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Types of Game Music Part 1 – The Main Theme

November 4, 2010

Video games have many idiosyncratic contextual elements that require different kinds of music and approaches to composition. A cinematic (in-game movie) will require a very different approach to scoring than a game menu, for example. I’m going to look at these different varieties of  game music, in relation to what their purpose is, their context and where we can find them in-game, starting with the Main Theme music.

Because only by being aware of these contexts of where music appears in video games can we measure their success and can a composer write music suitably for this context.

The Intro music, or Main Theme, is usually the first thing that players hear when starting a game. It’s importance should not be underestimated:

“The music will help build the momentum and excitement of the game, set the mood, and establish the main storyline. This first moment capitalizes the players exhilaration for purchasing the game and reassures them that they have spent their money wisely. This music plays an important role in establishing the quality of the game – the crucial first impression that will last until other impressions are formed. If the music sounds cheesy, it cheapens the  purchase immediately – regardless of the quality of the graphics. ” – Aaron Marks, The Complete Guide to Game Audio.

This music sets the overall theme, tone and context of the game and lays the foundation for what the player can expect from the rest of the soundtrack. In order to provide a strong identity and context for the game strong melodies and motifs are often used. This also helps with people being able to recall or hum the theme long after they have finished playing the game. Main themes can also be likened to the main themes of films, such as Star Wars or Indiana Jones.

-Some good examples of this:

(These are very basic appraisals of these pieces, just touching the surface on why these make effective main themes for the context of the game)

-The Morrowind Theme

Morrowind is a huge, free-roaming fantasy game and the main theme is very similar to the player’s progression through the game in that the main motif gets repeated, gradually getting stronger as more instruments are introduced, mimicking the player getting more powerful as they play through the game. (I’m not sure if this is intentional or not, just something that I’ve observed by being familiar with the game and the piece of music)

The choice of instrumentation for this theme is very cliché for this type of context (i.e a fantasy game): harp, strings and brass. But by making use of our knowledge of these cliches a composer can more effectively convey and provide a main theme that fits the context of the game.

-The Mass Effect Main Theme

This does a perfect job of setting the context of this game, which is a sci-fi role playing game. The synthesizers hark back to old science fiction films, providing the space and science fiction aspect of the theme. The main motif on brass has a very ‘heroic’ and ‘militaristic’ feel, which conveys the adventure/military aspect of the game. (Which incidentally, is used a lot in this context of a sci-fi drama. (See: Star Wars and Deep Space Nine)

Again here, the composer has made use of well known clichés to help convey the multiple contexts and themes of Mass Effect.

-Halo

A modern classic of video game themes. This theme is quite unconventional for its context though. Using Gregorian chant and prominent electric guitar for a sci-fi/FPS game was a bold and unconventional move, and one that payed off. It definitely provides the game (and its sequels) with a strong musical identity that stands out from the crowd with its choice of instrumentation and style. A much lesser reliance on cliché here allow for the main theme, and consequently the game itself to have a very strong, unique identity.

-Baldur’s Gate 2

A medieval/fantasy style role playing game. The theme is spot on conveying this with it’s mix of choirs, brass and a marching section. A similar mix of instrumentation to Morrowind’s theme. Which is fitting because these two games share a similar context: an RPG/Fantasy game.

It’s clear then that the Main Theme should have a pretty big impact and it’s important for composers to spend some time composing a theme that conveys the correct context of the game i.e, what kind of game it is and the genre it belongs to. Common sense and the direction of the game developer will help here. For example, if you were asked to compose a main theme for a game aimed at young children, it’s doubtful that you would want to use hip-hop or drum & bass as the basis of that theme.

I’ve also found that, at least in my experience, hearing the main theme from a game will often make me recall my overall experience with that game and often it will make me want to play it again. So they can still have a strong influence and pull, even years after the player has finished with the game, which is something games developers and composers are capitalizing on with their sequels and spin offs.

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