Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Music and Interactivity

Right now, I'm listening to Zuvuya w/ McKenna. It's a kind of new-agey ambient music, like the grandson of Vangelis (they did the Blade Runner music). It's good, if you happen to like new-agey ambient music.

Many of my friends really like music, but they're not very aware of the three kinds of music in the world. Really, they only like one kind.

You see, there's three kinds of music. There's music you listen to, which includes just about everything you probably hear. Whether it's Radiohead, Rappers, or Rachmaninov, this music is designed for you to sit in your chair - or stand on the stage - and live it.

Most people, of course, don't. They listen to it with half an ear. That's because what they are really looking for is the second kind of music - music you hear. This is not-so-subtly different than music you listen to. Most people don't much like listening to this kind of music out of the blue. This is the sort of music people make specifically for movies. It's Vangelis and John Williams. It's also some kinds of trance and dance music. It's not intended to be listened to, only heard. You're supposed to be AFFECTED by the music, rather than CONCENTRATING on the music.

Of course, it isn't inherently better, or easier to make, than the first kind of music. The job it performs is simply different: it exists to support whatever is going on. In a normal "listening to the radio" moment, the music is inapplicable. You're doing paperwork, the music might be telling you to dance, or to break down and cry - it's wholly unrelated to your paperwork. So it's not really as useful as the first kind of music in those situations.

A worthy musical advocate has huge stacks of the second kind of music, and plays the songs which fit the mood he or she is currently in need of. I have many programmer friends who slap on trance - or some other subset of techno - because it helps them program. When they are driving, they slip in their "driving music".

Similarly, when the music is designed, it is designed with a particular activity/emotion in mind. That's why it's good in movies and in clubs. You know approximately what the situation there is going to be. A club DJ's importance is to lead the crowd around with these songs.

Now, perhaps there isn't any real divide between music of the first and second kind - maybe it's more of a sliding scale - but the basic idea is that you have the kind of music you pay attention to, and the kind of music you FEEL without paying attention to it.

Games really suck at music.

Some game music is extremely memorable. FF3E had music which still pulls at me, for example. I've heard that people really like the quirky music from Katamari Damacy, and having heard it, it's pretty clearly of the second type as well.

But these are rare and far between. Why? Most game music is of the second type, except some "kewl" games which import rappers and pop music.

The answer is pretty clear to me. What does a good movie and a good night club have that the majority of games lack? Interpersonal emotion, of course.

Games are STILL horrifyingly bad at interpersonal emotions other than lust and anger. When you go to see Blade Runner, it feels very mysterious and pensive. When you're in a dance club, you feel a sexual energy beyond what any game has ever pulled off.

These background songs only do so much on their own. Their strength comes when multiplied with the emotion of the scene.

Games aren't very good at this sort of thing. Some adventure games did the 'mood' thing pretty well (Quest for Glory IV), but most were terrible GAMES (not QFG4). Some RPGs managed to find a balance, but man are those rare. The vast majority of games really don't use any emotions which don't directly drive a player's aggression.

Can you have a game which doesn't use aggression? Sure. There's some out there. The Sims, for example. Certain parts of some of the Final Fanties which relied heavily on SensaWonder and HolyShit. But, by and large, these games rare and usually made by newbies, so they suck.


The Sims comes pretty close, with it's peppy "time to spend money!" shopping tune, but it can't tell what kind of mood you're in at any OTHER point in the game, so the background music is either bland or absent. This is BIZARRE to me. They know EXACTLY what kind of mood ALL the characters in the game are in, and what their immediate plans are. How difficult would it be to have subtle musical cues which draw the player closer to the characters? What were they THINKING when they left this out of not only one but TWO "Sims" games, both with massive budgets?

Quest for Glory IV did it right, with a wide variety of music partitioned into locale. When you walked into town, you got the hokey town music. When you found the site of ancient magic, you got the eerily calm music. Etc, etc. And all the music was top-notch, which helps quite a lot. This is very basic but, combined with the power of the scenario, multiplied out to an exquisitely high number.

Learn from QFG4: audio is as important as video. Foley/voiceacting are the "lineart" of the audio world. Music is the color and shading. Use music! You know what you want the player to be feeling. There is NO REASON not to use music, or to use inappropriate music.

I'm going to try to have music in any games I release.


Marc Majcher said...

And the third kind is....?

Craig Perko said...

To see if anyone was watching. ;)

Textual Harassment said...

The third kind is the music that you don't listen to and that you don't hear. Like one hand clapping.

Go meditate on these things, and come back when you have attained enlightenment.

Craig Perko said...

Ah, so the third kind of music is "no music". It's quite a Zen world we live in, Master Harassment. :)