Liam Collins ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
TJ Williams, a 20-year-old gaming enthusiast and Bay State Technical School student, had devoted more than 23 hours into Dark Souls before he completed his first playthrough. Williams had come far in his journey across Lordran, the game’s fictitious setting, but all adventures have some manner of ending. Dark Souls’ conclusion was one final foe. “Hearing the music, knowing that everything I had gone through had come to this final battle, made the hours of falling off platforms, getting stabbed by skeletons, and being burned by lava all worth it in the end,” Williams says. “And when I look back to that moment, the music is always there with it.”
Many of the unforgettable moments in video games are remembered through their music. The boss theme that accompanies the final battle with Gwyn, the Lord of Cinder, is one of many representations of how the utilization of music with the story enhances an experience. Rather than an ominous cacophony of an orchestra or a triumphant battle theme, the piano present in the battle is rather haunting. The god of sunlight had dwindled away, and the music Motoi Sakuraba, the composer for Dark Souls, composed was all too fitting.
The role that music plays is definitive in video games. Music creates atmosphere. Music’s role is as pervasive as it is powerful. A video game is only as timeless as its music, and the best music captures the emotions of the player. A player’s appreciation for a game is influenced by the quality of its musical character.
Earl Gertwagen, a UC Santa Barbara graduate and designer for the California-based game developer Lab 0, is solid in his belief of the importance of music in video games. “Music in games is one of the glues that keeps a game together,” he says. “It is one of the things that, in its absence, can be more striking than its presence. Music is one of the components that can make a game vastly more or less enjoyable.”
The appreciation for video game music has progressed into the contemporary age in a notable way. The synthesized melodies and themes from 20 years ago continue to be replayed and reused in the newest generation of video games. Themes like the prelude from Final Fantasy, composed by Nobuo Uematsu, can still be heard in the latest games of the series. Composers like Koji Kondo, who wrote the music for the Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda series’, and Martin O’ Donnell, best known for his work in the Halo series, have created soundtracks that define entire franchises. People know the Super Mario Bros. theme song even if they have never played the game.
There is iconography within music that gives meaning to an in-game experience. In the pantheon of great video games, titles like Kingdom Hearts, Bioshock, Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger and Street Fighter are among many that are remembered and recognized by their music. Music defines immersion as much as the gameplay or art. It diminishes the distance between the player and what happens on the screen, enhancing a player’s connection to the virtual world. Music heightens atmosphere, reinforces emotion, and conveys meaning as the game is played. That is what the perfect gaming experience should be.
Jay Vachon, a game developer and programmer working with Emerson College’s Engagement Game Lab (an applied research lab that designs and studies video games as a way to playfully approach civic engagement), says that this is the power of music. “Music shapes the experience. It affects your emotional attachment to the game. It influences the meaning you derive from it,” he says. Moments like the final mission of Halo 3, the raising of the Soviet flag at the end of Call of Duty: World at War, and the epilogue of The Last of Us are so memorable and loved because of the deliberate thought put into sound design. Music has that effect on the player experience.
No other style of popular media does music like video games. The music in movies, although recognized on a wider scale, is static. Moviegoers watch scenes that are scripted; the music is written to fit the storytelling. For video games, static music is only found in scenes in which the player has no control, such as game introductions, endings, and cutscenes. Though players enjoy the beautiful cinematics in games like StarCraft and Shadows of Mordor, these scenes are quite few in number. Video games are dynamic, and there is no accurate prediction of how much time a player will spend running around in Mass Effect or waiting in the character select screen of Super Smash Bros. In games that heavily rely on music as both a narrative and world-building device, as in Journey or Flow, the player can find a whole new experience different to the one they had in Gears of War. Games like Shadow of the Colossus reveal a beauty through the interworking nature of their music and gameplay. All the elements fall into place to enhance the player’s appreciation of that game. “There are so many untapped ways that people can play games that transcend the boundaries that define ways humans can interact and connect through entertainment,” Gertwagen says. “The medium of passive entertainment can’t really replicate this.”
Music is a universal language anyone can speak, though it does not always get the recognition it deserves in video games. People do not buy video games for their music, though the musical score is always crucial. Many people credit video game success to the visual elements of the game, but visuals only go so far. Players don’t realize it while they are playing, but games would not be the same without the myriad of ways music affects the setting. Music is another character in the story, adding subtext and depth. It is not just background noise.
Each part of a game is important. But, it takes great music to make a great game. The best games and series all have amazing soundtracks. Great music is what lives on with the player, even when the game ends. “Music makes gaming more of an emotional experience,” says Matt Lewis, a sophomore student and filmmaker at Emerson College. “It is not just something that you do, it is something that you feel.”