The Role of Music in Videogames

8 bit music games

As in films, effective use (or lack of use) of music in videogames has proven to be the difference between a defining emotional climax reaching its full splendor, and what would have otherwise been captivating moment achieving the poignancy of a dried tomato (unless dried tomatoes actually bring you to tears, in which case I’m sure they satisfy your need for emotional storytelling to a far greater extent than any game). Just as the last few years has seen great strides in compelling videogame narrative, so too has its use of music seen rapid development.

But as all games must revolve around both storytelling and gameplay, its version of auditory accompaniment has proven itself wholly unique to this medium. The sophistication of electronic entertainment has come a long way since the days of 8-bit and MIDI soundtracks from classics such as Mario Bros. and the Legend of Zelda. Music alone has backed some of the greatest gaming moments of all time, however some titles have driven this a step further, building the entire core gameplay around musicality. This is my examination of music’s enormous role in videogames.

Around the late 1970’s when videogames first begun to emerge as a popular form of entertainment during the so-called ‘golden age’ of arcade videogames and the second generation of consoles (we are now entering the 8th generation with the Wii U, Xbox One and PS4), music was created via simple synthetic chips to generate musical sounds in the aptly named style: chiptune. Previously most videogames were totally silent or only contained extremely simple beeps and boops – such as in Atari’s Pong, released in 1972 – but as background music in videogames began to become expected by customers, developers capitalized directly on this growing trend with the release of the universally panned, Journey (I know what you’re thinking, but the 1983 version). Gamers played as photographs of the members of Journey placed on cartoon bodies were endeavoring to reunite with their instruments, but heard none of the bands actual music. Though still at its infancy at this time, the simplicity 8-bit music from this era surely invokes nostalgia for anyone who grew up during the 70’s and 80’s, even videogaming back then was far less a serious hobby as it is today and more a toy. I myself experience this same blast of nostalgia when I hear the opening theme of the original Playstation.

Excuse me while I hyperventilate due to the explosion of memories.

Over the years, music in videogames developed just as rapidly as its technology: it has become a good time to be a gamer. As well as a device to create atmosphere within the story and setting of each level, music has been used to directly communicate information to players in an artistic way, this leads me to unveil a musical beast unique to videogames: the dynamic soundtrack. First utilised in the revolutionary R.B.I. Baseball in 1987, dynamic soundtracks alter and flow based on the actions of the player. Musically, games such Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, can turn on a dime from a beautifully delicate violin melody as you gaze at a breathtaking aurora atop a snow capped mountain, to heavy masculine grunts and drums the instant you step into combat, often this change occurs before you’re even aware you’re under attack. This forces composers to go beyond the usual sensibilities of film composition, creating phrases that are both captivating enough to draw out the emotions of players, and precise enough to allow for a comfortable transition into the next song at a moments notice. Videogames are built on information just as surely as emotion, and this information must be communicated in a creative way. Even without a complex dynamic soundtrack, music can communicate information as simple as winning a level or a game over. These sounds can become even more memorable than the games themselves. EVERYONE knows exactly what to expect as soon as this music reaches his or her ears:

Pokemon Gold & Silver Music - Wild Pokemon Battle

Another god-awful, annoying battle with a useless wild Rattata.

However like in film, creating atmosphere is a far greater function for music to serve than simple communication of information. Creating an immersive fiction in which to set the narrative is a key duty for any developer looking to create a popular and acclaimed videogame, and music is a huge part of achieving this immersion. Whether its diagetically (experienced directly by the character) such as the radio stations in Grand Theft Auto 5, or non-diagetically, such as the exquisite, symphonic backing score of Journey (1983 version), appropriate music can speak volumes about the world of the protagonist, especially through era-appropriate music such as that of Hotline Miami, which features a pounding 80’s-esc accompaniment. At the perfect moments in the struggles of the characters, and when the visuals and atmosphere are splendidly established, music can directly manipulate our emotions and play them like a game of Monopoly. The Last of Us was beautiful in many ways, but its grasp of musicality in the context of a videogame narrative was just unparalleled.

*Spoilers in this video*

The Last of Us Sam and Henry's death

The brutal intensity of this scene is incredibly juxtaposed by the simple guitar melody that follows it, ushering in the new season on a black screen. We experience stories and the lives of fictional characters because we want to feel. We want to cry over the loss of characters we love, or laugh when they achieve their wildest dreams – perhaps to distract us from confronting the real emotions we so readily avoid in our everyday life. One thing is for certain though, there is no situation, real or imaginary, that can’t be improved with music, or pizza. (Daria fans? Anyone get that joke?)

Rhythm games take the direct use of music a step further, spawning an entire genre around its performance and lifestyle, the quintessential examples being Guitar Hero and Rockband. Gamers mashed plastic buttons on a plastic guitar for hundreds of hours during Guitar Hero’s golden age, prompting Rockband to allow users to play together as an entire plastic band! These games allowed people’s fantasies of rock-god stardom to come to life in a far more direct way than had ever been experienced before thanks to the iconic set of instrumental imitations, and most of all the soundtracks. Beginning with a lineup of reliable rock staples from David Bowie to Franz Ferdinand, the popularity of these two franchises quickly saw its devotion of entire titles to specific bands or eras, such as Guitar Hero: Aerosmith or The Beatles: Rock Band, allowing players to virtually fill the shoes and cover the songs of their favourite musicians without any of the tedium of actual practice. A few years later Ubisoft would take this premise considerably further with Rocksmith, released in 2012, which allowed players to connect any electric guitar (or bass guitar after an expansion) to their console and jam Guitar Hero style whilst actually sweetening their musical chops. Whether or not Rocksmith is a videogame per say or a very polished piece of instructional software is debatable, however it has proven itself to be an effective and entertaining introduction to guitar playing, granting players countless hours of real experience as well a wide selection of virtual amps and pedals to customize the soundscape of the instrument.

Despite my love of movies, TV and videogames, music is uncompromisingly my favourite form of expression. Like billions around the world, it speaks to me on such a deeply profound level that I just couldn’t imagine life without it, but it really shines through its infection of visual storytelling. Who could forget that dismally beautiful montage in Good Morning Vietnam where the worst of humanity was set to What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong, or Jamie N Commons: Lead Me Home in The Walking Dead as Michonne, Rick and his son, Carl drive through the decaying world in which they are forced to survive. Who could forget the landing in Mexico at the halfway-point of Red Dead Redemption? John Marston – a stranger in a foreign land, attacked by bandits before he even sets foot on their soil; forced to mercilessly hunt down his former companions – he rides into the sunset on his stead with a revolver in its holster to the tune of the windy, distinctive voice of Jose Gonzalez’s Far Away, and it is breathtaking. Up until then, the soundtrack of this game was typical western guitar-twang and rugged riffs. It didn’t even seem real when the folky, minimalistic Far Away tuned into the background, overpowering the galloping horse and the distant steam train. It seemed as if it was a dream, but this impeccably crafted moment was real, it happened. Through the simple addition of a song at the perfect time, the act of riding a horse through the desert of Mexico became one of the greatest moments in any videogame I’ve ever played. And it was all thanks to music.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Yo, what's up? I'm a journo from Australia (staya) trying to expose a local ring of bogan druglords, and also write about film, TV, games, literature, arts and maybe Anime.

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  1. The music of Chrono-Trigger. Say no more.

  2. runclesam

    This is a very nice, almost personal, piece, enjoyed reading. I found Kingdom Hearts 1 had some great BGM’s. Everything from the battle themes to the slow and melodic tracks. Especially the opening theme. Ranks as one of the highest in my books.

  3. Rebecca Wong

    Music in games is really important to me. Games like Dead Space need that music to create its atmosphere and are really important. FFXIII’s soundtrack is phenomenal and its one of my personal favorites; music can influence how much I like/appreciate a game to some degree. I often think it gets overlooked too much.

    • Lachlan Vass

      How crazy are those moments when you enter the vacuum of space and all you hear is muffled gunshots and Isaac’s breathing.
      Only thing better than a game that knows when to use music effectively is a game that knows when not to use it.

  4. Santiago

    Best game soundtrack recently for me was the Walking Dead game, it really knew how to build the tension and episode two was the greatest example. As the story progressed so did the appearance of the environment and the soundtrack behind it and I still like to play through that episode, purely for that reason.

  5. The full orchestral treatments of game themes are the best.

  6. In my experience the music is often reflective of gameplay and can provide important audio cues to the player.

  7. Wild Pokemon Battle is the most epic ringtone ever. I’d be like walking down the street and suddenly whip out a pokeball and go “I CHOOSE YOU PIKACHU!”

    • Lachlan Vass

      You should set all your contact photos to other Pokemon so its like a pokemon battle everytime! (Magikarp obviously for your least favourite contact)

  8. Mamie Pope

    Great piece, I agree completely. Music is a huge component of what makes a game great. When I think back to my favorite moments in games, I also think of the fantastic scores that went with it. From entering Rapture in Bioshock to ‘Power’ playing when I jumped out of a helicopter in Saints Row 3 to returning to Earth with a massive fleet behind me in Mass Effect 3, each one of these moments was made all the more awesome by their music.

  9. Music is imperative to the overall atmosphere of a game. One can not help but to be brought to an emotional level. The melody helps with the immersion.

    Would you really be scared if Resident Evil games had weird jazz or pop music in their–*Sees Resident Evil 6*—uhhh….Okay what I mean to say is…Would the old games have scared you if the atmosphere was not entirely breathtaking and horrific? The eerie ambiance of the gently playing piano, in Resident Evil 2’s Police Station, broken by sudden bass drops and crashes to synthesize and simulate doors crashing somewhere in the station. The sudden music change when Nemesis is closeby in Resident Evil 3.

    And the most important thing about musical cues is that they work like real life. When playing Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, sometimes the battle music plays before you see an enemy. This is the equivalent of if you were walking and heard footsteps close behind you in the dead of night. You know shit is about to go down.

    Without the music, we’d be left with maybe a quarter of the product. It’s the speeding up, that alerts you of time counting down. It’s the slowing down or distortion to let you know you’re under water. It’s the victory music and fanfare that makes you feel like you’re actually achieving something in a JRPG. (Otherwise it would just be endless leveling in repeats of the exact same dungeon)

  10. A game without music is like a life without meaning. It is impossible for me to say why I love it so much, but I do. I also feel that the right songs following the end of a game to play with the credits can accentuate that game’s excellence. For me no game did better than Mass Effect 1.

  11. Great post, man. Music is very important in video games. It really adds to the atmosphere of a level sometimes, and some video game themes can be great to listen to.

  12. Kayleigh Hall
    Kayleigh Hall

    Great article; I especially want to thank you for that blast from the past with the PlayStation start-up music, oh the memories!
    I only recently got round to playing the Bioshock series and one of the main things that really stuck with me was the fantastic use of music within the games.
    The greatest example of incredible game scoring I can think of has to be the work Akira Yamaoka has done for the Silent Hill series. Despite the narratives being incredible, I don’t think they’d be half the games without his input, and so it’s a real shame that with Downpour they stepped away from the type of work he’s done in the past, instead choosing to use a Korn song as it’s main theme. The OSTs for Silent Hill 1-4 are particularly good purchases if you ever come across them, you can listen to them again and again.

  13. Bastion soundtrack is the game soundtrack to end all game soundtracks.

  14. Pooi Yee

    Great article! I agree with you that music in games can definitely help create a sense of immersion as well as enhancing gameplay experience. I remember staring at the Final Fantasy X’s title screen for ages just to listen to the soothing music plays before diving myself into fighting monsters and aeons. And who could forget the epic music of GuildWars 2 that have sent shivers down our spine, that made us feel as if we were really the “chosen one” to save Kryta. However, music could ruin a game too, I mean… who approve the indefinite tune of “I want to take you for a ride…” in Marvel Vs. Capcom 2? Really… who???

  15. The music in the Sims is the best ! 🙂

  16. Great article!

  17. Jordan

    God, we’re up to generation 8 of games??? That makes me feel super old. Almost like when I saw a Dad at Melbournes Technology Museum explain to his 3 year old what a Nintendo 64 was.
    Great article 🙂

  18. HariMackinnon

    Very good stuff! I was actually thinking just the other day that the “indie darlings” released in recent years have had uniformly insane scores! Often times, it seems to me, filling in for the lack of meticulous graphical fidelity in terms of creating atmosphere. Braid, Super Meat Boy, Bastion, Swords&Sworcery, FTL, Thomas Was Alone, Hotline Miami….like, how many amazing musicians are there?

    Also I think there was an extra credits episode awhile ago about the changing styles of video-game music, basically looking at the idea of central, memorable motifs ala The Megaman/Zelda Theme, and why that became deemphasised but was now coming back into vogue. Great thoughts/memories came out of reading this so thanks.

  19. An interesting developmental history of music in video games. It evolved over-time from “beeps and boops” to being fully orchestrated or even dynamic as you mentioned earlier. Some video game music composers such as Koji Kondo have actually achieved an astounding level of fame because their music is good enough to listen to on its own, without the game.

  20. Really interesting and helpful, though one question: What are the names of the videos that don’t exist? Thanks

  21. I loved both your history summary and your personal experiences. Especially important is your mention of the idea of ‘immersion’ in regards to music. Immersion is to me the most important goal of video games and music may be the biggest factor when it comes to pulling it off. Great read!

  22. Alice Carroll

    You made a good point that immersion is often the most important thing to accomplish when it comes to adding music to other forms of media. A friend and I are thinking about making an indie game soon so I’ve been thinking about adding all sorts of atmospheric accents that will help polish the experience. Perhaps we will need to get a custom piano arrangement service because the storyline we are trying to go for can be a bit melancholic in some parts.

  23. Similar to movies, music helps set the emotive/actional tone in video games.

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