The Power of Music in Games

Art from Blizzard's   Burning Crusade  .

Art from Blizzard's Burning Crusade.

The first game I can remember playing is The Lion King for Sega Genesis, which released in 1994. You play as Simba as he grows up, and as a basic platformer geared towards kids, it did a pretty good job of helping you along as you make your way through levels of varying difficulty. Of course, as a youngster - I was 3 years old when the game came out - I mostly watched my older sister play, though occasionally I was able to get my hands on the controller and jump around on the first level, squashing bugs with my cub paws on a rocky outcrop in The Pridelands. What’s incredible is that while I have a foggy memory of the visuals of the level, what stuck with me the most is me is the soundtrack. Even today, I can instantly recall the song playing in the background of that first level, and hum along to it in its entirety. The electric flute (or whatever you’d call it) brings me back to a time when my world was simpler, and when video games and their scores were much simpler too. But that doesn’t change the music’s ability to bring me back, to fill my head with memories and feelings of a different time.

The next game I can remember having this effect on me is Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, which was released ten years after The Lion King. I firmly believe that the opening title theme, aptly named “Legends of Azeroth,” is one of the most iconic pieces of gaming music ever written. You might ask, “But Matt, how could you possibly say that?” Well, according to its Wikipedia page, over its still ongoing life-cycle, World of Warcraft has had a peak of 12 million active subscribers with over 100 million accounts created. That’s more active subscribers than there are people in the countries of Greece or Cuba or Belgium (independently), and enough accounts created to cover almost one-third of the population of the United States.  At the very least, most of those 12 million subscribers installed and booted up the game, and most of those 12 million people heard the main theme play through their speakers or headphones. I’d argue that this very theme was a factor in engaging this absolutely massive player base. But it’s not just the sheer number of people exposed to the piece of music, it’s the impact of the music on players.

The song is powerful, with beating drums underscoring a brass section that crescendos after the first iteration of the main theme. This is immediately replaced with a wistful orchestral movement, which then slowly morphs into a punctuated phrasing, as the brass section returns, bringing the listener back towards the opening theme, which it never actually reaches, instead fading away into a choral hum. In my personal favorite iteration of the theme with the release of The Burning Crusade, we hear the addition of alto and soprano voices to the earlier moments, a deeper orchestral section, and a full chorus returning for the last 30 seconds of the theme. It’s a piece of music that evokes and invokes World of Warcraft, summoning it up to forefront of my memory and immediately reminding me of Ironforge and Orgrimmar, Dun Morough and Tirisfal Glades. The impact of this kind of musical work on those who experience it is profound.

O'Donnell and Salvatori, rocking some serious leather.

O'Donnell and Salvatori, rocking some serious leather.

An equally as memorable main theme belongs to Halo: Combat Evolved. Composed by Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori - who also composed another piece I’ll cover later - the “Opening Suite” to Halo, which also begins to play when a user boots up the game, is a brilliant use of a united choir of voices. If you hum the first few lines in public, it’s not unlikely if you’re standing next to a gamer who owned an Xbox, that they will hum the rest of the opening choral line back to you without hesitating. It brings me back to that ring floating in space, the tension of that first crash landing, and the terrors that awaited in the level “343 Guilty Spark.” It’s an amazing theme, but in my opinion, not as good as what O’Donnell and Salvatori would end up writing for Destiny.

"The Traveler" is a spectacularly beautiful piece of music. The initial lines of french horn are elegant and regal, and are then replaced by harp and moving strings in an emotional appeal to the player. It then is filled with the entirety of the orchestra in a section more evocative of the Halo series but only for a few moments as those combative moments are replaced by a single bell hit, which introduces the listener into high-pitched voices, the return of the french horn, and the introduction of a single flute and clarinet. A constant hum echoes in the background as a flourish of string keeps the listener engaged. With a burst of moving voices and strings, the theme closes its loop with a final nod of the french horns, and the piece is complete. It really is spectacular, and though I haven’t played Destiny 2 yet (PC gamer here), I’m really looking forward to hearing its soundtrack in-game.

Music is an incredibly personal experience for me, and video games as a host for great soundtracks can take something personal and open it to a wide community - allowing each person to experience the music, the immersion, and the game as one. Whether it’s The Lion King, World of Warcraft, Halo: Combat Evolved, or Destiny, the soundtracks of these games have a permanent place in my mind, and in my growth as a person. They are as powerful in jolting my memory as pivotal pieces of music that I played in wind ensemble, or bands that I’ve witnessed in concert, or just songs playing over the radio during important moments in my life. Music is powerful and the games we love use that power to bring us back to a special point in our lives filled with old memories, wonderful feelings, and utter nostalgia.