DEVELOP Magazine’s first ever audio-related cover feature (April 2004)

Do games really need music? Yes, suggests James Hannigan, but the music must become as dynamic and interactive as the rest of the game, rather than simply echoing film scores…

 “New inventions often mimic the forms available at the time of their inception. The first automobiles did look like ‘horseless carriages’; the first electric light fittings resembled gaslight fixtures; our current computers are a hybrid between the typewriter and television. Similarly, the content of new technological art forms often mimics earlier forms.
Early films were theatrical performances played to an unmoving camera; recordings were souvenirs of performances, trying to capture (in classical music, at least) the acoustic world of the best seat in the concert hall; and early television was radio with pictures. In most cases (classical music being an interesting exception), eventually the form begins to influence the content.


Should the role of music in games follow the model that has developed for the cinema, or should it take another approach completely? Put another way, should the implicit linear nature of scoring music become more non-linear, like the game itself.

Cinema scores tend to be linear and complete within themselves. But does music need to be ‘complete’ for games? One selling point of games is that players complete them, rather than merely viewing them like films (we wouldn’t say that an audience ‘completes’ a film). Many games are intentionally left open for players wishing to create a narrative for themselves. Inherent in the tools used for music production is the idea that music can be entirely composed and rendered before it reaches the point of application. Yet games have the effect of re-ordering or ‘triggering’ musical segments in unpredictable ways.

A little historical perspective is useful here. Film music has been with us for so long, it’s easy for us to forget how it first came along. In the late 1920s, when film audio was introduced, music – and sound in general – was of interest to audiences simply because of its novelty, regardless of its relationship with events onscreen. It was over a decade before film composers as we think of them today began emerging; the language of film music we’re familiar with was slowly introduced by composers and filmmakers seeking to explore the possibilities of a new and unique medium.

Will such a movement take place in games? Perhaps it’s already underway. Game developers and composers have to create and apply music in meaningful ways, but this process may be held back while confusion persists about the role of music in games.

The novelty of any digitally recorded music in games has long since passed, but it’s been replaced by consumer expectations for stylistically appropriate music heard at the ‘right’ times in-game. When players encounter large-scale, ornate music (like that heard in the most intense moments of epic films) placed somewhat arbitrarily in menu screens or while characters stand idly around in-game, they may well ask what this music is for, over and above sounding good and ‘setting the scene’.

To some, the music may seem capricious, rather than complementary. Such music demonstrates an unconvincing relationship with what players see taking place before them.

History also suggests a precedent for where a more appropriate approach to game music might come from. In 1941, Orson Welles – an outsider from the world of radio who knew little about the technology or conventions of filmmaking – transformed the film industry. With the soundtrack to the classic Citizen Kane, music and picture became more organically intertwined and mutually supportive. Dedicated, forward-looking games composers also try to bend the rules by writing and preparing music with games in mind. However, what they’re up against is the conventions of scoring for picture in general and the expectations of game developers in particular, who often want to experience the music complete, before it’s placed against the game itself. Game composers are rarely able to audition music in context and, apart from cases of composing to picture, are often forced to work in a vacuum

Before any real solutions to these problems can emerge, it may be important to work out just what it is we are trying to achieve in the first place with music in games. Doesn’t a musical problem require a musical solution?

Here’s a critical area where the imperatives of film and game music diverge. Film scores exist for a passive audience mainly to support the unfolding narrative they’re watching on screen. This music is obviously inaudible to the characters in films, and these characters are unaware of any meaning embedded in it. In games, however, this type of music is audible to players, who are both audience to and participants in onscreen events.

If, therefore, we use this type of music in games and expect it to function precisely as it does in many films, it’s a bit like providing music for someone watching someone else play a game. Recognising the players’ duality of audience and participant opens up a Pandora’s box when we question the very purpose of music in games.

Another type of music heard in films is known as ‘diegetic’ music – music audible to characters as well as to audiences (a film score would be non-diegetic music). Examples are the music that characters hear in onscreen bars or on radios. In games, Grand Theft Auto features diegetic music emanating from the radios of stolen cars.

The difference between diegetic and non-diegetic music in films is clear because the role of the audience is so well defined. But complementary music used in-game with films in mind cannot easily be said to be non-diegetic when a player is participating in events, because such music treats the player as the audience. That this music is audible to the player, who has adopted a role in the game, suggests it influences his or her behaviour as well as commenting on events occurring in-game. Yet composers are often asked to create music fulfilling this ‘player-as-audience’ role. Thus, it’s no surprise that the option to ‘disable music’ continues to exist – regardless of how good it sounds.

Raising this issue might seem frivolous, but if music were deemed important, players wouldn’t so readily detach it expecting the game to still make sense. Yet many games allow users to do just that to the carefully pre-planned balance between sound effects, dialogue and music.

This gets to the heart of the difference between films and games, moviegoers and gamers. The former want and expect picture and music to act as one; gamers, on the other hand, want options.

If that’s the case, then creating music just for its own sake is the worst option of all. The solution is to bring the composer into the game development process far earlier. Not only will it help ensure that music is used more appropriately but it will also engage the composer at a more basic level, thus enabling the composer to engage the player more deeply.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Game composers and developers simply need to acknowledge that, while similar in many ways to the film experience, or even to theatre (where the characters on stage can often hear music emanating from the orchestra pit), games are their own unique domain and their music should be equally unique.

If music in games is to be as useful as it is in films, it needs to add a dimension to the experience. A few popular examples of games with effective music are Metal Gear Solid 2, Halo and Resident Evil. What sets games like these apart is the way music becomes integral in playing them. Music is only heard when it has something to say in-game. In Metal Gear Solid 2, for example, music actually provides players with information they need to play the game effectively (for instance, signifying impending danger when little else does) and also features convincing transitions as music follows events moment by moment, significantly intensifying the action or a sense of urgency.

In the case of Resident Evil, music (and silence) is equally effective. Anyone who has played this and encountered the peaceful music associated with finding a typewriter out of harm’s way can vouch for how powerfully music can be as a signifier of emotion – in this case, a feeling of safety. Very little of the music in these games involves the use of large-scale orchestral music, but we would be hard pressed to argue that this detracts from its effectiveness.

Here we’re beginning to get at the ultimate point: making music makes sense as part of the whole. Film audiences are more likely to fondly remember music if it is entwined with the most poignant or evocative moments of films. For example, many of us will be familiar with John Williams’ Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is particularly potent when we bring to mind the exploits of Indiana Jones. Equally, sometimes the least obvious use of music can be the most effective. A good example is Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, which avoided mimicking the film’s 1930s San Francisco setting and instead employed a powerful contemporary musical language to focus on unseen tensions between characters.

In games, despite our growing use of film industry production methods and values, we’re nowhere near this level of artistry yet. But it’s achievable.

There is unique information that music in games can convey. We know music can in some way situate players between the roles of audience and participant, or distance players from the game world and manipulate the extent of their immersion. Music can signify emotion, reward or punish players, lead players in various directions, be location-based, or even reflect the underlying game-state. However, the necessary synergy often fails to emerge through a lack of connectedness and coordination, along with a somewhat unimaginative reliance on older forms.

Games tend to come together well when they are the vision of a strong designer (not unlike a film director) and a tightly knit team who share a vision. In many cases, games development is a haphazard or democratic process, in which almost everyone is an expert. If we continue to place ‘film music without a film’ in games, this state of affairs will only continue. If, however, we continue to challenge the nature of musical content itself and slowly introduce a new musical language specifically for games, then there is some hope music will be truly integrated with most games of the future.

Perhaps a certain kind of compositional system could be employed, leaving music open-ended before the point of use? This would be true interactive music, completed by players in the course of completing games, not just pre-composed music triggered by cues – currently often written either as homage to film or stepping stone to Hollywood.

At the moment, technologists still often control musical (and most other) content going into games. A film industry analogy would be if the makers of cameras had exclusive rights to determine the content of films.

There is an aphorism that sums up this relationship well: ‘Those who control the technology of a new medium control its content as well.’ Then there is Professor Deutsch’s reciprocal corollary, ‘As the technology spreads, the control of its content dissipates.’ We need to be aware of how the use of music in games is progressing so that we can proactively guide it through that process. On the other hand, the games industry will have a natural evolution into niches, some of which will be less the domain of the technologists, so a synergy between music and action (and interaction) can also come about organically.

The universe seems to like to achieve its own balance. So it will likely be with games, between the artists, composers, developers, moneymen and corporations that make and distribute games. And don’t worry that artistic people will inevitably have less leverage in games’ future than more pragmatic personnel. In time, games composers and other key creatives will likely develop their own celebrities, akin to how cineastes refer to a score as the ‘John Williams soundtrack’. Consumers like to believe there are larger-than-life people behind these products. A less tangible but equally significant point is that consumers could well be uninspired by the anonymous nature of office-based games development of today.

Once we can more accurately recognize our new milieu and our relationship to it, music for games will take its place as a distinct art form, just as film music did nearly seventy years ago

Final Comment

Is there anything wrong with aiming to create filmic or cinematic experiences in games? Of course there’s not.

These arguments merely suggest we need to look again at the role of music in achieving this, firstly by recognising that the gameworld is an emotional landscape appropriated to the actions of the player, and secondly by understanding how music, and sound in general, can emotionally charge games, and centre players in the overall experience of playing them.

Emulating film may partially be the result of a desire many in games have to work within the film industry, viewing games as a secondary means of working with linear film-like sequences. It’s shocking how many will admit to this, especially among composers who predominantly enjoy writing to picture.

It’s our job to reverse this trend, not to enforce it. Going forward, music clearly should not continue to be of secondary importance in development, as it often can be, nor should it be viewed as separable from game design in general.

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Take a look at the purpose-built interactive music system of 2003’s “Republic: The Revolution” below