Settling the Score – what does the music in games do?

After viewing Dak0ta this week in class, I started thinking more about the role music plays in a narrative.

Specifically, video games.

The way the music from Dak0ta accompanied the fast paced scrolling of the text really emphasized the intensity of the story.  Without the bouncy jazz music, my impression would have been a lot different.  Watching it without music made Dak0ta seem a lot more confusing and disjointed.  In my opinion, the music really brought it full circle and sealed the author’s intent.


Video game music works in the same way.  Imagine a video game without music.  There are some out there, but their lack of music is deliberate, such as in Limbo.  The sound director for  Limbo says  that: “For me it has a much bigger psychological impact when you turn a naturalistic soundscape into abstraction by making your sound effects play as “music” rather than adding some traditional background music.” (source).  A lot of players need music to feel as if they’re really immersed in their virtual environment.

I wanted to talk about four different types of music that I’ve noticed in popular games and what it does for the player.


1. Battle music

The song in the video is from one of my personal favorite franchises, the Legend of Zelda.  It’s played during small-scale battles with various creatures that you run into and evokes an intense feeling of adrenaline.  The fast paced tempo accompanied with notes that seem to flutter and “jump” around really solidify the idea of a fight.  Once this music kicks on, it takes you from a state of neutral exploration to one of desperation and survival.

2. Scenery/Setting changes

Arguably the best music of it’s time, Super Mario 3 has a great score that really takes you to a different world.  In this video, the Underwater theme sounds as if it’s actually being listened to while you’re in water.  It kicks on when you go from land to sea, thereby changing the perspective of the player from one of land-based play to that of underwater, which uses a different style of controls.  The music helps to transition from one setting to another.


3. “Hey, this is important”  or “you did something awesome”

Skyrim contains such a vast amount of possibilities and quest lines that no doubt was it difficult to construct a specific score.  However, during dragon battles, a totally new type of music begins.  While this example is similar to example one, there are differences.  As the Dovahkiin, your biggest mission in the game is to eliminate the dragon threat.  Every dragon battle is essentially a boss fight and they are very important to furthering the main storyline of the game.  The end, where you defeat the dragon (not included in this video) produces a loud crescendo that signifies your victory and accumulation of the dragon’s soul.  A lot of games use music that is seemingly louder and more intense to show an important event in the storyline.


4. Suspense or fear

I’m not particularly a fan of horror games (in short, they scare me) but I recognize the importance that their soundtrack has.  The feeling of fear that creepy string music produces only adds to the creepiness of the gameplay itself.  Lots of games (such as F.E.A.R and Resident Evil) use this technique to signify that something scary is about to happen.



  3 comments for “Settling the Score – what does the music in games do?

  1. February 7, 2012 at 10:12 pm

    Music in videogames is certainly an important part of how they tell stories. You might even consider it a topic worthy of a journal article. 🙂

    Have you played Portal 2? It isn’t the first game to do this (Ocarina of Time does, to an extent), but I really enjoyed how they used aspects of the testing arena to generate musical patterns that wove in and out of the main score as you approach or move away from them. Each of the elements — light bridges, faith plates, etc. — seem to emit a signature musical figure of their own. So, they’re part of the space, but the effect of, say, turning on a light bridge at the right moment, has a “dramatic moment” effect within your specific experience of playing that level. It’s quite well done, I thought.

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