Don’t you hate sitting in a classroom, at work, or at home without a single sound to be heard? I do. There’s just something about silence that drives me nuts. I’m not saying I like to be overwhelmed with sound, but I do like to have a little noise or music running in the background. Even so, music is hardly something I give a lot of attention to even when it’s playing. It’s more of a passive appreciation and a way to break the silence.
One of the most subtle, yet important characteristics of gaming is music. We don’t really think about it, but most the time it’s there. It sets the mood and the atmosphere, creates suspense, urges us to push forward, and brings us a sense of accomplishment when we succeed. Without music, gamers would be lost or worse yet…bored.
Sometimes, music makes the game. No, I’m not talking about AudioSurf or Guitar Hero which are specifically music oriented. That’s where the music IS the game. What I really mean is music that makes the gaming experience unique and enjoyable, even more so than the game play itself. One such platform that excelled greatly at this was the N64.
The N64 produced many great titles such as Goldeneye 007, Super Mario 64, Super Smash Bros, Star Fox 64, and the like. But one title in particular stood above the rest when it came to music: Bajoe-Kazooie. Sure, it was like Super Mario in the fact that you had to run around and collect stuff and save a damsel in distress (although not a princess, but your own sister). But, when it came to the music used, Banjo-Kazooie had a great variety and a lot of playfulness. You didn’t feel like the game was a grind, but something to enjoy every step of the way. The music lightened the mood and kept you wanting more.
Part of the reason I wrote this article wasn’t just to bring attention to music, but also to the composers who write the music. When it came to Bajo-Kazooie, Grant Kirkhope is the man to credit for such great music. Kirkhope wasn’t a one trick pony, either. He was also responsible for the music to Goldeneye 007, Banjo-Tooie, Donkey Kong 64, Perfect Dark, and most recently, Civilization: Beyond Earth to name a few.
Not to be outdone, Koji Kondo was responsible for music from the Legend of Zelda, Mario, and Star Fox series. Kondo, like Kirkhope, was excellent at finding just the right notes and tunes to mix with the play style of the games he composed for. Although we take it for granted, without the effort Kondo put into his work, the game play experience of some of the most beloved N64 titles would not have been the same.
I know I’m only focusing on just one platform in the gaming universe: the N64. I do this because 1) it’s what I’ve looked back to most recently and 2) there is so much great music from the N64 that it’s hard not to praise it at every given opportunity. But this certainly isn’t to detract from other music and composers in the gaming industry. Most games are multi-platform and so the work one composer does on a game spreads across numerous platforms.
One game I don’t care for its game play as much, but love the music is Halo. Halo was revolutionary in many ways and responsible for the increased interest in the FPS genre. However, it was also played a major part in how music was used in gaming. The orchestral sounds and Gregorian chants give the game a timeless and epic feel. The game was unique for what it was able to accomplish and this was further cemented and complimented by the music that went along with it.
Most of the games with music are traditionally RPGs and RTSs as they look to incorporate many different elements into the gaming experience to make it fun and enjoyable. Games like Runescape, World of Warcraft, Borderlands, Fallout, and Guild Wars (to name a few) make music an essential component of the RPG experience. On the flip side, First Person shooters tend to skip the musical component except for games like Halo which give it the proper focus and attention it deserves. All in all, any game can benefit from good music and enhance game play that much more.
Some games are known for graphics, others for game play, and others still for storytelling. But some of the most memorable games are those with great music. It may seem minor and insignificant, but sometimes music is the best part of a game…and that’s not a bad thing. It’s not often we come away from a game saying “Man, I want to listen to that track over and over again.” But when that does happen, appreciate it for what it is.
Feel free to share your thoughts on music’s place in gaming. Do you feel like me that it is far under-appreciated compared to other elements of game design? And what are some of your favorite games for music?