The aphorism is that a picture tells a thousand words. I’d contend that a piece of music can do more than that. From tinny 2 bit bleeps to the present day the soundtrack has been an accompaniment to games for almost as long as games have been around. It’s taken considerably longer however, for them to gain much in the way of artistic credibility or recognition. Having more than a few years of classical piano by the time I turned 10, it’s safe to say I had a reasonable appreciation for music from a young age. While my keyboard has become qwerty rather than black and white, my enjoyment of music has only grown over the years.
It was years ago that I felt a queasy thrill of horror the first time I played Sensory Overload and heard the music pumping as enemies approached while I crept through the corridors. The synth laden techno coming out of the tinny little speakers on our old Apple PowerPC5500 helped to bring the creepy sci-fi setting to life that much more. I never managed to finish the game but the soundtrack stayed with me for a long time. I ended up digging through Tomb Raider 2’s program folder to find the files containing game’s soundtrack. All because one of the cheesy techno tracks that played through a snowmobile sequence grabbed me so much I just had to keep listening to it (a thought occurs that my later love of electronic music may have its’ beginnings here). Or the bombastic orchestral stylings of Warcraft 2, matched so perfectly with the equally cheesy high fantasy. In all of these games the experience of playing and the memories of fun I’d had became intimately tied to the music of the soundtrack.
In more recent times it’s become more common to do away with the traditional synth heavy game soundtrack in favour of a more film-traditional score. This has come about partly through advances in technology, but also through the vast increase in revenue that big-budget games can generate. But the power of association with a positive gaming experience remains a constant. So I credit GTA: San Andreas’s Playback FM & Radio Los Santos with introducing me to classic hip-hop like Eazy-E and Slick Rick, not to mention Da Lench Mob. Just listening to those tracks, I’m back on the sunny streets of Los Santos. The music matched so perfectly to the game world that the association is almost impossible to break. To this day I still love oldschool hip hop and without San Andreas, I might never have heard ‘Warm it up Kane’, a fate worse than death indeed.
Mass Effect’s superb soundtrack springs to mind as a standout of the last five years of gaming. I keep harping on about Mass Effect (almost unfashionable these days) but the original really did stand out as a gaming experience for me. Unpolished and rough though it may have been in the final analysis, it was nonetheless a compelling experience. The soundtrack by Jack Wall & Sam Hulick was a large part of what brought about the feeling of ‘playing a film’ which made the series so impressive. The stirring score as you address your crew on the Normandy for the first time. The martial glory of the theme that plays as you’re inducted into the Spectres and the haunting music that plays as you discover the ruins of a Prothean colony all play perfectly to the filmic tropes the game embodies. While the soundtracks from the sequels were still really good, I felt like the clean and melodic sound of the original was a huge part of what made it such a compelling gaming experience.
Sometimes music acts best not as a smooth accompaniment to the game but as a jarring counterpoint. One example that springs to mind is the club scene in the Syndicate remake which featured a brutal fight through an upmarket nightclub. The player’s character and rival security forces skirmish amongst a growing number of graphically slaughtered club patrons and security personnel. The scenes of carnage are accompanied by a euphoric house soundtrack and an impressive lighting display creating a sense of cognitive dissonance that serves to heighten the impact on the player.
This isn’t to say that music is the be-all and end-all of a gaming experience. One of the most interesting experiences I had was on my first (aborted) play through of Skyrim. I’d read an article somewhere which had talked about the power of silence and turning off the music on a Skyrim play through to just hear the sound of the world on its own. Suddenly the sounds like insects and birds cut clear through silence punctuated only by my footfalls and the breathing of my character. The lack of music wasn’t a void so much as a blank canvas on which the sounds of the world painted themselves. I finished the experiment impressed with the subtlety with which a lack of music can make you feel grounded in a game world.
Recently a soundtrack that caught my ear was that of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. While I may have been less than in love with many aspects of the game, the soundtrack was impressive. For me it distilled the essence of the future the game created. Moody and evocative of a chaotic, violent and desperate struggle to control the direction of humanity’s evolution, Michael McCann’s soundtrack blends seamlessly with the neon splashed streets strewn with the dispossessed human wreckage of an uncaring future. It’s safe to say that without the soundtrack a fair proportion of the atmospheric quality of Human Revolution would have been lost.
It takes a lot more to make a good game than just a soundtrack and the soundtrack is probably one of the last things people think about when buying a game. But the right soundtrack can do more than just accompany a game. A standout soundtrack will entwine itself with the environment and gameplay to create a more emotionally engaging and powerful experience. For a vicarious thrill-seeker like me, that’s what gaming is all about. Well, that and dubstep game trailers, obviously *cough*…