Exploring the USG Ishimura in Dead Space genuinely frightens me.
Not because of its excellent lighting, deadly monsters or sense of desperation, but because the soundtrack is note perfect. Resident Evil 5 and Left 4 Dead 2 offer great opportunities to blast zombies to pieces, but they rarely creep you out or disturb you. After much deliberation, the only video game element I can put this down to is the gorgeous audio present in EA’s space survival horror.
The creaks and groans of the floorboards below force the player to check their footing. Metallic footsteps that dent the ventilation shaft above will leave you apprehensive of an impending attack. The scores as you explore the ship are often delicate and desolate, shifting to incredibly violent and dynamic strings as you empty the few bullets you have left into the limbs of a predator. The shifts occur at the precise moments needed to make them feel reactive and impulsive, also ensuring that they never feel unnatural and jarring.
Many game developers forget the importance of audio. Whilst the technology of sound remains relatively still, visuals continue to increase at a fascinatingly rapid rate. The attractive selling point of a brand new engine and cutting edge graphics often means that the soundtrack of a game is neglected or forgotten. Fortunately, enthusiasts still notice and give recognition for the immersion of a well composed score. To follow the example, Dead Space picked up awards for Audio of the Year and Sound Design of the Year from the Game Audio Network Guild.
Try playing a few of your favourite titles on mute. Likewise, try playing a few games with a surround sound system or high end headphones. The difference is often incredible. The original Doom on PC used to always keep me on the edge of my seat, especially when the formidable Cyberdemon was about to walk round the corner. However, I realise now that my sense of fear was spawned purely from the creature’s entrance music. With the audio stripped away, the retro shooter’s boss was often laughably comical.
Perhaps most surprisingly, there are many video games that specialise in music and get it completely wrong. Wii Music seemed like an enjoyable and creative concept to me, but the choice and execution of songs was absolutely dire. Playing a version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star that sounded like it was ripped straight from a Game Boy Pocket cartridge was lazy and unmemorable. Trying to master the drum kit with the combination of a balance board, swinging Wii-mote and various button combinations was even worse.
While some music rhythm games have become sloppy in their choice and presentation of songs (Band Hero feeling like the most commercial cash-in of all) Harmonix treated the audio in The Beatles: Rock Band with the utmost care. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest tributes to The Beatles and the best way to teach the next generation about the beauty of their music. Whether that was how they managed to take the original analogue recordings and break apart the separate instrument tracks, or the bonus snippets retrieved from their Abbey Road sessions; everything gave off a sense of love and care.
If our hobby is to ever gain recognition as an artistic medium, the quality of music in gaming needs to be maintained and progressed. How composers are integrated into the development process and the influence they are allowed on the end product is a debate that many developers disagree on. We all remember the Tetris theme and the soundtrack of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Will we hold the music of our current generation’s games in the same regard in five or ten year’s time?