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Opinion: I Am A Slave To The Groove

Opinion: I Am A Slave To The Groove

October 24, 2011 | By Richard Fine

October 24, 2011 | By Richard Fine
More: Console/PC, Audio

[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday-opinion piece, Binary Refinery's director Richard Fine talks about how effective music can be in setting the mood quickly in a video game, citing several noteworthy examples.

I'm surprised by how quickly music can change my mood.

I was walking in town today, anxious. The photography class I was headed to had started almost a half hour ago; I'd just had a slightly surreal, less-than-satisfactory experience trying to buy something; I was walking, rushing, pushing past students and tourists and everyone else as I traversed the streets of Oxford to get where I was going

To both further my isolation from the moving meat obstructing my path, and to give myself a beat to march to, I put on my headphones and set my iPhone to shuffle.

Two minutes later, I was listening to Muse's Stockholm Syndrome, smashing my hand around in time to the beat and mouthing the words to the chorus. And in between the choruses, I couldn't stop smiling.

Why is music so effective at altering my mood?

I mean, it's weirdly effective. Few other things can bring about such a marked change so quickly. If I'm feeling a bit blurgh, I can watch a TV show, or play a game, or eat a nice meal, and I'll feel better... but not that much better. It'll relax me, distance me from my suffering and strife, and return me to a comfortable medium - but music energizes me, commands me, like nothing else.

It's not like listening to a song that I've listened to many times before is teaching me anything new, or achieving anything in particular - yet it can elicit a reaction as strong as discovering that I'd been accepted to Oxford Uni. An odd equality, don't you think?

I find it with games, very often, as well. I loved the Ace Attorney games, for example - but the parts of the game where I'd be most excited, where I'd shut out all distractions, live and die with every right and wrong answer... was whenever the "Cornered" theme was playing.

Sure, it was cool to see the witness - who we all knew was secretly the killer, but hadn't quite proved it yet - start to sweat, to watch their story break down and their web of lies unravel, but it just wasn't the same when playing on mute.

Without the music, there was no urgency, no drama. I could understand the tension on an intellectual level, I knew what was happening and what it meant for the storyline, and so on.

But with the music, I was tapping through the dialogue as quickly as the characters seemed, to me, to be speaking; gasping at each reveal or new ploy by the enemy, marveling at Phoenix's quick moves to confound them ("...unless you have evidence that this man somehow flew through the air, which I very much doubt!" "I have evidence." "WHA-!!").

I was aware how viscerally I was responding to the game, and I was aware that it was largely the music causing it, but it didn't matter; in that moment, I wanted that response, I wanted to put myself in the game's hands. Had the music risen in key partway through the sequence, I suspect I would have had an orgasm. Or a heart attack. Or both.

Other games have had effects of similar strength, if not always directed towards the same euphoria. Introversion's Darwinia has some excellent tracks by Trash80/Tresk (such as Faces Of A Fashion and Excuses - the latter conveys a kind of isolated desolation that majorly frames the way I think about the game world).

Terry Cavanagh's VVVVVV has an excellent soundtrack, from which tracks like Positive Force and Potential For Anything tend to get me every time (Positive Force even moreso in its trance remix format).

I should note, it's not all chiptune and indie stuff; I will always love Marty O'Donnell's Halo theme (especially when standing in a bus, which I am then inclined to imagine is some kind of military dropship), or Stuart Chatwood's Tower of Dawn from the first of the new Prince of Persia games.

It's not that listening to those tracks remind me of fun experiences - they do, but I reacted to them in the same way the very first time I had them, before I'd had the experiences to be reminded of.

It's qualities of the music itself, the structures and patterns and shapes and balances, that affect me. The slow build of a rising sequence, or the way a chaotic, swirling mass of mini-themes resolve gradually into a single magnificent musical megastructure - or, alternatively, the way that structure breaks back down into chaos.It may well not even be the entire song, but just some particular moment in it where something wonderful happens.

It's almost never lyrics. Even overlooking the fact that I personally am very bad at hearing what lyrics are actually being sung, I've never understood why people are so obsessed with lyrics. Well, that's not true - I think I understand it, but it seems like a misplaced focus.

There are interesting things that can be done with the voice as an instrument, creating particular sounds and rhythms through choice words, but beyond that, isn't it just poetry? To listen to the lyrics, rather than the music, seems to me like ordering a steak and then only eating the salad garnish. The meaning of lyrics can enhance the music, but in my experience, that's rare; creators who focus on interesting lyrics tend to set them to boring music.

(Song titles are related. I think I do enjoy the VVVVVV soundtrack a little more as a result of the optimistic, forward-looking ideas conjured up by the track titles).

But what puzzles me is that music is the only thing that seems to have this kind of effect on me in such a cheap and immediate manner. Short of actual life-changing events (which are hard to set up, in any case), I don't find myself overcome with emotion when walking through an art gallery, and I tend only to respond to pathos in fiction when it's part of the payoff for something very long-established.

Music is, I think, the only thing you could use if you needed to set my mood in 30 seconds. And if you picked the right music, you'd be guaranteed success.

Am I alone in this? I'm not sure. There are definitely people for whom music seems to do nothing. I wonder if there's something else they respond to instead. Or maybe they're just dead inside.

[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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