If Music Be The Food Of Love, Play On
There's been some gnashing of teeth on the GWJ forums recently. It happened when a post about Halo 2's music was put up. Apparently Halo 2 was forgoing a score in favour of using songs from alt-rock bands like Incubus. ( "Incubus?" the GWJ members said incredulously, "but they're even worse than Hoobastank. And that's a made up word!" )
It came to light that the inclusion of the music was being handled gingerly. The bands are to appear on soundtrack albums, contributing songs inspired by the game. This news placated the GWJ lollygaggers, but it piqued my curiosity.
While I liked the music from Halo (particularly it's bodhran-like drums), I understood what the developers were trying to do by modernising its sequels soundtrack, even though I didn't necessarily agree with them. This got me thinking about what makes good video game music. I've written my thoughts down here. There's nothing conclusive to be read, just my meanderings. Let's see if we meander the same things.
First, let's agree that music is an essential part of a good computer game. Whether it's playing during menu navigation or when one is playing the game itself, the importance of a good tune cannot be overstated. Of course it's conceivable that some would disagree with me. Unless they want to eat through a straw, that would be unwise.
The very best music can't be extricated from one's memory of a game. Fun examples of this would be music from the Super Mario series or Tetris. A personal example is the score from Tomb Raider.
I can't think of that game without remembering first hearing its Gregorian-chant like soundtrack. Without wanting to sound like a hippy, the music touched me. Without it, the game would have been great. With it, it became wonderful. (Not as wonderful as Lara's rockin' polygonal boobs, but it came pretty close.)
It's arguable that Tomb Raider's music was good because it was entirely appropriate. It was tasteful. It might be obvious, but it needs saying. In particular, it needs saying to the executives who decided Links 2004, Crown Green Bowls 2 and Tiddlywinks: Vengeance needed c*ck-rock soundtracks. Just like every occasion has an outfit (one wouldn't wear a burkha to a bar mitzvah), every game is only suited to certain musical genres. Did AC/DC sing 'For those about to golf, we salute you'? I think not.
Even if the right genre of music's chosen for a game, it's possible to get the individual songs wrong. Burnout 3's an example of this. It's a game that needs rock and metal, but one that would have been better served with tracks by bands like Led Zeppelin, Rage Against The Machine or Godsmack, than those it has.
If Burnout 3 did one thing right with its music, it was the inclusion of bands with an 'art house' flavour, Franz Ferdinand being one of them. Though I'm not fond of their track in the game, I applaud whoever chose to put it in there. I suspect its inclusion might have been down to marketing forces, but at least it was a unusual piece for the game.
Games developers and publishers should be encouraged to use surprising selections of music. As has been evidenced, just because something should be suitable, doesn't mean it always will be. Conversely (remember this is a meander) I think that considering musical styles and songs that one might initially deem unsuitable, or off brand, could produce memorable moments in games because the juxtaposition of the game and song is unexpected.
I had one such moment in Counter Strike. I'd just started the game and cs_backalley was loading. (It's nighttime map that requires players to sneak around alleys and buildings to rescue hostages.) The loading screen disappeared and I was standing with my anti-terrorist teammates ready to fight.
Unbeknownst to me, I'd left a music CD in my CD-ROM drive. It was the soundtrack to the goth/martial arts film 'The Crow'. The first song started playing: 'Burn' by The Cure. It suited the moment perfectly. It started off quietly, drums and bass guitar pulsating to audibility, overlaid on atonal flutes and the sound of crows cawing. It was a portent of death to come, a softly spoken signifier of menace and it seemed to echo around the darkened courtyard I found myself in.
I don't remember anything else about the game, but chances are I didn't do very well. Also, though this might be contrary to all I've said so far, I probably turned the music off. As good as The Cure/CS experience was, the game's reliance on stealth meant listening to music as I played was impractical. What would have been good is if CS had had a context-sensitive CD/Mp3 player in it. I think such a thing would benefit all games.
Have you ever seen player-made game movies? They're AVIs or MPEGS made of in game footage and spliced together to resemble film trailers and whatnot. Those I've seen have primarily been from FPSs, in particular BF1942 and PlanetSide.
The common denominator between such movies is the use of music to make the action more involving. Typically they'll have a track by German techno-metal band Rammstein. Action in the demo – explosions, people stubbing their toes dramatically – will synchronise with riffs or drumbeats in the music. Judicious editing by the movie's makers is responsible for this synchronisation.
The context-sensitive player would mimic that editing. One's chosen music would be analysed before play (perhaps modified DJ software could do this) and it would appear in the game when appropriate – heavy riffs during firefights, for example - and at a volume that would be clearly audible, but not detrimental to play.
I can't currently think of a better music/game situation than having access to a powerful original score coupled with the functionality to play one's own tunes. Well, as I write I imagine having an Internet radio station broadcasting random songs to be played and synchronised with in game. That would give us our dramatic Rammstein fix and, to paraphrase Henry Rollins, turn us on to new music at the same time.
Such things are for the future, though. Until then I'll make do with what I've got. At the moment, that's the Prodgiy album 'Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned'. I'd like to hear what it sounds like in Counter Strike: Source. I can't though, because I don't have the game. Perhaps some of you readers have both - care to tell me what they're like when combined?
If you've not been listening to the Prodge, what have you been listening to? What game and what music would you use your context-sensitive player with?