Transcending Emotions: Music in Videogames Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, we talked a little about the intricacies of the early videogame music, and its huge evolution through the years. But more than that, we remembered we are gamers in the first place because of our ability to feel, and how altered our feelings were when we were exposed to a well composed videogame scene. So, if you haven’t read Part 1, go here and read it; that’s an order!

Now, as said in Part 1, innovations like Grant Kirkhope’s real time dynamics, and Factor 5’s clever sound design, were an integral part of the Nintendo 64 era, and it helped gamers and the industry itself to take music a lot more seriously. PSX users had a little more limited hardware, but that didn’t stop the good folks at Capcom, leaded by the masterful mind of Shinji Mikami and the incredibly talented Akari Kaida in creating one of the most important games of all time: Resident Evil.

REmake kept most of the sounds that made the original so unforgettable

Resident Evil is a game with a very interesting sound mechanic, where the lack of actual music takes a lot of relevance. The sound design is cleverly put, and when the music does play, it hugely increases the feeling of loneliness and hopelessness so necessary in a game like this. Cranky doors, chilly winds, faint steps, crows, nothing was fortuitous and every little detail was there for a reason; that being scaring the hell out of you in the end. Resident Evil was an outstanding achievement in almost every level, but it definitely was the music and sound that let it stand above the crowd, even if the voice acting was laughably bad.

These types of psychological manipulation kept being used until the early days of the GameCube, where the awesome Eternal Darkness was released. Steve Henifin created a brilliant soundtrack for that game, encapsulating themes as varied as greek culture and WWI. However, what was most innovating was the use of sound. Within the game, your surrounding would start playing with you, depending on your Sanity Meter; this means you could hear creepy voices, enemies that weren’t there or anything that could literally drive you crazy. Eternal Darkness is not precisely a survival-horror game, and it’s very light on actual scares, but the smart implementation of well-though music and sound, kept the tension at the highest level, for the majority of the game.

The Roivas family listening to the great compositions

The start of the 6th generation of gaming, brought some great examples of how music changes drastically our way to perceive emotions, moods and feelings. On November the 15th, 2001, Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori showed us the concept of epic was not portrayed properly via millions of polygons or complex dialog; everything was about the music.

With its wide range of musical styles, the soundtrack for Halo: Combat Evolved managed to captivate fans, gamers and non-gamers alike, giving a sense of grandeur, importance and subtle solemnity very uncommon in videogames until then. The soundtrack, which mixed Gregorian chants, African percussion, a dramatic string orchestra and even a fair amount of electronica, gave Master Chief’s tale, the weight it needed, as it left it in a level of cinematographic narrative. But, what made Halo’s music so innovative, anyway?. It was a very dramatic composition that helped transcend the plot to previously uncharted levels in gaming. In addition, O’Donnell and Salvatori developed a system where the audio engine would react to the players actions and add a fragment of a determined theme, in order to increase to level of immersion and drama to the overall experience.

The precursors of a more versatile and dynamic implementation of cinematic and incidental music

I think you’ll agree there’s a feeling of solemnity when playing Halo’s single player campaign; something that makes you act respectfully towards your environment, it forces you to watch carefully and in awe every inch of your location. However, what happens when you play a game completely opposite to Halo’s approach?

First Person Shooters make for great examples of music psychology, as such element greatly influence the player’s behavior. A gamer playing FPSs like Time Splitters or Team Fortress will probably find themselves playing offensively, with little to no attention to its surroundings, and not caring that much about losing a life. The sounds and music of those games, allow the player to simply relax, to realize what they have in front of them is just a game; and they’re supposed to be having fun. Conversely, titles like Gears of War and Battlefield will have you on your toes, knowing the smallest mistake means death, and that’s a serious offense to your reputation.

Of course, it’s worth noting this does not apply to everybody, as the ability to perceive musical concepts changes depending of the individual, but just try to play Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter with music from Super Monkey Ball, and you’ll note the change. I assure you that.

So, we’ve talked so far about how music has changed from a 4bit contextual abstraction back in the day, to a mood changer in more recent times. But what role does music plays in the industry nowadays? Stay tuned for Part 3 in the coming days!

Oh and don’t forget to leave your comment in the section below!

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  • That last picture, that was from the Halo 3 launch event in Bellevue, I was there for that 🙂