Admittedly, I don’t know much of anything about music. Like technically speaking, I’m pretty ignorant. I love music, lots of different kinds of music-you know, like a human . But I can’t read it, I’ve never studied it for very long or very deeply, and my 2 year-old godson makes better music on his dad’s drum set than I do with the handful of guitar chords I know. What I do know is that music has been inextricably linked to powerful experiences in my memory. I know that it doesn’t take hearing more than a single note (for the sake of believability I’ll say two notes together, but it’s really one) for me to know when somebody in another room just changed the channel past Jurassic Park on TV (back when that used to happen, before they went and commoditized my whole childhood.) While many of these emotional ties are to real life experiences (“Lightning Crashes” by Live reminds me of camping in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens), a great number of them come from media (I once heard a jazz band drift into a cover of the X-Men cartoon theme song and I freaked out) and of those, a high percent are related to games. Thinking about it now, I should make a running playlist out of music from the Mega Man franchise because it always keeps my energy up. I’ve actually heard that music like it increases mental acuity and helps people focus but I’ve been unable to pin that down as having come from any legitimate research, as many sources I’ve read, like this one, go something like, “we all know that video game music is actually designed to keep you going and not distract you” but never corroborate that claim with anything more reliable than word of mouth and the presumed uniformity of our shared experience. While that sounds a little thin to me academically, I can’t deny identifying with the position. For any reader who has never played through say, Mega Man II, let me tell you- it’s really hard. I don’t think I’ve ever beaten it. More than that, I don’t think a coalition of my best and most trusted friends, gamers all, have ever beaten it- as children or adults. But we’ve played it, and played it for untold hours over a period of decades. The experience never changes and the levels are the same no matter what order you play them in, yet every time we take control of the unwieldily titular man-bot we are on the edge of our seats and laser-focused. How can this possibly be, that an experience that we’ve been sharing literally completely unaltered for about 25 years, still grips us as it did when we were small? The white-knuckled controller grip is the same, the full-body muscle tensing is the same, the creeping, deadly palm-sweating is the same. But why? Why aren’t we bored? Sure it could be that we, seasoned veterans all, are hyper-conscious of the razor-thin margin of victory we can expect to achieve, and that one split second misstep, change in direction, hesitation, or miscalculated button pressure (collectively referred to as a “freak out” or not “having it”) is all it takes to turn a glorious triumph into a regrettable setback. But part of the reason we might care so much about the daunting victory conditions laid before us is the constantly surging, ever repeating 8-bit encouragement of the Mega Man score. Whether there is science behind this idea or my friends and I have an unnatural commitment to something we shouldn’t, the music from Mega Man always makes me feel like focusing up and moving fast, and this isn’t an isolated experience. The reality is that this is one of the lighter associations that exist between my memory and music in games.
It goes without saying that everyone’s emotional experience of a game is going to be different, if only subtly. It would be naive of me to assume tat everyone has the EXACT same emotional experience when playing a given game, even a given sequence with a game, so I will not try and represent my experience as universal, only mine. But I will not say that other players don’t, in all likelihood, have some emotional response to he gaming stimuli that I’m talking about. Because all but the oldest games (and I’m never talking about them) include music to some degree, many of those experiences will be linked to the game’s score or soundtrack. Other game scores and soundtracks can put a little pep in my step, or reach me emotionally on even an otherwise unremarkable day. There’s a sound, a little progression of just a few notes, that players of The Legend of Zelda know by heart and that to non-players it will do no good to describe. The music, which in the game world announces the discovery of a secret, thrills my heart. Whether in the original 8-bit (link) or as part of an orchestral arrangement (link), it arrests my attention whenever or wherever I hear it. When it announces the receipt of a text message on someone’s phone at school or in a cafe or on the subway, I’ll immediately scan the area, looking for the source like I’m snacking a crowd of strangers for the face of an old friend. It’s not something I think about; I’m not looking for someone in particular, but a kindred, a comrade. It just happens, and I only catch myself once I’ve already begun doing it. Unconsciously, subconsciously- however, to my ear it’s a call to adventure.
That game’s music provides or reinforces an emotional experience for a player is a given. Scores and soundtracks support and help develop plot lines and game themes, and have virtually since the beginning of console gaming. For the original Super Mario Bros., composer Koji Kondo wrote a handful of pieces using the Nintendo Entertainment System’s admittedly limited capabilities that nonetheless provided thematic texture and support for the vivid and distinct tones and situations that make up the variable progression of events and levels on our 2-D plumber-hero’s journey to save Princess Peach and the Mushroom Kingdom from the nefarious Bowser. The iconic Overworld Theme (link) that backs the bright and colorful “outside” worlds is cheerful and encouraging. The Underworld Theme that accompanies the game’s darker, foreboding dungeon levels is proportionately bass-heavy and ominous. And the funny thing about it is, even people who have been playing this game and others like it since their release in the 1980’s probably have never spared a though for the music that has backed their many adventures over the years. I certainly haven’t. As I’ve said, it is alleged that game music has been written specifically to support focus and avoid distraction. So in a way, for the player to focus on it would be a failure for the composer. We must have forgotten about the endlessly repeating and technologically-limited scores of our favorite 8-bit games or they would have driven us (and our parents) crazy. However, that they supported game themes and emotional texture, that they were meant to at least, is simple fact. Music has for 30 years now been a vital layer of expression in the video game medium. Imagine playing SMB, if you can. Now imagine it without music. It’s weird, right? Something is missing. Without us even noticing it, game music has been shaping the resonant emotional experience we’ve been having with games for decades. As I say this, I know I’ve talked about acknowledging how much game music has effected me, but this was done reflectively. While I was consuming the product, having the experience, making the memory, I was unaware of just how great and impact these sounds would have. When I hear the score for The Legend of Zelda as an adult, I go looking for a horse to jump on, ready to be my best self and so good in the world, regardless of where I am or what I’m doing. Looking back, I felt that way when I heard the music while playing the game too, but I never thought about it applying to my real life. I guess it’s like a form of psychological conditioning, that hearing what to me is a call to adventure in a digital world has made me experience that stimulus as a call to adventure when I hear it in the real world.
Game music can direct gameplay and signify events, like when a dragon shows up in Skyrim or the clock is running down in Super Mario Bros., but the vast majority of the time game music is has a more indirect effect in that it effects the game’s tone or mood. The eerie, bluesy guitar-riff ambience of the score from The Last of Us evokes a world and characters that are familiar and relatable but at the same time frightening and unstable. By contrast, to beat a dead horse (sorry Epona), the score from The Legend of Zelda, with blaring horns and marshal tempo tell the player that they’re in for a grand adventure, and nothing over the horizon is too daunting to be overcome by courage and resourcefulness. I may be embellishing subjectively, but I believe the point stands up anyway.
How do you explain why music makes you feel what you feel? Why bother to try? It’s an arational emotional reaction to a subjective art. It always is. But for games it’s more than that. It ties back to an emotional experience, a moment of high tension and adrenaline and investment- to Kairi reaching across the growing void, telling you she knows that even across the endless disparate worlds, you’ll come back for her. To bursting out of Kokiri Forest and running free over Hyrule Field for the first time. Or if you like, to extend the example to film, to a young Luke Skywalker watching the binary suns set over the dunes, a long journey ahead. The music plays on you anyway, if you have an ear for orchestral music (not classical, right? That’s only Bach and Chopin, or something, if you’re fancy?), because that’s what it does. For game, the added layer of attachment comes from the suspension of disbelief that we didn’t actually participate in the moment. We remember the music as if from lived moments. As if we heard the music firsthand when we first laid eyes on Princess Zelda across the garden, when we ourselves drew our weapon to defeat Sephiroth. We forget we were in the TV room, the den, the rec room, the basement, and remember only the narrative moment, the white-knuckle grip, and the sweat creeping around our fingers. Or we remember happy times, with gathered friends, struggling to get through Quick Man’s stage in Mega Man II without getting blasted by those laser things. Taking turns, playing to our strengths by giving the controller to whoever was best at overcoming each obstacles. Endlessly repeating, the music ran behind all of that, adding texture and emotional attachment to our memory.
As I see it, music serves two functions in games. The first is directive. It signifies. It gives the player information, indicates a secret or prompts the player to take action. An example of this is the rewarding set of notes from the Zelda franchise that indicate you’ve discovered a secret. Other examples include the progression of notes from SMB right before the music speeds up that indicate to the player that 100 seconds are left on the clock, or the music the player hears in Skyrim when a dragon is looming near. All three of these examples tell the player something specific, and prompt them to act in gameplay: You’ve discovered a secret and you should investigate, time is running out and you have to cross the finish line, a powerful enemy is nearby and you need to prepare for an epic battle or run for your life. This third situation is actually an example of both the first function of music in games as well as the second, which is providing texture to the world and adding to the coherence and depth of the narrative and gameplay experience. In Skyrim, a dragon may appear at any time. A player might be guiding her avatar across the rugged terrain of the titular province hunting for rare mushrooms, approaching a new city, in the middle of an important mission, or already fighting any number of other creatures or people when the music shifts, indicating that a dragon is in the vicinity. It could be airborne, or on the far side of that hill in the distance, or attacking the city guard tower that you just left behind you. The instinct for the player is to stop and look around, and see where the threat is in relation to their avatar. In that way, the dragon music accomplishes the first objective of music- to direct. It tells the player something is happening and directs their action after. But it also provides the second purpose. The exciting score provides an epic sonic backdrop for a battle that is best described as mythical. The dragons in Skyrim are big- many times more massive than even the bulkiest orc a player can select as an avatar. Imagine like, if a train car grew wings and a tail and started breathing fire, and that would be not a bad comparison in terms of dimensions. As such, they are one of the more formidable types of opponent a player can come across. A battle with a dragon (which in the game are long-gone legends returned to life, visiting terror on the population on a grand scale) is meant to be a thrilling challenge, one that they player is by no means guaranteed to survive, especially early in the game. This music, then, that signals the arrival of the dragon also helps to set a tonal stage for the gameplay action to come. Depending on how far the player has gone along game’s main quest, it has been suggested that your avatar is the hero of prophecy, the only one who can end the dragon threat by absorbing the power of their very souls. The encounters extend this dramatic premise, and the score that accompanies them helps to support that feeling of uniqueness and excitement, of destiny and necessity, of duty and grandeur. This is a perfect example of the second function of music in games. The narrative moment that the developers are working to convey via visual design and gameplay is also carried in part by that moment’s soundtrack. In some cases this is easily done, like by licensing the original film score for use in a Star Wars game. It’s much easier to draw a fan into an exciting moment in gameplay when the music used is from an exciting moment in another well-loved piece of media that already exists. Who hasn’t wanted to be Luke Skywalker? When developers incorporate pieces of the film score into gameplay, they’re playing to the fan’s desire to live some of the exciting scenes from the film franchise. For us, living that moment absolutely means being backed by all of the horns and strings of that triumphant score, and when a game can deliver that, it can achieve a high degree of immersion and fan satisfaction.