Sunday 11 November 2012

Hitting the right notes: Music in games?

Last weekend I went to the ‘Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy’ concert in Edinburgh (which is, coincidentally, also the reason why there was no blog post last week). This wonderful performance, by Arnie Roth and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, reminded me how important it is to include fitting music in video games. Now, I am not an expert on making music for video games, so it’s difficult for me to give specific pointers on the creation of good music; you would need an experienced composer to help you with that. However, as a game designer, there are still a few important elements to think about.

Distant Worlds Edinburgh - It's amazing to how many people gathered here, just for the prospect of hearing their favourite Final Fantasy songs. 

First of all, music should fit with what’s happening in the game. However, this is not always a straightforward process, as it is completely dependent on your aims for the scene. A happy song when someone is being murdered might not be the best idea, but it made sense in the movie American Psycho. A sad song when you have just slain a strong enemy might seem strange, but it made sense for a well-known death scene in Final Fantasy 7. The trick here is to understand what emotion you are trying to trigger in the user. For example, do you want them to be fearful, sad, angry or perhaps joyous? (Disclaimer: emotions come in different gradations; some music will have a stronger effect on the user than others). By linking songs that have a strong emotional impact, with scenes that have a strong emotional impact, you can create memorable moments within your game.

Final Fantasy 7 - Aerith's final scene, which in itself was already a very emotional experience for many, was augmented  by her heartrending theme playing in the background. 

Focusing on the emotions of the user is the first step. The next step is creating a more specific and consistent link between the music and the game. One way of doing this is by creating ‘themes’ for the entities, such as characters or organisations, within your game. This theme would then play whenever that entity has an important role to play. This allows the composer to ‘translate’ the story into the music. For instance, if two important story characters battle together, these two themes could ‘battle’ each other as well.   

Bastion - By fading the line between sound and game, meeting the Singer in Bastion become a very memorable experience.  

Now, an important difference between games and other forms of media, such as movies, is interactivity. Games are in constant flux, and the same game might be game might not be played twice in the same manner. Is there some way to create a link between the actions that the user takes, and the music that is currently being played? This is what is commonly referred to as adaptive music, which can be adapted to the user’s actions. For example, if the user is not doing well in the game, the music might become more frantic; if he does well, it might become calmer. This can be implemented quite simply, for example change the music when the user enters combat, or it can be done quite difficulty, for example adapting the music when the user enters combat. This can help create an aligned sound and game experience.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Sometimes when the music change, you realise you're not alone in the dark forests. 

Music can be used to guide users in terms of expectations and emotions. As with all game design, different people and different cultures might have different expectations, and what sounds right in the ears of one person might not sound right in somebody else’s. This is why you need somebody in your project who is experienced in dealing with this on a daily basis. However, without understanding what you aim to achieve in each scene, a music professional will not be able to help you much further along. 

Pok√©mon Typing Adventure - When choosing the music for your scene, make sure that you choose the right intensity for the emotion that you want to trigger. 

Do you have any ideas of your own, or perhaps you would like to share some of your experiences with video game music making, let us know by posting a comment below! 


  1. Different to your experience with different cultures relating to different expectations, I feel that music is actually a global thing. I also relate a lot to the music made in Japan or in any other game. Music is something even more connecting to emotions than visual art is. This is also the reason why orchestra's go an play around the whole globe.

    I'm not saying it is easy, you still need someone who can understand that what you want to achieve with a certain scene, it depends on the kind of story you want or the kind of reaction you need for your game.

  2. Being from a certain place doesn't exclude you from liking music that is popular somewhere else. But you can find some noted preferences for certain types of music. For instance, this Dragon's Dogma intro features a JRock track. To me it sounds completely out of place, but probably for people who are used to this kind of music (i.e. people from Japan), it may actually sound appropriate.

    You're right about the emotional impact, I do feel too as if it may be more important than the way the game looks. Somehow it triggers our base emotions much more strongly, although this still depends on whether people are open to having such an experience :)