How Music Tells the Story in games
I am not a writer, nor a sound designer. However, during my first time at GDC, which just happened a week ago, I went to many speeches about audio, for example, “’Life is Strange’: Music in a Narrative Driven game” presented by the audio director and creative director of Dontnod Entertainment, “How Music Enhances Virtual Presence” presented by Winifred Philips, and “Letting Go: A ‘Florence’ Postmortem” by Ken Wong. Not only because I played all these video games, but also the titles of these speeches attracting to me. These speeches were informative. The representatives from Dontnod Entertainment played a lot of unused soundtracks for Life is Strange 1 & 2 and some audio techniques they used in the games. Ken mentioned how Kevin Penkin’s music helps the storytelling in “Florence”. Ken didn’t get into details about the music since “Florence” has so many other outstanding features to discuss. However, without a technical background, I would like to discuss how music tells the story from a player’s perspective.
I want to introduce the concept of “diegetic music.” Diegetic means that the sound you hear is also audible in the game world, meaning characters can also hear it. It is a term that comes from film and is used to describe the use of music. On the other hand, if the music is added in the editing process, then it is called non-diegetic music. The diegetic music undoubtedly enhances the environment and provides a more immersive experience for the player. Let me give you an example in Life is Strange.
This video is a small clip in Ep 1 of Life is Strange. Max, the main character, plays the guitar along with the radio. From the music, you could feel the sadness of this teenage girl. She doesn’t know what is wrong with her body and what is going to happen next. She just wants an escape from the chaotic reality. Without any narrative, the music pushes the plot forward.
In Detroit: Become Human, the diegetic music also helps the character, Markus, to express his feelings.
Sometimes, the story doesn’t allow the character to do a monologue, so it is hard to tell psychological activity. This is when the music could heighten the atmosphere. Markus’s host asked to play a piece of music for him. The player could choose which theme of the song to play. Even though the pieces are different from each other, they all express the complex emotions that Markus has. By then, the player would not know what is going to happen between Markus and his host, nor whether Markus has self-consciousness or not. The music adds up different emotions that Markus has at the same time – hopeful but nervous.
Music can tell the story in mobile games as well. Florence’s success has proved that mobile games could also convey a touching story. Kevin Penkin’s great music work is indispensable. His soundtracks are not only intimate but also conversational. There is no voice-over throughout the gameplay, but the player could still feel the emotion and mood of the couple by listening to the background music. Unfortunately, because this game is so short, I could not find an individual clip for chapter 9, but please move the cursor to exactly 14.5 minutes.
In the beginning, the couple is having a daily conversation before grocery shopping. The pace was smooth, and the music was calm. However, as the story goes on, the action becomes faster, and their facial expression shows that they are fighting. The rhythm of the background music increases, bringing up the tension between them. The interesting part is that the composer tried to use different instruments for the two characters, showing their characteristics. The piano represents the girl’s voice—bright and melodious. The cello represents the boy’s voice—magnetic and steady. When they are having a normal conversation, the piano and the cello appear one after one. However, when they are fighting, two musical instruments have much overlap. In real life, when two people fight, one person always interrupts the other person. The overlap emphasizes the fierceness of the quarrel and brings tension to the player even more.
There are so many other good examples of how music tells the story in video games. Some of the best games are not telling much narrative anymore. Instead, they use the music to establish a history and background environment of a good story. I don't have time to list all of them, but with the innovation and bold challenges such as what Florence does, I believe in the future, music could be the main medium that conveys the information to the audience in video games.