Continuing my series of ‘Complaining About Games And Their Lack Of Certain Aspects’, I thought I’d talk about the use of music in modern games. I use the term ‘music’ as an all-encompassing one which includes both pre-set soundtracks and the now widely-used dynamic system of changing the music to match the action on screen. However, first I’ll be looking at the soundtrack system.
I’ve written about World of Goo before, even to the extent of mentioning the soundtrack, so I hesitate to mention it too heavily this time, but it really is a great example of how soundtracks can affect your mood in a game – in particular tracks such as Regurgitation Pumping Station and Red Carpet Extend-o-Matic – and how a little talent can go a long way. And, risking sounding like a broken record, I have to mention Grim Fandango again for its outstanding jazz soundtrack which complements the mood of the game so perfectly, and plays right into the whole satire of the film noir genre that the game centres around. In fact, those two games are my only two game soundtracks in my music collection.
A mention also has to go out to Fallout 3 here, for the music on the Galaxy News Radio station, which comprises of a number of songs that are just perfect for the setting Bethesda are trying to create. The one thing I wish for that soundtrack is that there were more songs like them. For a game which you can spend hundreds of hours roaming the land, suddenly 20 songs doesn’t seem as many. Finally, I’m sure a lot of gamers will be intimately familiar with the orchestral score of the Halo series – one of the finer points about the games in my opinion. While the second and third games in the series were debatably duplicated-but-shinier versions of the original, the soundtrack was very strong throughout, so much so that the theme song was later released as a downloadable song on Guitar Hero 3, and was one of the most popular of any downloads for that game.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are games that do not have particularly amazing soundtracks, but get by with one particularly good flagship song. Notable games of recent years that did this include Portal, whose song Still Alive, by the ever talented Jonathan Coulton, was something of a cult hit for a while, and more recently Mirror’s Edge whose song (also called Still Alive, coincidentally) has been adorning the adverts, menus and ending of the game, with instrumental versions running in the background during play. This technique, while affective at getting people to think about those songs often, and by extension the game associated with it, doesn’t really add anything to the game itself, and almost seems like a wasted opportunity to really pack a musical punch, as it were, for the gamers to enjoy.
When used properly, soundtracks can be used to draw you into a world where mere graphics and physics cannot. Due to our exposure to music almost from birth, and the huge cultural background that we have to the medium, we are programmed to feel certain emotions depending on the music playing. It can help us achieve the mood a game wants us to feel, give us a better feel for the environment we are inhabiting, even if only for a short while, and even help make us care for characters that otherwise we would have little to empathise with. It is truly the best way to speak to the masses on a single level.
On Hitman: Blood Money, the score helps the player to feel the decay of his surroundings – the orchestral score clashing with the garish surroundings of the places he is sent (a casino, a mansion, a rich American suburb, a plush theatre) allowing you to feel the cold detachment that the hitman is meant to feel towards his target. This example shows how soundtracks can really be used to great affect, and with such subtlety that the player will never notice on a casual play through. These won’t be the memorable soundtracks, and possibly won’t be remembered as even particuarly good, but they are the most important. If developers remember that they are creating an art form and start acting like one, they could create something to truly rival the depth and meaning found in film. We aren’t quite there yet, but we’re getting close.
And while we’re talking of soundtracks, I thought I’d give a little plug for an up and coming Source engine mod called Ivan’s Secrets. They’ve just released their soundtrack for free, which can be found here.