The Importance of a Game’s Musical Score

While writing my English paper, I felt a strong desire to play Killzone 3. Even though I don’t even own Killzone 3, I felt an urge to buy it. This sudden mood occurred while the musical score of Killzone 3 streamed in a separate YouTube tab on my browser. The music promised me a gripping story, intense gameplay, and an entertaining adventure. I wanted to experience that. Music influenced purchases before, like Pac-Man World 2 on the Gamecube. Nowadays I rarely have the time or will to play it, but I have keen memories of playing Pac-Man World 2 on my uncle’s PlayStation 2 whenever I visited my grandparents house in upstate New York, but I also admired the music enough to search for it online. My brother went back into playing Super Mario Galaxy after hearing the end credits symphony. Without question, music is one of the deciding factors in playing or purchasing our games.

Occasionally, we laud musical scores when they are composed by a famous composer in the industry. Take any Koji Kondo soundtrack, for instance. From the classic original Super Mario Bros. theme, to the bombastic orchestras of Super Mario Galaxy, his musical scores are often adored by millions of people, even by many who don’t play video games, and for good reason! His work is timeless and deserves to be shared across generations. It’s no simple task for any music composer. However, outside the superstars of video game music like Martin O’Donnell, Yoko Shimomura, Nobuo Uematsu, Grant Kirkhope, even newer artists like Toby Fox, there hasn’t been much activity. Sure, ARK Survival’s score has been recently adapted by London Philharmonic Orchestra, and we do see other compositions gain recognition from the music industry. Unfortunately, it’s not enough.

Any music junkie can analyze the mechanics used in orchestras or synthetic pieces, but as gamers, we just like how they sound, so I won’t get too technical. The first game that has a strong soundtrack in my mind would be Shadow of the Colossus, composed by Kow Otani (he also worked on several Godzilla movies, what a coincidence). The opening piece creates a sense of mystery, a very strong theme in the game. The story is very vague and brings up so many questions without answering them. To fit the narrative, the emotions of the music are very conflicted. At times, it sounds hopeful, but at the end it becomes sorrowful. Of course, battling Colossi beckons a massive, pronounced theme which gives exhilaration to the player. You have to kill this monster no matter what, and it will be awesome! Once you defeat a Colossus, the victory theme doesn’t sound victorious. Given how the game ends (not spoiling it, don’t worry) and what you actually did to the creature, the music brings you back to reality and you question your own morality. Should I have done that? Should I even be here? Excellent soundtrack that deserves a listen.

Music in games can also reflect how the game is itself. Katamari Damacy, as well as the entire franchise, contains a funky jazz soundtrack that sounds quirky and unique, just like the game. If you played any Katamari game, you’d agree that it’s quite…erm…Japanese. It’s a specific kind of weird that would only come from that region. Another game that comes to mind is the Uncharted trilogy (including Golden Abyss since Clint Bajakian worked on the trilogy and it has a solid score, too) by Greg Edmonson. If you heard it, you could swear it was ripped from a 1990’s Hollywood action movie.

Modern action movies follow a more Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End sound, which makes sense considering Henry Jackman worked on many massive movies. Unfortunately, some fans say the modern take of the music waters down the feel of the adventure and I don’t disagree. Games that have compelling scores grips players that haven’t tried the game yet. Music composition tells so much about a game without showing any imagery. Even less-than-stellar titles can pack great scores, like The Order: 1886 (Jason Graves), Sonic ‘06 (various), Pre-update No Man’s Sky (66 Days of Static), Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (Sarah Schachner), and even The Tomorrow Children (if you don’t recall that game, I don’t blame you. It was a failed PlayStation exclusive a while back.) has a good score by Joel Corelitz.

Poor music poses a great risk to games, though. When they sound repetitive or dull, then the games will also seem that way. Furthermore, a lackluster music score adds very little to the experience and can cause some players to lack determination to push forward in the game. Take Jak and Daxter and try to remember a song in your head. That’s pretty tough, right? Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy (Josh Mancell) has some decent songs, but nothing for you to hum or want to listen to while doing homework or on a car ride. Jak II and Jak 3 (both Mancell among other artists)…did they even have music? If you like those soundtracks, fine. Go ahead and like them and maybe throw in a “You’re an uncultured swine!” in the comments as well. It’s a shame that the music isn’t enjoyable enough to entertain you in any of the Jak games since the games are quite good. Modnation Racers (Marc Baril) is another title that comes to mind. It makes you want to mute the damn music! How could players want to jump back into a game if the music almost abuses your ears? Again, the game’s very enjoyable and underrated like the Jak games, but if they ever do a sequel (as they should), hire a new composer.

Even upcoming titles offer pretty excellent pieces of music. One game that comes to mind is the new God of War game. The theme oozes masculinity and it is awesome! It also helps the manliness of the piece when the composer’s first name is Bear (full name Bear McCreary). Frickin’ Bear! The bass choral chant prepares you for battle and makes you eager to kill a troll as seen in the first gameplay reveal. Later on in the song, the music becomes dramatic, as if it’s capturing the toils of fatherhood. When alto and soprano voices join in the choir in addition to violins with the orchestra, the music reaches the emotional climax that symbolizes the struggles of raising your child in a hostile Nordic environment, and even maintaining yourself throughout this perilous journey. Just describing what the theme song could mean really pumps me up for the game’s release. Don’t disappoint me, Sony!

Music in games are often taken for granted by many gamers. Many see it as background noise. As for distinguished players like me (adjusts smoking pipe and monocles), we understand the gravity and power the music holds in our preferred entertainment medium. I’m just kidding, but it is important for music to be influential in the gaming experience. It keeps us going or even encourages us to buy games we don’t have in our library. Sometimes musical scores are partially responsible for an ever-growing backlog of games. Regardless, music that accompanies the player throughout a game is the best kind of music; and it won’t hurt to want more of that kind.

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