I game for mechanics

Why I play games


I've been thinking about the games I play, and what kinds of games I tend to enjoy playing the most. I've written about atmosphere and mechanics previously, and both of those apply equally to tabletop and video games. There's another component that strictly applies only to video games, although the way I often play tabletop it strangely applies to that as well. This component is, believe it or not, music.

It's all relative, of course, but I think I'm a fan of music in general. I'm one of those slightly annoying kinds of nerds who's just as interested about the audio engineer on an album as the musician or band. When I rip an album, I rip it as a single track because I rarely listen to just one piece out of "context". I have to confess that I don't really believe these things are as important as I did when I was a teenager trying to figure out how music production happens, but it's more or less habit now. These are some of the ways I connect with music, and whether it makes sense to anyone else or not I do tend to get excited about the music I connect with. And like many people, I can fall in love with music for irrational reasons. The music doesn't have to be "good" (whatever that means) so much as it has to be meaningful for some reason, whether that reason is its beat, its audio engineer, the fact that an Emu Emax II sampler (for example) was used, or because when I hear it, I think of the game I was playing when I this music was playing on an endless loop.

This applies most obviously to video games, because usually with a video game you get a near endless loop of music as part of the package. There's arguably an element of Stockholm Syndrome here. I grow to enjoy the soundtrack of a game in part because by the end of the game, I've listened to it for a combined total of 80 hours. But there's definitely more to it. The modern orchestral music scene is, at least in my opinion, happening not in universities or auditoriums, but in video games.

A brief history of music

A long long time ago, chamber music was composed for rich patrons. It had to be done for rich people, because music involves somebody sitting around humming and jotting down some notes, followed by a bunch of skilled musicians playing expensive intruments. Other music was composed by common folk playing relatively inexpensive instruments for common folk (called "folk music" for obvious reasons).

A century ago, movies were invented. Once they became popular and lucrative, movie studios often kept composers on staff to churn out generic music that could be used as needed. Sometimes the pieces got adopted for a big picture, and other times they just got used (and re-used) in B movies. John Williams and Henry Mancini both came from this industry, before becoming famous for movies like Star Wars and Breakfast at Tiffany's, respectively.

During the latter part of the 20th century, each movie (or most of them, anyway) featured music composed and performed specifically for it. When the bad guy burst in the through the door, light and smoke swirling around them, the music would accordingly crescendo. When the good guy and the girl kissed, the music played the movie's romance theme. When the farm boy gazed out at the two suns of Tatooine and dreamed of power converters, a french horn played. The music didn't just happen to match up with what was happening on screen, it was literally designed around the visuals.

For a while, if you wanted to hear music written without the expectations and contraints of the [apparently very effective] pop music formula, you could listen to movie soundtracks. It was the modern evolution of ye olde chamber music. It used many of the same traditional instruments (woodwinds, strings, brass, percussion) but it incorporated modern beats or musical elements from influences unknown to Vivaldi and Handel and Bach, or even some new and exciting instruments (in the case of Poledouris and Popol Vuh and, obviously, Vangelis).

These days, though, many of the most popular movies are accompanied by bog-standard pop music. You hear a song on the radio, you hear it in the background of the movie you watch, you pay some licensing fee to hear it on your favourite streaming app (or whatever people use for music these days). I guess it works for some people. For me, pop music isn't, by degrees, very satisfying and it's especially ineffectual as a soundtrack. When pop music plays over a movie or video game, it just sounds like somebody's got their [possibly anachronistic, depending on the genre of fiction] radio on.

Something composed to be a part of the fabric of the fictional world, however, can be a powerful thing for me.

Real life doesn't have a soundtrack

The weirdest thing about a soundtrack is that real life doesn't, obviously, have a soundtrack. Thanks to modern technology, you can play music to accompany you throughout your day, but it doesn't just happen on its own. In movies and video games, for some reason, there's music. We're so used to it that it's weird, and usually detrimental to the fiction, when it's not there.

Because music is such a part of visual fiction, our brains sublimate it the same way our brains sublimate, say, a mountain range off in the distance. The mountain range might be the most majestic thing on Earth, beautiful to look at, stunning even, but if there's an interesting story happening in the foreground then that's what our brains tend to focus on. It's the same with music. The soundtrack might be the most shockingly beautiful thing you've even heard, or it may be the usual perfunctory cues, but either way it's part of the "reality" of the fictional world.

I think it's because of this phenomenon that many of us buy our favourite soundtracks for movies or games, and listen to the music later. It's the auditory equivalent of looking at a fond photograph. It triggers memories and emotions, it momentarily transports you back to moments the music reminds you of.

If I hate a soundtrack, I'm not compelled to ever listen to it again. So for me to connect with a video game world, the music has to be to my liking. And if I like the music, then I'll listen to it again, and experience the video game all over again by proxy.

So I really do play video games largely for the soundtrack. I don't think I've ever picked up a game because I heard its soundtrack first and then decided to play the game, but I've definitely stayed invested in a game for its music.

When I play tabletop games, I usually play music to provide a soundtrack for it. For some games, I just choose an album that fits the theme, and for other games there are obvious choices (Battle for Balin's Tomb obviously is accompanied by Lord of the Rings, Fallout begs for Frank Sinatra or Perry Como, and so on). The association between the music and the game isn't as strong as the association that develops for a bespoke soundtrack and its video game, but it's a fine excuse to enjoy some great music along with a fun tabletop game.

As strange as it may seem, I do play games, in part, for the music.

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