The Music Holds It Together

There’s another lovely review of The Sea Will Claim Everything over at Mash Those Buttons. I was particularly happy about this part:

Once the music hits you, I’m not sure how much you’ll care about the game’s setbacks any more. The music is the core of this game, the piece that holds everything together. Chris Christodoulou has created some of the finest pieces of music I’ve ever heard before, drawing out emotions in such a genuine way that it doesn’t seem possible. When people talk about music stirring up emotions, this is the kind of thing that’s being referred to. The sense of melancholy and longing in “The Sea Will Claim Everything – Part II” will touch you in a way I doubt you’ll expect. Poking around an image for the right clickable spot isn’t all that bothersome when “Habanera of the Sun” and “Grains of Sand” float through your speakers. Even when you feel silly for helping a bunch of weird characters in a story book for adults, when “Plingpling Fairydust” hits your ears, it all makes sense in its own way.

The music in this game is beautiful beyond words. It drives home the dreaminess of this place, the magic of being on another world. For all of its subtlety, its strikes like a hammer, halting the listener with its power. There were a lot of times when I was brought to a complete halt by the music, something that’s never happened to me before in real life, let alone in a video game. It holds the whole game together, creating an experience that’s unlike any other.

I’m not very good at talking about music (or at dancing about architecture), but I think it’s quite possibly one of the most underappreciated aspects of game development. There’s this tendency to see gameplay as the only “real” aspect of a game, with everything else being decorative, layers added to a core. That may be true on a technological level, but I don’t think it applies to the art form. I think that for a lot of games the music is an essential component of what makes them work. As the review says, music can hold a game together, can pull together all its ideas and feelings and vibes and concepts and allow them to transcend, to be more than just elements.

It can do this because music is music and music is fucking crazy, man. Stephen Fry likes to quote an E.M. Forster line about music being the deepest of the art and deep beneath all arts (or something to that effect), and I can’t say I disagree. Music is probably the closest we’ve ever come to understanding the fundamental nature of the universe. I envy the people who can create it at will.

Anyway. To see music as just another element of a video game is to underestimate how transformative it can be. Sure, music can function as just another bit of background noise. But good music transforms all that it touches, so that what you are playing isn’t “gameplay + graphics + writing + music” but an entirely new entity held together and filtered through the music. (I’m sure many game developers or filmmakers have noticed how everything changes the moment you put in the music.)

For a perfect example of what music does to a game, play Fallout and Fallout 2, then Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Mark Morgan’s unique, layered and absolutely beautiful score is a huge part of what makes the first two games work. Don’t get me wrong, they’re excellent games – some of the most enjoyable I’ve ever played, in fact – but the music transforms them and elevates them in an irreplaceable way. That Fallout 3 does not feel like a Fallout game is not only due to its betrayal of the ideas and stories of the series, but also very much because the music is missing. In New Vegas they’ve occasionally reused some of Morgan’s music, and the difference that makes is instantly noticeable. It’s not just better. It’s transformative.

Another series of games worth examining is the Quest for Glory series, an obvious inspiration for the Lands of Dream games. The fifth game in particular, Dragon Breath, has an absolutely spectacular score that changes everything it touches. Slowly walking around Silmaria would be a chore with different music, but listening to Silmarian Meanderings turns the experience into one of enjoying a stroll down the lovely streets of a Mediterranean city.

Then, of course, there’s Proteus.

(Note the scores like that of Proteus and Fallout show that a great score doesn’t necessarily mean grandiose Hans Zimmeresque chanting. Don’t get me wrong, I like Hans Zimmer’s one score, but I get tired of hearing it over and over.)

I’m not really going anywhere with this. I’m just grateful to have worked with several fantastic composers and urge everyone to remember how important and transformative music can be. Why isn’t Mark Morgan getting more work?