That seems like a really bold claim, but hear me out before ripping me a new one. Music by itself is an art medium that transcends a lot of barriers: time, language, age, you name it. Anyone can feel the emotion in an opera, even if they don't speak Italian, for example. The same thing can be said for a video game soundtrack. Even listened to out of order, even if the listener has no idea about the setting, theme, or feeling of the game, they can guess by listening to its soundtrack.
Take this, for example. It's a piece from Namco's Tales of Symphonia. It's a specific character's theme. To be exact, it's the theme of Zelos Wilder, one of the party members that you pick up along your journey. Let's jot down a couple things we notice about his theme as we listen to it:
- It's got a fast tempo. It's upbeat.
- It's a major chord. It sounds happy. Listening to it, in turn, makes you feel happy.
- We can pick out a couple of instruments in there. Steel drums and ukuleles are two of the first things that we hear. Both of those instruments are associated with laid back attitudes.
- The song isn't all that serious sounding; it's lighthearted and almost fun.
So, if we had to guess anything about this character, it'd be what we learned just from listening to the theme here. He must be a laid back, upbeat, cheery kind of character. He must be someone who can keep the group going even when the going gets rough, right?
Okay, that was a fun exercise. Now, let's listen to that again, with a little change.
What do you notice now? It's the same song. It's for the same character, from the same game. But its presentation is completely different. Let's name the ways.
- It's very slow. It's down tempo.
- It's still a major chord, but played with a harmony in minor. Minor harmonies and chords are indicative of feeling sad. This song is no exception.
- We can still pick out a couple of instruments here. One of them seems to be a guitar. Another appears to be a cello. The brass is synthesized, but we can tell that it's supposed to be a brass section, and we can hear some bells. Together, they paint a picture of sadness.
The tempo and the choices of instruments are important; they let us know what we're supposed to feel. The song itself can reveal more about the story, or the point in the plot, than any amount of dialogue or animation can. Most importantly, the music can tell a person who's never even played the game before that something happens to this character, or that this character does something that is going to make us feel something. It has to, or the change in song wouldn't be there.
Music in video games can tell us a lot about the environment of a specific place, too, not just about character. Let's move away from JRPGs and move onto a western game. (As in, a game made in the west, not a game about gun-slinging and horseback riding.)
Let's use Assassin's Creed 2 for an example. This is the theme for Venice Rooftops. It's atmospheric, and sets the mood perfectly for a few key points in the game. We can tell that it's evocative of being in the air, or at least off the ground. It's flighty, in a way, and has an almost uplifting feel to it. But it's rooted in the sense of urgency that it carries in its undertones. Even with the desperation that's present, it carries a push to it that makes you keep wanting to move forward. It's the perfect song to set the mood for a game like AC2, because even though you'd like to explore what's probably the best virtual recreation of Renaissance Italy, you still have to be careful and keep your head down. By this point in the game, you're a wanted man. The music alone is able to remind you of this while seldom letting you know with words how important it is that you be careful.
The entire soundtrack is like that. Hauntingly beautiful, awe-inspiring even though it carries a heavy weight within its notes.That's important in a game, especially one with as much atmosphere as Assassin's Creed. Trying to convey all those emotions with only words would be tiring. Music hits a resonance with us on a primal, almost subconscious level. Effective music is as important for setting moods and making us feel things as connecting with characters and an interest in a story. Everyone has that one song that they can't listen to without tearing up. (Admit it, you do.)
Why? Because it resonates. Music is able to intertwine with our emotions in a way other art forms - written words, acted events, painted scenes - can't always connect with us. It's why we can feel the sadness in Zelos' theme up there but we can't always feel sad for Aunt Bertha when she sends us her monthly letter from prison. Maybe if she composed some sort of concerto, we'd be able to feel bad for her.
Try playing a video game with no soundtrack sometime. Just go into options and turn off your background music but leave your sound effects and voiceovers on. See how invested you are in the story then. I can almost ensure that you'll think that there's something missing. You'd be right, because a good chunk of the story can only be found while you're listening to the music, even if you don't notice it consciously.