Friday, September 10, 2010

It flows from heaven to the soul

Something I haven't really noticed much but only really thought about recently has been the musical score in games and how they affect the user experience. It may just be the games I am playing, but very few games in the last 5-6 years have had any sort of memorable soundtrack to me. No scoring that really captured the mood of the game play and enhanced it to its full potential. A lot of the music you see in games today is mostly orchestral (or orchestrally themed). I have no issues with orchestral music by any means. In fact I consider it to be the pinnacle of live human performance, with such a concentrated and condensed selection of skilled musicians. The thing is I am not sure how well it translates into the average gaming scenario, especially when it is recycled so many times.

When you are playing a game, and I actually mean playing, not watching a cinematic, you are only acutely aware of the music in the background. You are not (and shouldn't be) focusing on the music to any extent. Even in a music game like Audiosurf or Guitar Hero, you are really just reading instructions on screen and responding to them hand-to-eye. The more difficult a game becomes, the less you will focus on the music in a game. However at the same time, the easier it gets the less concentration you need to apply to the game play and the more the music seems to stand out. If the game is boring, you will be focusing on aspects other than the game play (such as audio and visuals) which will bring further attention to their possible inappropriateness.

Ever watched a movie where there is supposed to be a romantic scene between two primary protagonists (usually at the end of a typical Hollywood film), only to find yourself either laughing or rolling your eyes? Chances are you weren't enjoying the film up to that point anyway and found this combination of symphony and 'kissing scene' to be just stupid or over-dramatic. That is because movies, like games, have a state of 'flow' to them. Ideally you want your watchers/players to sit directly in the middle of flow, between extreme annoyance (or tension) and extreme boredom. The most enjoyable session of game play for a player is also found to be in this state. It is of my opinion that within this state, the appropriateness of the music will come into fruition with the ability to either make or break a game.

But enough of the psychology. Lets talk about some interesting music and pretend this blog is just about cool shit and not me ranting on about my crazy ideas for once:

Super Metroid - The Jungle Floor

Besides Samus being one hot bunny in cybernetic armor, her games (at least the old ones) had some really catchy tunes. I remember playing this game on the SNES a LONG time ago, but hearing this track again brought a tear to my otherwise cynical eye. To be young again, free of difficult choices and ignorant of the (mostly) bull crap things which makes up the world is something I think a lot of people want in life. Or at least some of the time. This song brings back faint memories of exploring an abandoned space station, looking for a lost Metroid, with that base slowly coming to life in an Aliens sort of way. There was fear, there was tension but most of all there was adventure. If I remember correctly, this one short track captured those emotions perfectly and is one thing I will give Nintendo for doing right. They sure knew how to make a Metroid game, back in the day.

Dark Reign - Track 5

When you mention the game Dark Reign nowadays, most people will either give you a quizzical expression or immediately think of Auran dispersing over the unfortunate failure that was their last game, Fury. Dark Reign was released at a good time, but its primary competitor Total Annihilation was slightly better. But slightly less than totally awesome is still pretty awesome. From memory, the game offered a very robust A.I system, allowing you to spawn units that would move and fight on the battlefield the way you set them. To expound, you could tell a group of Tachion tanks to fight defensively, continuously moving and patrolling randomly and returning to base to repair themselves when they were damaged. They would then go off and fight again. Battles were immense, almost matching the scale of Total Annihilation at times. Not to mention the story was pretty darn good too, probably the best one for a strategy game at the time (vs TA and SC). On top of all this, it had an incredibly moody, almost tribal like quality to its soundtrack that suited the game well.

While I enjoyed Dark Reign as much as I enjoyed other strategy games (again, I am not prone to favoritism), what I find most astonishing is that it was an Australian game. I don't mean a game made by an Australian team under the wing of an American company, I mean an Australian Game's company game. Our best game, both technologically (for the time) and sales wise. I am disappointed that Auran went under after Fury as I imagined and had hopes to be working there at this point in time.

Soul Reaver - Credits

Another game that I enjoyed for its musical score was the original Soul Reaver. The Legacy of Kain games is a series that is very much under-appreciated in nearly every way I can think of. First of all, the game is essentially about vampires. It's about vampires, but not in the culturally accepted emo/goth, love story, atrocious way that people seem to enjoy watching (Buffy, Twilight etc..). The vampires in this are beasts! Call them mutated, call them highly evolved, they are butchers of humankind and relentless in their methods of our extinction. It is a dark and evil world, not full of awful poetry and bad haircuts. Yes, the Soul Reaver universe is very much an apocalyptic Earth, if it actually was about Earth that is. Long story short, you play as a deceased vampire who is the cross between a zombie and a ghost. You struggle to hold yourself in the physical plain of existence. The ability to morph between the physical and spectral realms (where time stands still) opens up a new world of strategy and problem solving. You think Portal was a challenge? Try playing it with things trying to rip your face off! It was an adventure game and a hard one at that.

It also needed a soundtrack that suited the theme of the game, and not just the universe it was set. The problem solving and navigation elements often required high levels of thought and creativity, especially before jumping into a pit full of ghouls. The tracks were therefore dark and foreboding but had enough pace to them to keep the player thinking and on their toes. I think the team at Crystal Dynamics could not have made a better soundtrack.

UT - Foregone Destruction

Unreal Tournament's Forgone Destruction. It is almost impossible for me to listen to this track and not have the sound of the announcer booming "Headshot!" from somewhere in the back of my mind. If you listen to this track by itself, you probably imagine a journey through some sort of mystical fantasy realm. You would not think it could be used for one of the goriest FPS games of the time, yet when combined in the space-themed CTF map 'Facing Worlds' you would be shown otherwise. The thing about this track is that it is exactly the sort of music in a game that sits well within the balance of flow. You don't really notice it when you are playing, but the simple lack of it deteriorates the experience significantly. Essentially this song is that map and vice versa. It is action oriented but also calms you somewhat when playing. You play well, you don't get angry, you have fun. It is also obvious that the people you are playing with are experiencing the same thing. There is a simple reason CTF-Face is the single most played CTF map ever, at least when NgStats still existed.

The same can be said for a large number of Unreal Tournament tracks (e.g. DM-Deck16's Godown). Synthesized and very basic they may be, they generated that certain 'feel' that UT used to have over other shooters (like Quake 3). They were slick and stylish and made you think and feel that way too. It is for that reason that I have always had a great reverence for the game as it gave me a means of escape and relaxation from the bad things that were happening in my life at the time. Things I would like to forget.

There are plenty more examples I can throw at you (Homeworld, Rez, Red Alert) but I think I have got my message across. Maybe I was just more of an audiophile in my youth, but I am yet to encounter a game that had audio tracks as memorable as any of these games.

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