The other night, while I was waiting for a sizable download to finish, I figured I would pass the time with a bit of Peggle. After booting the game and hearing the familiar 'Morning Mood', I thought it might be a good idea to turn the sound effects to low and fire up some Debussy in the background. The experience was immensely satisfying mixing the stunning overtones of classical music with the decidedly laid back gameplay of Peggle. All together, it had me thinking about some of the ways music can influence our experience of a game. Below are my thoughts on three general ways I think music is implemented in games (static, epic, and dynamic) and some examples of each.
Static music is designed to set an overall tone and, when implemented correctly, helps to enhance gameplay through subtlety rather than being front and center. The goal for the musician with static music is to capture a general tone or mood and convey it to whatever is taking place on screen. Naturally, static music is well suited to menus and relatively mundane tasks. Static music should blend seamlessly into the background and, as such, is typically leveled to be a bit softer than other sound effects. All this said, static music must take care not to be overly repetitive or annoying; blending into the background requires an avoidance of audio dissonance. Further, static music which strays too far into generic or forgettable material may not be doing the best job of enhancing the gameplay experience. As such, the best examples of static music are often quite capable of standing on their own merits when removed from the gaming experience.
The Mass Effect series features one of the best static music pieces in gaming. 'Uncharted Worlds', which plays while the player is navigating their ship around the galaxy map, meets all quintessential criteria for static music. It is soft and elegantly captures the space opera vibe of the whole game without being annoying (no easy feat with synth heavy music) and features enough variation to avoid seeming repetitive. The galaxy map is a very different experience to other parts of Mass Effect. It is minimally stressful (no combat) and overall is designed to give an impression of just how huge the galaxy is. The floaty tones of 'Uncharted Worlds' is a magnificent fit.
Another prime example of static music is the 'Tristram' music from Diablo. The exotic acoustic treble (the result of mixing numerous guitar tracks and not a simple 12-string as is often thought), is supplemented with a weighty bass undertone. The effect is one that well-conveys the grim tasks of the adventurers and the desperate plight of the townsfolk. The track has an almost hypnotic quality that meshes perfectly with the town jobs of repairing and picking gear. In Diablo, town is where the player is free to breathe a bit easier even if they are keenly aware of the monsters that await them as they venture deeper into the catacombs. The relaxed yet ominous 'Tristram' is a true masterpiece of static music.
Where static music is mostly subdued, epic music is meant to come to the fore. Often boisterous and fast-paced, good examples of epic music work to enhance the action of the moment. Epic music can enhance a tense fight or drive-home just how awesome a character is. Epic music need not be loud, but shouldn't be inaudible. Also, as with static music, being obnoxious or annoying are generally bad qualities in epic music excepting the rare case where the gameplay is intentionally trying to mess with the player's head. All told, the best epic music will accent a particular gameplay sequence and will drive the action. Epic music fits well for boss fights and particularly dramatic moments.
One of the most iconic pieces of epic music is 'Alert Theme (encounter)' from Metal Gear: Solid. The music hits when the player is discovered starting with a non-repeating blare that effectively jolts the player from stealth mode to fight/flight mentality. When 'Alert' starts playing, the player can't help but experience an adrenaline kick which absolutely drives the action. While, in general, the music in Metal Gear: Solid takes a static approach, nicely complimenting the gameplay of sneaking around an enemy base, upon discovery, the player should naturally feel a bit of anxiety and 'Alert' sets this tone admirably.
Digging into any 8 or 16-bit classic will yield many great examples of epic music being used to enhance a boss fight. Perhaps the best example from this era is the 'King. K. Rool' track which plays when fighting the final boss in Donkey Kong Country. The track starts of lighthearted as the boss is introduced on the screen and amps up with a kicking bass when the actual fight starts. The overall effect of the primary fight theme is to meld laid back jungle drums with a sense of urgency. The music isn't overpowering in terms of volume but is decidedly in the fore. I feel it is a stunning example of how epic music can be action driving without resorting to a massive volume spike.
Dynamic Music (by my non-traditional definition)
Dynamic music is a bit of a grey area when it comes to gaming. For me, dynamic music is capable of reading the action on the screen and adjusting tempo appropriately without necessarily making the player aware of what has happened. Some people might argue that 'Alert' from Metal Gear: Solid is an example of dynamic music because it is a response to on screen action. While this is certainly one way to consider dynamic music, I hold a more strict definition which implies the overall theme of the music cannot change. If one were to listen to 'Alert' and any other static music from Metal Gear: Solid, they could scarcely tell that they belonged to the same game and almost certainly wouldn't suggest that they blend. By my definition, the best dynamic music is capable of transitioning from a subdued moment to an action moment without the player being aware that the track has switched. This is no easy feat to pull off and I feel dynamic music is best suited to fighting games and real-time strategies.
To pull a 'bet you never heard of this one' card, the dynamic music in One Must Fall: Battlegrounds is probably the best example of dynamic music I have ever encountered in gaming. OMF:BG was a sub-par 3d fighter that was the sequel to the 90's shareware classic robot fighting game One Must Fall: 2097. Where the game fell short in most areas, it most certainly did not in the music. Each stage had between 10 and 20 minutes of music written which could be arranged to be a continuous piece if desired. However, as the action would shift from the start of a match, to winning, to dramatic finish, the music would seamlessly swap to a section which would be appropriate for the action. An arrangement of 'High Orbit', one of my personal favorites, can be heard here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTgrU0TrIBY). If you listen to this you would be hard pressed to know that the various segments were not designed to be played in sequence but rather to be dynamically generated (knowing this you can sort of pick out the segments on a listen but it is still amazing).
Another good example of dynamic music, by my definition, is the Rock Band series. I think the original goal of the Rock Band series was to make you feel like a rock god who could shred out anything. Part of this experience is to have the fans sing along. In Rock Band, when you are doing well in the game, the track dynamically switches to have the audience sing out key parts. The result is that the entire rock experience feels much more authentic then if the audience cheering simply got louder. By exercising a bit of creativity with the tracks, Rock Band is able to dynamically alter the mood of a song. If you are playing well the audience let's you know it and you are even further sucked into the game world. Rock Band is an excellent example of how just even a subtle change to the track can make a big difference to the play experience.
While I am sure I could discuss about a billion different ways that the worlds of music and gaming collide and interact, I will leave it here for now. I hope that the descriptions and examples I have given will help to illuminate just how integral fantastic music is to a solid gaming experience.