Video Game Soundtracks and Atmosphere: An Introduction

Author’s Note: Here begins our foray into music and its role within gaming. We’ll need a dictionary of terms, which will be at the bottom of the article. Feel free to check this if you run into a word you don’t know.

We shall begin with an experiment, a musical exploration of the soundtracks within a few games, to see what happens.

THE EXPERIMENT

Have a listen to this:

How does this track make you feel? What type of game do you think it’s from? If you’re like me, you’ll have played so much of it that you’ll instantly be able to recognise it as Neep Ninny-Bod from Age of Empires II: The Conquerors. This track makes me feel as if I’m readying my troops for battle, leading them over the Scottish plains and on to victory against the English invaders. Maybe that’s just my experience of the game telling me how to feel about the track, but here’s another example. Listen to this and see what you think the game might be about, what genre it might be, what you can discern from the sound alone:

That constant ticking sounds a little ominous, surely? The opening synth seems to be hurrying you along, towards your goal. Then the main melody kicks in, kind of laid back, and full of hope and triumph. The harmonies are simple and the tune is upbeat and chipper – almost ominously so. It’s like we’re going to be up against lasers and fire and bombs and will have to save our children or something. That’s right, it’s the sound of the first level of a horribly hard puzzle game, by the name of Dweep.

These are both games I’ve both played. Let’s have a look at an example I’d not even heard of before until I asked my friend for an idea, and try and discern what we can about the game:

To me, it sounds like this game is an open-world platformer, or possibly some kind of world building, creative game, similar to Minecraft. I think the art style would use lighter colours, and be fairly bright. It also reminds me of Fez to a certain extent. The game’s StoneHearth, and I know absolutely nothing about it. According to the same friend who recommended it as an example, I’m very close to what the game is actually like. This is very interesting- this shows it’s not the game that’s making me think of the sound’s interpretation, but the other way round- the sound is aiding the themes of the game so much that I’m able to make accurate predictions about what the game might be like.

Enough examples for now. Let’s discuss why we get these feelings from these soundtracks.

THE ANALYSIS

Sound design can be tricky, even for someone who fairy in touch with music. The best thing that I’ve found to make sound design easier is to know the purpose of the track, not just in where it will go but also why it is there and how it adds to the final product. In the case of the Age of Empires track above, the reason it connotes feelings of the Scottish highlands is mostly due to the constant bagpipe drone in the bass section, and also the Celtic Bodhrán that forms the main focus of the percussion section. This, for obvious reason, helps reinforce one of the most important sections of the game – the tutorial, where you play William Wallace, repelling the English from Scottish lands. As well as this, the theme is easily recognisable and simple enough to be truly memorable.

The Dweep track, on the other hand, has so much going on that it’s hard to remember all of it. This kind of mirrors the complexity of some of the levels as you go through the game. However, as soon as that ticking starts and the bass line comes in, all the memories appear of the many, many many times Dweep died due to my own ineptitude, and how sorry I feel for their little babies. The light-hearted nature of the theme lends itself to the simple art style of the game, and the octave-spanning lower voice within the polyphony mimics the way Dweep and their babies jump about and always move, even when staying within the same game square. The many sections of the theme could also possibly tie in with the many different puzzle-solving techniques the game has you use – cause and effect, backtracking and illogical thinking are all part of the game’s many facets.

Finally, we’ll look at how Sun and Stone from StoneHearth allows me to envisage what the game is like without looking at any other material from the game. The string parts are relaxing and are constantly evolving, and this makes me feel like the ground beneath our feet, constant yet ever changing. They also in part remind me of one of the themes from Minecraft, which aids in the world building aesthetic. The marimba or vibraphone (not entirely sure which) reminds me of tribal music, as does the percussion section. They make me think of a more primitive time, back to the time when hunter-gatherers roamed the continental plains in search of food, shelter and company. Furthermore, the harmonic landscape of the piece is fitting for the art style, and makes me envisage the game’s art as fairly soft, rounded, and voxel-based- all of which I’m told is true. This all lends itself to the game, and overall Sun and Stone does an incredible job of setting the tone and mood of the piece.

But why does the music trigger these feelings and emotions? Before we continue, have a listen to these three pieces and see if your musical intuition lines up with what each game is about. Try not to focus on the way the game links to the music, but rather how the music links to the game. Then, try and figure out what it is behind each piece on a more musical level that gives it this quality. Have a think what varying the pitch, rhythm or timbre of certain parts might do to each piece. I’d encourage you to give this a go, and see what you come up with. I’ll put my own analysis below each piece, so you can compare:

For me, it sounds possibly 8-bit, with pixel art, and possibly very minimalistic. The game it’s from is VVVVVV, one of the hardest puzzle platformers out there, and a game I’ve never experienced or seen much of. Judging from screenshots, I was right in my guess as to how it presents itself- very minimalistic, 8-bit, and with much use of simple sprite art. This is down to the electronic chiptune sounds used. As well as this, the song seems almost melancholy, which reflects the difficulty of the game well. This is also helped by the dynamic shifts and the ebbs and swells of the layering of sound.

Ah, Tetris. The theme being in chiptune style reflects the system for which the game was originally popularised – the Commodore 64 – and the theme is relatively simple, being originally a Russian folk tune. Everyone knows it, and it’s catchy as anything. As well as this, it’s very fast-paced, at roughly 148 beats per minute- and this adds to the frantic, fast-paced nature of the game as it progresses. Overall, this simple, catchy tune serves Tetris well.

The manic, tense opening sets the tone of the piece immediately. The strings keep the initial tension going, as does the percussion section’s bells and wind chimes. The eerie bass solo at roughly 38 seconds serves the piece by keeping the flow and movement of the piece while also serving as a backbone for the other instruments to build on. The piece reminds me of sections of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, in its erratic and dissonant nature. The piano section, where the piano plays two contrasting melodies in differing time schemes, only serves to keep the dramatic tension up as the player wonders around Rapture, this mysterious abandoned city under the ocean, and slowly comes to realise that the world they now inhabit isn’t everything it might once have been.

THE EXPLANATION

Certian melodic and rhythmical patterns are culturally, socially and psychologically ingrained to invoke certain emotions. For instance, a violin that’s bowed slowly in a minor key with a simple piano backing sounds either saddening or tense, depending on the exact notes played. The same tune plucked, however, sounds creepy, and somewhat sneaky at times. I sometimes think of a mouse tiptoeing around, hunting for some cheese, when I hear this. Alternatively, take that tune and put it in a major key, and you get skipping through the meadow, happy and jolly, fun and free. Change the rhythm of the minor version, and change just a couple of notes (from the harmonic or melodic minor to the natural minor for those that are paying attention), and you get a sultry tango, a lullaby of love, passion and burning desire throughout the piece. Do the same to the major variation and speed it up and you get almost a samba, full of Latin vibe and energy.

And that’s just a violin melody with a simple piano backing. Taking the same melody and giving it to other instruments gives yet more variation, such as a spooky theme when given to xylophones and marimbas, and even an angelic theme at faster tempos or a peaceful lullaby at slower ones, when bestowed upon a harp. Even without varying the pitch, rhythm or timbre of a section of music, you can get great variation with how it is interpreted by the listener.

Music is a powerful tool, and its use in gaming should never be overlooked. Next time you have to pause in a puzzle game to think things through, get to an impasse in an FPS and have to revert to hiding in cover, or are simply walking around the forest in Minecraft, stop and listen to the soundtrack of the game, and see if it helps or hinders the atmosphere. Most of the time, it goes unnoticed, but if you play a game on mute, it feels instantly less immersive. Sound design is an important tool in the industry, and it is a worthwhile and valuable thing for studios to get right- you know someone’s playing Tetris, Mario or Zelda just by hearing their themes, and then they get stuck in your head, making you want to play the game too. Sound is infectious, and getting it right can mean the difference between an okay game and an amazing one.

GLOSSARY OF TERMS

  • Voice: A single melodic line of music (either vocal or instrumental) in a polyphonic composition.
  • Tone: The result of the natural sound of an instrument, combined with the performer’s particular technique of playing.
  • Pitch: The location of a tone in relation to others – high or low.
  • Timbre: What makes a particular musical sound different from another, even when they have the same pitch and loudness.
  • Dynamics: The volume or intensity of a composition.
  • Dissonance: Two or more notes played together which do not produce a recognisable chord – they sound ‘wrong’.

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