Our lives have a music soundtrack—people often associate songs with specific moments of their existence and create emotional connections with melodies. A few notes can send us spinning to a summer in our childhood, a fun party, or the aftermath of a breakup.
People often refer to film or videogame soundtracks and their capacity to evoke emotions, understanding that the music dictates how the audience has to feel about what is happening on the screen. I find this notion rather limiting, even irritating—think of documentaries or reality TV playing loud soundtracks to indicate that there’s a moment of suspense, or that the scene is sad because people are crying. They want the audience to feel a certain way, as if they couldn’t have their own emotional reactions to the events they’re watching. More often than not, these musical devices are trite because the emotions they evoke have very little subtlety, and they tend to be a stock library that repeats from episode to episode. These music cues can also be intrusive, trying to amplify a mood that is already created visually, verbally, or through camerawork, by playing predictable music in ways that can ruin the scene.
This is a pet peeve of mine because I’m the kind of weirdo who pays attention to music in films and videogames. (And in the muzak in the supermarket and the elevators. It can be torture, really.) And I do pay attention because the music also tells the story—characters, situations, spaces can have their own melodies. The use of leitmotifs is extensive in film—you can recognize the music that identifies James Bond, or the Force in Star Wars. Games also use them a lot in the form of loops that repeat so they can adapt to the length of gameplay. If you’ve played any Final Fantasy game, I’m sure you can recognize the different combat music loops. The loops change their tempo, key, or instrumentation depending on the situation not only to cue different emotional states, but also to give us game information. The soundtracks for the Metal Gear series have always done a great job to create both mood and tell the player what is going on, from loops closer to ambient music for the stealth sections to accelerated and strong beats when Snake is in danger. (These loops never resolve, because that’s what suspense is all about.) The music is also part of the interface, provides feedback about the world.
But there’s another narrative that game music also creates, which relates to what I referred to at the beginning. The music of games is also the soundtrack of our lives, in ways that perhaps – and regretfully – film scores may not always get the chance to do. Those music loops become engraved in our brains and our hearts after listening to them over and over and over again. The first notes of the menu music of an arcade game, the melody of difficult levels in a platformer, also have the power to make us travel back in time. It’s not a matter of nostalgia—it’s connecting those notes with the people we were with, what we were going through when we played those games. The story is not only of the characters on the screen, it’s our own stories; the emotions evoked by the melodies are not what the composition may dictate, but our own personal associations with those leitmotifs. I love to go to videogame score concerts and see the audience cheer and clap when the first notes of their favorite games start playing, celebrating their time spend with them. One of my favorite moments in one of these concerts was seeing several black and latino kids banging their heads to the notes of the Metal Gear Solid 2 Main Theme, in perfect unison, living the music. Videogame scores are part of the soundtrack of our lives in similar ways how pop music marks different periods of our history.