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The Progressive Difficulty of Video Games as Context

November 9, 2010

In my enquiry I’ve found that some game music will reflect, acknowledge and adapt to the relative difficulty of in-game levels or situations. This of course doesn’t apply to all games and I think it can most readily (but not only) be found in platform games or games of a similar type, that have distinct levels and/or stages.

This is of course very important contextually, if the game’s music should react and reflect the changing difficulty of the game. Composer will have to think about this, with help for the game developer, to compose music that fits with the context of the relative difficulty of an in-game level or situation.

To make it easier for our purpose here I’ll concentrate on looking at Platform games where this can be best demonstrated.

Most platform games want to ease the player in gently to the game world, and in doing so make them feel good about purchasing the game. Because of this the players first foray into the game world and the first stages of the game will be relatively easy and the music will reflect this by being upbeat, having prominent melodies and the like.(I want to make it clear that I’m not saying this is always the case, but by and large, for the majority, it is.)

As the player progresses through the game the levels will become more challenging and more concentration will be required to complete them. The music will reflect this, by being less ‘busy’ (unless of course, its a race against the clock situation or a ‘chase’ or something, but that’s a different story) so as not to distract the player as much and to fit the context of the levels getting harder. Also there might not be so many overt melodies or lots of instrumentation etc.

While this observation is a huge generalization (there are thousands of platform games, and obviously they’re all unique), I’m going to look at some clear examples of where this can be found in context.

First of all I’ll look at Mario 64. Here is the music from the first level of the game:

It’s upbeat, has a moderate tempo and is in a major key. It’s pretty funky and ‘cheesy’ too. But the main point that I want to make is that it’s a feel good song and all the parts are quite prominent and obvious. This music helps the player feel good about purchasing the game and makes their first experience of it a ‘happy’ one as they relatively easily go through the first level.

Now if we contrast that piece to a piece from a level latter in the game, such as this:

This has much sparser instrumentation, mainly just a synth lead, percussion and bass guitar, with some pads/strings. Not upbeat at all. Now we’re in a minor key. And while the percussion makes it feels quite busy, with that and the bass guitar it’s not as distracting or as ‘in your face’ compared to the music from the first level. This acknowledges that the player has moved on from the fairly simple beginnings of the game into more challenging game play territory and the music fits this context.

Now for another example, this time from Donkey Kong Country 2

The first level’s music:

Some context first. This level is set on a pirate ship and hence the piece has elements of a ship moving/sounds of the rigging etc included in the piece. The actual ‘music’ starts at 0:22 with a pretty fast drum beat. A melody (in a major key) starts at 0:32. A different one starts at 0:45, again in a major key. Both these melodies (the most prominent parts of the piece) are upbeat and playful in character. This reinforces that in the first level of the game the player is in no real ‘danger’ and the level will be quite easy for them to defeat.

Here is the music from a level latter on in the game, ‘Ice Caves’

From the right off, we’re at a much slower tempo, reflecting the need for the player being required to concentrate more. The piece as a whole is very ambient. We still have melodies here with the first one starting at 0:19 but it’s not very busy (compared to the melodies from the first level) and doesn’t move around a lot. The combination of the instrumentation and style of the piece makes it quite relaxing, allowing the player to not get distracted too much by the music so they can give more of their attention over to the more challenging level.

While this has only been a cursory look at how the difficulty of a level and the music of a level effect each other, this can be found in varying degrees across the spectrum of video games. It also shows that a huge amount of consideration goes into game music so that it fits the game and context (in this case, the difficulty of a level) as best as possible.

I also want to mention that this will not apply to some games, such as free roaming games or games that have been scored in a more ‘narrative’ style similar to that of a film. And due to the sheer amount of different types of video games/platforms and types, it is nearly impossible for me to make sweeping generalizations.

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