Game Music Connect: Prof. Stephen Deutsch Talks Film Music

From Psycho to Halo, Prof. Stephen Deutsch highlights what he thinks is wrong with video game music.

Professor Stephen Deutsch of Bournemouth University and the National Film & Television School, kicked off 2013's Game Music Connect with a slightly unexpected short lecture about film music. Whilst this might seem a whole world away from the world of video game music, entitled "Immersion & Engagement" Deutsch manages to contextualize a lot of what game music is trying to do by comparing it to the cinematic model.

The Money Shot

In trying to explain what makes a good film soundtrack, Deutsch uses a comparison of "The Money Scene" from Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Pyscho against the 1998 panned Gus Van Sant remake. He highlights that what marks these two apart is: in the former, the music does the suggesting; while in the latter, subtly just isn't left to chance.

Bernard Herrmann's unmistakable music underpins the long and stretched out sequence where actress Janet Leigh decides whether to steal a wad of cash or not. Through subtle variations in the scoring, Herrmann's music enables the viewer to pinpoint the moment where she actually makes the decision, despite very little being suggested through Leigh's acting or in the scene itself.

Van Sant's version couldn't be any more polar. The entire scene is sped up, Anne Heche over acts, there is too much noise and business in the background, and Danny Elfman's recording is too polished. All this makes for the suspense and tension that should be in the scene to evaporate completely. You never really had the chance to wonder or doubt whether she'll take the moolah or not. It's just handed to you on a plate.

Deutsch uses this example to illustrate how successfully film music is in being subjective when done well. But how does this relate to video games? 

 Janet Leigh in the "The Money Scene"

 A Very Long Engagement

Before answering the question, Deutsch distinguishes the two purposes that music serve in film: to engage and/or to immerse. Yet, whilst many developers try to use music to engage players, Deutsch points out that this is all in vain as the game itself already has the player engaged through the mere act of interacting with it.

If the game is already engaging by default, why do we need the music? Whilst film music's purpose is to be powerfully subjective, game music can only ever be contextual, with players already making decisions about what they're going to do. Therefore, the result is a score that tells the player what they already know that they're doing.

"You don't need music to tell you that you're in a fight when you're already mashing the keypad trying to defeat enemies. Or picking up a bucket. Why would you even need music for picking up a bucket!?"

For example, you don't need music to tell you that you're in a fight when you're already mashing the keypad trying to defeat enemies. Or picking up a bucket. Why would you even need music for picking up a bucket!?

Deutsch ponders that, given what he sees as this incredibly superfluous nature of much video game music, how many players actually turn off the music when they play games, and thinks a dedicated investigation into this would be worthwhile.

Emote Or Bust

Drawing to a close, Deutsch concludes that, in his view, the only purpose music in games have is a purely emotive one. The question then becomes a question of who are you trying to emote; the game's character(s), or the player?

In order for video game music to make any progress in becoming an integral part of games and immersion, he suggests, composers and developers need to understand just how music works in visual media, and how this needs to be applied to such an interactive format.

Featured Columnist

Bearded British game-bear. Likes his JRPGs accompanied with a G&T. Lives in London, UK. Also writes a lot about theatre and film. *jazz hands*

Platforms Tags eventpsycho 
Published Sep. 10th 2013
  • Salvador_2681
    What experience does this guy have of working in video games? Or does he just spend his life telling other people how to do things?
  • Emily_4290
    Curious about what sort of games he was referring to with the fight music comment. For me, the up-tempo music in most fight scenes DOES make me (and I'm sure many other people) feel more engaged and pumped up. I don't see that as redundant, I see it as an enhancement. Scores like this-- from films as well as games-- are on my iPod and I listen to them outside of gaming. I think the attitude that score should never echo what's going on onscreen in a direct manner* is rather pretentious; certainly, that dissonance works in a Hitchcock film (and I have only ever seen Psycho used as the exemplar of this concept, fwiw), but it's not necessary at all times and places. I mean, look at Legend of Zelda-- it's managed a wildly successful concert series through a rather straightforward, but still elegant, approach to the integration of its music. If that's not successful immersion, then what is?

    *(That is, in a manner that's not intentionally dissonant or misleading. I'm not talking about mickeymousing here, although that's usually woven in better in games than in films.)
  • [[Deleted]]
    It takes a real superb soundtrack and more importantly its EXECUTION to keep players from turning on their itunes or other media player.

    the first Xenosega did a superb job at using music and just ambient noise to further the games mood, you walked around ships with typically no more than echoing footsteps of moving people and the hum of bulkheads, it helped invoke the feeling you were running around a hanger bay, which is why the "techno" beated constant background music the of the second Xenosega was rather ill received I remember reading about it in several reviews [it didn't help that it wasn't that great of a sequel to begin with].

    Another example I would use would be FFXI, the battle music was great, and only towns and the immediate adjacent areas (along with some dungeons) had actual constant background music, other areas had ambient noise. I can still remember getting lost in a place called "The crawlers nest" with little more than wind tunnel noise, the sound of moving things, players, npcs, monsters, ect, hoping I didn't hear the infamous growl of a monster who's attention I caught. It was the little noises monsters and your characters made in the environment that helped draw you into the world.

    I'm currently playing guild wars 2... and I think after about the first hour I've had my itunes playlist handy for whenever I launch the game.
  • Destrolyn.Bechgeddig
    Featured Columnist
    I remember the music of FFXI fondly :) Although, my only complaint was that if you were going to spend 2 hours in Dynamis, at least a little bit of music would have been nice.

    It's a shame that FFXIV's music is so hit and miss. I often find myself bored and putting on a playlist, especially in Amdapor Keep, bar a few excellent tracks such as Rootslake in the South Shroud.

    None the less, I really did enjoy listening to Prof. Deutsch's lecture. I might not entirely agree with some of the points he made, but it was incredibly enlightening none the less.

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