Sound and music in video games can be an important factor in immersing the player or providing atmosphere in moments that require it most. Sound is passive; it is a part of the gameplay experience that we don’t tend to actively engage with, unless it is a particularly great track that just seems to stick out. It’s for this reason that music can make a perfect storytelling tool.
Similar to the effective use of aesthetics in video games, sound design can play a similar factor in providing a narrative without the need for dialogue or text boxes. Surprisingly, few games tend to do this. They instead provide tunes that fit the gameplay and keep us concentrated, which is a design ethos that has carried on from the 8-bit era. However, there are some games that do go out of their way to provide a richer story immersion through the use of this technique, providing alternative perspectives, emotional depth and a strong tie to atmosphere.
*Some Spoilers Ahead*
Games rarely give true agency to the player. The only options are to complete the game objectives or stop playing the game. This is most apparent in FromSoftware’s Lovecraftian horror, Bloodborne. In Bloodborne, the only way to win is rip apart every eldritch abomination and gigantic beast in your way. After all, they are evil…right?
Another From Software game, Dark Souls demonstrates a different use of music. Dark Souls’ battle with Sif shows how the music can be used to provide a secondary perspective into what is a linear understanding of the game. After walking into the boss area on your initial play-through, you are greeted by a lumbering wolf gripping a massive greatsword in its jaws. As this is a game, we know that in order to proceed then we have to slay this beast, which is typically an easy task as that’s what we have been doing all the way up to this point in the game.
But something is amiss. Sif may have this aura of anger and dominance, yet the music doesn’t reflect this. The entire fight begins with silence, moving into this melancholy symphony as the battle commences. It’s here that the perspective changes, with the music a far cry away from the bellowing boss battle themes before. Sif’s theme sets a mood of sadness and empathy. Even when fighting the beast, even before you understand the lore, it is possible to gain this feeling of ‘why?’ when trying to take down a beast like the many you have fought before him. Later on, through playing the DLC or browsing the lore on the Dark Souls Wiki, you become aware of the reason Sif fought you and why you should feel bad for cutting the beast up and consuming his soul.
Similarly, No More Heroes 2 provides a similar change in perspective during the battle with Rank 4 – Margaret. It may be rather difficult to listen to the electro-pop song in the background, but the song ‘Philistine’ provides more than a catchy hook to fight to. During the song Margaret will sing lyrics such as ‘Payback makes you a noble man, is that a fact?’ and ‘Another hero? Oh please.’ Playing through the game, Travis has spent much of his time chopping down his enemies in his quest for vengeance, pushing players to join that narrative. But by the end you’re wondering if he is truly right and just? It’s an interesting spin once you hear the lyrics, as it does actually push a slightly different side of the story into your head and forces you to slightly re-evaluate Travis’ plight. If you don’t get it by this fight, you will really understand after the fight with Rank 2.
Mixing mood with narrative
Nearly all story driven games have music that firmly links the music to what is going on, otherwise there would be a massive dissonance. There are the few that do this so dynamically and effectively that it can just completely change a player’s mood and approach to both narrative and gameplay.
Majora’s Mask is a near perfect example of this. Through it’s Clock Town theme, the game is able explain the general story and atmosphere of the entire game world. The first day starts with a cheery, whimsical and reclined little number that fits well with the general feel of exploration that will nearly always begin on the first day due to the games time mechanic. The second day does well to pick the tempo up slightly and still retain the laid back feeling from the prior day, after all there is still a whole day to save the world.
But on the third day, everything changes. The music increases intensity and speed and starts to rush, mirroring the effects of the game, as by now the player’s desperately attempting to fulfill one task before the time runs out. Coupled with the frenetic music is the bass-heavy strings in the background, which do not fit the cheery track in the foreground. This mirrors the feeling of dread and despair facing Termina, even adding a tone of anger in the background. Talking to the townsfolk supports the music, as they shout to you their woes and angst. Finally, as the world comes to a close, the music shifts to the very ominous Final Hours music, which is filled with nothing but hopelessness.
Occasionally there are aspects to the story that we don’t really consider. Similar to that of No More Heroes, Persona 4 uses music to add a slight bit of narrative to a character that we only think about as a side character, never really understanding the pain she is actually in. During the game, Nanako is often found beside the TV, she is obsessed with the tune of a department store, has lost one parent and is neglected by another and still manages to keep herself chirpy. Most of us assume that is fine, Nanako is just hardened up. During Nanako’s dungeon, listen to the lyrics of the song ‘Heaven’ which plays during the entirety of the section. ‘Still music keeps on turning me from the words that hurt my soul, removing doubts from my mind’. These lyrics are actually about why Nanako focuses on that tune and the TV, keeping herself occupied from the sadness that has intruded her life. Again, this serves to add emphasis on a character that isn’t given the same amount of depth as other characters.
Some games intentionally avoid telling a linear story, don’t go out of their way to tell a story, instead leaving it up to the player to interpret the narrative their own way. Music can often be used as a way to either aid or complement this aspect of narrative, usually in the way of lyrical songs that do an excellent job on allowing the player to get a better understanding of the game.
One such example is straight narrative, which provides a review or overview of the video games plot or scenarios. A prime example of this is the track ‘The Poet and the Muse’ from Alan Wake, a song that uses metaphors and parallel storytelling to detail the entirety of the game. It also has a rather sweet guitar solo for good measure.
Sonic games, love or hate the Crush 40 soundtrack, manage to fit this bill rather well also. Songs like Live and Learn, Open Your Heart, Escape from the City and Pumpkin Hill work very well at describing a scenario and, in the two former cases, synchronise with the action of the moment and couple the action with the lyrics.
Comedy is what most people tend to remember when it comes to this form of narrative in music. A prime example is the Portal ending song. Rather than just have a song with generic lyrics, the composer instead created a track that adds detail and texture to GlaDos’ character and provide a stronger narrative when tied to both of the games. Conker’s Bad Fur Day holds the crown in this manner, as it utilizes this form of storytelling to produce a character’s narrative (The Great Mighty Poo), relate it to the revolving gameplay and then manage to use it to help the player identify just what stage of the fight they’re in. Just a shame they took out the obscenities for the Reloaded version.
*Lyrics contain offensive language*
I could go on and on about this topic, but really it all boils down to how effective a game uses its music to truly apply a stronger narrative to a game. As games become more of an art form and with the shifting to truly emotional experiences on the horizon, I am sure we will see more sound designers looking to build on storytelling and narrative through the music they create.
I may have missed quite a few, possibly your favourite songs, make sure to let us know in the comments below or through our social media.