WARNING: mild story spoilers for Transistor, Pyre, Hades & The Last of Us: Part 2
In 2019’s Mutazione from Danish developer Die Gute Fabrik, you are a new arrival to an island society of mutants. During your time on the island, you will slowly uncover a layer of secrets, lies and resentments bubbling under the quiet veneer of day-to-day life in the town. Just as this drama starts to boil over, however, the whole island comes together for a performance by the local band in the town’s bar. For a moment — for as long as you like really — you can forget about severed family ties and broken hearts, and just enjoy a performance by your friends with the rest of the community.
In 2021, video game soundtracks are almost as popular as the games themselves, with many major releases seeing hugely popular vinyl pressings and selling out live international orchestra tours. The task set before a game’s composer is, however, a uniquely challenging one. Music is crucial for establishing a vibe and sense of place in a game world, but must also serve a variety of other functions, from the main theme, which announces a game’s statement of intent from the startup screen, to looping background music which needs to both provide atmosphere, without being too prominent as to become grating. Many games go a step further, and have their music be performed by characters in the game world itself. This approach can be a great ace up a developer’s sleeve, a way to engage the audience through a combination of satisfying narrative payoff, while drawing upon the musical identity already established by the preceding hours of gameplay. There are a plethora of means by which in-game performance can be implemented, serving a variety of purposes for different games, and when used smartly, they can help raise an experience to a higher level.
Grinding for Lute
2017’s Hollow Knight is renowned for Christopher Larkin’s gloomy and evocative soundtrack as much as as its design and narrative. An early goal of the game is the reach the desolate and dangerous City of Tears, buried deep within the subterranean setting of Hallownest. Upon reaching the city, the soundtrack shifts to ethereal female singing, a moment of lightness which acts as an uplifting but subtle contrast to the gloom of the underground setting, and the notoriously challenging combat through which the player has traversed thus far. While this music is filed away in the players mind with the rest of the soundtrack, later in the game you will encounter the spirit of Marissa the Songstress, who it transpires is eternally singing to the city from the pleasure house where she once performed, long after death. It’s completely impossible to miss the encounter without realising, and just experience the track as another part of the game’s soundtrack, but once found, it smartly reinforces the mournful, desolate atmosphere of the whole game. The inclusion of Marissa’s character is small detail which exemplifies the understated and often obfuscated storytelling at which Hollow Knight excels.
A similar trick is pulled in 2011’s Bastion from Supergiant Games. The level Prosper Bluffs is soundtracked by a mournful song about war and the collapse of kingdoms, with a simple guitar accompaniment. At the level’s end, you find the singer Zia, who, much like Marissa in Hollow Knight, has been performing this music just out of sight all along. Bastion is a game without much overt exposition, instead relying on the subjective voiceover of the Narrator to fill out the history of the lush, but largely deserted world. The player character (called only ‘The Kid’) is completely mute, and so the lyrics to Zia’s song, which are easily missed or ignored if not paying attention, do a great deal to flesh out the game world from a new perspective.
Across all four of Supergiant’s releases, music has been an integral element of the world design and narrative, yet the use of musical performance in game is still used smartly and sparingly for maximum impact. Transistor sees protagonist Red robbed of her singing voice at the start of the game (with the concession of a dedicated ‘hum’ button), only for it to return triumphantly to accompany the closing credits. Fantasy basketball-purgatory simulator Pyre sees the two mysterious characters Tariq and Celeste join voices to accompany your final battle to escape, then again for possibly my favourite ever credits sequence, in which verses of their duet ‘Bound Together’ are swapped and adjusted according to the specific fates of the characters in your playthrough. Then most recently in Hades, an optional sidequest sees you attempting to reunite the doomed lovers of Greek myth Orpheus & Euydice, after which they perform a duet of ‘Good Riddance’, another bittersweet guitar ballad, until that point only heard through their separate solo voices. It is a triumphant moment, and like many examples drawn from Supergiant’s games, absolutely chockful of narrative catharsis after hours spent with the characters involved. The success of this formula can be credited in a big way to composer, musician and singer Darren Korb, and collaborator Ashley Barrett, and it’s hard to imagine any of these games feeling as unique or memorable without them.
Although not as commonly seen in big-budget AAA releases, thoughtful use of performance can be just as impactful in a sprawling open-world narrative as it can in a tighter, more focused indie game. The Witcher 3’s world is a grimy, violent one, full of mud paths soaked in blood, bodies left to hang in trees and brutal pogroms led by vindictive zealots. This grim atmosphere pervades the whole of its massive open world, from the key story beats to the smaller incidental details. A fair way into the Geralt’s epic search for the long-lost Ciri, however, he enters the Kingfisher Inn, one of the many less-than-reputable taverns that litter the bustling city of Novigrad. Here, he encounters the bard Priscilla, but before he can speak to her, she performs ‘The Wolven Storm’ to an enraptured audience. The song is played in its entirety in a cutscene, just Priscilla's lute and voice, forcing Geralt to take a moment to be lifted up out of the muck and the violence, and enjoy a rare moment of uninterrupted beauty. While Priscilla’s role in the larger story is tangential, her performance sticks out as one of the most memorable points in the game, and the sudden silence of the usually rowdy pub as she starts to perform highlights just how alien Priscilla’s performance feels compared to the brutality of the city just outside.
The hallmark of many of what makes many of these approaches successful is restraint. The grandmaster of game music himself, Nobuo Uematsu exemplifies this across the Final Fantasy series, most famously in Final Fantasy VI’s hardware-defying opera scene, but also in Final Fantasy IX, as you search for Princess Garnet while listening to the sound of her singing echoing through the castle. These moments are held back for maximum impact on the player, and stick out all the more in the context of the limited audio capabilities of the hardware at the time. Their subsequent translation to full orchestral pieces performed as part of the Distant Worlds live concerts is a testament to amount of care and expertise Uematsu displayed when originally composing those pieces with a limited toolset, and their enduring popularity with the fans who played them decades ago.
Play Along At Home
While these examples provide both memorable story beats and a rich sense of atmosphere, they’re all largely passive experiences. There are countless obvious examples of musical games where performance is a key mechanic, from Guitar Hero to Rhythm Heaven, as well as fun musical levels slotted into other genres, like the fantastic rhythm platforming sections of Rayman Legends. Turning music into a game mechanic in a more narrative-focussed experience is, however, a very different needle to thread. Missing a button prompt and hitting a bum note could potentially undercut the weight of a dramatic death scene somewhat.
One solution is to limit such mechanics to narratively less narratively climactic moments. For instance, playing the guitar to your plants to make them grow faster in Spiritfarer, putting together a band for a school dance in Final Fantasy VIII, or leading your crew in a sea shanty in Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag all add layers of depth to the peripheries of their worlds, without stepping on crucial story beats. The Legend of Zelda series has long excelled at this approach, with an ocarina or a conductor’s baton providing musical means by which Link can traverse or alter the world around him, but being largely confined to solo exploration, rather than needed at the height of a dramatic face-off.
Alternatively, characters in the world can play music to help guide your progress. This was used to great effect in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, where listening out for the dulcet tones of a distant accordion (well, technically a bandoneon) can draw you out of your isolated exploration and towards the musician Kass, who will usually have a kind word to share and a small quest to impart. The minimalist piano compositions which make up the majority of Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack help Kass’ distinctive music to stick out, and act as a beacon for lost players. Similarly, in Super Mario Odyssey, you are tasked with listening out for and reuniting the scattered jazz musicians of New Donk City, culminating in a triumphant big-band soundtrack to a bombastic and nostalgic platforming set-piece.
One of the most effective uses of this approach can be found in The Outer Wilds. The space-exploration game can be an incredibly lonely experience as you traverse the solar system and try to avoid death on hostile worlds. But in the least expected places, you will stumble upon the distant sound of banjo, harmonica or flute, guiding you towards the camp of a fellow cosmonaut, and providing the welcome site of a bonfire at which you can refuel, relax and glean useful pieces of information from your fellow explorer. The moments in which the different instruments, their owners scattered across the solar system, are brought together are some of the most satisfying in the whole game, much like reuniting the separated voices of Orpheus and Euydice back into harmony.
One recent example, however, shows that playable in-game music can be implemented firmly and explicitly into a narrative with great success when done thoughtfully. Regardless of what you think of The Last of Us: Part 2, one element for which I don’t recall hearing much real criticism are the few moments where Ellie picks up a guitar to play. The first and last moments of the game are long, slow shots of guitars, and the instrument is a recurring symbol of music’s power to enrich a post-apocalyptic world in which almost all recorded art and media has been lost or forgotten. Music, particularly the shared memory of playing together, holds a uniquely valuable position to Joel and Ellie, being a way for them to share something with which to escape the drama and danger of their lives, if just for a moment — much like it does for the citizens of the Witcher’s Novigrad.
At a few key points of the story, Ellie is given the option to pick up a guitar and play, performing songs of personal significance to her. I was surprised, however, upon reaching the first of such moments, to find that control was handed over to me, and that developer Naughty Dog had developed an ingenious method by which chords could be selected, and the guitar strummed, through clever implementation of the thumbsticks and the touchpad. The result occasionally sounded somewhat unsure and faltering, but in a way that both looked and sounded realistic and believable. The flexibility of this system can be seen in the numerous song covers that various players have been able to perform in game. While these moments only happen in quieter, moments of the story, the ending of the game, in which you struggle to strum a clean chord following Ellie’s quest for revenge leaving her with a disfigured hand, is a perfect example of marrying musical performance gameplay and narrative payoff.
Every year brings new releases which find inventive new ways to implement musical performances, be they active gameplay mechanics or passive experiences, into their game worlds. Many recent examples are highly collaborative experiences, such as gathering your crew of pirates to perform a shanty together in Sea of Thieves, visiting a friend’s island in Animal Crossing to play instruments along together or watch a K.K Slider performance, mixing a live music set to a Twitch audience in Fuser, or even joining an island full of internet strangers to watch a live performance by Ariana Grande in Fornite. This seems like an area which is ripe for further invention in the coming years, and if upcoming projects like Radiohead’s mysterious Kid A/Amnesiac experience for PS5 are any indication, the barriers between games and musical shows look to become increasingly blurred and irrelevant — and I for one can’t wait.