Now, this is something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a little bit, so to start, we’re going to hop media for a second. I’ve watched an anime by the name of ‘Lucky Star’ and absolutely adored the entire show. The characters were cute, animation was great, personalities were full, but for the life of me I couldn’t ever remember more than one background song, and that was only rarely, but it strangely didn’t bother me. Flash forward to when I bought the actual anime OST and found out there is a lot of music in that anime. What does that have to do with games? Well, mostly that video game music can actually be really, really bad.

Right now, we’re more or less stuck in this ‘must-have-epic’ mindset for a ton of games. Games have to have this big, amazing boss fight at the end of them. Yeah, how’d that go for you, Dead Space? Games have to have a billion weapons, even when the game isn’t designed to handle more than a couple. Duke, looking at you. Rebalance your stuff. Most of the time, the sound track is over looked, but it suffers the same problem.  Music is just over the top, subtlety is becoming a foreign concept. That’s starting to hurt the players enjoyment of the game, more than anything. What happens when you hear this epic, live orchestra rendition of a battle-theme… while in town? Or just walking through the woods? What if it’s night?

What if it’s at night, in the woods, with a puppy?

It creates a disconnect, pulling the player from the game as things start becoming just a little off. If it gets to its worst, the player can just pause and open the menu, going straight in to disable the music in general. But that can’t be a good solution, right? The game was made to be played with that score! Actually…

It’s not that bad. When music isn’t roaring in your ears, you get a sense of immersion that only comes with ambient noise, kind of like what we have in real life. The kind of things we tune out all the time, but slip back in when we aren’t paying attention. It’s that time when you want to scream how annoying the crickets outside are, only to realize that’s the middle of winter. It’s that time when you hear a soft flowing noise and know that a small brook is nearby.

Probably the best example of this currently is the masterfully done Dark Souls. I don’t like all the music in the game, and some of it suffers the same problem as mentioned before, but it doesn’t get to me nearly as much because there isn’t any. When you are traveling the Undead Burg, or stuck in the hellish muck that is Blighttown, the only sounds are the ambient living things. Which is to say, a few things since the Undead have taken over. It creates a wonderfully silent, foreboding feeling, that the world is on edge, like everything is waiting just so we can have a glimpse and what is to come.

There is no music for this. When music arrives, things get much worse.

The zones that do have music have it subdued, almost mournful, as if the world has truly beaten it down. Nothing quite sounds like your first look around Firelink Shrine, and it’s that soft, haunting melody that seems to sap your strength. Boss fights are the opposite, ranging from haunting right up to downright insane, each having an impact on the player based on the mix of sound and sight that are in a given location. Music contrasts the stark silence, bringing it fully into attention, warning the player that something exceedingly dangerous is coming.

This is what we as gamers need more of. More contrast, more subtle experiences that flicker by our consciousnesses. Music we may never even know is playing, but has a profound effect on sense of immersion. Music that draws us in, that gives context to the world around and to its state, without being overt and impossible to notice. It ties in to developers now wanting to hand-hold our way through a story, to make sure we see and hear exactly what they want. No! Let us experience your story, through sight and sound, and let it naturally draw us in. The right music can go a long, long way in making that happen. And sometimes, the right music is simply nothing at all.