Why Music is Central to Enjoyment of Video Games

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:

2011 – http://www.eat-sleep-game.com/news/2011/12/31/the-rebel-fm-2011-game-music-spectacular/

2012 – http://www.eat-sleep-game.com/news/2012/12/28/rebel-fm-2012-game-music-spectacular/

  7 comments for “Why Music is Central to Enjoyment of Video Games

  1. January 31, 2013 at 12:47 am

    With both movies and video games the soundtrack can be one of the keys to its success. For example, take the movie Jaws and try to imagine it without the soundtrack. The movie falls apart when the shark first lifts its head out of the water and we see that malfunctioning mechanical monster. I’m not saying that Halo, Mass Effect, or Skyrim are crutched by their use of a wonderfully scored soundtrack. In fact they have received little overall recognition other than the fans’ adoration for their scores. What I would wish to see is awards for “Best Soundtrack” and “Best Original Song” at the GRAMMY Awards. Some of the tracks for these games deserve that kind of recognition.

  2. Jim
    January 31, 2013 at 12:54 am

    Absolutely, music is something in video games, that when it’s done well, it can make a good game, a great game. If it isn’t done so well, it can hold a good game back. Some of the best music in video games is music that you don’t realize is playing until the song is half way through. For example, Bastion, one of my favorite games released in the past. The soundtrack in Bastion is excellent – what I like to call background music. It isn’t really intensive and just has a relaxing vibe. Several times, while in the midst of one of the harder dream sequences (extra segments of the game where you fight waves of monsters) whatever song is currently playing just comes to my attention and it gets me into the game even more.

  3. Cronimus
    January 31, 2013 at 11:02 am

    I agree that a lot of the time music makes part of a game. Especially in early games like Space Invaders where the sound symbolizes more than an upcoming boss fight. Music has been an interesting tool for games that has been getting more and more effective. I remember playing Halo: CE for the first time and getting pumped up by the music. Video game music has come a long way. I believe that the combination of action and music makes it far easier to remember these songs. But, that’s just my opinion.

  4. mkessler
    January 31, 2013 at 11:04 am

    I think that the power of music within Games and their effects is something that really can’t be argued. I’ve always enjoyed games that immerse you into the world your taking a part in through the sounds of music and scoring that is used to highlight points of immense power or of subtle change. One of my favorite series is the Fire Emblem series of games. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_emblem) While the general consensus is that the handheld games of the series are the best I have to give it to the Gamecube and Wii console games Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance and Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn for their incredible use of scoring to enhance not only the battle sequences, but also the sequences in between. Its difficult to play many games through the storyline intensive portions and yet when there is a form of scoring behind it that captures the players attention and keeps the feeling as engaged as they were during the battles and more action oriented sequences. I currently have the Black Knight’s theme in my head and it is making my classes today much more interesting hahahahaha.

  5. sprobst
    January 31, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    I agree, two series that do a particularly good job at it is, FIFA and the Grand Thief Auto. FIFA uses music from all around the world, to create an international atmosphere. While GTA has a radio function with different channels and commercials that makes it seem all the more real.

  6. Evan Fisher
    February 13, 2013 at 11:18 pm

    I think that the silence can be equally integral to conveying meaning and tension to the environment. Left 4 Dead for example, silence pervades most of the game, only to be broken by the sound of the undead or a short, ominous violin motif to warn the players of an oncoming horde, or even when the witch is startled. I mean, imagine the murder scene in psycho without that classic string-screeching and only the sound of the shower and the stabbing, it certainly could have made it more intense and possibly horrific, but the music is what many usually recognize.

    However, I would agree that the soundtrack can be one of the most memorable parts of a game, whether the tracks are prominent or subtle. I feel myself get nostalgic hearing the main menu theme from Ocarina of Time or even the Halo theme as you mentioned, and if they had been devoid of a soundtrack, the game would have been radically different (more so Ocarina of time… for obvious reasons).

  7. emartine
    February 14, 2013 at 2:08 am

    Music is, to me, one of the most important aspects of any game. When I talk about music in video games, I am really talking about the sound in the back, the main theme and every other sound found in the game (in other words the soundtrack). For example, one of my personal favorite video games is Batman:Arkham City. It is one of my favorites not because of story, game play or even the fact that the game is about Batman. Those aspects of Arkham City help it become a great game, but the soundtrack is what really sells it to me. In fact, when I first popped in Arkham City in my PS3, I didn’t play it as soon as possible because the main theme song was just so good. Even while I am writing this comment, I am listening to the Main theme for Arkham City because it is just so amazing. The Main theme song to me captures the essence of Batman. It sounds like a orchestra of pure bad-assness and at the same time invokes a feeling of sadness in me. This song could easily be found in any of the hit Batman movies that have been produced recently. This song is so amazing to me, I am going to include a link below.

    Enjoy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXKrsJZWqK0

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