The Essential Role of Music in Games

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Music is something that runs through our lives as naturally as breathing, eating and drinking. It flows through our society with an ease and an importance that we rarely realize, and has done so all throughout humanity’s history.

Music has provided entertainment to people through the ages, and yet, it’s difficult to consider it as a medium in its own right. No, it’s simply too big for that. Instead, it’s like an umbrella that covers everything we watch, listen to or participate in.

Even that analogy doesn’t display the power that music holds over us. More than just being a part of something, music helps things to realize their potential. It inflates moods, optimizes situations and expands scenarios. In short, without music, popular culture and life in general would be extremely dull.

This was first realized during the rise of Expressionism and silent movies. In a nutshell, movies are created to tell a story, but without the voices of each character being heard, that story can be difficult to tell, especially when there’s no music either. To remedy this, most theaters would have live music played throughout the showing of each movie. It supported what the audience was watching and filled the silence that would have been there if no music was present.

This winning formula has stayed with Hollywood as each and every movie we watch has a soundtrack. It could be anything from rock, pop or a musical score but it’s there regardless, helping to bring the story to life. Who could ever forget any of the famous Star Wars musical themes?

Gaming is naturally the new frontier of entertainment. Sure, it’s been around for decades, but the way games and consoles are developing, it now feels like something for adults rather than just kids. It stands to reason too. Games are much deeper these days with strong and original narratives that make us think and feel. And because of that, gaming has become a medium for everyone.

Music in games has been on that journey too and it’s helped that development in a huge way. From the one-tone beat of Space Invaders to Sonic and Mario, music has developed along with the graphics that have impressed us with the release of every new console.

The first generation of PlayStation and Xbox was the real turning point. With the release of games like Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil, we were exposed to in-depth stories with twists and turns at every corner. While music had simply helped our enjoyment of platformers on previous consoles, it had now become vital to have the right soundtrack to bring this new way of storytelling to life. It couldn’t just be any old music either. It had to be a proper score, delivered by an orchestra of some size.

I’ve always enjoyed movies much more when they feature a score rather than something that’s in the charts. I mean, can you imagine The Avengers without the music of Alan Silvestri? How about Star Wars without John Williams pulling the strings? It just wouldn’t work.

When it comes to gaming, it goes deeper than that. We’re not just watching the action happen to someone else, we’re playing as that person, living through their experiences. Because of that, the music our developers choose is extremely important. In fact, it can turn an alright game into a brilliant one.

One of my favorite pieces of game music is a short piece that, due to its location, always gave me a huge sigh of relief. Navigating eerie corridors, fighting off monsters and uncovering a corporate catastrophe leaves you on edge and the right music at the right time can either make you jump or relax you completely. That’s why I love the Save Room music from Resident Evil 2. It was soft and harrowing but I knew that I was safe as long as I was in that room.

That’s the kind of impact that music can have, but it’s developed even more since I nearly wet myself every time the Licker leaped through the window of the Interrogation Room.

These days, games are much bigger than they used to be and the music that accompanies them has followed suit. We now live in a world where each game has its own scored soundtrack. It’s not just an afterthought either because some of the most amazing music I’ve heard recently has come from games. My favorite soundtrack at the moment is that of Horizon: Zero Dawn. Sure, it’s probably because it’s all I’m playing right now, but it genuinely is amazing. Less recently, Austin Wintory wowed us with his soundtrack for Journey and that was made even more special with the complete lack of dialogue in the game. Those two games on their own are shining examples of the power that music has in games.

Whole worlds are being created by extremely talented studios and those worlds wouldn’t thrive as strongly without the composers we sometimes take for granted. It doesn’t even have to be huge games like Horizon or The Witcher 3 either. Even first-person shooters are getting in on the act. There was a time I couldn’t stop listening to the Battlefield 1 soundtrack. It’s fast-paced in parts, slower in others, and is generally just a rollercoaster that fits the game perfectly.

We have some wonderful music that’s coming out of gaming and even with the great pieces we’ve mentioned, gaming music still feels like it’s the forgotten brother of movie scores. It gets nowhere near the same exposure and it’s a huge shame because I really think it’s something that’s there to be enjoyed whether you play games or not. Hopefully, though, this is starting to change.

Classic FM, a UK based radio station now has a weekly show dedicated to symphonic video game music. It’s a giant leap in a wonderful direction that’s giving gaming music a platform from which to shine. What makes the show really work is its presenter. The station hasn’t just gone with a household name that likes a bit of Mario Kart. No, the presenter is none other than the Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture composer and The Chinese Room co-founder: Jessica Curry.

Having her in place provides a solid foundation delivered by an industry expert. It’s a wonderful way to celebrate the time and effort that goes into gaming music and I sincerely hope that it’s only the beginning of some real recognition.

I suppose the real way to look at it is that if we’re enjoying it as gamers, it doesn’t really matter. Creating great art isn’t about recognition, it’s about the impact you have on the people it touches no matter how many or how few. I just think that we gamers are a proud race and we want others to see the benefits of the world we inhabit. We love the things we experience when we turn on our consoles and we just want to share it with others whether that be stunning visuals, a compelling story or some breath-taking music.

Owain on Twitter

I’m a proud Welshman that gets as much time on my PS4 as my fiancé allows me.

I’m also a massive foodie, big sports fan and currently preparing for the upcoming zombie apocalypse. To read my ramblings, feel free to follow me on Twitter.

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