I recently completed of Dark Souls and its great DLC. My, what a journey it's been! There are a couple of things that Dark Souls does, where I'm not sure if they might have been born out of budget limitations, but they end up creating a wonderful final result. Music is one of them. So let's have a look how the game handles it, as well as the ambiences. If you haven't played it yet: there's only very mild spoilers.
An (almost) binary structure for the music
There's music in the prologue, the ending cut scenes and the ending credits. But in the actual gameplay parts, there's no music at all, except during boss fights and in three very select areas (let's ignore those for now). So in general, characters (i.e. the bosses) have music, whereas places only have ambiences.
This dichotomy creates some neat effects. For one thing, it helps communicate the dual structure of the gameplay (normal zones vs. non-respawning bosses whose defeat alters gameplay). It also helps frame boss fights as highlights of the game: The bosses feel more special, more epic because they now also stand out acoustically from the rest of the game in a drastic way, and not just by having somewhat bigger or meaner sound effects. Having music gives them more emotional impact and the player an extra bit of adrenaline.
For the regular zones, on the other hand, the absence of music has a nice effect, too: It could be argued that it helps immersion. After all, unless there is an actual source of music in the game world, background music is unnatural. While we're used to hearing it in games and movies and it can certainly serve great purposes, leaving it out means one less distracting element that keeps reminding us we're playing a game. For me, it also reinforced the game's sense of loneliness, as there was no virtual dj accompanying me on my journey. It was just me (my character's sounds) in the hostile environment (ambiences) with its nasty inhabitants (enemyy sound effects). The soundscape greatly facilitated the act of projecting my conscience into the game's virtual world.
Lastly, this duality of sound vs. silence coincides with one of the game's themes: In a previous age, there was no contrast (the prologue speaks of “fog” and “grey”) and everlasting, undying dragons ruled the world. Then the first flame brought disparity: Heat and cold, life and death and light and dark. The whole game is about this second age of disparity coming to an end (or entropy increasing, if you want to look at it from a thermodynamical perspective). Music vs. silence fits nicely into this age of contrasts.
Exceptions to the rule: places with music
As with many other aspects of Dark Souls, there's exceptions to the music/no-music rule (e.g. normally, all non-boss enemies respawn, yet some don't, and it's not even type-specific). It could be argued these imperfect rules diminish the game's consistency, but also that they hint at a more complex world which we don't fully comprehend. The inconsistencies and ambiguities leave room for speculation and judging by all the theory-crafting around the game's story, that is definitely something the fans of the game enjoy. Even if all that happened is that From Software simply had money for 3 additional tracks left in their music budget, let's consider why they may have chosen to put these tracks where they did:
Firelink Shrine is a central hub, a safe zone that you most likely keep returning to. Giving it music marks it as a special place and helps the player gain a sense of “home”. It offers a bit of relief after all the tension of exploring the unfriendly rest of the game world.
The Ash Lake area is hard to reach and a visit is not required. The music could be considered a reward for getting there. Ash Lake is not just another ordinary level of the game, but a glimpse at an age long past: It is the lowest point of the game's intricately interconnected world, and home to a primordial being, the Everlasting Dragon. The fact that this area has music emphazises its sense of otherness.
Finally, there's the room with Quelaag's Sister. This is also an optional area, hidden behind an illusory wall, so the music is part of the reward for exploring. The NPC echoes the theme of sacrifice that features prominently in the game, and she's connected to a major event in the game world's history. Still, to be completely honest, the other two exceptions to the music/no music-rule are easier for me to rationalise.
While it's unnatural to have magical music that doesn't come from any source in the environment, so is complete silence (c.f. the alleged eeriness of an-echoic chambers, even if the reason there is slightly different). There's a saying that goes something like: "music makes you feel, sound effects make it real", and that's not just true for visibly moving objects, but also for environments as a whole.
The ambiences of Dark Souls are pretty sparse and usually consist mainly of a constant unidentifiable noise. It's probably treated with reverb to create a sense of space. It's amazing what a powerful effect it has on the impression of a physical place. There's also hints of the elements here and there, such as dripping water in dank caves or some wind in outside levels. Animal sounds are very rare, on the other hand; some birds chirping outside Sen's Fortress and muted cicadas in Darkroot area is pretty much the extent of it. Interestingly, the DLC areas of Royal Woods and especially Oolacile Sanctuary are filled with all kinds of lively bird sounds. The DLC is supposed to take place many, many years before the main game. So this could be taken as another hint at how the world has been slowly dying and decaying.
- The question what kind of music, if any at all, accompanies which part of your game merits some consideration beyond just budgetary limitations and game or genre conventions: It can be an opportunity to create a structure with deeper meaning that reinforces the themes of the game.
- Pauses and silence are a necessary part of music (but don't overdo it, composers need to make a living! ;) ). They can create contrast and tension. Without a design intention, however, silence is just meaningless absence of music. Yet people like me may still read stuff into it... :)
- Dark Souls is awesome!
If you're interested in the composer, Motoi Sakuraba, I found this brief interview.