Being a music enthusiast and musician, I tend to pay attention to the soundtrack in a game with a bit more interest than others might. I love the way it gives a game its atmosphere, cues the player at certain moments, and adds a bit of bravado to big, epic parts that are meant to motivate and wow us.
We’ve all got our favorites, from the biggest of Triple-A titles to the most obscure of Indie games. They’re the soundtracks of the games we play, and they themselves play a bigger role in gaming than many of us might realize.
So, what exactly does a soundtrack add to a game? Why are they so important?
I know I go back to it time and time again, but movies truly are the second cousin to games. We share a lot in common with them, and the soundtrack is one of the larger conventions that crossover well in both areas.
Imagine what a movie would sound like with no music added to it. Indiana Jones would just be running around temples to the sound of grunts and debris falling everywhere, the Dark Knight would just be walking dramatically down a quiet street, and Darth Vader would just clack his way noisily down a hallway with no ominous theme to announce his presence.
Seems kind of lame, right?
The same goes for games. Without music, these forms of entertainment are about as bland as vanilla ice cream in a styrofoam cup.
Soundtracks add a type of bravado and atmosphere to a game that ordinary sound design doesn’t. They build us up, make us nervous, relax us, and help us build our impression of a world.
Oblivion was pretty good at using a soundtrack to cue players in on the goings-on around them. You would be walking around the world, accompanied by the light, airy sounds of flutes and strings, and when an enemy appeared, the music would immediately switch to a much more epic sound, giving the player the cue that something dangerous was afoot. After the hazard was dealt with, you’d go right back to the whimsical soundtrack of before. This worked, in a strange way, because it helped give you the hint that you needed to act, and it also kept you connected to your surroundings. And all with a handful of notes.
Look no further than Mass Effect to see what a great soundtrack can do to build intensity in a game. After a cutscene ended and took you to an intense moment when you needed to engage the enemy, the soundtrack would instantly cut to a frenzied sci-fi track that gave the moment some personality. It was fast-paced, it was intense, and it made the scene all the more dramatic, keeping you connected to the gameplay.
While there are so many soundtracks that are good at this, Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain did an especially fantastic job of using a soundtrack to evoke emotion. It connected us to the characters, brought us in to the story, and brought emotion out of us at all the right times.
The famed original Silent Hill soundtrack does a fantastic job of this. It’s eerie, it’s strange, and it’s more than a little unnerving, completely reflecting the world it was meant to accompany. The soundtrack here did more than simply provide background music for players; it pulled them into the very world itself.
BUILDS A DRAMATIC FEEL
Every game has its own version of this, but I find it hard not to give Skyrim a mention. The theme at the very beginning of the title page gives the game such an epic, grandiose feel that just gets you pumped up and ready to tackle the role of the Dragonborn.
And I would hand in my journalist’s card if I didn’t mention the theme to the Legend of Zelda. Even in its early retro years, that theme alone is one of the most powerful and inspiring in gaming history.
Ever one of the most important storytelling elements within a game, the soundtrack isn’t just some background music to accompany the gameplay. Rather, it’s at the very core of what the game is and what it is trying to do. It’s the connector; the fine detail that brings everything together, fills in the gaps, and makes a good creation great.