Toward a New Grammar of Game Music

In a recent article at Gamasutra, Andrew High asks the question, “Is game music all it can be?” While I agree with his general premise—that music in video games can do so much more than it’s currently doing—I found the article to be frustratingly incomplete, and I’d like to articulate why.

Most of High’s reference points originate from cinema, and on the surface this makes sense. Games and film both rely on visuals and sound complementing one another. Beyond that, however, the differences between the two art forms are vast. Even the most linear game still carries with it an element of choice. It’s telling that most of High’s examples come from cut scenes or set pieces, the most cinematic parts of a game, which are more or less identical for every player. But most gameplay is much more open-ended. Even the most basic aspects of the experience, like pacing, are at least partially in the player’s hands. One player may decide to linger in a certain area, while another may rush through. And as any filmmaker, storyteller, or musician is well aware, pacing is crucial to how your art is perceived.

Because of this, a great deal of music in games cannot be tailored for one specific situation. It must function for several different situations, or variations of the same situation. High hints at this when he mentions Bernard Herrmann’s classic score to the romantic comedy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, where the music initially seems at odds with what’s happening in the story. But this kind of dialogue between music and film, in which the music is allowed to be somewhat independent, is hard to come by these days. For this and a host of other reasons, I think it would be a huge missed opportunity if video game music simply replicated the grammar and tropes of contemporary film music. As a new and still developing art form, video games demand a new musical grammar.

Let me explain what I mean by that a little more specifically. For one thing, the way games tell stories is substantially different from the way movies tell stories. Even how audiences engage with the two art forms is different. Players interact with games through exploration and the branching paths that come along with that. Thus, the world itself that the player investigates has to convey much of the story. This kind of narrative through world-building is one of the things that makes video games special, and it’s something that the music can and should participate in. Some soundtracks accomplish this by creating a stylistic palette that is specific to the world of the game. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those recent soundtracks that capture a distinctive aesthetic are among the most successful, like Bastion’s “acoustic frontier trip-hop” or Sword & Sworcery’s sweeping ambient soundscapes.

But I’ve still been talking in generalities, and I’d like to look at one scenario in detail to show how music can really bring a world to life. There’s no question that the music and sound design of Portal 2 is stellar all around—in particular the “Turret Opera” of the final cut scene seems to be an audience favorite—but there’s also a ton of smart stuff peppered throughout the game that’s not quite as obvious. It’s these small, subtle details that really give the game’s universe its distinctive feel.

In one room early on in the game, there are three laser beams that need to be redirected in a particular way. When a beam is correctly aligned, the target begins playing a short musical loop. When all three beams are aligned, the three corresponding loops create a complete harmonic texture. Rhythmically, the three loops are slightly out of phase with each other, keeping the limited materials interesting.

On the most basic level, this is a reward for the player and a cue to let them know that they’re headed in the right direction. But on deeper level, it says something about the world that the player inhabits. It turns out that many of the other objects in the game—bridges, tractor beams, cubes—also make their own music. In contrast to the sterile chambers of the first Portal game, it shows that this mechanical world is perhaps more alive and harder to predict than we first thought. And it changes, bit by bit, how we think about GlaDOS, the artificial intelligence that controls this world, who is initially an antagonist but slowly becomes a more sympathetic figure. Is this music or sound design? Strictly speaking, it’s hard to say, but it’s driven directly by the actions of the player. The music accomplishes all this wordlessly and more effectively than a line of expository dialogue. There’s also no precedent for this that I know of in film (though I can think of a few analogues in interactive art).

To be fair, High mentions adaptive audio and the rise of indie games that “integrate music fully into the game” at the end of his article, though this feels more like an afterthought than a fully developed idea. How our opinions differ is probably more a matter of degree than outright opposition. But I do believe that the focus in video game music should be on devising and developing new ways for music to be used, rather than relying on well-worn, tried-and-true tropes. With all the innovation happening in games right now, why shouldn’t this extend to the music?

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