Since the 1908 film The Assassination of the Duke de Guise, motion pictures have had the ability to use its score to immerse viewers into its world. As the craft has evolved, everything from orchestras to licensed tracks has been used for multiple purposes: to generate emotional responses during key scenes, evoke thoughts of earlier acts as foreshadowing, or to aid in better defining a character. In a similar vein, video games have seen a very similar pattern of growth.
Like films, video games had a humble beginning to their use of music (dating back to 1978’s Space Invaders rudimentary audio track). Over time it’s become a vital component, creating works that supplement the virtual world and stories told within them. That said, there are several methods to do this, and we’ll take a look at a few examples of how this is achieved.
Instruments can give a “voice” to characters
As important to a composer as the notes chosen are the instruments used to play them. When putting together the main theme to The Good The Bad and The Ugly, Ennio Morricone made a conscious decision to take a simple melody and alter it slightly over multiple verses by using different instruments: a flute, an ocarina, and a simple unaided voice. These minor adjustments didn’t just serve to alter the tone or mood of the music, however. Each instrument was deliberately selected to associate with each of the three primary characters. Clint Eastwood’s protagonist, Blondie, is represented by the flute, whose clarity and higher pitch echo Blondie’s character, motivations, and developing a sense of right. Angel Eyes, the main antagonist played by Lee Van Cleef, is associated with the ocarina, whose deeper tones and resonance are used to paint a picture of a darker conscience and more guarded style befitting the role of “The Bad”. Finally, a guttural howl is tied to Eli Wallach’s character, Tuco. The contrast between his simple, straightforward nature and underlying craftiness feels strangely present in that voice, especially compared to the other instruments used: raw, primal, unrefined, but unmistakably human and equally capable.
I'll give a couple of great examples of this, the first being seen in the rich history of fighting games. Characters’ themes often become as the core of an element to a character as their design and playstyle. “Guile’s Theme” from the Street Fighter series is the obvious go to when bringing up the subject, but other titles do just as well. For instance, the Guilty Gear series is built on a foundation of music. Most of the characters are named after famous metal bands and musical heroes of creator Daisuke Ishiwatari - with stage themes and instruments used often to cement the personalities of the characters in question. Sol Badguy, the arguable face of the franchise and no-nonsense anti-hero, often has themes centered around heavy drums and guitars with a straightforward, driving style, while a character like Slayer, a classy, nigh-immortal vampire and self-described “dandy”, more prominently features bass guitars, organs, and saxophones, giving more of a faux-jazzy feel to the metal. It’s a minor touch that can mark a vast difference between personalities and give players even more of a personal connection to their characters.
Another classic example is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Many of the games in the Legend of Zelda series have a theme or major gameplay component tied to music, but I feel that Ocarina of Time does the best job of giving a voice to the many characters and landscape of Hyrule. From the use of flutes within the Kokiri forest to give a sense of carefree whimsy, to the idyllic twang of a slide guitar putting visitors of the Lon Lon Ranch at ease, to the Gregorian chants bellowing within the Temple of Time, all serve to create an atmosphere and influence the player's perception of every character and location on screen. To that end, when Link is sent forward in time to a Ganondorf ruled Hyrule, the void of silence in areas such as Hyrule Field stands out that much more, and Ganondorf's lack of an instrument throughout the game almost stands as another trait of a true villain, an evil presence which stands opposed to the world and seeks to reform it in his own image. It only stands to reason that the opposition is outfitted with musical instruments, notably Shiek's harp, the titular Ocarina, and the phonograph of that one quirky guy hanging out in the Kakariko Village windmill.
Memories can be attached to themes
Some similarities in approach can be found in Darren Korb’s neo-western soundtrack to Supergiant Games’ Bastion. Two characters are major focal points of the story: Zulf and Zia, both members of the displaced and discriminated against Ura tribe. With little dialogue being spoken in-game (save for the narrator, Rucks, voiced by Logan Cunningham), most of the fleshing out of each character and the story is Korb’s twangy score. In particular there are two songs that build on the broken world main character “The Kid” travels through: Zia’s theme “Build That Wall”, a wistful guitar tune that laments the fact that nothing built lasts forever yet remains insistent on building on; and Zulf’s theme “Mother I’m Here”, which keeps a similar tone while throwing in a bit of optimism about a lost child returning home.
It feels like an intentional decision to have the two tracks (and, for that matter, characters tied to them) compliment and contrast so well thematically: one (Zia) focuses on staying in a new place and rebuilding for the future while the other (Zulf) places an emphasis on going back home to what’s familiar, a mind stuck in the past. These parallels are reflected when they are harmonized in closing credit song “Setting Sail, Coming Home”. Comparing this to a film like Kingsman: The Secret Service shows an intentional choice to pair a character with a theme. Just try not to think of that one scene in Kingsmen where Eggsy peels out in a dark alley, middle fingers in the air when you hear Dizzee Rascal’s “Bonkers”. I dare you.
Less is often more
Finally, I’d like to call attention to an effective, often underused element of sound: moderation, or rather sparsity. Beyond the example of Ocarina of Time earlier in the article, one could also point to, for the sake of consistency, interstellar space box game Starbound. Though most of Curtis Schweitzer’s work is thematically based on the planets and scenarios found in the game (which, admittedly, can become somewhat repetitive through extended play), songs like “Atlas” and “Europa” largely inspire an attitude for exploration of the many alien worlds at one’s fingertips. That said, where the sound truly feels front and center, interestingly enough, is when it’s removed. Exploring the chasms of a moon, wandering around at the bottom of an ocean, or cautiously approaching the core of a planet with a void coming from the speakers takes that sense of adventure and optimism and twists it to make the player well aware of the reality: that they are in the cold dark of space, millions of miles from home. It’s a cue that’s traditionally given a haunting atmosphere and instilled a sense of fear and dread in films such as Alien and proves equally effective in this context at squarely immersing the player in an environment if used effectively.
Though it’s largely overlooked in favor of more traditional means, the effective writing and use of a game’s soundtrack can do wonders for building a world, defining a character, or otherwise immersing a player. While developers and composers are doing a far better job of putting that tool to use, there’s still plenty of room for game developers to cheat off the papers of film producers, composers, and songwriters to not just fill dead air, but to improve their games.