Anyone who’s played video games, console, PC or handheld, will likely remember a tune from their favourite games. Sometimes even just a jingle will stick with you, like the ‘ding’ a player hears in Mario games when you collect a coin. But why have music in games at all? We lived for decades with silent card and paper games. What’s the point?
Video game music exists for similar reasons that movie music exists (read Chloe’s thoughts on movie music here! ); creating atmosphere, characterisation and to manipulate a player’s emotions for them to deeply connect with the game. However, there are some other vital extras to consider when making video game music.
I can’t possibly cover every game that exists, so I’m going to focus on three examples; the Zelda series, Undertale and Outlast. Just in case you don’t know them, here’s a brief summary of each one.
Gamer or not, anyone can recognise the title of The Legend of Zelda, an iconic role-playing game series (RPG). The player plays as Link, a young boy who goes on a quest to save Princess Zelda from the evil clutches of Ganondorf. This series is one of the oldest series out there as it was first released by Nintendo in 1986.
Undertale is a more modern example. Dropped back in 2015, Undertale is an indie RPG made by Toby Fox. In it, the player is a human child who falls into the underground world of monsters and must try to get home.
Outlast is a triple A horror game that was released on Steam in 2013 and became a massive hit. Playing investigative journalist Miles Upshur, the player must sneak through an asylum and record everything to uncover the truth whilst risking their lives.
Now that we’ve checked out some games, let’s get into it.
Hook, Line and Sinker
Now, imagine you’ve just bought a new game. You load it up and you are greeted by the loading screen. This is often accompanied by some melody or track. Once you hit new game, you often hear a new song. I would argue that these two tracks are the most important tracks on the list. They are vital for setting the tone of the game for the player, grabbing their attention and convincing them to continue to play. It is often one of these two tracks that is the most likely to be remembered by a player. Since every game is different, the opening two songs will be vastly different from game to game. Zelda’s opening notes in each game, although they contain references to previous tracks, will always sound different from each other. Undertale’s ‘Once Upon A Time’ sounds different to Outlast’s ‘Welcome To The Asylum’. Variety is the spice of life and video games.
In games, the player is required to act. However, sometimes they may need a little help figuring out what to do next; this is where sound can help. For example, in any racer or fighter game such as Mario Kart or Tekken, there will be a countdown on screen which is often accompanied by a noise that sounds with each number. This aural indicator is to tell the player to get ready. In games such as Sonic or Undertale, when you enter a certain room or stage some unique boss music will start, which lets the player know that they have entered a boss room. Simple things like that are the developers’ way of nudging the player in the right direction. Such sounds and when they occur depend on the genre (I.e. Horror game behavioural indicators sound different to RPG game indicators), but they exist for the same reasons.
Unless a game has been made by a big company such as Nintendo or SEGA, it can be hard to stand out from the crowd. That’s why crafting a unique soundtrack is so important. Having a coherent and beautiful soundtrack can help a game get noticed or even win awards for the developers. Something that has a particular melody or style that links every stage and level together. The Zelda franchise is a prime example of this. Each game has at least one iconic track or melody that the player will remember; I always remember ‘The Lost Woods’ from Ocarina of Time. Zelda also takes this a step further and constantly references old melodies and tunes in later games. Undertale, however does this a bit differently. As Undertale is an 8-bit game in a 3D world of realism, so it needs a soundtrack to match the nostalgia. Undertale’s soundtrack is a modern and whimsical set that harks back to the early days of gaming. It has highly memorable tunes that can easily be listened to when doing other things. I know that I listened to it a lot whilst writing my dissertation. Outlast, like many horror games and films, must be careful with its soundtrack. It must be filled with enough highs and lows to build and release tension with the player, but also help support jump scares and audio cues. I have noticed a lot of violin and piano in horror games, which is interesting.
However, with all of this in mind, there is one more thing to consider when writing video game music. When a player is going through a level, there is a possibility that they may get stuck. It may take them some time to solve the puzzle or they may get lost. A piece of music is only so long and the player may have to listen to it multiple times and it is vital that they don’t find the music annoying or frustrating to listen to. The music has to work well in the background in order to supplement the action. Despite all of the effort that goes into creating it, the music must take second place to what is going on on the screen. That is the tragedy of video game soundtracks