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This chapter is from the book

Exploring Music Function within Games

Music can be a compelling and useful device to bring players into the game or to enhance the storytelling aspects of character-driven games. Breaking it down even further, music within video games has various functions, ranging from ephemeral state changes to longer-lasting thematic devices. Following are the various music functions that we find in games:

  • Set the scene. Players need clues about where they are when they enter a virtual game environment. Music can help define the time and place by using instrumentation and/or harmonic relationships. The Final Fantasy series (1987–2010) is known for its extensive use of musical themes to establish locations within the game. In Super Mario Bros. (1985), different parts of the level have their own themes (e.g., aboveground versus underground).
  • Introduce characters. Throughout many games, a tapestry of characters may be introduced to the player. Character themes can help the player develop perceptions of certain characters (allies or villains) or enhance the emotional connection between characters. In addition, themes may help organize a large cast of characters in a very sizable game. The Mass Effect trilogy (2007–2012) uses many character themes and is a great example of how to weave these themes throughout an enormous game.
  • Signal a change in game state. Music is often used to signal when a player has gone from one state to another. Typically this is an ephemeral change that quickly goes back to its original state. This technique is frequently used in vertical resequencing (layering of tracks), which we’ll focus on in the next part of the book. Red Dead Redemption (2010) uses this technique to distinguish between the exploring, riding, and combat states.
  • Increase or decrease dramatic tension. Tempo and the addition of music layers are frequently used in games to increase the tension. In both the early games Asteroids (1979) and Space Invaders (1978), the tempo increases to raise the dramatic tension toward the end of each level.
  • Communicate an event to the player. Frequently in games, composers use musical stingers to signal something to a player. In many games a musical stinger is played when a character dies in a particular level. A musical stinger is a short musical phrase (3–12 seconds) that acts like a musical exclamation point and is played to enhance a particular event in a game or film. In the game Metro: Last Light (2013), a musical stinger plays once the combat sequence has been completed.
  • Emotionally connect a player to a game. Developing an iconic theme for your game, like the themes in the Legend of Zelda (1986–2013) and Halo (2001–2013) series, can go a long way toward establishing the overall tone and feel of your game and instilling anticipation and excitement when players hear it.
  • Enhance narrative and dramatic story arcs. Similar to films, games generally have an overarching narrative and dramatic arc that plays out across the story. The music can enhance the emotional high and low points in your game.
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