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From Mario to Bastion: Music makes the game

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I bought the Bastion soundtrack the other day, and I’ve listened to it non-stop ever since. That’s unusual for me.

Rather, that used to be unusual. I downloaded half the Dirt 3 soundtrack when I reviewed that game. I also got Woodkid’s “Iron,” the pounding song behind Assassin’s Creed: Revelations' E3 trailer. That one might've been some odd form of self-defense, given how that tune assaulted anyone who came within 20 feet of Ubisoft's E3 booth. Regardless, I've played video games my entire life, but I've never really listened to game music outside of a play session until just recently.


Now Playing: Rammstein, Insane Clown Posse, and Barry Manilow.

And if I’m going to be completely honest, I must confess to a “Screw that game!” moment when I heard Jesper Kyd wouldn’t return to score Revelations. You probably don’t even know who Jesper Kyd is. Maybe you should.

That moment passed, but it’s time to admit the music matters. Maybe more than we think.

 

For example, out of all the games I've played, the ones I remember best have music associated with them. I can recall boss fight themes, incidental hums, even menu music. The good-but-not-stellar games? The mediocre games? The horrible games? I don't remember a single bar or note, and I often let go of any gameplay memories, too. But swipe a bow across a cello in just the right way, and I'm assaulting the beach on the Silent Cartographer level in Halo: Combat Evolved. I even know where all the rocks are.

Music ties us to those moments, whether we're conscious of it or not. The Super Mario Bros. theme song — the original 8-bit chiptune — etched itself into my soul. I get a picture in my head of the first level, mainly because that's the first place I heard it. It just wouldn't be the same if I played Mario with the sound muted.

Gears of War 2
Caaaaaan you feel the luuuuuuvvvv to-niiiiiiite….

Although sometimes, you might pray for that alternative. Music can elevate a moment or destroy it. My favorite example? Dom's decision to — spoiler! –  euthanize his completely broken wife in Gears of War 2. It should to be a small, intimate, gut-wrenching scene where a man has to kill the woman he loves to free her from unending torment. We're talking the emotional payoff to one of the game's major subplots, and the music (by Steve Jablonsky, who also scored several of Michael Bay's recent flicks) treats it like we're planting the flag on Everest and enjoying the view.

That completely ruined the scene for me. By extension, Gears 2's story went right into the trash with it. The tone completely conflicted with what I felt I should be feeling.

Compare that to Halo. Martin O'Donnell introduced me to the concept of game music as a storytelling device, and he did it right from the start menu. That lonely Gregorian chant told me things. One lone ship and one lone man against awe-inspiring vastness. I heard reverence, humility, and strength…all related directly to the title artifact itself.

Halo Guitar
His solos last nine days and cure cancer.

Halo: ODST and Reach both lacked for Gregorian chants, but I approve. That movement belongs to the Master Chief and an ancient, terrible, alien artifact. Hearing it without those two things would ring false. While hearing it punctuate the Halo 4 trailer for the first time sent a pleasant chill up my spine, I'm hoping developer 343 Industries leaves the chants out of the game itself. Otherwise, I worry I'll play 4 and find myself thinking more about 1-3. Great music keys itself to specific things, not general usage.

I'm still listening to the Bastion soundtrack right now, as I type, and I'm thinking about the places that game took me and how it made me feel. It's rooted in blues, but composer Darren Korb drew quite a diverse score from that base. I hear mystery, adversity, pain, humor, action, melancholy, determination…the tapestry of any great story.

We know the rock star creatives in the game industry by name: the Miyamotos, the Bleszinskis, the Wrights, Itagakis, and Suda 51s. But outside of Marty O'Donnell, composers aren't so well recognized. That's a shame. Their music gives our games emotional resonance. We experience more out of our games thanks to their strong, subtle cues, and we remember those feelings years, even decades later.

Just listen. And remember to give credit where it's due.


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