Chapter 7: Form and Function in Game Music

Many of the characteristics of game music that we can hear today developed due to consistent and established paradigms in both game play and game sound. Early gameplay often followed a specific formula: the player finds/selects a level, then enters a level, player makes their way through obstacles in the level, and then returns to the selection area to progress to another level. This type of gameplay did not arise overnight, but rather evolved over time, and continues to evolve, as even the current games that are fully 3D involve different levels or stages throughout. This chapter examines some of the most common types of music for games and how the musical function relates to the area iwithin the game that the music is setting. Similarities in musical form, sound, mood, and instrumentation will be analyzed for areas such as overworld, underworld, battle, and theme. Also discussed in this chapter is genre-specific music. Just as different styles of music are required for different gameplay areas, different music is required for different genres of games, since the music needs to serve a different function to match the gameplay style. Therefore, the function of specific music in games is the primary focus of this chapter, and this is informed both by the musical style (i.e., rock-driven, ballad, orchestral) as well as the style of game play.

7.1 Basic Types of Game Music and Characteristics

Games began to develop structural similarities as they grew in popularity, and this continued as more advanced systems that could support longer and more complicated games hit the market. Early games had very distinct types of areas that continued to remain characteristic of games for many generations. These areas include levels or dungeons, battle areas, and zones outside of levels, commonly called overworlds. Artefacts of this early gameplay can be seen in modern games, although such distinct boundaries between areas became blurred with the advent of fully 3D environments. Some of the most particularly stylistic elements of game music emerged as a result of these areas within gameplay. The reason behind this is likely multifaceted, being perhaps informed by the desire to emulate popular games, common feelings regarding what kind of musical style evokes certain moods, and even player expectation (such as the expectation that all battle music will sound a certain way). The intention to clearly delineate areas is another possible reason. A discussion of these areas follows, including the type of gameplay that generally occurs and the style and character of the music alongside it. Music can contribute extensively to the overall tone and environment within the game, and can serve to engage the player or keep them entertained if they are in an area for a long time. The music therefore helps to inform or serve the gameplay in these situations, and there are many musical tools composers use to convey the nature of the area. The advancement of technological capabilities for gaming would see the development of more diverse collections of areas within games, and the music followed (this can also be seen in soundtrack length – compare the number of tracks in Mario to Final Fantasy VI!). For the purposes of this chapter, we will focus on the following key musical types to begin with: overworld, underworld, battle, safe zone, and theme. Each area discussion contains some examples from earlier game music (beginning from when the areas were clearly distinct from one another in gameplay) as well as examples from new video games that involve fully 3D environments and more gradual changes, so that we can trace the development and how it has changed over time. For the purposes of this section, platformer games, action-adventure games, and RPGs will be the primary focus, as they are most likely to contain these characteristic levels; the latter half of the chapter explores genre-specific music at length.

7.2 Overworld/Field

The term overworld is used in two respects in this text. First, as an area within a platformer outside of dungeons, caves, or other dark and low areas (i.e., not the underworld), and also as the main area that connects all the areas of gameplay (levels) within a game. The latter type of overworld is often seen in game genres such as adventure or RPGs, in which there is a large area, often referred to as a world map, that connects several other areas that players can enter. I also group overworld and field in the same category in this text because the two contain many similarities, both aesthetically and musically. Overworlds are intended to be expansive and vast, and are generally less ominous and dark in character than underworlds or dungeons, although they are not necessarily devoid of enemies. Often the scenery in an overworld includes nature: grass, trees, large landscape structures, and brightly coloured visuals. The music generally contains a similar aesthetic: the melodies tend to be positive and in a major key, the instrumentation tends to be light, with many strings (plucked and bowed) and occasionally wind instruments. Percussive instruments, if they are used, are generally higher pitched and most often hand percussion (or snare drums). The rhythms are steady and sometimes fast, but usually at a walking tempo, and jarring irregularities and syncopations in rhythm are not generally common. Finally, the form tends to be very open, with larger loops than in other areas and structural variance that gives the illusion of dynamic looping. Below we will examine three different overworld themes: “Overwold” from Super Mario Bros., “Time’s Grassland” from Chrono Cross, and the “Hyrule Field” theme from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. These examples are discussed to demonstrate the qualities consistent to overworld music. Listen to these themes before and after reading the text to gain a greater understanding of how they serve to enhance and inform gameplay.

7.2.1 Overworld: Super Mario Bros. (1985), Koji Kondo

The overworld theme for the original Super Mario Bros. remains one of the most recognizable video game tunes to date.[1] This is the music that serves as soundtrack during the first level of the original Super Mario Bros. The level itself takes place in an outdoor side-scrolling environment, and involves Mario proceeding through the level, jumping on enemies, avoiding falls, and gathering items. The music replicates the expansiveness of the environment, even with the limited means allowed the composer because of the Nintendo’s sound restrictions. Therefore, this track does not contain the typical orchestration described above, because Kondo was limited to the few additive synth channels available on the NES. However, Kondo manages to evoke the characteristics of overworld music through other means, including melodic structure, large-scale form, rhythmic content, and overall affect. The melody is catchy and light-hearted, with activated rhythms, short note durations, and a lot of counterpoint. The length of the theme itself is substantial, with a full loop lasting 1 minute and 30 seconds. While this is not by any means lengthy in comparison to streaming audio loops, this represents a substantial loop length for the 8-bit generation. Koji Kondo used a unique ordering of sections to perceptibly lengthen the loop, once again using limited musical material, but still managing to musically depict vast and open gameplay. The theme itself is broken down into smaller components, of which there are 4; I will give these components section letters from A-D, the letter name representing the first appearance of the section.

Therefore, if we assign these letters to the overall form of the piece, the resulting structure is:

A (4 bars) A (4 bars)
B (8 bars) B (8 bars)
C (8 bars)
A (4 bars) A (4 bars)
D (8 bars) D (8 bars)
C (8 bars)
D (8 bars)

As this formal examination demonstrates, not only does Kondo use a large amount of different melodic and rhythmic structures, but also they are ordered in such a way that a repetitive pattern cannot be determined within the loop. This evokes the concept of dynamic looping (although this is not a dynamic loop), a technique that would be explored later as a means to make loops less mundane and enhance gameplay.[2]

7.2.2 Overworld: “Time’s Grasslands”, Chrono Cross (1999), Yasunori Mitsuda

Chrono Cross was released on the PlayStation, and therefore the instrumental palette was more diverse and we do get a sense of the orchestrational techniques that are used to convey a sense of overworld. The instrumentation of “Time’s Grassland” consists of light drums, some plucked strings, and a sitar that plays the melody. The concept of expansiveness is present within this as well, as the melody is quite long, and is actually a slightly slowed down version of the melody from the original Chrono Trigger theme. The overall rhythm of the piece remains consistently at a moderate walking tempo, with no syncopations or unexpected rhythmic changes. An acoustic plucked string instrument in the medium pitch register (likely a Mediterranean guitar) performs an arpeggiated figure at the same rhythmic structure consistently throughout, and the sitar melody remains at the foreground. The melody does not have a sense of urgency, and gives the track a sense of meandering or wandering, which is also appropriate for an overworld or field soundtrack. The simplicity of the selection is also important – the instrumentation is very light, and the Chrono Trigger theme is the only present melodic element. There is no counterpoint, secondary section, or intense orchestrational layering. Unlike the Super Mario overworld theme, Time’s Grasslands has a very simple form, and doesn’t transition to a B section; rather, the melody just repeats over and over on top of the walking tempo backdrop, to create a sense of endless exploration.

7.2.3 Overworld: “Hyrule Field”, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Koji Kondo

Hyrule field, like many overworld/field areas, consists visually of trees, grassy hills, dirt pathways, and expansive scenery and skies. Much like “Time’s Grasslands”, the music involves some elements and references to the original (in this case) Zelda theme through the use fragmented melodic excerpts. The music remains consistently at a moderate to fast tempo, and contains a steady rhythm without irregularities or syncopations. Link encounters enemies on this field, but unlike in RPG games of the same generation, there is no transition to battle screen and Link battles enemies on the field freely. This may also contribute to the more heroic, fast rhythms in this particular field theme, as well as some of the intense and dissonant sections of the music. It is generally engaging and lengthy, and this long loop length (almost 5 minutes) also illustrates the expansiveness of the area. The orchestration consists primarily of held string instruments, with snare drums, wind instruments, and higher brass instruments. This is a common orchestration set for field music, and the addition of horns and snare drums give a militaristic sense to the music, which is also another product of the musical function: this occurs during an area where Link battles enemies with no musical or visual transition. Therefore, the music must serve to illustrate expansiveness, engage the player, and be appropriate for battle situations.

7.3 Underworld/Dungeon

The term underworld will be used in this text to describe those areas or levels in which the player is underground, in a cave or dungeon, or any other enclosure that contains frequent encounters with enemies. Underworld and dungeon are both acceptable terms that can be used to describe these areas. Often, and especially in RPGs, characters cannot save at any point while in an underworld (this is possible on world map overworlds). Dungeons and underworlds represent one of the earliest paradigms of game levels, emerging out of the tradition of a player selecting and entering a dungeon from a larger world to “crawl.” Today such levels are incredibly diverse, spanning many different types of areas conceptually and visually. Additionally, as games become more and more open world, such level music becomes more ambiguous and varied. Therefore, we will also examine the evolution of underworld music by evaluating extremely early (8-bit) games, as well as very recent games. There were clear transitions between the overworld area and the underworld in the earlier games. However, more recent games will often have a musical change in a more seamless manner when, for example, the character enters a room where there are enemies, or when the enemies approach the character. There are many musical characteristics that are common of underworld music: it tends to be less colourfully orchestrated than overworld music, generally lower in pitch, contains sparser orchestration, less fluid melodies, and shorter loops (or perceptibly shorter loops). All of these elements help to portray the sense of restriction within dungeons. Often jarring rhythmic devices and irregular melodies are used to give the player a sense of danger, or imminent threat.

7.3.1 Dungeon: Super Mario Bros., Koji Kondo

Mario and Luigi, the characters from the original Super Mario Bros., are plumbers by profession, and the game creators therefore decided to use pipes as a transportation device within the game. The underworld is reached through the transportation through one of these pipes, and this underworld is no exception to the characteristics of such levels. The underworld in Super Mario is dark and sparsely coloured, and the scenery consists of dark blue bricks against a black backdrop. The music is also a very representative example of some of the stylistic components frequently used in dungeon music: the melody is memorable but not singable, relying on a rhythmic motive rather than a lengthy melodic theme. The sound is low in pitch, and less contrapuntally dense than the overworld theme. There are no white-noise drums in the background, and a singular square wave line is the sole instrument in the mix. The theme consists of a short monophonic (solo) line: a rhythmic motive repeated twice, then transposed down in pitch and repeated twice, then finally followed by a short spinning out of this motive. A short silence exists between the end of the loop and the beginning of the next, adding to the sensation of darkness, sparseness, and anticipation. The length of the loop is about 12 seconds, a considerable difference from the 1 minute and 30 seconds allocated to the overworld theme. The shortness of the loop, the restriction of the melody and instrumentation, and the lack of singable melody are all elements that give the piece a sense of enclosed space, drab colouring, and limitation.

7.3.2 Underworld: “Dungeon”, Diablo (1996), Matt Uelmen

Diablo has been described as a hack and slash/RPG combination, but another term commonly used to describe such games is “dungeon crawl”. A dungeon crawl is a gametype in which players proceed through a maze-like underworld (dungeon), and fight off enemies, usually stealing their treasure as well. Diablo involves the player navigating sixteen randomly generated dungeons and eventually entering Hell to defeat Diablo. Like many other RPGs, there are opportunities for the player to customize their character. The gameplay in Diablo is considerably different from Mario Bros, therefore, both in player mechanics and background story. The dungeon music for Diablo (titled appropriately, “Dungeon”), however, contains a lot of similar elements to the Mario Bros. underworld theme, with the primary exception being the loop length (Diablo was also released for PC, which had a substantially more advanced sound card). The track begins with a low, drone-like choir sound, and continues to remain in the lower pitch range throughout. Sounds fade in and fade out, and include bass drums, low brass, low strings, and some sound effects. The one exception to the very low-pitched material is the extremely high and dissonant strings that occur, which are present in the track. This device, however, has become idiomatic in the horror genre, and therefore its use also contributes to the sense of impending doom and constriction. Like the Mario theme, the Diablo underworld music is very sparsely orchestrated, usually with only 2-3 combinations of instruments at a time. Additionally, while there are some very low motivic elements that recur, there isn’t really an expansive melody in this piece, and while the loop is long (over 4 minutes), the sounds are fragmented and short, much like the Mario theme.

7.3.3 Underworld: “Fish in a Barrel”, Gears of War (2006), Kevin Riepl

Gears of War is a third-person shooter, and therefore has different gameplay mechanics than the games previously discussed in this chapter. However, the music functions similar to the dungeon music described in the previous two examples. “Fish in a Barrel” is slightly different from the other two examples because it does not score an underworld or enclosed dungeon, but rather occurs in an area where there is present danger. This represents one of the ways in which levels in games have evolved as more realistic worlds become possible to play in digitally. Rather than the player entering a new “scene”, enemies approach the character within the 3D world that they are already present in. However, just like when entering a dungeon from an overworld, the track represents a transition from an area without danger to an area with present danger. The colouring of the game and the post-apocalyptic landscape makes the game visuals grey and neutral in colour, without any of the bright colours and cartoony realism present in earlier overworld areas. Examining this type of track is important because there are no transition screens or partitioned areas. In Gears of War, for example, enemies appear on a more continuous basis, as the player navigates through a fully immersive 3D environment. Therefore, unlike the Mario underworld music, which transitioned abruptly and accompanied a complete screen change, “Fish in a Barrel” begins playing as soon as the player is in a region where enemies are present and able to attack you, and remains until the player leaves this region, even though there may be no visual difference between regions. The musical transition is seamless. Despite all the differences in gameplay, however, this track contains many similarities to other underworld music: heavy low-pitched strings and brass, bass drums, short, rhythmic motives, and an absence of bright and expansive melodies. Therefore, even though many gameplay and design elements are different from the two examples from earlier generations, the artefacts from early video games remain present. They will likely continue to persist in the future, although in an evolved state.

7.5 Battle

While there are many different types of battle in games, for the purposes of this text, we will consider battle areas to be those areas in which the player is actively involved in battle. For a piece of music to be classified as battle music, the music must change to reflect these conditions. This is in contrast to the overworld music we studied from Ocarina of Time, in which Link freely engaged in battle with enemies on the field, without any changes in the music. Battle music is also different from underworld music because it occurs following a change from advancing through the level to engaging in battle. In an underworld, conversely, there can be enemies around you, but you may not be engaged with them. Occasionally there will be no battle music, and the level music will simply continue as the player fends off enemies, as we discussed above regarding Ocarina of Time. Early battle music often shared many characteristics of rock music and/or symphonic metal. A typical battle theme included either rock band instruments, such as guitars, keyboards, and drums, or symphonic instruments playing rock-inspired music. However, more recent battle music also contains cinematic influences, with the low brass, dissonant sonorities, and heavy drums that accompany more tense situations in recent film scores. Both styles are present, and tend to be linked to the genre of gameplay, as well as the overall sound palette of the soundtrack and visuals of the game.

7.5.1 Battle: Final Fantasy (1987), Nobuo Uematsu

The RPG battle theme is one of the most distinguishable types of video game music, having very particular characteristics that persist across (especially the earlier) titles, consoles, and developers. Final Fantasy was one of the earliest RPGs to feature a battle theme, and many of the qualities of this theme have influenced battle themes in RPGs through the current era. The original Final Fantasy was released for the NES, and therefore was limited to additive synthesis. The trademark of this track is the rock-inspired opening, with a strong, rhythmic motive that progresses into quick melodic elements. This battle theme contains two main sections: the first containing the fast rhythmic elements, and the second consisting of a slower melodic line, but also with a progressive rock-inspired rhythm. All of these features remained in later battle themes, and once the move was made away from the limitations of additive synthesis, many of these themes contained similar rhythmic motives in string sections, with other orchestral instruments accompanying. Others also use electric guitar, keyboard, and other rock instruments. Drums and rhythmic percussion remain prevalent regardless, as do many of the rock-inspired rhythms.

7.4.2 Battle: “Roar Of the Departed Souls”, Lost Odyssey (2008), Nobuo Uematsu

Boss battle themes generally are similar in style to battle music, but larger in scope and length, and are usually associated with the character (or their incarnation) that you are fighting. Many boss fight themes have a fuller orchestration, although there is still a heavy rock influence, and quick repeating rhythmic gestures. Sometimes boss battle themes will incorporate an instrument (or instrument group) or musical theme that has been associated with the antagonist that is being fought, and “Roar of the Departed Souls” does contain excerpts from the antagonist’s theme. The track occurs in Lost Odyssey when the characters are fighting the final boss, Gongora. Like many of Nobuo Uematsu’s other major boss themes (such as “One-Winged Angel”), there are also choir sounds. This particular boss battle includes heavy electric guitar, spoken voice, choir, and full orchestral sounds, including the rhythmic strings and drums that are often present in regular battle music. Loop length for boss battles is commonly longer than normal battle music, with a larger number of differing sections. “Battle Theme”, for example, contained a loop length of about 45 sections and two distinct sections, whereas “Roar of the Departed Souls” contains a lengthy intro, four sections, and a loop length of almost three minutes. This form difference is likely due to the expected length of battle, which is much longer for boss battles, and even more so for major boss battles such as Gongora.

7.4.3 Battle: “Battle Music I”, Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (2013), Jeremy Soule

Skyrim, the fifth instalment in the Elder Scrolls series, is also an RPG, but with different battle mechanics, setting, and stylistic characteristics than previously-discussed RPGs such as Final Fantasy and Lost Odyssey. The musical response in Skyrim is very similar of that in Gears of War, as it behaves in an adaptive rather than reactive way. In this game, once you engage with enemies, the music changes seamlessly into a battle theme, with no visual screen change to battle scene. It does share many characteristics of other battle themes, however, including heavy use of drums and rhythmic string motives. There is also an addition of low brass tones, an orchestrational technique that has become idiomatic in film music. The melody is slightly different from, for example, Uematsu’s battle themes, in that it is less overt and functions more as a background element. This may be a result of the immersive gameplay style, however, which often requires music to be more environmental and ambient, and less imposing on the already very cluttered visual and aural environment. While it might seem as if there is no difference between this music and the Gears of War track discussed above, the behaviour and musical function of both is actually quite different. “Fish in a Barrel”, for example, activates and remains activated in an area even after the enemies are gone; the track will not change until the player enters another area. The Elder Scrolls music, in contrast, is tied to the battles themselves, and once the enemies are eliminated, the music seamlessly transitions away from the battle music.

7.5 Safe Zones

In many games there exist locations where a character cannot get into battle. Sometimes these areas are towns or villages, often where the characters get rest and gather information and items, but they may also be areas within a game in which the character has to complete some kind of puzzle-oriented task. Because of the less imminent threat of battle, music for safe zones tends to be calmer, with folk-like melodic themes, a slower rhythmic pace, and a lighter mood.

7.5.1 Safe Zones: “Return to Town”, Final Fantasy VI, Nobuo Uematsu

Safe zones are prevalent in RPGs such as Final Fantasy, where a weary party will often need to get rest. In Final Fantasy VI, all towns had the same theme. This is not the case in later games, in which individual cities often have their own individual themes. Generally, these safe zones are locations that allow the players to get rest (restore health and magic points), stock up on items, gather information, and advance the story. The “Town Theme” in Final Fantasy VI is very characteristic of safe zones, with very light orchestration and a folk-like, singable melody. A plucked string instrument performs an arpeggiated gesture throughout, at a very steady and slow walking tempo. There is also a bowed string pad in the background, with melody played on a woodwind instrument. Notable is the lack of drums and the steadiness of the string arpeggiation, which gives the music a calm and serene affect. All of these elements are a result of the lack of immediate hostility that the character will encounter in the area. Safe zones in later games retain a lot of the same qualities as “Town Theme”, although they become more individualized. Rather than a singular castle and town theme that plays anytime a party is in a location of either category, for example, each castle and town is given its own theme, that highlights unique qualities about the area. Safe zone themes therefore also often serve as characterizing themes for their respective areas.

7.6 Theme Music

Of all the types of game music we have examined thus far, theme music by far is the most diverse. This is because theme music is intentionally individual and must be distinct and identifiable. While the other musical types are intended to reflect areas within the game, and although they often contain themes that are modified versions of character or story themes (something that will be discussed later), theme music is intended to create a musical “brand” or identity for the game. The goal of theme music is to be as distinct as possible, so that players will easily recognize and identify the game just by hearing the music. Three themes are examined below, each of which is quite different from each other. There is no characteristic orchestration, style, or mood present in theme music as in the other types of music that we discussed. However, recently theme music for many video games is beginning to follow certain established idioms and paradigms from cinematic title music, especially in form and orchestration.

7.6.1 Theme Music: Metroid (1986), Hip Tanaka

The theme music for Metroid (1986) is one of the most influential title tracks, not only because Hip Tanaka took a novel approach, but because many contemporary games sought to emulate the music for Metroid. The game takes place on a different planet and follows the protagonist, Samus, as she attempts to prevent Space Pirates from eventually taking over and destroying any opposing forces, including herself. The theme music sought to combine non-musical as well as musical elements, blurring the distinction between the two and allowing sound effects to function as musical elements.[3] This was difficult on the NES due to the limited amount of channels, but Tanaka managed to use the synthesized sounds to emulate sound effects, with careful consideration given to pitch trajectory and space between notes. A singular repeated low pitch is all that is heard in the beginning for example, followed by some higher sounds. The lack of melodic or rhythmic trajectory aids in allowing the sounds to emulate sound effects (or non-musical soundtrack elements). Tanaka’s choice to use this technique as a means to add game atmosphere to the soundtrack was incredibly important to theme music, because it encouraged others to later create very individual themes that evoked the mood or storyline of the game. His use of sound effect-inspired sounds and sparse musical composition easily illustrated the game’s relation to outer space and character isolation. It also represents a composition for NES that doesn’t involve some of the common characteristics of Nintendo sound, including very short notes and dense counterpoint. Tanaka used counterpoint, but crafted the theme carefully so that it had a distinct sound.

7.6.2 Theme Music: “To Zanarkand”, Final Fantasy X, Nobuo Uematsu

While there are several Final Fantasy games with excellent theme songs, I am choosing to discuss “To Zanarkand” because it represents a stylistic departure from other Final Fantasy themes, and demonstrates how diverse title and theme music can be. The music consists of a piano solo, with a slow melody backed by legato arpeggiated chords. The title music illustrates the opening sequence effectively: the characters begin the game sitting around a fire, surrounded by ruins. The main character, Tidus, states “Listen to my story. This… may be our last chance.”[4] Like many RPGs, the characters are on a quest to save the world from a destructive force. The piano music, being limited in instrumentation with a melancholy, somber affect, evokes the nostalgic and somewhat sad elements of the game. Final Fantasy X does have a successful ending in that (so long as the player succeeds) the characters to manage to avert impending world destruction, but discoveries about the main character prevent the ending from being happy. This theme is also a good example of a successful title theme that does not follow the cinematic convention of sustained strings, brass, and repetitive thematic melody. Uematsu uses a nothing but singular instrument to set the opening of the game, and manages with this limited means to effectively evoke the overall affect of the game.

7.6.3 Theme Music: Halo: Combat Evolved (2001), Martin O’Donnell/Michael Salvatori

Halo was revolutionary in its FPS gameplay, and would have an effect on subsequent FPS releases. The music and sound of Halo was equally revolutionary, and Martin O’ Donnell and Michael Salvatori contributed immensely through their work on the Halo soundtrack to interactive sound in games, use of theme in games, and sound design in general. The Halo: Combat Evolved theme becomes an integral part of entire soundtrack, with elements of this theme fragmented and distributed into almost every track on the soundtrack (this will be discussed at length in the next chapter). Once again demonstrating the diversity of title music, the theme for Halo includes Gregorian-like chant melody, which is followed by a rock-inspired, rhythmic drum and string line. This theme then functions in two ways: 1) to set up the “characterization” of the enemy, as the covenant are highly religious, hence the inclusion of chant, and 2) to provide a musical backdrop that engages and activates the player, and the drums and strings serve this function well.

7.7 Conclusion and More Types of Game Music

The sections above only discuss certain types of music that tend to persist over several genres, and are very common in many games. However, this is not an exhaustive examination, and there are several other area types in games, especially as games become more expansive and include more diverse level types, and smoother transitions between areas or situations in the game. Genre also has a significant effect on musical style, and there are many specific genres of games that do not contain music that falls into the categories discussed above (such as racing or fighting games). The diversity of gaming in every aspect is only increasing, and this includes level types and game genres (and sub-genres). This chapter will therefore continue with a discussion of some of the genre-specific music that we haven’t discussed yet, and how it functions to serve its genre.

7.8 Genre-specific Music Characteristics

Much of the music discussed above does fall into the category of some of the genres discussed below, so the discussion will focus primarily on the types of music we did not cover, as well as more extensive focus on the genres that the music discussed above is not applicable to. Genres are continuously being developed, and new genres and subgenres do emerge, therefore it is beyond the score of this text to discuss music for all game genres in depth. This section is intended to provide you with a brief introduction to the purpose of music in games, and how music functions in a broad variety of game genres.

However, before we proceed we must answer the question: what exactly is a genre? This is a term often applied to music (i.e., pop, rock, classical) as well as video games (First-person shooter, adventure, RPG, etc.). William Hughes defines literary genre as the following:

“The division and grouping of texts on the basis of formal, thematic, or stylistic criteria. Texts may be produced, it can be argued, in compliance with or against the strictures of an established and identifiable genre, though it is equally feasible to impose a genre identity upon a work in retrospect, thus attributing to it further possibilities of meaning or, conversely, limiting its potential signification. In literature, genre lacks universal boundaries. The same might be said for other cultural practices in which genre is the primary mode of division—art, music, and cinema providing obvious parallels.”[5]

In his thesis “The Fundamentals of Video Game Music Genre,” David Lawrence Newcomb asserted regarding this definition that “the imposition of a genre is theoretical because its definition relies on wide acceptance among listeners, critics, artists, and scholars.”[6] This is also applicable to video game genres themselves, as there are no academically established definitions, and games are released within generally accepted genres. Game genre is primarily a response to the gameplay mechanics, rather than the aesthetics of the game, although aesthetics tend to persist across genres. It is also important to note that genres are continuously evolving. Steve Horowitz states in The Essential Guide to Game Audio that “game mechanics and genres are constantly in flux and many designers will often combine elements of several of these types of gameplay. If the game sells well, it can sometimes become a genre or style by itself that can then be copied or adapted further by others. It’s all part of the evolution of games.”[7] For the purposes of this text, we will consider the definition of game genre that relates to the mechanics of gameplay. The genres described below represent a only a selection of current game genres, as well as a description of how the music functions within them.

7.8.1 Action, Adventure, and Action-adventure

Several types of action and adventure games contain the music described above, especially platformer games, adventure games, 3D adventure games. Therefore, this section will focus on shooting games and action games. Shooting games tend to have music that is fast-paced, and often inspired by rock or techno music. Winifred Phillips proposed that musical genres and game genres were often paired because of common preferences: “we look at the specific game genres that these player types enjoy most, and we’ll begin to see connections forming between preferred music styles and preferred game genres.”[8] Phillips concludes that this is partially due to a personality alignment with the people that enjoy genres such as rock, and genres such as shooters. However, it could also be attributed to gameplay: FPS games require quick thinking and fast action on part of the player, and rock music provides an engaging backdrop that keeps the players alert. FPS games also contain a large quantity of sound effects as well as visual displays that the player has to pay attention to and respond to. Therefore, thematic content may not be discernible in the same way as in games with a lower continuous aural sound effect load. However, the music does need to keep the player engaged and activated for fighting. This applies also to beat ‘em ups, such as God of War or Dante’s Inferno (2010), both action-adventure games in which the player often fights large quantities of enemies at a single time, and there is much information that the player has to keep track of on screen. The music in these games tends to be more environmentally reflective than in shooters, often evoking time periods or cultures, but this is also likely due to the fact that shooters are often set in contemporary and/or realistic environments.

7.8.2 Role-Playing Games

Since role-playing games were discussed extensively earlier in this chapter, this section will not go into too much detail. However, it is important to understand the structure of RPG soundtracks. RPG soundtracks are some of the most expansive game soundtracks in existence, with games often containing several character themes, as well as main game themes, battle music, boss music, and often a pop-ballad song that will become a hit (although this trend has primarily taken off in Japan). The music in RPGs is diverse, as the game generally encompasses an entire world, and thus, there are themes for island towns, themes for forests, themes for underground caves, and many other areas. RPG soundtracks contain cultural influences, historical influences, and influences from film. However, the most important thing to understand regarding the function of RPG music is that it is used to create an environment or a world, and that includes atmospheric qualities of music, as well as character and location themes. The music in RPGs is often so present and expansive that it becomes an integral component of the gameplay, much like the storyline.

7.8.3 Strategy Games

The genre of strategy games includes all games that require considerable thinking ahead and strategic moves during gameplay. Like all of the other genres, there exists several types of strategy games, including tower defense games, turn-based strategy games, tactical games, and many others. Strategy games are very commonly played online, and can be real-time or than turn-based. Two such strategy games are the Civilization series, which is turn-based, and the Age of Empires series, which is a real-time strategy game. Both games are set against a historical background, and involve the player building and defending a civilization. The primary difference between the two, however, is the gameplay mechanics, specifically regarding whether the players take turns selecting actions or continuously select actions. The result is a change in pace of gameplay. The perspective in both remains similar to that in a lot of “God games,” as the player has a bird’s eye view of the field. The music for both games contains references to ethnic and historical instruments, likely due to the historical setting of these games. These include instrumental references, choral references, melodic references, and many other stylistic traits of the historical period or civilisation that the player is in at a given moment. Earlier versions of Civilization and Age of Empires had very similar soundtrack designs, with primarily looping non-diegetic music. The more recent iterations in both series tend to contain more sound effects, with the musical soundtrack having less of a presence. However, the point of view remains the same, and these games do not function the same way that AAA third-person action adventure titles do. The player is more removed from the playing field, rather than being immersed in it. Like many other genres of games, this is changing, but strategy games generally involve a lot of time away from the active engagement in battle, with building, constructing, and gathering materials being a key component to the gameplay. Strategy games are considered to have emerged out of the concept of board gaming; if you imagine a game of Chess, there is a considerable amount of thinking and planning that goes on before a player makes an actual move. As such, the music reflects this concept, and unlike in shooter games or fighter games where the music provides an environmental component against a heavy sound effect backdrop, music in strategy games tends to be more present and thematic, especially when the player is involved in the planning stage. This changes when the player enters a fighting situation, as now the player has to manage many different sources of feedback on screen to respond to.

7.8.4 Sports Games

Sports games haven’t been discussed extensively in this text because the music functions so differently within them, including at some points not at all. Nevertheless, it is important to study the use of sound and music in sports games because they make up a large market share of the video game industry, and sound is actually a very important crucial component in these games. For the most part, there is no continuous background soundtrack in sports games. However, the intent of sports games is to be incredibly realistic, and playing a sports game almost entirely reflects an interactive experience of watching a sporting event on TV. For example, in FIFA games, there is some background music in certain areas away from gameplay, such as during some of the career mode menu screens. However, during the game, non-diegetic sound is removed, and the soundtrack (or more accurately, soundscape) includes the sounds of the crowd, sounds of the ball and players, and the commentators. Musical cues and alerts are heard, just as one would hear either on TV watching the event or if they were a spectator in the arena. Occasionally music is present, but this is diegetic music that is also heard by the crowd and the players. This style of sound environment is genre-specific; these realistic team sports games are targeting a very specific audience that is looking for a replication of a sporting event. Some sporting games, however, use music to evoke the culture or subculture that surrounds the event. An example of this would be Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, a skateboarding game that was endorsed by pro skater Tony Hawk. Skateboarding has often been considered to be a part of the punk subculture, and a large portion of this culture includes the listening to certain types of music, often referred to collectively as “punk music”.[9] Therefore the choice to use licensed music, and more particularly, a specific genre of licensed music, was also intended as a way to brand the game with this particular subculture, targeting a specific audience. This music doesn’t necessarily serve for a realistic or immersive purpose, but rather to engage the player (the music is upbeat), and to bring the player into the subculture of skateboarding, complete with the type of music skateboarding is often associated with.

7.8.5 Fighting Games

Fighting games were popularized in the arcade era, being a perfect gameplay type for two friends that wanted to play against each other, since they involve each player controlling a singular character onscreen that fights the other character on screen. The popularity of fighting games decreased somewhat in the 1990s as home consoles became more advanced, but adding special attacks and storylines to games somewhat helped to re-popularize the genre. This did not seem to revive the genre entirely, however, and many criticized the growing complexity of fighting games as being a reason for the decrease in popularity.[10] Music for fighting games varies, depending on the level of immersion, style of gameplay, and environment. Fighting games that emulate sports (such as wrestling) are often realistic, like other sports games, and consist primarily of diegetic sounds. Virtua Fighter, a Sega title, incorporates non-diegetic music, allotting every player character an individual theme. When fighting with that character, the theme music plays in the background. Each of the themes has a very fast-paced rock/pop sound, although some themes attempt to illustrate the overall affect the creators intended to apply to the character. Soundtracks in fighting games tend to either be made up of character themes, or location themes (i.e., each stage or location a fight takes place on has its own musical theme). Dead Or Alive 3, released on Xbox did incorporate some character narrative, and each character had their own individual storyline, which the player could progress through in a narrative mode. Narrative became more common in later iterations of fighting games as they sought to reclaim their popularity, and exist on a larger scale like other console titles.[11] Unlike Virtua Fighter, the music in Dead or Alive 3 is more characteristic of the Xbox generation, containing many diegetic sounds, and a fairly equal balance in volume between sound effects and music. The music does retain the activated rhythmic qualities of Virtua Fighter, as well as the character theme organization of tracks. The function of music in fighting games therefore remains primarily to keep the player engaged in the onscreen fight, although character and location association through the use of themes is also important.

7.8.5 Casual and Other Games

The music for casual games is diverse in content, because there is such a wide body of casual games available. However, in general, casual games are intended for playing in short durations with little long-term time commitment or during parties. Therefore, the music tends to be light-hearted, with many loops, light orchestration, and catchy melodies. Especially since so many casual games are for iDevices with a finite amount of storage space, it is extremely common to see the technique of vertical re-orchestration in casual games. Many casual games contain no music, as in one of the original casual games, solitaire, as well as some other common early computer games, like Backgammon. Casual gaming has recently become a very large part of the market share, fuelled by the release of the Wii and iOS applications, and applications and downloadable games have essentially nearly taken over this market.[12] Mobile apps also present another limiting musical consideration, as iDevices are limited in volume and frequency reproduction due to their speaker size.

7.9 Dynamic Forms and Genres

There are several game types and types of music that do not fit into any of the categories discussed above, especially as new types of gameplay and new paradigms are continuously evolving. However, it is important to understand how the function of game music has evolved as it relates to the gameplay, and if we trace this historically, it is apparent that there are several consistencies. Such consistencies even persist into the current generation, although the examples are not as clear-cut once music becomes more adaptive (compare Elder Scrolls to Gears of War, for example). Visuals follow a similar paradigm; while players once waited for a new screen to load upon entering a new area, they are now free to roam fully 3D environments seamlessly. The music must functionally reflect that, and this is apparent in the Gears of War and Elder Scrolls examples. Music also is reflective of its genre and the type of gameplay that exists within it. This is driven both by marketing reasons as well as practical and aesthetic ones. Additionally, many of the stylistic characteristics that are genre-specific have come to be expected by the audience, and so some music for certain genres continues to retain stylistic qualities across console generations.

7.10 Conclusion

Music serves a function and purpose in video games, beyond the superficial intent of obtaining and retaining players. Music informs gameplay, and gameplay informs music. Certain musical characteristics are apparent in certain gameplay areas, as well as certain genres of game. These characteristics have grown out of gameplay traditions that used music to engage the player, and to express the environment and character of a particular point in the game. As games become more immersive, the boundaries between levels become blurred, as do the boundaries between sound and what the character can hear. Immersive and realistic games are more likely to contain diegetic sound and/or music components, and often these diegetic sounds are more present in volume than the non-diegetic music. Conversely, games that are less realistic and immersive, such as retro games, puzzle games, and turn-based games, have very present non-diegetic sound and music. Sound effects in these also games tend to be less realistic, and don’t overpower the non-diegetic sounds in the game as they do in fully 3D and immersive games. There are therefore many demonstrable effects of musical function on musical sound in games.

[1] David, BJ. “Top 10 Most Recognizable Video Game Music Themes,” GMA News Online, April 27, 2012,, accessed May 6, 2017.

[2] Sweet, Michael. Writing Interactive Music for Video Games: A Composer’s Guide. Pearson Education, 2014.

[3] Brandon, Alexander. “Shooting from the Hip: An Interview with Hip Tanaka.”, accessed May 6, 2017.

[4] Final Fanasy X, Square-Enix, 2001.

[5] William Hughes, Maryanne Cline Horowitz, ed. “Genre,” New Dictionary of the History of Ideas 3 (2005): 912-918.

[6] Newcomb, David Lawrence. The Fundamentals of the Video Game Music Genre. James Madison University, 2012.

[7] Horowitz, Steve, and Scott R. Looney. The Essential Guide to Game Audio: The Theory and Practice of Sound for Games. CRC Press, 2014.

[8] Phillips, Winifred. A Composer’s Guide to Game Music. MIT Press, 2014, p 83.

[9] Ensminger, David. Visual Vitriol: The Street Art and Subcultures of the Punk and Hardcore Generation, University Press of Mississippi, 2011, p. 107

[10] McLaughlin, Rus. “IGN Presents the History of Street Fighter.” Imagine Games Network online, Feb 16, 2009,, accessed May 6, 2017.

[11] Dead or Alive (series), Koei Tecmo, 1996-2016.

[12] Gaudiosi, John. “Mobile game revenues set to overtake console sales in 2015.” Fortune online, Jan 15, 2015,, accessed May 6, 2017.