Imogen Mellor examines the importance and power of music in video games, and offers examples of this being done very well

Sociology Student. Decent Musician. Part Time Gamer. Makeup Enthusiast. Not too great Kickboxer. Likes to speak in short sentences...
Last updated

Video games, of course, have always been very dear to me. My first game ever on a console was Ratchet and Clank, a now favourite franchise of mine, and ever since I have delved head first into worlds where dragons can attack at any moment, or I can have conversations with intergalactic beings, or I could simply feed a dog. My aim in this article is to show you how important music is in any game, even if you don’t realise it.

When these games came out they looked and felt incredible. Back then you could almost swear you were there, but revisiting them today can be a little bit of a shock. The graphics look like a caveman chiseled them out of rock, or the voice acting is far more annoying than you remember, or, was Lara’s face always that… square? The one thing I can say though, is the music was always exactly how I remembered it. In a heartbeat I could sing the Tetris theme, and the same goes for thousands if not millions when it comes to the obnoxious 8-bit melody of Tetris or the plucky Wii Mii character design tune.

Although I would love to write about my favourite soundtracks, I thought it may be better to show people times where music is done so well, that it suits the gameplay, moment or context exactly, without you even realising it.

Here are some of my favourite examples of music done right in a game:

The Importance of Blending – Super Mario Odyssey

Released fairly recently, Super Mario Odyssey is a wonderfully bright and colourful game that is similar to the Super Mario Galaxy games. The music is just as vivid and rich as its characters, graphics and story – all of which are a delight. But there is something pretty special about Odyssey when it comes to music. Someone I know mentioned that the sound effects were connected to the music in this game. It’s so consciously aware of it’s music and atmosphere that sound effects will actually change their key and tonality to fit the music playing in the background. The effect is that the game becomes that much more engaging and special, and even though I played through myself, I never would have picked out this wonderful detail if I wasn’t shown it, really demonstrating just how brilliant it is.

The Importance of Silence – Overwatch

Someone may think that this is a rather odd choice for a demonstration of music in video games because anyone that has played Overwatch knows that apart from the opening of each map there is very little music at all within the actual game. Which is my point exactly. Sometimes less is more, and the game of overwatch doesn’t just depend on your ability to spot an enemy and shoot. Listening can be just as important as seeing in that game because of the process of tracking your opponents and knowing when someone has set off their ultimate. Music appears rarely in-game, and often begins to warn you when your team is losing a point or the game is close to completion. One of Overwatch’s gameplay features is being able to hear what is going on around you. Each character has footsteps unique to them so if you are facing one way you could hear a Roadhog approaching behind because of the sound of chains rattling and heavy footfall. If music was a large feature of this game, you wouldn’t be able to hear the characters around you as effectively and, as a whole, this would subtract from the gameplay experience.

The Importance of Atmosphere – The Dark Souls Games

The Dark Souls Games, brutal and punishing titles, with soundtracks I could not ignore in this article. The enemies and bosses may have you on the edge of your seat, but they wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective without the music. Clashing harmonies and vocals that almost scream at you, really can terrify and traumatise a player. However, the music can have the opposite effect as well, with beautiful string melodies that lull you into a realisation of how gorgeous these games can be. Atmosphere hasn’t been done better than the Dark Souls Trilogy, and it’s their music that adds an ambience to the game unlike any other.

The Importance of Era – Cuphead

Another recent release, Cuphead had overwhelmingly great reviews but faced a lot of controversy over the era of animations and style’s racist past. Despite these claims, Cuphead’s music and animation are perfect together as the era of both are exactly the same, and the soundtrack for this game has been a wonderful companion of mine. A game’s soundtrack which, when recorded with live bands, almost always has a liveliness and passion to it that can’t be replicated with anything else. I recommend watching the videos (or if only one; ‘Floral Fury’) of which the development team posted the recordings of this song off the soundtrack, as to show you how truly brilliant these pieces are.

The Importance of Character – Undertale

This might be just me but the characterisation of music in Undertale is some of my favourite. Although the music and game were released in 2015, I can still hum almost any character’s theme because of how distinctive and individual they all were, and I’m not joking, my younger sister and I proceed to do this on a regular basis. The nature of this music is to loop and be able to continue for any amount of time that the player is any situation, but I’ve never even noticed where the music would start again, or get tired of hearing the same tune. To those that haven’t heard this soundtrack, I would encourage you to play the game, because almost all the charm that the music presents, comes through playing the game.

The Importance of Music – The Just Dance Games / Guitar Hero Games

So I’ll admit, this might be cheating, as these may not be a personal favourite of mine, but I thought it would be pretty wrong to not include titles where music is a main mechanic. The importance here is obvious as without music, these games would purely cease to exist, or at least these games wouldn’t be the big names they are now. I can’t really judge the music though, because going through the music that doesn’t belong to the developers, it isn’t really right to.

So there you have it. The importance of music in videos can be seen in any of these titles. From being able to know when to hold back and give the mechanics a shot at enticing a player, to going full throttle and letting the player fall head over heels for the soundtrack instead.