14 December, 2009

Observations on Music

written by Blain Newport on Sunday, December 13, 2009

Music is vital.

Music is tone.

Music is setting.

Music is pace.

Music is vital.

Just keep repeating that mantra until the words lose their meaning, and you'll have a vague impression of how I feel about music in games. It's so inextricably linked to the feel of a game, it's sometimes more important to the experience than the mechanics.

Blaster Master contains some good examples. The game forces you to abandon your tank and swim until you can find an underwater propulsion system. The process of exploring and fighting underwater can get pretty tedious once the novelty wears off. But the tone set by the bubbly music is how I remember that part of the game. By the same token, the sewer area that played okay but had music that sounds like the before music from an ad for intestinal gas medication I do not remember so fondly.

The ending credits of Mass Effect are another example. For me, there was as much drama in the song that plays over them as in the rest of the game put together. Part of the reason I played through that game a second time was to see if that feeling was hidden somewhere inside it, which indicates another aspect of music.

Music creates subtext. Doing the exact same actions but for different reasons is one of the best ways to get more mileage out of the same mechanics. One stealth section may feel like a desperate escape while another feels like a cunning plan swinging into action just because of different music. It's best if the story, animation, level design, and mechanics reinforce those feelings. But music can carry a lot of weight by itself, when necessary.

A lot of times I overlook the music for a game. If a game's broken, music can't save it. And if a game's great, the music just reinforces the experience. It's generally only in mediocre games with good music that it really stands out.

Oh dip! Did I just call Blaster Master (the game who's protagonist I use for my forum avatar) mediocre? Twenty years later, it really is. But the music's still good. :) (Well, from some stages.)

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