Welcome back to The HotSeat! This week I’ll be covering a topic that is dear to my heart: Video Game Music.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s move on to video game music. You may recall my mention of video game sound design back in my horror article a few weeks ago, but this is different. I want to discuss ‘music’ rather than sound design, mostly because sound design is incredibly complicated and hard to wrap your head around. Besides, who doesn’t love music? Speaking of which, while I understand that music is inherently grounded in preference and opinion; one person may like certain genres of music for example, that’s not what I’m here to debate about.
Music is a powerful tool in video games, and that’s why it’s a shame when it isn’t used properly in some games I’ve played in the past. When used properly, having the appropriate music used in an appropriate way enables a game developer to add more value to the moment. Pretty self-explanatory isn’t it? This sort of thing was the basis of opera and musicals way back when, and a common tool in film-making as well, yet video games as a medium can do things a little differently.
I want to cover just how powerful music can be in games by going over a few examples, and then I’ll try my best to explain why the music made the moment work.
Oh and by the way…
Okay, all good? Let’s get right into it!
Exhibit A- Dark Souls’s final boss fight.
This link is to the song that plays for the purposefully anti-climatic final boss fight of Dark Souls. For the big reveal of who the final boss would be, it certainly wasn’t very surprising, as the game was foreshadowing this moment for a long time before this fight. The fight isn’t even particularly difficult, relative to some of the tougher bosses that you may have faced off to get to this point. And the weirdest part of all, why is the music so calm and sombre? Aren’t final boss fights supposed to have sweeping numbers that sound more like this? Something intense to reward the player for getting this far and are now a step away from finishing the game by fighting the awesome final boss?
Well, not for Dark Souls… The thing is, by the time you get to Gwyn, you probably realise that he doesn’t seem to be as awe-inspiring as you were lead to believe by his legend. The reason for this is simple, at the start of the game, you already heard about how Gwyn ‘linked The Fire’, basically burning his soul into a crisp, the very thing that gives him his god-like power. At this point in time, Gwyn is merely just a husk, sorta’ like a zombie if you will. And so the big fight you were waiting for, never happened. What you see behind the last fog-door of the game is a sad sight, and its’ a melancholic moment, because as you fight him, you realise what he sacrificed, and how you were sent here to follow in his footsteps. It’s a moment for the player to contemplate all their actions in the plot up to this point, and so, what does FROM Software do to set the tone?
Having this heavy piano track play in the background, in place of a more ‘traditional’ song choice. And I tell you now… if it wasn’t for this song, this boss fight would have felt like a waste of space to me as the player. This example showcases the way music can contextualize a moment in gameplay, whether it be in a cutscene, or in a boss fight.
Exhibit B- Kingdom Hearts II’s Title Screen
As someone who always found the Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts series to be a heavily flawed attempts at meaningful storytelling, mostly due to sloppy direction or writing (who knows, it might better in Japanese ¯\_(ツ)_/¯), but still highly entertaining games, this comes as a surprise to me. The Final Fantasy games in particular are well praised for their memorable and outstanding soundtracks courtesy of long-time series composer Nobuo Uematsu, this guy here:
Kingdom Hearts is a game series with a silly premise but with big ideas. Throw together beloved characters from Disney & Final Fantasy and give it the Square Enix treatment, but throw in some metaphorical stuff too, so that people know we’re deep. But in all seriousness, regardless of how well the KH series has handles these deeper elements, the second game in the series Kingdom Hearts II, was a big deal, to put it lightly. That game was so hyped up and it was so highly anticipated by most players of the first game, so it had some high expectations to say the least.
But gamers had a huge surprise when they booted up the game for the first time. What they saw, they didn’t expect. Yoko Shimomura (Composer) had a surprise planned. Well… it’s a tad sombre and sad-sounding for such a happy-go-lucky (most of the time) game. Let’s put this into perspective, let’s say you were hyped for the release of… I don’t know… the brand-new mainstream Pokemon game! Yeah, sure, so the title screen is going to have a cool track that will put the sense of adventure and journey in you. And then you get hit with something completely off-tone.
KH2’s title theme made a huge impression. I don’t know a single person who played the game that didn’t feel oddly conflicted after experiencing that for the first time. If you dig deeper, you fill find out that the song is called “Dearly Beloved”, and while it’s playing on the title screen, you can even hear the sounds of waves crashing softly against a shore (alluding to an in-universe location). It’s worth mentioning that the title screen is what you get immediately after the game’s end-credits roll and I don’t have to say much more than that. This example showcases how you can use music to make a statement, and make that moment special and memorable.
Well, that’s enough examples for that. There are many other great examples out there, and I’m showing you a small snippet of what good music in games is capable off. Video games are experienced live, and the game is capable of reacting to the player’s actions within the game and that makes for some interesting ways to play around with music. While I don’t want to have a long-haul discussion on the topic, as it becomes very self-explanatory, I do hope you have a think about some of the moments in games that captured you, and try to remember the music that accompanied that moment. I leave you with a small sample (minor spoilers) of how this aspect of games gets played for laughs in the magnificent Undertale (Which if you haven’t played yet, I highly suggest you do).
Thanks for reading, and be sure to start appreciating the immense talent that goes into making games sound as good as they look or play. And if you have some extra time on your hands, I highly recommend Extra Credits’ video on how the music of modern games stand up to the music of games from years past, which was surprisingly insightful, gives you a better idea of what makes a song iconic:
Next week on The HotSeat:
“Let’s talk about the new age of Boardgaming or there’s only so much I can take of Risk, Monopoly and Clue”
ArcticLyrae is a 3rd-year Monash University Sunway undergraduate with great enthusiasm for all things related to gaming in its many forms. He writes articles discussing various gaming-related discussions in his weekly blog, The HotSeat.