Video games typically have long segments of player-controlled action that require atmospheric background music on endless loop. This is certainly something that's unique to video games, and presents its own difficulties. The composer must create audio that (a) tells the story of the area or level, (b) has enough interest to avoid fading out of the player's notice entirely, (c) can be listened to ad nauseum without driving the player insane, and (d) stays cohesive with the rest of the music in the game. Game composers in general seem not to struggle too much with B, but A, C, and D can present serious hurdles.
What does it mean to "tell the story" of a level? Does it mean "this is an ice level, so we should sound aloof and use high, cold instruments like the glockenspiel and high-register piano a lot" and "this is the fire level, so let's use heavy brass and industrial sounds to bring the heat"? (Like Metroid Prime, maybe?) Does it mean "this is where they are in the story and how the characters currently feel, so let's score to that"? Do you foreshadow events to come? Look back on the past?
The answer is all of the above, in varying degrees. Very few games have managed to consistently pull this off. The field is littered with boring, cliché, and just plain bad level music. First let's look at the good, though. To do this, I'll turn to Nier, a woefully underrated adventure that has one of the best scores I've heard in a game.
It's a well written and very cohesive work, and every piece, even the town music, all lean into this general feeling of malaise and pervasive dread that the game possesses. This is not a happy game. It is a game, first and foremost, about loss -- of loved ones, of a life gone by -- and the music is a large reason that this is conveyed so well.
Nier's soundtrack was written to convey this profound sadness in every track; the composer noted in an interview that even the "thrilling" high-tension boss battles were composed with this pervading feeling of sadness in mind. Interestingly, the developer thought so highly of the music that elements of the game design were shuffled around to match the music, rather than the other way around. This interplay where the director occasionally bows to the composer is commonly present in film, notably.
One of the main reasons it feels so cohesive and fitting as level music is the presence of one or two female voices on each track. In the story there are two women who feature prominently, and in fact who (minor spoiler) turn out to be a sort of watchdog/architect duo, looking after the world. One, at least, is always found singing and strumming a guitar. They also have an "on-stage" performance. So in a sense, they sing the soundtrack as they watch over the events of the world.
In other words, the female voices that are heard on nearly every track have actual diegetic in-game significance, which is a very nice touch. The music and the plot are tied together in a compelling and interesting way, and this heightens the narrative considerably. Let's look at a few specific examples from the game:
What do you "see" when you listen to this?
Not just general mood, but more specific. I'll tell you what I see: I see a place of great history and mystery. The minor key and open underlying string pad add to the openness, and the soaring soprano and what I would describe as Vaguely Middle Eastern Percussion place it in a desert region (notice that, as with the Hobbits example, we rely on the listener's outside knowledge to shorten what we have to explain). In truth, this level is an ancient desert temple of unknown origin, which (as is cliché in games) holds a secret of great power. I also hear a great pathos to the music, as if it's crying out for things long gone.
I can attest to the fact that listening to it for over an hour won't wear on you, and as we will soon see it is cohesive with the rest of the game, while at the same time expressing its unique location. Now the next cue:
This cut uses the same voices (though laid a little lower in their register) and the same general "feel" to the song as the first example. It sounds as though someone is looking...out a window, or to sea maybe, and longing to see someone or something. This is only played in a single room in the game, which is not ever necessary to visit for main story reasons, though if you side-quest a lot you will be visiting often. It is the longest and perhaps most bittersweet sidequest in the game.
In brief, this is the interior of a lighthouse, whose sole occupant is an elderly woman whose husband went out to sea long ago. He began to write her letters, and sent her something important, but his death notice reached the post office first. The postman couldn't bear to tell the woman of her lover's demise, so he writes letters to her in her lover's name, with the town's knowledge. For 50 years. In the end, it turns out she knows this and was playing along to keep some façade for everyone else in town so they wouldn't all mourn the loss. You get the idea.
This track begins with the sounds of metal on metal, which instantly take me to "factory" (not "cybernetic espionage," which was a confusing thing about the earlier Assassin's Creed example). There's an indifferent drive to it -- a minimalistic Philip Glass tribute -- as if this factory is completely automated like clockwork, and pumps out the same thing day after day without stopping or changing in any way. Oh, but that voice is back, layering another yearning for bygone days, and the sadness that has been brought upon the land.
These are but a few examples of the many intriguing and cohesive sounds you can hear in the Nier score. I would once again encourage you to pick up this very good game. At least, as long as you don't mind soul-crushing despair as a central theme. But we've seen the good, let's study some of the bad.
I loved Persona 4. It, like its predecessor, has become one of my all-time favorite games for its mature (in a good way) look at human nature, but also because it is masterfully created to have this cohesion of theme that runs through the story, world, and even the game mechanics themselves. However, the music falls flat in support of this otherwise tight package. Contrast the cues below with what you just listened to from Nier. Do they show the same cohesiveness, whether it be in instrumentation, style, or anything else? Do they fit the visuals or theme of the game? Do they evoke any of the feelings the game leads you toward? Emphatically, they do not.
What do you visualize when you hear this?
To me it sounds kind of like we're in a rave, or a late-night meat market bar. We're actually in a sauna. In the story, there are overtones of a gay bar, which leads a little more toward this music, but as the character of Kanji is further revealed to you this doesn't seem to fit either. Now, just imagine listening to it for over an hour on endless loop. In fact, just hit that replay button in the YouTube box and do it yourself two or three times. It wears on you, right?
Staying with the same game... What do you hear?
I don't even know what the composer is trying to imply here because the theme of the music is so muddled. A bit muzak-y, which to me implies just waiting around; a bit playful; a bit "we got some work to do, buddy". In truth, you hear this music in what is supposedly a secret underground base of someone who grew up reading and acting out detective novels. So... right. They're running from a normal life path and are even trying to escape their own gender, but does the music say any of that? I don't hear it.
One more Persona 4 track:
Here we have what is perhaps the most egregious example yet. At this point in the game you are well aware that those you're trying to save in each level are experiencing horrible things and will wind up hanging dead upside down from a light post unless you can save them. At this point, they have gone too far -- the victim is your nine-year-old cousin with whom you are staying, and who has probably built up the most emotional cachet with you throughout the course of the game. At this point, you feel anger, and a sense of dread of what could happen to poor, innocent child, and an incredible urgency to find her before she ends up like the rest of the victims. So to drive home this point, you get a song that would be perfectly at home on J-pop radio. Huh?
Persona 4's tracks clearly do not tie together in any way. There's no common theme, no musical ties between the cues; no real cohesion at all. Granted, each location is very unique, but ultimately the player is there to accomplish the same goal in each one. Even granting the unique locations, the cuts don't seem to be appropriate for their individual placements. That whole "To Picture" thing that I mentioned? Not found here. In a game that is otherwise masterfully created, this is disappointing, to say the least.
Nier, on the other hand, found a way not only to convey the feel of the individual locations, but create an over-arching theme and tie each piece back to it -- bonus points for doing so in a diegetical way. This is a perfect example of writing a score instead of just a soundtrack. Unfortunately, it is the exception rather than the rule.
Subtlety, Subversion, and Secret Meanings
A passable score will accomplish no more than to echo the actions that are occurring on-screen. This isn't a bad thing per se, but there are many opportunities to actually add to and enhance the viewer's understanding of the visual elements through music. The score can quickly convey many thoughts, both consciously and sub-consciously, that diegetic narration can ever hope to. It can represent the more general theme of the work (as we saw above with Nier); it can bring back an old theme to shift the perspective; it can do many things. One easy example of this comes from the late Bernard Herrmann, perhaps the greatest film composer to ever live.
Joseph Mankiewicz's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is, at first glance, a 1940s romantic comedy that happens to include a ghost. Here is Herrmann's score for the opening credits, setting the tone for the film:
What do you hear? Does this scream romcom? It almost sounds like a mistake, right? It's dark, brooding, and melancholy. Feels out-of-place. But if you watch the entire movie you realize that one of the main themes of this movie -- unspoken by any character yet omnipresent throughout the footage -- is the fleeting character of human earthly life, and the inherent sadness in contemplating the passage of time. Herrmann sensed this and gave the film an incredible score that elevated it to one of the all-time greats.
As a counter-point see the trailer for Wise's I Want to Live!, a 1958 movie about an infamous murder trial. It's a typical jazzy '50s score by Johnny Mandel that at first feels appropriate, because the protagonist is a jazzed-up wild girl from the '50s. But as the movie progresses and she's tried and executed for a murder she swears she didn't commit, the movie turns very dark indeed. I think Mandel saw this and used less and less music as the movie went on, but nevertheless the music has aged very badly and simply doesn't carry the weight it needs to for such a heavy subject. This trailer gives the general impression of the score:
This is an important technique, and one upon which multiple papers could be written. However, its use in games has been basically non-existent to this point (save one exception). Suffice it to say that game composers -- and directors -- would do well to remember they have this tool in their kit.