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From "The Witcher" to GTA: how music works in games and what is the most popular soundtrack


ChrisFeldbacher

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Games can't be imagined without a proper soundtrack. It doesn't matter if it's ambient royalty free music from Journey or pop radio from GTA V . We explain how game composers use sound to immerse the gamer in the experience and talk about the best game soundtracks according to Spotify.

How did music in games come about and how is it different from cinematic music?

Soundtracks in games were introduced back in the 1980s. Back then, the hardware capabilities of computers and consoles did not allow the game to include music played by a full-fledged orchestra or band, so there were synthetic (and at first monophonic) tunes. By the type of console, this music was then called eight-bit music and experienced its second youth in the 2000s, when, thanks to the efforts of artists like Crystal Castles and Anamanaguchi, the sounds of the old consoles became not just an echo of the era, but the basis for an entire style.

Even back then, music helped create a certain atmosphere within the game: the sound of Space Invaders (one of the first games with a background soundtrack) was a minimum of notes and everything, and it amplified the tension of the battle. And, most importantly, the music reacted to the player's actions, intensifying along with the aggravation of the fight/.

This is one of the most important differences between music in games and, say, movie soundtracks. A soundscape is not just a pre-conceived and forever defined order of melodies, notes, and rhythms. Music in games is meant to respond to the player's actions along with the environment.

Composers Bill Elm and Woody Jackson especially for the soundtrack album have rearranged all the tunes heard in the game into complete compositions

Now in games, this interaction of music and gameplay has been perfected to perfection. One of the best examples is the sound in the Red Dead Redemption series. Musician Woody Jackson recorded a bunch of individual cuts especially for the game with his colleagues. Their appearance depends on what the player is doing (moving on a horse, walking, participating in a duel, running away from police), where he is (in rocky mountains or sunny desert). And this sound is very carefully integrated into the atmosphere: you can hear it, but it does not come to the foreground, it is small fragments of melodies played by one or two instruments.

How does the player affect the music?

There are different ways of changing the music depending on the player's actions. The simplest is the usual change (or appearance) of the melody, either abruptly or with a smooth transition. This is the horizontal mixing. You can see it in Bioshock Infinite for example. There, during the battle, a nervous melody in the spirit of early XX century plays, and as soon as you have killed the last enemy, it ends beautifully.

Another option is overdubbing or vertical mixing. The rhythm and the main melody may not change, but they may intensify depending on certain events. A great example is this scene from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. There you have to literally go for the sound. If a bare rhythm is left of the melody, you've turned the wrong way, if the melody blooms to its fullest, you're on the right track.

A rarer but quite remarkable way for music to exist in games is when you literally generate a melody with every click. The best example is the melancholic arcade game Gris about fighting depression, where at some point -the main character gains a voice and her movements in space create a subtle melody over a quiet ambient.

It is still possible not to create music, but to base the gameplay on interaction with it. It's not just about simulators like Guitar Hero. Say, in Crypt of the Necrodancer your task is to move and attack your opponents to the beat of the music.

How does the music deepen the story and atmosphere of the game?

Music is not only a part of the gameplay. It also complements the environment through which the story is told and the atmosphere of the game is described. In this sense, music from games works in the same way as movie soundtracks do. We know for a fact that heroic melodies using percussion, flute, and wheel lyre are fantasy (like The Witcher), while industrial metal is probably some -action not without blood and guts (like Doom Eternal), synthwave is a Winding Refn-inspired thrashing (like Katana Zero), and solemn symphonic music is an epic travel saga (like Uncharted), quiet synths are meditative adventures (like Journey), and sad acoustics are drama in every possible setting (like any part of Last of Us).

In addition to the signs of style, games also show signs of the times. Especially when it comes to the music playing, say, on the radio in a game. The canonical example is the soundtrack to GTA: Vice City, a perfect playlist of 1980s music ranging from soul and new wave to rap and heavy metal. Another example is the music from the second part of Mafia, where we have the 1940s and jazz at the beginning of the game and 1950s and blues with early rock and roll at the end.

Sometimes game designers intentionally mix everything in their postmodern games to confuse the player. For example, in Bioshock Infinite there is symphonic music playing that is appropriate to the hectic modernist times of the early XX century (the time of the game), the orchestra playing the cover version of "Tainted Love" (first recorded in the 1960s, and which became popular in 1980s, that is the song itself is a trick, and Ken Levine mixed up everything even more).

How do games become another music media?

Games, replacing media, are slowly becoming another platform for promotional musicians - along with streaming services. So, in GTA V there constantly appear radio stations, curated by the musicians like Frank Ocean and The Blessed Madonna (on the cover). And in Sleeping Dogs the best labels and media - from Ninja Tune to Kerrang!

The fact that musicians are interested in games is not surprising: in a world where GTA V proves to be more profitable than the latest Harry Potter and the best TV channel is Twitch, games prove to be one of the most convenient ways to deliver sound to the consumer. Hence the DJ sets in Grand Theft Auto and the concerts in Minecraft. If there is a pandemic around and festivals are banned, you can have a digital one, it is absolutely harmless to your health.

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