Creepy As That May Sound

SoundNintendo’s upcoming vitality sensor is completely pointless.

Why?

Well, because games already have a device included with each and every one of them that serves not to merely measure your emotions, but directly effect them. Unfortunately, the terrible execution of this element, along with a persistent underestimation of its true power, can leave companies like Nintendo feeling that they need to invent a device to measure emotion (via your heart beat) to really make immersive games.

Seriously, Nintendo? Through Metroid Prime 3 (using this in game element) you made me feel terror. Through use of this element in Star Fox 64, you made me feel heroic. Through its use in Super Mario Galaxy you made me feel, well, you made me feel a bit silly. That is fine though. You were able to alter my emotional state to a great degree and now you feel that you need to measure my heart beat to have the same effect? Shame on you, Nintendo. Shame on you!

So what is this one key element, the one that can change an entire game and manipulate your feelings?

Puppeteer

Yep, music is a scary man in a suit who controls your emotions.

It’s music.

However, while many gamers would not contest the fact that music can effect your emotions and can have a huge impact on gameplay, they would say that more often than not it doesn’t. In fact, many gamers would claim that there are many cases where it is better to turn off the in game music altogether and put on some of your own to fill the void.

This is a definite issue. The fact that a game has music that is so shockingly boring and repetitive that the player has to turn it off and replace it is really bad. This is an unfair and lazy move on the part of the games industry, especially as games in times gone by made do with 8-bit tunes. These 8-bit tunes were absolutely brilliant, memorable and didn’t get annoying after a half an hour. They tended to fade into the background and just become part of the general mood of the game after a while. If it was a good game, of course. Inevitably, there were some terrible titles in the past as well, like the original Excitebike. That soundtrack makes me want to throw a NES through a window.

Anyway, my point is that there have been games in the past which managed to properly execute the whole “enjoyably nice sound” element. If good sound is something that companies managed in the past with significantly fewer technical resources, then it should be something that all studios today can accomplish with ease. Instead though, there are quite a few companies who release their games with shoddy soundtracks, or even more unforgivably, with no in game sound track at all (I’m looking at you Stronghold 3).

Ironically enough though, in games which do have a really good soundtrack, more often than not you don’t notice it at all. A really good soundtrack will merely contribute to the atmosphere that the game developer wishes to confer on you, be it heroic, adventurous or pants-wetting terror.

Half-Life Police

He cares for injured kittens on the weekends.

Look at Half-Life 2. How many of you who played it can hum some of the in-game music off-hand? I’m betting none. Yet it is there. OK, so I wouldn’t exactly call the eerie metallic humming/whistling soundtrack you hear when you first enter City 17 music but it is definitely a backing track. That is not a sound produced by any denizen of the city. It kind of fades in and out as you walk around that first level, the inconsistency of it making you feel slightly disconcerted. This feeling is made worse by the fact that the music is so quiet and so brief that chances are you won’t remember it if you’re not specifically listening out for it, leaving you slightly worried and disconcerted after a simple walk through the city. After all, you don’t know that the black clad guards everywhere are necessarily evil just yet, but your gut feeling, generated by the music, tells you they are. Just imagine how much less serious your whole experience of Half-Life would have been if it had been set to the Benny Hill Theme Tune, or how much more terrifying if it had been set to the sound of a small child singing a haunting nursery rhyme.

Also, the tactical removal of music from a game (a tactic that Valve in particular excel at) can also contribute greatly to a game. As when music is offset with silence, tension is inevitably raised (just play through the beginning of Portal again to see what I mean).

Of course, music alone can’t create the kind of atmosphere that I am referring to. To get a game that truly evokes feelings within you, you need decent gameplay as well (but not graphics, take a look at The Passage if you don’t believe me). It is only through the synchronisation of good gameplay and good music that a game will gain that atmosphere it needs. Equally though, without the musical element being appropriately incorporated there is little chance of the game enthralling you at all.

More recently, music in some games has even become contextualised, meaning that the backing track changes depending on what you are doing in the game. Ultimately, the result of this is an even greater immersive experience as music, which can deeply effect you emotional state, changes depending on what you do, making a game seem even creepier when required and at other times funnier or even more glorious.

A clever soundtrack can go a long way to making a good game an awesome game.

Vitality Sensor

Either my heart just stopped, or the batteries ran out on my Wii Mote.

I guess the real point of this article is two slightly long winded warnings:

Firstly, game developers, stop wimping out on the music. Many of you have got it right. Many others, though, have got it wrong. Make it work.

Secondly, gamers, ignore Nintendo’s vitality sensor. Unless it is radically revolutionary, it really won’t have that much of an impact on your gaming experience. Music has already covered the gap in the market that Nintendo is trying to fill. Why have a console measure your emotional response when it can already change your emotional state?

Creepy as that may sound, games already have the power to control just how you feel.