Music is a terrific thing. It can get us in a happy mood for the day or it can speak to us on an emotional level. A scene of a movie is made much more impactful when the right soundtrack is added to it but the same applies to a video game. I’d wager that it applies even more to a video game than a movie. A movie uses music to impart a sense of how the character feels. A suspenseful and dramatic score will go well with a scene where the hero is fighting to stop a bad guy from succeeding in his evil plot while a lighter rock song with happier tones may go well with a scene of a character driving around without a care in the world. Or Sabotage by Beastie Boys can just go with 100 different things, but some brushes can be used for more broadly than others.
Video games have an importance of getting the right score because the score helps you to know what the character is feeling plus imparts that feeling onto you, the player, since you are invested in the action. A suspenseful and epic score can raise the feeling a player gets even more since we all know the hero will win in the end of the movie but that we can fail just as easily as we can succeed when we are playing a game.
This failable state makes the musical score all the more important for a video game. If a player is worked up enough by an ominous score, they can feel the pressure and the victory can feel much more real.
For some examples of how music can change a game, we can look at games like Halo, Legend of Zelda, or The Last of Us. Each of these hold examples of ways music can impact a players emotional feeling for the game.
Halo has many examples of when music is used to raise a player to the next level. Nothing made you feel like you were about to go on a mysterious adventure like hearing those monks chanting. The finales always contain a great score that builds and builds as you move through the level, adding that feeling of escaping an epic wave of destruction.
Legend of Zelda is able to give players a hopeful sense of adventure and nostalgia with the same base song being built upon and slightly modified over and over. They also add music to every zone of every game that fits the aesthetic and emotional feel of the location. Shops have a happy music that is played and that we would feel comfortable around. Meanwhile dark and ominous dungeons such as the shadow temple give us a creepy and horrifying feel.
Meanwhile, The Last of Us tugs at our heartstrings when Joel loses Sarah at the start of the game. The slow and somber notes of the violin and guitar build the feeling of emotion and loss with every note. This scene is able to stay with me as an expecting father due to the intense emotions it gave me the first time I saw it.
While music can raise the suspense of a game, removing music could also result in a more immersive experience. A simulation game with good sound effects but no music can make you feel like you are there while allowing every snapping twig or rustling of leaves to make you wonder what is around you or if some creature is coming. The key when using this approach is to not leave the game with no audio at any point. This is where it sounds more like an incomplete game than an intentional design choice.
Music is one of the most important ways to give a game more depth. While some games get by without any soundtrack, it can help you get a great feel and make a game feel like it’s more than just a game. It can pull you into it and make you feel like you’re on a journey.