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Types of Game Music Part 3 – Victory and Defeat Cues

November 16, 2010

One of the most important contextual elements of video games is that they are games, and players can win and loose.

These cues both mark an important in-game event – the player succeeding or failing, which is the main context of these cues. A victory could mean the player has completed the game, finished an important objective, defeated another player etc. A defeat may mean that the player’s character has died, they have failed to complete an objective etc. So, contextually, the most important aspect for the music to convey is either a sense of triumph and victory (win) or a sense of defeat and failure (loose).

Like all the other types of Game Music I’ve looked at, the music written for these cues should and almost always does, fit in with the theme and tone of the rest of the game’s soundtrack in regard to instrumentation and style etc. Typically win themes will be in a major key as an effective way to create a feeling of elation. They will usually be up-beat and will usually build up into a crescendo. Loose themes will be the opposite: usually in a minor key, slow and solemn as they try to convey a feeling of defeat.

These types of cues are not very long in length and can be anywhere from a few seconds in length to about a minute.

-Here is the victory theme from Donkey Kong Country 2. It’s very short, quite fast and in a major key. The context when the player hears it: when they successfully complete one of the bonus stages in the game.

-Here is the theme when you die in the game (swamp level version):

Much slower tempo than the victory theme. It’s in a minor key and its a much somber sounding piece (or short phrase of music).

Now an example from another game, Mass Effect

-This is a good example of a victory theme that builds up into a crescendo, empathizing the player’s feeling of accomplishment on completing the game. The context when the player hears it: upon completing the game.

Here is the music when you die: in Mass Effect:

-A very ominous synth motif in a minor key, clearly emphasizing that something (the player) has gone wrong. The context where the player hears it: when the player’s character dies in Mass Effect.

I hope these examples demonstrate and give the context for winning and loosing cues in video games. Their primary purpose is to underline and reinforce a player’s feeling of accomplishment (winning) or their disappointment/frustration with their defeat (loosing). And it’s important to know these cues and what they mean in-game, all though by and large, musically they are not very difficult to get right.

In conclusion, I don’t think composers have a lot of freedom when it comes to writing these very specific cues. Nor do I think there is a large amount of room for them to be creative in how they approach these cues – a winning cue almost has to be approached with a triumphant fanfare of some sort in a major key. In fact, I think these winning and loosing cues may be one of the most restricted areas of writing video games music. It’s not that they are challenging to write for; it’s that the composer doesn’t have a great amount of artistic license when approaching this particular context inside a video game.

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