Quest Updated: Audible Atmosphere
I take a moment to gather my thoughts. I put the gramophone on, and the voice of Bobby Darin fills the old saloon. My heart rate finally drops again. I know that, for a moment, I am safe. I check my supplies. I have a bad feeling about the next chamber. Sure enough, as I leave the relaxing strains behind me, I hear the heavy movement of a Big Daddy. And suddenly the jazzy strains are eerie, faintly echoing from the previous room. Ahead is silence. Silence and a very big, very angry thing.
One of the things I loved most about Bioshock was the soundtrack. The old-timey music lent such a strange atmosphere to the game. The whole look of Rapture is a bit anachronistic, and the music was perfect for this feeling. In fact, I’d say that maybe the music was even central to creating this odd mixture of underwater technology and old-fashioned gramaphones, décor and setting.
There aren’t many games I’d get the soundtrack to. I have a short list of those I’d listen to over and over again. Bastion, Portal (and not just for ‘Still Alive’), maybe a couple of others. It got me thinking about soundtracks in games, and why some stick and others just don’t.
Skyrim has a highly practical soundtrack. You get echo-ey bits for caves, muted music to give a sense of desolation in the snowy tundra. You get lighter music for day time. And, of course, you get “oh shit it’s a dragon” music. It’s pretty unmistakeable. But maybe this is part of the problem.
The music isn’t really for atmosphere, but for information. It’s to tell you what time it is, where you are, if you’re in danger. It is part of the atmosphere, but only in the same way as the sound effects of the weather are. It’s part of the patterns put in to help the player along.
This isn’t always the case, but at least part of the time it’s informing the soundtrack.
At the end of the day, soundtrack probably isn’t the central focus for the game designers. Sad but true. Games like Bastion stand out because a specific focus was given to the soundtrack as music, rather than just backing. Portal also stands out because the music feels specifically crafted to sound perfect for the action.
Here’s the catch: both of these games are very linear. The soundtrack can be carefully crafted because the pathways are highly defined. A game like Skyrim has a massive scope for possibilities, and so the music can’t be made specific to the actions, otherwise they’d need about 200 hours of soundtrack, most of which each player would miss out on.
Pardon my subjectivity
Music is as subjective as gaming. What makes a soundtrack for a game work is pretty context specific. There’s no easy answer for what makes an excellent soundtrack. The things I’ve mentioned are part of what will make one soundtrack stand out and another fade into the background for each gamer; there’s a ton of criteria or factors that will have just as much bearing on the effectiveness of the soundtrack. What I haven’t mentioned is that sometimes a soundtrack you don’t notice usually, like Bioshock, can be brilliant in the moments where you pause, take a moment, and listen.