The Psychology of Game Music

Have you ever been in the midst of playing a game when you think, “this song sounds familiar”? I finished (as explained in my previous post) The Last Story this past week. Its music is utterly engrossing, almost always fitting the tone that the game wants to set for players.

Spoiler ahead, by the way

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I had finally defeated the final boss, when the music changed. During the fight, the music was chaotic, unpredictable, and almost jarring to witness. Yet as Zael stood before a slowly dying Dagran, the track changed to Conflicting Impressions”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWpUVKpytOI

It’s a bittersweet melody, conveying both the happiness at the fighting’s conclusion and the pain that it couldn’t have ended another way. It’s a rush of emotions for both the player and Zael, the protagonist. On one hand, you’re relieved that the boss battle is over, that you’ve won. On another, you have good memories of Dagran, and you hate to see him fighting you.

And from a third perspective, you’re pleased but puzzled about his last-minute remorse at his choices, given the way he denigrated and insulted you just prior to the fight.

Conflicting Impressions manages to convey all of these emotions, depending on the player’s personal mood. Dagran’s dialogue, where he thanks Zael for stopping him and regrets his actions, serves as a vehicle for switching your emotional state between these three sides – relief, pain, and confusion.

It’s an amazing song, but Conflicting impressions is not objectively great. Instead, game composers use a psychology of familiarity to inbreed an appreciation for certain melodies into players’ minds.

Why do I say this? Because Conflicting Impressions is just a remix of a song repeatedly played earlier in the game – Bonds.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRqYfiJTZ38

Especially at the 20 second mark, Bonds has an identical melody to Conflicting Impressions. Bonds has a complicated sentiment that it expresses. It’s played when Zael has reasons to be both happy and sad. For instance, he returns Calista home safely, but he gets temporarily detained. When Zael has a bittersweet conclusion, cue Bonds.

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Why? For a Second Chance

For many games (at least in my experience) that rely on strong narratives, music is one of the most direct ways to instill an emotion in players. Even if a game’s characters are unlikeable, the music that plays during their tragedies or triumphs can directly affect the player. You don’t process music the same way that you do a story. It’s an independent pathway to the mind.

Music is a second chance to keep the player on the same emotional level as the game. If games are an experience (and they are), then sound provides a way to either reinforce a mental state, or present another chance.

The Nostalgia of Game Music

Why do people love game music? Objectively, how is it better than normal, mainstream songs? My iTunes library is filled with Nobuo Uematsu, Yoko Shimomura, Grant Kirkhope, and others, but of my top 50 played songs, perhaps 2 are from the realm of “normal” music.

Games repeat melodies in order to instill, through nostalgia and repetition, almost instinctual emotional reactions.

Do you like the Final Fantasy Victory theme? I like the FF Victory theme. It’s better than most “victory themes” that I come across.

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But objectively, it’s debatable whether FF actually stumbled across musical gold in their first game. The fact is, Final Fantasy uses the same victory theme (remixed) in every game, and it creates an automatic reaction in you. A feeling of accomplishment.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvpyz6MUa1w

Is this theme really much better than, say, Eternal Sonata’s?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GzLnKgxN4Fo

There’s a fundamental difference: Final Fantasy is a iconic 2.5-decade series that has nostalgia and recognition to boost its appeal.

Eternal Sonata’s victory theme has to support itself based solely on its musical prowess. And it’s nice and flowery, but that doesn’t exactly push it over the top to take Final Fantasy’s pole position.

Building an Instinct

So, how do games do it? How does Conflicting Impressions immediately come across as good music – or how can Mistwalker make The Last Story’s ending theme be memorable and well-received?

Simple. They build remixes that pave the way.

In Final Fantasy VIII, remember the song Eyes On Me? It wasn’t too amazing, but when it was played, the song immediately had resonance with gamers.

Part of the reason was the situation in which it was used. Squall and Rinoa were coming back to earth, tumbling in space with only each other and their sexual tension as company. The song fit their situation well. (Indeed it should, since it was crafted explicitly for their romance.)

Yet the other, more important reason for its positive reception was the staggering number of remixes that imprinted the melody into players’ minds before the space-scene ever happens.

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Here’s a list of the songs (off the top of my memory) that use the same melody as Eyes On Me:

Waltz for the Moon

Roses & Wine

Julia

Love Grows

My Mind

Heck, what about the scene in Final Fantasy VIII when the characters all learn they lived in the same orphanage as children together? The song played there is Ami:

Where I Belong

Trust Me

The Successor

Tell Me

Fun Side Note: Timber Owls is a remix of Aerith’s theme.

Repetition of melodies is neither new nor a bad thing outright. But it’s interesting, and it poses a challenge for new IPs.

In many ways, it’s the already-extant struggle to help new IPs thrive: If you have to contend with nostalgic favorites of old, how can new game music successfully establish its own perch?

And, as gamers, perhaps it’s poignant for us to ask something as well. Does this repetition and familiarity help bolster an already-amazing melody, or does it hide weaknesses in a song’s emotional value?

Maybe this psychology, this nostalgia, is why everyone still loves Still Alive over Want You Gone.

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2 responses to “The Psychology of Game Music

  1. Pingback: Music in the Mainstream Game | Lost to the Aether·

  2. Given the fact that advances in technology have allowed for increasingly longer and more in-depth game experiences, and also increased capacity meaning the potential for more music/sound content, it’s no surprise that in the twin spirit of laziness and atmosphere many many games have recurring motifs and central themes in their music. I’m sure there are earlier examples but one game that comes to mind is Nights Into Dreams on the Saturn – the central theme, called Nights Nights, appears in a variety of guises throughout the game, including various menu screens and the game over screen.

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