Sound Tracks in modern video games are not a new phenomenon or theorem to be applied. In 1972, the first game with sound effects was Pong. Then in 1978, Space Invaders brought us a full theme song! Nowadays anything from big AAA titles, small indie games, or even shovelware have soundtracks. Their originality is a different story.
Now, there’s one thing to consider: Why do they have soundtracks?
Well, because it’s fun. To keep the player tacked to the game whether he is farming a carrot or making sweet, sweet tax invasions against the government, soundtracks make you understand the situation, the feeling, the emotions, the depth, and overall the entire scene. Soundtracks are a vital and important part of any game. Do they work as they are intended? Well, it all depends on the crazy mind of developers who plan on how to execute it.
Yearly franchises like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed tend to have less focused and interesting soundtracks. Even if they are active, they tend to be generic. Let’s talk about original soundtracks. Self-explanatory from their name, they are original and are copyrighted by using for the game developers exclusively or more specifically, only for that particular video game, though it is not a crime to reuse it if you obtain a license.
Now “good” original soundtracks take time to make because it takes time to understand the nature of the game and tone of each scene and then pick the right set of instruments to sprinkle some salt on the situation. For example, in a horror game like the Resident Evil franchise and Outlast, it is expected to have creepy, spine-thrilling music which creates the atmosphere of loneliness ALONG with not being alone and being watched while maintaining dark tension. Ninety percent of gamers turn off the music in horror games to feel less creepy and granted, silence is the best sound but I feel like that is a sort of disrespect to the artist. Now, switch gears, DOOM! Do I really have to explain what I am trying to contrast here? Well in DOOM, the OST is made by the legendary metal man, Mick Gordan. It has bass, it has violence, it has a fire, a fit of anger, a hunger for blood and gore which goes straight to the heart of the player and he is like MAN, BRING IT ON.
This matches the gameplay of a floor wipe FPS with bad-ass action and fast-paced gunplay and movement. In this case, people won’t only turn on the music, they will rip and tear until the game is done. So the point I am trying to make is that soundtracks enhance the experience of the player. Like what would you prefer? Spyro just walking around in silence, killing mushroom monsters, or would you prefer this one hell of an album playing in the background encouraging exploration, bravery, courage, joyfulness, creativity, and psycho antics!?!?! Would you like BFG Division playing in the background of Stardew Valley? NO! That would totally be a mood-killing for Stardew Valley, a calm composite farming game would not go hand in hand with heavy bass metal aggressive music.
Now in some cases, OST and gameplay don’t go hand in hand. For example PLOK! released in 1993, the music was composed by Lord Tim Follin. I am not saying it was a bad Soundtrack. No, it was fire! It was the very first synth-wave soundtrack in gaming history, and god it was a giant leap. The problem was that the gameplay can’t keep up with this. With this soundtrack, I can invade Iraq while in the game, I am jumping over balls and flying hands. It is overkill. Neither is the gameplay bad nor is the soundtrack, but they are both just not compatible.
One more soundtrack failure is Call of Duty but here it is not overkill, it’s a lack of memorability. I don’t remember one soundtrack from Call of Duty. Sure, there are remarkable moments, but I personally didn’t like any particular soundtrack. There was not any proper placing of music. I still remember at the end of Call of Duty Black Ops 1, a guitar rift plays at the very end for no specific reason and fades away after 5 seconds. Does it kill the mood? Yes, absolutely. Either make it play for long enough to influence the mood or don’t play it at all. Same for hotline Miami OST, they are great. Hear me out, a masterpiece of art, but they end so abruptly. To overcome this, they loop the music.
This brings us to a new chapter, Loopability. You get what I mean, video game soundtrack soundtracks are NOT like movie soundtracks. While movie soundtracks are composed only for a specific part in video games, it is uncertain how long a player will be stuck on a level or place so there are two options. Number 1 makes really long soundtrack which will suck up a lot of time and creativity. Or, Number 2 makes a short loop-able soundtrack with some variation in the middle of it and has a crazy build-up.
An important reason to make a soundtrack loop is to not break the player’s flow of action. You don’t want the soundtrack to heavily impact the gameplay. Most games tend to have crazy addictive, looping soundtracks. For example, Katana Zero, My Friend Pedro, Hotline Miami, etc. You can notice most indie titles try this technique. Now most AAA, even the amazing ones like Dying Light and Assassins Creed 4 Black Flag don’t seem to care much. The good ones are not that memorable, possibly because they expect the gameplay to carry the experience. Hotline Miami Soundtrack is so memorable that I can name the track and its author, summarize the entire level with details, etc just by listening to the first 5 seconds of it. This is one of those moments where music is 70% of the game.
Now AAA does not mean there will be always bad soundtracks. Metal Gear Solid V has such great soundtracks that they are still being used by content creators to convey emotion.
FarCry 3 is another great example. The main theme signifies that you will become something you wanted to be and fate is one hell of a bitch. You are not the center of the universe here, and you have to fight your way out. When the combat soundtrack goes crazy, it is Jason loving the flying blood because slowly but steadily he is going insane. Now, FarCry 4’s virgin tunes seem to signify nothing and have no emotion. It’s soulless. Even FarCry 5 had amazing country-themed music. Heck, all the soundtracks in FarCry 5 are amazing and have the essence of Montana life in them. And then we had FarCry: New Dawn with one of the lame soundtracks EVER.
The Witcher 3 is also an example where the soundtrack enhances the player experience. It is well suited to the environment, blends with the situation, and I love it. Even Cyberpunk 2077, a game neither do I like nor do I recommend, has some killer music on its radio- mixed with fire soundtracks for situations. It is amazing.
Adaptive soundtracks mean the changing of music based on a change of situations. Is it a good way to enhance the experience? Yes! Absolutely. For example, a player is entering from a killing cold exterior to a warmer interior, so of course, the soundtrack is expected to go from alarming to soothing. Now it’s on the developer on how to add a transition to this music. The laziest way is: music ends music starts. It feels clumsy, wacky, weird, and out of place. Another lazy way: fade in fade out and let the audio from the environment do the rest, it’s boring and not creative. And then we come to blood and steel, creating a separate transitional audio piece that shows the world that you have the balls to do something that 70% of people will ignore anyway because this will be so damn immersive they won’t even realize it. That is a dedicated move.
An example of the third way can be seen in any game by Lucas Art like Monkey Island. The music composers of Monkey Island had to create a new piece of software called iMUSE because it was a 1990’s bitch to deal with and computers didn’t have the technology to blend music dynamically. At that time, developers only had the first option. But with the use of iMuse, Lucas art composers went bananas and made each soundtrack for each location and then created over 200 transitional pieces for each location, and then they uploaded to the supreme AI. You see! It was hard to do, and players didn’t even notice, but you have to admit is was super-duper amazing. This is called horizontal mixing of music, where the transitional pieces that fade in fade out are used to mix to different tracks.
Now we come to the second part, vertical mixing in which a second variant of the song is played to match the current situation. For example, in My Friend Pedro, the music goes slower and more ambient when you move into slow motion. This is nothing compared to what Mick Gordan does. He once stated in an interview for DOOM 2016 that to keep the flow of the game going hard, he kept the music static but also composed different variants of the same music every time the player played the game. Another example is Nintendo. These guys put their heart into making games. In Super Mario Odyssey, if anything will make a sound, it will match the one playing in the background. In Mario Kart 8, there is separate audio for each position. Each one is more exotic than the other, and every in-game sound matches the OST being played in the background. In Animal Crossing, there is a song for each new day with variants for each for weather pattern and time of day, including the main theme and credit songs.
Last question that comes to your mind, why do they bother adding adaptive music? Just like movies and TV shows, adaptive music will add more emotions to the player’s experience and help him connect more to the game. In older Need for Speed titles, the music got more intense the more you got deep into a cop chase. In FarCry 3, combat music starts playing when in contact with hostiles, and the same for The Witcher 3. Some games even try to add more focus music when aiming down sights. In Mortal Kombat X the music changes on the basis of brutality the battle is going on and all of them are small examples. Many games try doing this and it only results in a more expansive experience. Rockstar games know it, look at Red Dead Redemption it is a masterpiece in every way. These are all amazing and pull me in and I love it.
To sum it all up, soundtracks and especially original soundtracks have the potential to enhance the gameplay by a lot. You see, soundtracks are one thing in video games which, if it is not good, players simply turn it off and never complain about it which has encouraged many studios to simply not focus on it. I just wanted to bring this in focus that NO! Soundtracks are an important part of gameplay and should be paid attention to! In video games, every part should be in harmony for a better player experience.