Creating an Atmosphere through Sound: How Video Games use Music

Written by Gaming

For me, one of the major things to make or break a game is how music is used. If there’s a good soundtrack, or a useful mechanic related to music, I’m a lot more enthusiastic about playing it.

Starting off, some games have soundtracks that are just great to listen to. Journey, by Austin Wintory, or Ori and the Blind Forest by Gareth Coker, have quiet, atmospheric tracks that are fantastic to study to – although perhaps they’ll make you want to sack off an essay and play games instead.

In a completely different vein, Mirror’s Edge is the soundtrack to listen to when trying to finish an essay. Music is not a constant in this game, but a welcome addition to moments of action, adding urgency to a game that may otherwise turn into a slog through technically difficult puzzles. Perhaps controversially, the soundtrack to No Man’s Sky is quite unique, for a game that could be labelled the biggest flop of 2016. A writhing mess of electronic sounds from 65 Days of Static, I feel like perhaps it echoes the game: the first few tracks are really good, but after that they’re fairly monotonous and there’s not much reason to keep listening. More successfully, racing game Distance has a fantastic soundtrack that really fits the sci-fi theme of the game; especially when the settings make the entire world pulse along with the bass. The gameplay reminds me a bit of Tron, with bright lines of colour against a dark background.

Another game with a pulsing beat is Crypt of the Necrodancer, a 2D dungeon crawler where you can only move on the current beat of a song. It’s a neat mechanic that causes the difficulty of levels to increase, as the music tempo gets faster. Dance, dance!

If there’s a good soundtrack, or a useful mechanic related to music, I’m a lot more enthusiastic about playing it

Games have the unique ability to convey different information to a player depending on what’s important at that time to that player. Overwatch is a prime example of this, using different sounds to alert players of opposing teams to an event. If someone’s ultimate is about to go off, friendly players will hear one phrase (“Rocket barrage incoming”), while enemy players will hear a different one (“Justice rains from above!”). Once you’re aware of mechanics like this, the game becomes a lot more dynamic, and not entirely reliant on just visuals.

A popular design is to have music alert the player to enemies. Think classic Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, where the minute cliff racers descended to attack (again), the music would alert you to the irritation above you about to cause minimal damage and maximum annoyance. Although the double piping of a horn will haunt my dreams, it was a great way of using music. Left 4 Dead 2 uses similar musical cues to alert the survivors to the presence of different special infected. Depending on the time of logging on, Animal Crossing plays different music – so if you’ve never logged on at 4am, perhaps it’s time you did, to discover a few new tracks as the sun rises.

Last modified: 15th December 2017

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