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How can game music feel as meaningful as a live experience?
How can game music feel as meaningful as a live experience? Exclusive
March 27, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

March 27, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Indie, Programming, Art, Design, Exclusive, GDC

Rich "Disasterpeace" Vreeland (Fez) notes music has always been as impermanent as life -- a performance was heard once, then gone forever. "This impermanence has great potential to create meaning," he says. "If you go to a really good show, the event you're witnessing may even feel important somehow."

The accessibility of recorded music changes that relationship; video game music accustoms us to listening to loops. But could games imitate the impermanence of live music?

It's a useful question to think about: Suppose there was a great game that took only 15 minutes to play, where interactions felt fresh and you could replay the experience as many times as you liked and still get something out of it. But if that game had only one piece of looping music, it would blunt the uniqueness of each interaction.

"Why would you do this to your player?" Vreeland says. "Why would you... invite someone to hear something so much that it's rendered completely meaningless?"

How can we embrace repeatable music while still paying tribute to the spirit of live music? Kentucky Route Zero, for example, uses music sparsely only to underline certain moments, and the rest of its sound landscape is ambient. Its first act closes with a unique piece of music that underlines a moment, and then gradually withers away.

Proteus is another game that Vreeland finds successful as an audiovisual experience; the music reacts in a way that feels "rational, yet also unpredictable," he says. Vreeland's own music game, January, is made up of single-note music assets that are continually rearranged in different musical sequences that never sound quite the same. It's intended to be similar to an improvising musician.

"It's also important not to forget about the power of silence," Vreeland says. "Silence gives the player room to breathe, or can evoke a particular emotion."

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Maria Jayne
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I think this is something very few mmos work on, graphical improvements and additional game content never seem to include sound additions. You get that with expansions usually but when you think about games like WoW that spent two years without an expansion, it used or reused the same zone music over and over, as did EQ2, EVE and no doubt many others. The nature of an mmo ensure we spend a long time in each area but the variety of music often stays the same.

I'm not saying the music in those games was particularly bad, to this day I still remember the haunting tune from EQ2 Stormwind Keep, just that it seems a low priority to add in new audio once an mmo has gone live. Perhaps this is because many people disable mmo music, or in fact, it may be the reason why many people disable mmo music...because it never changes.

I suppose there is a certain identity to some pieces that we associate with specific levels or areas of a game and that is intentional. I can also remember a piece of music for Super Castlevania IV when jumping across some cogs I particularly loved as a child, It was called "Bloody Tears", also I actually used to leave the intro/menu music to Mig 29 Super Fulcrum and TFX "Air Superiority" running on my Amiga while I did my homework.

I must admit though, if I like a piece of music I tend to play it a lot, so perhaps the fact we shut off from music looped in a game isn't because of the frequency of it's usage but more because it is not something we want to pay attention to anyway.