Music in Games

Sound design is an aspect of videogames that's often overlooked but incredibly important to player experience. At least for me, I find that sound—and particularly music, the focus of this article—can make or break a game.

Music making a game better

Music making a game worse

Growing up, my family didn't really listen to popular music much. My Dad was heavily into classical music, and though I listened to some of that, it didn't satisfy my need for hooky melodies and emotional directness. For those, I turned to videogame soundtracks, sometimes leaving games running just to listen to the music. Eventually, I found game composers that I liked and began listening to soundtracks of games I didn't even own. Yasunori Mitsuda was and still is my favorite videogame composer, and I've never even played Chrono Cross—the game to which he contributed what's possibly his best soundtrack.

As I began listening to game soundtracks independent of the games for which they were composed, I found myself gravitating toward soundtracks that have more discrete "tracks" and "themes." Nobuo Uematsu is a master of this type of soundtrack—having frequently outfitted older Final Fantasy games with recurring themes or "leitmotifs" for all major characters. These were effective both in the Final Fantasy games I played most extensively (IV, V, VI) and those I only listened to (VIII, X). I developed strong preferences for soundtracks that could stand alone in addition to complementing a game. A couple other strong composers working in this style are David Wise and Koji Kondo, and there are many others.

Squeezing a lot out of the SNES soundchip, this track from Radical Dreamers is perhaps my favorite of Mitsuda's.

A leitmotif by Nobuo Uematsu, from a game I played a lot

Recent work by David Wise from Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Music by Koji Kondo from The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening

But now that I've had years to reflect on this preference, I've developed a (hopefully) more nuanced taste. I find that certain games aren't suited to soundtracks full of Uematsu-esque melodies. In the wrong context, such soundtracks could easily become overbearing—a notion that never crossed my mind while listening to soundtracks without playing the associated games. Some games that would buckle under the weight of Uematsu's melodies are enhanced by more ambient, diffuse music. And I'm currently playing The Witness—a game with no music whatsoever whose subtle environmental sound design somehow matches it perfectly. It feels like nothing is missing.

Electronic ambience enhances Metroid Prime's sense of isolation.

The Witness has no music and is all the better for it.

What types of games can support more direct, thematic music? Where is ambiance or silence more appropriate? And thinking more broadly, how might we tailor game mechanics to support our desired aural landscape in addition to tailoring sound to support our game mechanics? These are all questions I'd be interested in investigating.