Rhythm games notwithstanding, music is one of the most important (but underrated) aspects of almost every game. Each unique soundtrack to a game (or even usage of a licensed song) brings with it a bevy of moments to engage the player. For example, as enjoyable as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is, one of the most important parts of that game is the first time it is ever played. While the main theme is present throughout the game proper, sitting on the main menu for three to four minutes to hear that song is both massively enjoyable and perfect for getting the player in the right mood to play that game. Every subsequent time Skyrim comes on for that individual, he/she is ready for the experience that they associate with the excitement of that song.
Skyrim is far from the only game to use an incredible main menu theme to hook players. One of the first, most memorable examples of that technique was the groundbreaking Halo: Combat Evolved. Halo’s main theme is very ubiquitous among serious gamers of all ages. Much like Skyrim, sitting at Halo’s main menu is very thrilling for the player in that the main theme is getting him or her fired up to play the game. But what about the importance of music beyond the main menu? For the answer to that, two recent games stand as the examples.
Mass Effect 3 may not have been the masterpiece in certain people’s eyes the way they had hoped it would be, but it’s difficult to deny the effect of the soundtrack for that game. For instance, the opening sequence of the game ends with Shepard making his way to the Normandy, the crown jewel of the Earth Alliance fleet. However, as the Normandy leaves, Shepard sees refugee ships being blown up and the game cuts to the title screen. However, in that moment, the “Leaving Earth” theme plays, starting off understated and building in intensity and emotion. By the end of the song, the player is ready to make one last voyage with Commander Shepard and the crew of the Normandy.
In Portal 2, it’s easy to forget about the soundtrack for the game itself when one considers the music that plays during the credits. However, there is a moment in-game where the plot takes a turn and the music reflects that. At one point in the game, the player is betrayed at a moment when victory was nigh. As this moment is happening, the music playing in the background is very ominous, subtly informing the character that this is a serious turn and things are getting much, much worse. And while that is doable without the music, having the music to tell a supplementary story to the player is crucial to the overall video game experience, because of the mood it sets the player in.
Some astute individuals will note that certain games are very successful at conveying a narrative even with a total lack of music. One such example is the game LIMBO, which creates a tense, chilling feel, not just despite the absence of music, but because of it. LIMBO, and games similar to it, succeed without music because it’s supposed to create a specific atmosphere. However, apart from very specific types of fear or tension created by a lack of music, music is necessary.
Ultimately, soundtracks in games help create unique stories and allow video games to reach greater heights. Each game with its own soundtrack is able to tell a supplementary story to the one experienced by the players, and that reinforcement helps the players connect emotionally with the game. Having fresh, unique games is something that must always be striven for, and incorporating music is a better method to create distinct experiences than the alternative.
Author’s Note: Long-running gaming podcast Rebel FM has done two “End-of-Year” review shows on the topic of the best pieces of video game music in the given year for 2011 and 2012, respectively. They can be found here: