Music has accompanied visual media since the days of silent films, and the practice of syncing up on-screen actions with musical cues has continued uninterrupted into modern TV and movies. As soon as technology progressed to the point that games could include an audio track for music, accompanying songs became a huge part of the identity and fun of video games. But
their interactive nature presents additional challenges and opportunities that some developers have taken advantage of to immerse the player in the game’s world.
Scoring a film or TV show is a relatively straightforward process. The composer creates music that fits the mood of what is happening at that point in the story. Leitmotifs may be assigned to a particular character or theme, helping the viewer subconsciously absorb the context of the scene. But scoring a game effectively requires a bit more consideration.
No matter how many times you watch a movie, it’s going to play out the exact same way every time. For a very specific example, at 50 minutes and 28 seconds into Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the character played by Chris Evans is going to hop on a skateboard while an appropriately brazen background music track starts. But outside of linear, scripted cutscenes with precisely timed events, a player may be doing any number of things during regular gameplay. They might be running around smashing pots for 5 minutes before doing anything to
progress the game’s story. The player’s timing is unpredictable. For the proper mood-setting music to accompany the action on screen, video game music requires more coordination between the developers and composers.
Many games rely on traditional, cinematic-style music with a modest effort to make it dynamic and adaptive. Many times, a static, looping track related to the area you are in plays in the background, which crossfades or cuts into a completely different track when you change areas, enter a combat sequence, or transition into a cutscene. The level of smoothness in the transition varies from game to game, but the basic premise remains the same.
However, some other games sprinkle in some of that tasty, tasty dynamism by cutting each track into different stems, with some portions of the track fading in or out or changing in intensity on the fly. Even as far back as Banjo Kazooie, developer Rare included a feature where an area’s melody would remain consistent, but the instruments used to produce would dynamically shift in and out based on what part of the level you are standing in. When Banjo dives
underwater, the instrumentation becomes soft and slightly muffled, as if you’re hearing it while your head is beneath the surface. It may be too much to ask to generate perfectly timed beats on time with every little jump or punch.
Nintendo games are especially known for this feature. Many Mario and Zelda games swap instruments in and out as you wander into different areas or near specific NPCs. The enemies in the New Super Mario Bros. games will even stop and dance along with specific beats of the level’s song. In Mario Kart, the song may become more layered and intense with each new lap. Breath of the Wild’s combat music significantly and smoothly raises in intensity as more and more dangerous enemies join the battle, ending with a satisfying wrap-up melody when you defeat the last one.
Music can also provide a way to give feedback on a player’s progress. For instance, Portal 2 fades in new music layers as the player puts more of a puzzle’s elements into their proper place. It can work to subconsciously inform them that they are on the right track, encouraging them to keep going with their current line of thought. When they mess something up, the music retreats to its simpler form, informing them that it’s not the correct way to proceed.
Instead of making the music fit the player’s actions, some games are designed to make the player coordinate their actions to the music (not including games that are about straight-up playing music, like Guitar Hero). Crypt of the Necrodancer has a catchy dance beat accompanying every level that the player and enemies sync their actions to. Players are required to listen to the song (with the help of an on-screen metronome) to time their actions with the beat and avoid stumbling. Some enemies even have patterns you can learn “dances” to defeat more easily, using a specific sequence of steps to avoid their attacks while getting in a few your own. Other games like BPM: Bullets Per Minute and Soundfall have a similar “play with the beat” formulas.
Games have already taken advantage of much of the potential of dynamic music in games, but there is still much more that has yet to be tapped into. As technology continues to progress and talented developers come up with new ideas, it’s exciting to watch for new games that use music in creative and unique ways.