producer

Build a Rocket Boy Games

Edinburgh, Scotland
Lead UI Programmer
More Jobs   


Register for a
Subscribe to
Follow us

Game Developer Account

Game Developer Newsletter


Register for a

Game Developer Account

Gain full access to resources (events, white paper, webinars, reports, etc)
Single sign-on to all Informa products

Subscribe to

Game Developer Newsletter

Get daily Game Developer top stories every morning straight into your inbox

Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more