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Video Game Music: Make or Break?

Trent Seely

Video games are an interactive visual medium. By design, their purpose is to utilize visual cues in conjunction with user input to create a kinesthetically pleasing experience. That's not to say that video gaming is nothing but button presses and pixels; sound design and musical score can both play a role in how a game is experienced. The size of that role should be questioned though. Is music just a filler to add noise so that the game isn't seen as being bland or is it a connection of everything the game is trying to convey? Moreover, can video game music make or break a game?

I suppose the term break is a little melodramatic. If you were to ask average RPGamers what they would do were they stuck playing a game that featured incredibly poor sound design, they would likely tell you that their first instinct would be to turn the music down and continue playing. I suppose, by most standards, this would not be adequate reasoning to label a game as "broken by music," but I would argue that the simple act of turning the music off fundamentally changes the overall experience.

Several creative directors like to consider their video games to be art. From inception to delivery, these pieces of interactive media are meant to engage their audience in an immersive experience which, realistically speaking, is the result of several hundred stylistic and aesthetic decisions. The finished product is a title which is meant to be experienced in its entirety — no area of its design is inherently meant to be ignored by the gamer as every aspect was included with the intention of enriching the overall experience.

With that frame of reference in mind, if you were to create a piece of art and widely distribute it, wouldn’t you be upset if your audience chose to ignore a fundamental aspect? In some respects, you might even feel as though your piece of art had been betrayed by its own aesthetic attributes. In this context, a video game's music can absolutely break the game's intended presentation — even if the gamer continues to play.

Personally, I avoid turning down a game's sound because I fear I'll miss something that is important to gameplay. An unfortunate consequence of this decision is that I am far too often subjected to unengaging sound design and uninteresting soundtracks. Not all games have decent music in them. In fact, many games feature soundtracks that are either completely forgettable or so bad that you can be tempted to avoid playing the game at all. Grandia III is a perfect example of this. Being a longtime fan of the Grandia franchise, I was already in love with the mechanics and graphical aesthetics of the series. It's unlikely that Game Arts could produce a Grandia title that I wouldn't be interested in, providing it possessed a battle system predicated upon action times and featured some cute character designs. However, Grandia III's OST, background music, and sound effects all felt incredibly grating to my ears. The opening theme alone was enough to turn whatever fever I had to play into an immediate burst of apathy and disinterest. In this scenario, poor sound design and lackluster musical production values were direct contributors to my negative perspective on an otherwise decent game. It may not be "fair" to the overall experience, but in this case the music did indeed break the game.

So, how does music make a game? I suppose it really depends on genre. When it comes to more action-oriented genres (adventure, first-person shooter, fighting, etc.), the music and sound design are mostly present to set the tone. Their importance to the overall experience shouldn't be understated, but their inclusion in those games doesn't bear the same intent as the music and sound design within RPGs. Because RPGs (western, traditional, dungeon crawlers, tactical, etc.) are all built upon delivering a cohesive and memorable plot, the sound implemented has to echo the importance of the narrative. Different sub-genres of RPGs take different approaches to task (traditional RPGs typically implement emotionally moving scores in accordance with emotionally driven plot points, whereas western RPGs use more atmospheric scores to undertone the "epicness" of your tale), but all RPGs depend on this aspect of design. I say "depend on" instead of "benefit from" because I truly believe that many RPGs could be made worse by the substitution of lower quality music and less focused sound design. Nier, I believe, represents a solid example of well-crafted music with emotional relativity to gameplay. When you cut Nier's music completely and replace it with your own (something I have done recently on my Xbox 360), some of the game's finer elements are actually lost in translation; the combat feels less enticing, cutscenes seem emotionally unbalanced, and some environments actually lose their intrigue. In that sense, I do believe gameplay, or even an entire gaming experience, can lose its luster without the right music to accompany it.

There's no doubt in anyone's mind that a brilliant soundtrack and dynamic sound effects can enrich a video game, but the importance of it to the overall experience becomes more clear when you really examine the non-auditory elements of a game that it complements. In that scope, it's hard not to view video game music as make or break.

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