How Music Can Change the Way You Experience Video Games

A look at how music plays a major role in our games.

Yesterday was Fête de la Musique, or World Music Day. It is a day where people from cities across the globe celebrate the beginning of summer with fine tunes and delightful sounds. Unfortunately, I spent the whole day yesterday moving into my new apartment, where I shall be living for the next twelve months, and as such was unable to post a blog about one of the things I am most passionate about.

As many of you may very well know, I value music very highly compared to the many other aspects of video gaming. As a musician myself, I am often surprised and enchanted by a video game’s soundtrack and how it effects the experience for me as a player. Even if you are not a musician, you have certainly felt the same way at some point in your gaming career. Music has a strange way of influencing our emotions, an element to the medium that I do not believe many others possess, that is if at all. Perhaps this is why you will be hard-pressed to find someone who hates the very concept of music.

It would make sense then that a game’s soundtrack plays a major role in how the player experiences the game itself. The most obvious evidence of this can be seen in most horror games, where the music is used to increase tension and build an atmosphere that would have otherwise not been present had the soundtrack been nonexistent. Have you ever watched a horror film with the sound off? It does make a major difference, even when you exclude how sound is used cheaply in jump-scares. Even with games that are not particularly scary – Gone Home, for example – benefit from an effective soundtrack that excellently sets up the mood for a scene.

One of my favorite video game soundtracks comes from Xenoblade Chronicles for Wii. Its soundtrack is beautiful in and of itself, and I for one would certainly be up to purchasing it at a record store. But the quality of the music itself aside, one thing I very much enjoy about Xenoblade’s OST is how well it fits in with the game. My favorite track is probably “Gaur Plain,” which is played when the player enters one of the most expansive parts of the game. The plain itself is very vast and open, and similarly the background music feels very grandiose and epic. It reminded me of in movies when the camera zooms outward and pans around a particularly large scenic area, and in many ways that is exactly what Gaur Plain is about.

Even games without the explicit need for soundtracks seem to benefit greatly from them, albeit in a more indirect manner. The recently-released Mario Kart 8 has what I would argue one of the best soundtracks ever created for a Mario Kart game. Some tracks, like Music Park/Melody Motorway and Electrodome, are directly influenced by the music itself. There are plenty of times when I will be driving around a track and whistling the respective soundtrack to myself, especially in the Double Dash!! stages where whistling takes a primary role in the soundtrack. Another cool thing Mario Kart does is it adds another layer of music on top of the existing soundtrack whenever the player is in first place, which of course adds a very nice touch to the experience.

Across the many different elements within every video game, it seems to me that the soundtrack is often the most memorable, to the point where they have become classics themselves. Not every gamer knows World 1-1 from Super Mario Bros. by heart, but they sure as hell could hum the Mario theme if you asked them to, even if they were not even born when Super Mario Bros. was released. Some songs have even gone so far as to become memes, like “Guile’s Theme” from Street Fighter and “Rainbow Road” from Mario Kart.

Why is it that music can be so many things yet still be unlike anything else that exists? It seems almost bizarre that we can find such pleasure in listening to tones go up and down in a pattern. We describe music with such terms as “timid” or “powerful,” though we obviously understand that sound cannot literally be those things. Even if the music itself serves no particular function, they remind us of certain feelings and we dance in delight whenever we hear them. Music is such a strange animal in the world of video games, but perhaps it is this mystery that draws me ever more closely to it, and I would never want to live in a world without it.

How important is a game’s soundtrack to you? What are some of your favorite gaming tunes? Discuss in the comments below!

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