Music (Part 1)

Upon reflection, one of the common themes of games that I really like comes down to an emphasis on music to enhance the video game experience. Huh?

Distant Worlds

This might sound weird to you folks who read Theology Gaming regularly, especially those who actually take the time to read my reviews. At no point do I ever usually mention a game’s musical backdrop, sound design, or aesthetics except in the barest of senses – I honestly don’t know whether that’s just me trying to be objective, or whether that’s an aspect of a game worth covering. But, rest assured if I give a game a high rating or high praise of any sort, I tend to enjoy those elements of the game as well. I’m not sure whether they attract me to said games, or whether I just find myself enjoying them over the dozens of hours spent with that game in particular, but it’s most definitely important!

Just for example, the time spent in JRPGs often comes down to listening to a very, very, very long soundtrack while traveling from location to location. As you know, often you’re moving between locations in these games to trigger the next plot point; usually, then, the developers of said games have the wherewithal to place music appropriate to the spots where you travel that fit the mood. On an overworld map, they usually place a triumphant theme of adventure or travel. It’s hard to describe, exactly, what makes for an effective traveling theme, but I’ve played enough JRPGs to know what works! Tales games give us the prototypical overworld theme, none more so than Tales of Vesperia (a favorite Tales game of mine):

In the case of post-apocalypse, probably something a little bit moodier as in Final Fantasy VI’s World of Ruin fits the bill. Music can really give a sense of place, both physical and emotional, that can’t be achieved in any other way. Video games give us spaces to inhabit, and the dulcet tones behind produce a certain emotional reaction in us, willingly or unwillingly:

Since you’ll fight a lot of battles in-between here and there, the battle music had better pump you up for the myriad encounters you will face. The player hears this theme over, and over, and over again, so you can imagine composers work incredibly hard to make sure that the music never becomes boring over a period of 30+ hours. I can’t imagine how long Yasunori Mitsuda worked on the battle theme for Chrono Trigger, but it certainly worms its way into your head after a dozen hours:

Similarly, the boss fight music needs to give the encounter appropriate intensity that encourages tension that’s thematically appropriate. Hiroki Kikuta’s work on Secret of Mana, just for example, probably gotten beaten into my head over the course of trying to beat the Spiky Tiger:

Music really is the unsung hero of the JRPG experience, and it’s partly why people love the genre so much.

But, of course, that doesn’t limit music’s influence to simply one genre. A host of other games also use music in ways that emphasize the thematic notes of a game’s story. NieR uses this to great effect in the Song of the Ancients, which repeats at a revelatory moment in the story with a vastly different form. Just compare the first version of this theme:

With one of the later versions. It’s pretty emotionally affecting (as is the whole climax of NieR, if I’m honest), and part of the reason is this unusual, eccentric, sui generis soundtrack that you can’t find in any other medium. That thing is a passion project and a half, let me tell you, and part of the reason it works literally has nothing to do with mechanics. This is one of the rare times I will ever say this!

And then we come to my current obsessions of the moment: the Souls series. Instead of providing a musical backdrop, Dark Souls often gives the player no musical cues. Instead, the absence of musical themes highlights their presence when you wander into a boss room. I can’t say I’ve heard a better use of music in a game to emphasis a particular moment in a game – the Souls’ games predilection with melancholy also pervades its boss themes, none more so than the last boss:

Usually a final boss fight should seem like a victory, even a minor win, but Souls games often take place in a universe where either decision leads to some horrible fate. Gwyn’s theme has an air of sadness to it, and the use solely of a piano makes for a very low-key climactic boss battle. The effect simply wouldn’t exist without this music, and I can’t think of another game so dedicated to atmosphere that would use such music.

By way of contrast, Bloodborne attempts something completely different, despite being in the same lineage of From Software games. Each and every boss theme balances Victorian horror and the fear of the unknown in equal balance, but they’re much more tied to the actual pace of the fights. The music begins at a low gear until the boss switches phases, and at that points it switches dynamically. The closer you get to killing the boss, the most intense does the music become until it reaches a crescendo of unbelievable portions. As your heart is pounding trying to get the boss down at his last sliver of life, panic sets in, and the musical theme behind you only exacerbates this. I can’t say a theme like Father Gascoigne’s made me feel that way in a while! I’m guessing it’s supposed to represent his bloodlust when he turns into a beast (there’s definitely some nods to it), and the music box you find is a contrast to it. Still, I would say most people should play Bloodborne just for this fight!

It goes without saying that games with dynamic music that often lines up perfectly with what’s happening on screen are some of my favorites. The new Killer Instinct goes above and beyond in this regard, with musical themes that perfectly fit the characters (actually sorta world music, but with nu-metal aesthetics) and the stages where they fight. I suppose rock music provides the backdrop for it, but it really takes advantage of the wildly diverse, perhaps inconsistent, vibe of “things that are cool together!” in Killer Instinct and unifies it as intense and awesome. Here’s a few matches, with Ultra Combos at the end, to give you a taste:

Long story short: music can enhance video games, and vice versa. But few games, to me at least, really take advantage of this.

Part 2

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.