Turning it off?

I recently read an opinion article extolling the virtues of life and gaming without music. The article essentially advocated gaming with sound design only. While it may be tempting to offer a knee jerk counterargument as an audio professional who has done a fair bit of game work, I think there is a more subtle point to be arrived at here.

Firstly, the opposing view is so obvious, it’s almost a shame the article itself didn’t at least try to deal with it. After all, music is clearly an important, integral, and widely appreciated component of games. The evidence for the value of game music is overwhelming, from the ubiquitous Super Mario ringtone, to the success of classical of concerts like Video Games Live and Play, which often outsold concerts at the same venues performing the standard Bach/Mozart/Beethoven repertoire.  The writer cites examples of fatiguing repetition, and momentous surprises ruined by foreshadowing music. But are these not more issues of design and implementation rather than issues that speak broadly to the presence or absence of music at all? 

The article brings to mind a discussion on the Game Audio Network Guild private forums some years ago, considering the merit of having an audio options screen including the ability to mute in-game music. Some in this discussion took the extreme opposite viewpoint from that of the above article. Game music, they argued, is an essential component of the game itself. Designers wouldn’t want to include an option to turn off any other essential components, such as graphics, so why should there be one for music? 

Are games better when we are freed from the sensory overload created by an unnecessary and overbearing score? Or is even the option to play the game without music depriving the player of an essential component of the game’s experience and creator’s vision? 

Of course, there is no universally right answer, but the closest I can get comes from the mindset expressed by Metal Gear series creator Hideo Kojima during an interview in 2006. He was weighing in on a debate sparked by film critic Roget Ebert’s assertion that video games did not qualify as art. Surprisingly, Kojima essentially agreed, saying that his approach was to make games “a service” rather than art.  After getting over my initial shock, his viewpoint began to sink in during my first years becoming involved in making games. Art faces inward and often involves the artist attempting to express his or her individual genius or personal experience to an audience. But a service faces outward, toward the audience, putting their needs and fulfillment first. 

If Kojima’s view is correct, (and it can at least be said he has had a great deal of success developing from that perspective) then, at least in my mind, the question of music in games is clear: Developers should create best best possible experience for the player by implementing appropriate score that enhances, and ideally never distracts from, the gameplay experience. Further, because players have different tastes in music, including an aversion to music altogether, to deprive them of the opportunity to play the game in the way they most enjoy is to do them a disservice. From a service-minded perspective, if players want to play the latest Star Wars title while listening to something other than John Williams’ timeless score, who are we to judge? After all, once the game has left the development studio and entered the homes of players, it’s not longer our fantasy, it’s theirs

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