Is Video Game Music Essential?

THE SETUP

A Kotaku article about someone gaining the “courage” to ignore video game music was published online recently.

A blogger I respect, Cruise Elroy, wrote a response to it.

I am now writing a blog post responding to both.

THE ANALYSIS

The former article recounts the experience of one person who went from lionizing video game music as canon to the video game playing experience, holding it as sacrosanct, to someone who now admits he will take the risk of dismissing it to multi-task with other audio sources, or none at all, rendering video game composers “non-essential”.

The response article admits that a knee-jerk intensely negative reaction to this was a bit off-the-mark, but after thinking it through concludes that his experience is not unique and poses a potentially mistaken and dangerous conclusion.

There is little “courage” to muting the volume on a video game, as it’s an option that is available and should be used if the player deems it worthy. I can see the slippery slope being gone down, though. Classifying the music in a video game as “non-essential” is a definite generalization, one that oversimplifies the issue.

I love video game music and listen to it all the time. If not actual music from a specific video game, then chiptune music made with (or made to sound like it was from) old video game hardware. More modern games eschew chips for actual recorded music with much better fidelity, which is great, too, but the NES/SNES era really cemented inside my brain. That era is my classical music, my classic rock, my “oldies”. Hearing current interpretations done using the technology of the 80s and 90s is often my jam.

But the question is not whether the music in video games is qualitatively “good”, as that is very subjective, but whether it is essential to the game playing experience. The answer to that is this: if you want to have the experience intended by the designers, you’ll listen to the music, and if you don’t care about that, then you might change the music or turn it off entirely. Both avenues are acceptable as there is no “right” way to play a game. They are open-ended bundles of interactions. There is an implicit acceptance that once you start modding the experience itself, you are OK with the result. The experience may be lesser for it, like when you don’t listen to the oftentimes amazing music composed for the game itself, or it may be fine (or even better if music distracts you from enjoying the other parts of the game).

Music holds a special place in my heart and mind, as it can soothe, excite, placate, intrigue, intimidate, and even emotionally move you in a way that can’t always be described. Not every game has the intent to have such integral and necessary audio, but I’m sure they all wish they had it. In general, I never turn off or change the music when playing a game, but that’s usually on a console or PC. When on a mobile phone, I’m usually not in an environment to have the full experience, so the audio’s volume is set low, or even off. That’s all right because I usually just want to amuse myself for a few minutes, not lose myself in something for hours. Games on this platform are often made with that in mind. I still have fun. Enough fun to warrant playing. But I’m not going to conclude that the music is now non-essential. It’s simply an option that I can use to heighten the experience if I choose.

Games are unique in that they not only give you sensory interactions of sight and hearing, like TV or movies, but they also give you control. Most of the time, that control becomes the primary reason for playing. We enjoy entering a world with rules and interacting with them. The graphics can make us want to see more or less of it. The writing can make us want to pay more or less attention to it. The music and sound can make us want to listen to more or less of it. These all come together to make a very unique, immersive experience. Take away any one of them and the whole thing is diminished in some way. It probably won’t invalidate the game entirely, but it is now lessened significantly.

THE CONCLUSION

To reiterate, is video game music essential? This broad question can only be answered in the context of a different question: was the specific video game designed to be enjoyed with particular music played along with it, and do you wish to have that prescribed experience? If so, then yes, it’s essential.

Maybe not every video game that has music needs the music it has because the graphics and gameplay are all that matter. On the other hand, play a well-designed video game with appropriate music and you’ll probably agree that the experience is better for it. However, in the aim to create a game that is enjoyable, there is no intrinsic need for music unless that is a component that makes it enjoyable. Whether music makes a game enjoyable is pretty subjective and has no definitive answer. Music itself is a complex concept that is much too deep to dissect in a simple blog post!

So don’t discount video game music. Some of it is trivial, but most of it is outstanding. Play a game with it on and off and see for yourself whether it makes a difference.

4 thoughts on “Is Video Game Music Essential?

  1. If you as the 10-11 y/o set in the classes I teach, you will essentially find that there are two groups: one that thinks the music is a huge factor in setting the mood for the level, and one that would lose the entire audio aspect if it meant one less step of programming. Of course, the latter group is typically composed of the few students who don’t typically pick up the material as quickly or easily as the others and pretty much ignore all of the neat-but-optional bells and whistles presented for their use. I mean, it’s a dimension. An element of complexity to add to the over-all experience.

    • Like I said in the post, as an experience it’s often essential. As far as just creating a game, it’s not integral to a program with rules that accepts input from a player and outputs something (unless it’s central to the game itself, like Rock Band).

      I know the struggles of having to create the “chrome” of a project after the initial “functional” part is done. As a programmer, the chrome is often an afterthought when maybe sometimes it should be the forethought.

  2. Boy am I redundant this morning.

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