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.