Level Up! How Music Enhances the Video Gaming Experience 784 words · 4 minute read

The song is called Area 1, and it represents my childhood as much as hide-and-seek and Saturday morning cartoons.

A rapid 8-bit snare drum keeps time in this militaristic anthem while a fife encourages the rogue gunman onward. No, I was not a child soldier of some underground war, but I did go to battle most days in 1988 in the game Bionic Commando on my Nintendo.

Video games are a major part of life for millions of people around the world. Maybe they swipe away to Bejeweled on their smart phones during their morning commutes, or perhaps they immerse themselves in a role-playing game (RPG) like Dragon Age for hours into the night. While scale, controls, and context change across platforms, music is the defining element of every game that echoes in players’ minds long after the screen fades to black.

I grew up with video games.

In the early years, my brothers and I traded the controller back and forth in the living room. Music dribbled out of a tiny speaker that would beep intermittently, typically to indicate that you had jumped, you lost, or that something broke and it was time to blow the dust from the cartridge. Today, my brothers and I live thousands of miles apart but still play video games together online. The games we play feature full worlds, the authenticity of which is engineered by creative and dynamic voice acting, layers of sound effects laced into a mood-setting score, and a Dolby-Digital soundtrack that occasionally travels with me on my commute.

Music creates a sonic identity that helps brand the video game.

But I don’t play games the same way I did when I was a kid – and music doesn’t play the same either.

Most 13-year-olds can probably recall the Victory Fanfare music from Final Fantasy more easily than the McDonald’s mnemonic. After its 1987 debut, the signature sound of success evolved parallel to audio technology and is continuously revamped for each new edition of the Final Fantasy franchise. You can even hear the Victory Fanfare outside of the game. Countless covers of Fanfare exist – just search Spotify. I’ve seen it performed live, by an orchestra, twice. Gamers of all ages pack those music halls, proving Victory Fanfare truly spans generations. This is not just music from a video game that corroborated the in-game emotion; it’s music from a game that matched the human emotion.

Just like in television or film, music in video games builds the tone of the scene or setting.

Halo exemplifies this use of music best. The music transitions seamlessly between cinematic cut-scenes and heart-pounding gameplay, all while augmenting the sound effects of the Halo world. The characters, platforms, features, and even developers of Halo have changed over the years, but the iconic audio has endured to maintain the experience that gamers expect and to preserve the brand that fans love. Pixels alone could never convey the emotion that is shared between protagonist and player – it’s the music of the Halo franchise that truly immerses the gamer into a multi-universe epic.

Many developers license real music to design an authentic environment in their games. Set in a fictionalized Chicago, Watch Dogs features music from the Windy City’s actual lineup of up and coming artists. Music Dealers placed 12 tracks by 11 different emerging artists in the game, working with Watch Dogs to cultivate a soundscape true to Chicago. I played Watch Dogs, specifically sought out those Chicago songs with the in-game app called SongSneak, and curated my own playlist to listen to while driving to the next mission. I crafted my own experience through music – just like I do in the real world.

Games are no longer independent, one-off experiences.

Today’s video games are franchises, architected over years and editions, and nurture ongoing relationships with consumers by immersing them into the gamespace.

These games show how sonic identity facilitates that process. Music can boost brand memorability, intensify gamers’ emotional investment, and create an authentic experience for players. And with fewer technological constraints, developers can leverage music with more creativity than ever.

In May, EA Sports released a Spotify playlist of all the licensed music from its Madden NFL franchise. Last year, Sunset Overdrive licensed tons of indie songs to weave into the original score. Forza Horizon 2 even partnered with DJ Rob da Bank to curate the in-game playlists. Each of these franchises are crafting a brand and connections across platforms and editions, with music at the helm of the crusade.

There are innumerable ways for developers and marketers to connect with gamers through music, which begs the question:

Which game will produce the soundtrack to the next generation?