Play Me Off the Stage - Music and Game Design

drayfishdrayfish wrote on 25 Apr 2013 12:03

I was catching up on a number of posts in the other threads and was struck by a mention of contextual music in the modding of Skyrim… Now, unfortunately I had nothing to add to that discussion (sadly my PC gaming is pretty sparse, and the thought of modding, although an exciting prospect when others do it, fills me with terror), but it got me thinking about one of my favourite, often unspoken aspects of gaming: their music.

(I've also – while desperately trying to avoid spoilers – noted some reference to intentionally anachronistic music in Bioshock Infinite that has me intrigued…)

After all, games are an exquisitely interactive medium, and alongside being able to have the player's input directly guide the visual output of the text, wandering about within an artfully rendered environment, our actions are also cues for its audio – through its action (Ha-Do-Ken!) and atmospheric effects (what is that moaning noise coming from the mist over there?) – and through our influence upon the musical score that subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) punctuates our participation in the game's moment of expression.

It reminded me of a little contextual cue in the game I am currently playing – or rather re-playing in order to hopefully post something nice and tedious on my blog about the adoration I feel for it as a high watermark of the last generation…

The game is called Beyond Good and Evil, a narrative in which you, as the protagonist Jade, a tenacious reporter intent on exposing a political conspiracy in a fantastical sci-fi land, must explore your homeland of Hillys, at times sneaking through army-controlled compounds in order to uncover the dark truth at the core of an ongoing war.

At the heart of this story is a lighthouse, a lighthouse that has been converted into a makeshift orphanage to house displaced refugee children. As you might imagine, the metaphor of the beacon of light amongst the darkness to which the disenfranchised flock is obviously quite potent. But there is a moment when you are exploring that space, watching these children mingle and move about, joking, having conversations and playing with the lighthouse dog, trying to distract themselves from the daily bomb raids and sirens and whispers of kidnapped citizens, when a piece of music penetrates the quiet to colour that experience profoundly.

You ascend the staircase and come upon the orphan children's bedroom. Toys lay scattered about. A warm slant of sunlight cuts through the air. And on the walls, sketched in crayon, are clumsy drawings of the lighthouse itself, ofJade and her uncle Pey'j, and the word 'Home' scribbled beside them.

And at precisely this moment, looking in upon the one safe-haven carved out of the detritus of this haunting, endless war, you hear a lilting piano cue. It's soft, slow, even mournful, but so delicate, and so precious, that it really kicks me in the feely places. Every time.

It's a cue that recurs in various forms throughout the game – particularly in some tragic moments to come. It also resurges in some resounding moments of defiance and fight, and there is a wealth of other spectacular, playful music throughout the game, riffs on reggae, techno, sitar, rock (there is a song called 'Propaganda!' that will be burned into your nervous system for the rest of your life, whether you want it to be or not) - but it is this moment that always plays upon me. A tune stripped utterly bare. Just solo fingers tickling across ivory. A private melody, alone amongst the cacophony of symphony and discord swelling outside those walls.

I guess what I am asking is: are there any particular contextual music cues, or even signature moments of score in any games that you have played, that likewise stand out to anyone else? That evoke not merely a memory, but an almost instinctual pull back into the imaginative or emotional space of a game experience?

Perhaps the sweet nostalgic refrain of Chrono Trigger? The playful abandon of Mario Bros? The carnivalesque rambunctiousness of Psychonauts? The sombre guitar of Bastion? Hell, even the thundering bombast of a Call of Duty, or that damnable piano on Mass Effect 3? What game themes and contextual melodies have stuck with anyone else, and defined your playing experience in some way?

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