For the second year in a row I was on a panel about story in video games at Indie Pop Con. It was my job to modify the panel to make sure we weren’t doing the exact same panel again this year. Unfortunately due to lack of time and other reasons I sort of failed at that, and it ended up about 95% the same panel we did last year. Oops.
One new thing I did add was a small audio / soundtrack section. I want to talk about / expand on that a bit here. Coming from a musical background I have always felt that you can tell a story through music. And not just lyrical music, but instrumental music as well; a category which, of course, most video game music falls under. Actually a lot of songs follow the same arc that many stories do… introduction, rising action, climax, falling action… music is really just another language to say some of the same things as text or visuals can.
Speaking of text and visuals, obviously one way to use a soundtrack in a game is to compliment the story being told on-screen through text, or visuals, or audio dialog, etc. And that is all well and good. But what interests me more is when a soundtrack can help a game transcend itself and say more to the players than it would initially appear.
The first game to come to mind for me is Super Hexagon. If you’re just looking at what is happening in the game it is tough to say that it has much of a story at all. A small triangle dodges pieces of geometric shapes. It’s just a puzzle game, right? How can that possibly speak to me?
However, add in the right soundtrack and it feels like so much more…
With that music Super Hexagon to me becomes an epic struggle against some negative forces that would keep me from obtaining my very important goals. Everything is against me, but I’m making my last stand. The feelings evoked are much more substantial than a game about a shape dodging shapes has any right to evoke in me. It’s powerful.
Another game that uses its soundtrack to transcend its story is Donkey Kong Country. Essentially the game is just about a couple of primates who want their bananas back. Nothing super serious. Silly, even. And yet…
I can’t play that stage and not feel like there is something more going on. Suddenly the game is speaking to me in a somber, melancholy way.
Of course, I have heard the argument that soundtracks are often used to create false emotions in players, and this trickery should not be praised if we are seeking out truly meaningful experiences. And when games about shapes or primates can make me feel powerful emotions, maybe that argument holds some weight? However, I choose to look at things a bit differently. To me the story being told through the music is valid on its own terms.
I think about the soundtrack for “The Memory Project” (real name coming soon perhaps?) a lot. I want the soundtrack to have as much to say as the game itself. In some ways this game is me finally finding the right place to speak through my music.
Hopefully I have something interesting to say.