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Stray Thoughts

Music in Gaming

by Michael Erb
Apr 22,2003


Music in Gaming

I have always used music in my games. From playing a tape of "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" to provide mood music for a medieval campaign, to forcing players to suffer through endless loops of the "Hackers" soundtrack as the backdrop for a cyber punk game, I've always felt that the right music brought a role-playing session that much closer to perfection.

The proper song could not only set the tone and mood of a game, it could also be used to enhance a scene or idea, to bring a single, crystal clear image to and the games-master alike.

A fast-paced, techno-beat could punctuate a high-speed chase or a bare-fisted fight. A soft, somber tune could lend depth to a moments rest, or a further define a struggling relationship.

Music and gaming go hand in hand, and there are few who would argue otherwise. Do a quick search on the Internet and you are bound to find dozens upon dozens of sites that suggest albums, playlists and artists for every possible scene, situation and genre of game.

But I've never been satisfied with using music only as background noise. Both role-playing and music can tell a story or bring an emotion to those it touches. Both can define a character or reveal a hidden truth.

One of my many goals over the last several years has been to create a campaign soundtrack, consisting not only of background music, but also theme songs and situational melodies.

The idea is to have the songs tell a part of the story or hint at something yet to come. I want the game's soundtrack, or soundtracks as the case may be, to provide clues for the players as well as motivation for the characters.

Some of the songs cover only one character and are meant to "push" that character when they appear on the scene, much like the way professional wrestling uses entrance or ring music. What really inspired me to do this was the WWF's (now the WWE) theme music for Triple H, The Game.

The song "My Time" began with a very distinctive, almost whiny voice saying "One, two ... this on?" The cool thing about this intro was it really only hinted at what was coming. It interrupted people and their theme music. It caused wrestlers already in the ring to pause and look at the entrance ... it made them hesitate and in itself became something almost feared.

Triple H's theme song was foreshadowing in its purest form.

Even better, the song actually told a story, albeit one that the average wrestling fan wouldn't pick up on. It was anti-establishment, talking about the back-room dealings of the McMahon family and the effort to bring down their empire. The song ends by asking "Who's sleeping with who?" again ranting against the perverse and open-to-manipulation reign of McMahon.

Now, I don't really think these themes were explored with the Triple H character ... he was far too busy posing and trying to find new ways to hit someone with a chair ... but it lent a lot of depth to an otherwise shallow character. I wanted the theme songs I picked out for characters to be similarly deep. And, in some cases, I wanted them to reveal truths that maybe the players didn't realize.

Take for example my choice of a theme song for the young superhero known as Protector. An idealist, Protector believed in the very CONCEPT of being a superhero -- punish the wicked and protect the innocent. But, as it became apparent in the game that things were not so black and white, he found himself struggling with his role in a world that didn't want heroes.

Protector's theme song ultimately took a page from a heroic icon. "Resignation Superman" by Big Head Todd and the Monsters tells of The Man of Steel's departure from Metropolis, of him abandoning the good fight because he wants to lead a normal life.

It also talks about the inner pain of an otherwise untouchable hero, of finding himself burnt out and tarnished by the same vice and hatred he seeks to eliminate.

Those themes fit perfectly with Protector's struggle to come to terms with his role in a city that hated heroes and yet desperately needed them. And to point these themes out by comparing them to THE symbol of all heroes, namely Superman, it showed that Protector really had no choice but to be affected and disheartened in his struggles.

Even better, the song hints that Superman may one day regain his faith in humanity, and that no matter how much he tries to distance himself from the world, he ultimately will be drawn back.

Protector later underwent a physical and psychological change, becoming both more powerful and more violent. As Siege, he still had the desire to fight the good fight, but now there was an element of anger, of resentment toward those he was protecting. The fight became more about punishing the villains than aiding the downtrodden.

His secondary theme song became "They Came In" by The Butthole Surfers, a much harder, more modern and edgier song. In this case, the lyrics mattered less than the image the song evoked ... that of him standing still, his eyes downcast as he is surrounded by enemies, then exploding into violent, spectacular motion.

I've followed a similar theme with other characters as well, attempting to provide each of the main (player) characters with at least two theme songs. One is considered their main theme, their entrance music. Some were chosen for their sound, others their lyrics and some, such as with Siege, because they evoked images of that character in action.

The second choice runs the gamut from something amusing to a profound revelation about the character's motivations.

For example, the group's leader, Jacob Simms, has as his theme song "Don't Drink the Water" by the Dave Matthews Band. I chose this song because it has a bit of a "New Orleans bayou" sound to it, which in my mind fits the slow, deliberate nature of the character. I also chose this song because it is about self-imposed isolation and barely contained anger, two themes which also fit his nature. The song not only had a cool sound but also it revealed some of Simms less-than heroic qualities, which later became a major theme in our games.

Simms' second song was likewise a very deliberate choice, but for much different reasons. If you read one of my earlier articles on sex in gaming, you'll remember Simms as the "Captain Kirk" of the group, the only one to consistently hook up with the ladies.

Gathering the players together, I announced I had found the perfect song for Simms. As "Mr. Bombastic" by Shaggy filled the room, with its over-the-top sensuality and bravado, it instantly became a group favorite. Plus, it embarrassed the hell out of the guy who played Simms. Definitely a bonus.

Player character's aren't the only ones who need theme songs. Music can enhance, or alter, player perceptions of NPCs or villains. Imagine introducing a character with classical music as his or her background. Now imagine that same introduction with polka music, or industrial, or rap. What your players expect will change based on the music you choose for that character.

During Simm's many exploits, he had a dangerous dalliance with a demon-chick who called herself, of all things, Venus. She became a recurring villain, ever obsessed with Simms but unable to decide whether she wanted to bed him or kill him. On my soundtrack, Venus has the song "Crush" by Garbage as her theme, a tune that perfectly mirrors her deadly and sensual obsession. Plus, it's kind of creepy and naughty at the same time. Another bonus.

Other songs are used to show relationships, or give more depth to a situation. "Slow Dark Train" by the Vigilantes of Love became the swan-song of a relationship between two estranged brothers who were unable to accept one another into their complicated lives. Also, the Everlast and Santana rendition of "Babylon Feelin" became the twisted love song of Simms and Venus when he finally gave into her desires.

Sting's somber "Why Should I Cry For You?" perfectly illustrated those times the group simply couldn't go on, when the characters were forced to spend a few moments recovering from the decisions they had made.

I could continue on, but for the sake of space I will stop here. All in all my soundtrack takes up two CDs, about 30 songs in all, and almost weekly I find something new that strikes a chord with me.

Next time I will discuss ways to use music in-game, as character motivation or a plot device.

As always, comments and questions welcome.

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