Thoughts on Design: Time to Face the Music

by Dr Taliesin Coward

Music. Whether it’s a calming and thoughtful puzzle game, a frenetic First-Person-Shooter, or even a 2D platformer from the ‘80s; whether it’s a triple-A title featuring the latest in up-to-date rendering technology with 7.1 surround sound, or an ancient dinosaur spitting out beeps and whistles via a 486’s rudimentary speaker, or even the monotonous 4-note descending theme of Space Invaders, music is invariably there. No matter the age, genre or even platform, music seems to be a common feature (providing, of course, the technical means to produce the music – no matter how basic – exists) and games with no music are definitely the exception. But how, and why, is music used in games? While a brief article cannot seriously hope to answer these questions in any definitive manner, it can provide a few observations and ‘food for thought’.

A broad overview of games across history and across platforms (yes, I’m including consoles and even arcade games in this) reveals a number of different approaches and attitudes towards music. Perhaps the most basic use of music is that of a soundtrack which plays throughout a game’s level. While this may reflect a particular theme of an environment, the main characteristic of this is that the soundtrack remains detached from player actions (except, perhaps, to be suspended or replaced should the player fail or beat a level). This is the approach employed in games such as the original Doom and Super Mario (tunes from which have now become instantly recognizable, and even transferred into different mediums) and continues today in games such as the Shantae series. On the plus side, this approach is fairly straightforward to implement, and can result in particular tunes becoming ‘brain-worms’ and entering popular culture (such as the theme from Super Mario). On the negative side, it is a rather inflexible approach, and to some people can find in aggravating.

This appears to be the case with the developers at Cyan during the making of Myst, who disliked this style of music as they felt it to be intrusive. While Cyan toyed with the idea of leaving music out of Myst altogether, it ultimately led to a related (insofar as the music is largely unrelated to player actions and is tied to a particular game locale) but different approach: music as general ambience. The vague, meandering, ethereal music of Myst is instantly recognizable, but unobtrusive and stubbornly avoids crystalising into any definite tune (unlike Super Mario). Rather, it’s made up of a variety of loosely tied textures, instruments and themes which give a vague flavour of emptiness and otherworldliness to the game’s environments.

Another approach to designing the musical landscape of a game is to treat it as a means of player expression. I first encountered this particular approach in Will Wright’s Streets of Sim City. Each car in the game had a radio that you could tune to a particular in-game station. However, you could also put together your own folder of music, which the game could then access and play, letting the gamer choose what sort of music they wanted to listen to. While this gives the player another ‘toy’ to play with, it also robs the developer of control, and can lead to some curious side effects as far as the player is concerned: for example, I now associate the song ‘Lady Marmalade’ from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge with the Streets of Sim City.

The last approach I intend to cover here, is also the most sophisticated: where the music reflects and reacts to gameplay. This is a more nuanced subject, and one which I will discuss a bit further on. Before I do so, however, I would like to briefly consider why music, and some of the functions it fulfils generally.

Music has a number of generally discernable properties, or effects, which are applicable, and readily observable, across different types of entertainment, whether it be film, theatre, radio, or games. Firstly (and in no particular order), it serves to magnify, to make something seem more grand. Secondly, it serves to give cues to the listener. These include both emotional cues (that is, what the listener should hopefully feel at a given point in time), and interpretative cues which help orient the listener and give them more information about what kind of game, film or whatever they are observing.

A good example of this is the difference between Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and its sequel Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. Stylistically, The Sands of Time was a light fantasy-romp through a highly ornate Indian-themed palace. Reflecting this theme and the game’s title (Prince of Persia), the music blended rock with Middle Eastern and Indian elements, resulting in, what is to Western ears, exotic instrumentation and melodic content. By contrast, Warrior Within was a far more violent, darker game. Gone were the light colours of Sands of Time, and in their stead replaced by dull greys and browns. Gone was the family-friendly fights (where sand-monsters, when hit, would emit golden light), and in their place were bloody decapitations, dismemberments, and bifurcations. Merely by juxtaposing these descriptions, one can see how far apart the two games, how totally different, they actually are. To convey this new and startling direction, the music also changed, with the exotic themes of Sands of Time giving way to Nu Metal, with Godsmack’s “I Stand Alone” serving as the soundtrack for Warrior Within’s trailer and end credits. An interesting exercise is to listen to the closing song of each game. Even without knowing anything else about the games, the songs will immediately give wildly different impressions about what to expect.

Thirdly, and this is a point I rarely see raised (and rarely in relation to games), is that music can also serve to fill in gaps in action, and to prevent things from seeming strange, awkward or tedious. This is particularly employed in the theatre and music-theatre traditions, where ‘scene-change’ music is used to keep the show ‘moving’ and avoid dead patches which would otherwise occur. A good illustration of this is the award ceremony at the end of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. In the film, this serves as a triumphant celebration of the heroes’ victory over the Empire, with a strident, uplifting fanfare accompanying the ceremony. Some wags on Youtube, however, have made re-dubbed versions of this scene, stripping out John Williams’ music and simply having the sound of people walking, coughing, or chattering amongst themselves. The result of this is startling: the scene suddenly feels strained, awkward, and simply too long (even in versions where it has been edited down).

An example of using music to maintain player interest can be seen in MDHR Studio’s masterpiece: Cuphead. Inspired by 1930s cartoons and Big Band Jazz, Cuphead is a tough-as-nails boss-rush style game, where players will try to beat the game’s many foes and fail again, and again, and again. In order to keep this experience fresh and exciting, along with varying enemy attack patterns (so players never quite know what’s going to happen when), the developers also varied the music. In his talk on composing the music for Cuphead, composer Kristofer Maddigan pointed out that in order to help keep the game interesting, while the tune may stay the same, the instrument playing the solo will vary. So for example, the first time players fight a particular boss they may hear the solo being played by a piano. After their defeat, the music stays the same, but with the solo being played by a saxophone and so on. Some bosses have six mixes, and, according to Maddigan there are over 200+ mixes in the game, but only 56 tunes on the soundtrack.

Finally, and specifically regarding games, music can be tied to, and even react to gameplay. This is perhaps the most technically demanding and sophisticated use of music in games to date (as it also incorporates the other uses of music discussed), and is certainly an area where there is ongoing experimentation.

Perhaps the most simple examples (conceptually though not technically) of this kind are rhythm based games. These games tie gameplay to the pulse of the music, and include the likes of Beatbuddy, Crypt of the Necrodancer, and the music levels from Rayman: Origins and Rayman: Legends.

Then there are games where the music is tied to the gameplay, rather than the other way around. The simplest example of this that I can think of comes from Space Invaders, where the simple four note theme increases in speed as the action on screen does. The faster the aliens move, the faster the music plays. Another example is the aforementioned variable music of Cuphead.
Another approach is where game music is tied to in-combat/out-of-combat states. That is, there will be some level/environment specific music, which will be ‘swapped out’ for a high-energy soundtrack whenever enemies engage the player in combat. Once combat has been concluded, the game will switch back to the less frenetic ambient music. This has become a fairly standard approach in games, and it is easy to see why. Not only does it allow the best of both worlds, in the sense that it allows designers multiple choices to ‘flavour’ a level and cue how the player is to react emotionally, it can also provide a gameplay cue. That is, players may know, before they’ve even seen any enemy, that foes are about to come into view because the music has suddenly changed.

While common, this method has potential problems both gameplay-wise and with its execution. Firstly, it can promote less visual engagement (and arguably less immersion) in the game environment. Instead of keeping an eye out for foes, players may simply opt to listen for when the music changes. It also means that ‘jump scares’ won’t really work unless specifically catered for. Secondly, the music tends to be a single track, with the same music playing regardless of whether the player is facing down a single lowly grunt, or a whole screen full of enemies.

An interesting solution to at least part of these problems was implemented in Serious Sam 4. In this game the music which accompanies enemy encounters is composed of multiple layers. Starting with a fairly simply beat, the game will progressively add layers as the action on screen gets more and more frantic, with each layer adding a new rhythmic, melodic and textural element and getting progressively more energetic. In practice this works brilliantly, and thanks to how ‘appropriate’ it feels is perhaps the least intrusive use of this style of music I’ve ever encountered. Because of how enemies tend to teleport in directly in front of the player or can be seen from a long way off, the music rarely foreshadows the arrival of an encounter. Also, because of its multi-layered nature, a minor encounter feels just like that, whilst an epic battle involving hundreds of foes is accompanied by appropriate music. Lastly, it also allows the developers to keep a stylistically consistent soundtrack for a level, regardless of how minor or massive a combat encounter is.

In conclusion, the subject of music in games is a fascinating and varied topic, with a myriad of approaches, and this brief article hopes to provoke some thought and curiosity on what is such a common part of nearly every game’s experience. While there are a number of ‘tried and true’ approaches which are bound to stay with us, there is also exciting and interesting work being done in the realm of computer controlled music and how the game may better react and integrate with what the player is doing at any given point. As computers and games get more sophisticated, and more power can be dedicated to monitoring the actions of players within a game and then reacting to them, this may ultimately lead to a very distinctive genre of interactive, game-based music.

[in addition to games mentioned within the article]

How Cuphead’s Devs Gambled On A Dream
<>, accessed 2 Nov 2020.

Prince of Persia The Sands of Time

<>, accessed 2 Nov 2020.

Kristofer Madigan - Historical Precedent and the Creative Process in the music of Cuphead, <>, accessed 2 Nov 2020.

Kristofer Maddigan’s Website

<>, accessed 2 Nov 2020.

The Making of Myst (Cyan, 1993) [documentary].

Space Invaders
<>, accessed 2 Nov 2020. 

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