By Santos Echevarria
What is the first song you think of when you hear the words “video game music?” Maybe it’s the Super Mario theme, maybe the Tetris theme, maybe even the sweet ambiance of Minecraft. Video game music not only immerses us into new worlds, but it creates a lasting impact that goes beyond the game itself. Connecting an emotional response for the player to latch onto can be created in multiple ways, and an immersive experience in games comes from a perfect storm of art, writing, and sound. To me, music is the glue that brings the whole piece together.
Music and sound design are intentionally designed to create a feedback loop as we play, even when we don’t realize it. In 2015, the Journal of Psychology & Psychotherapy found that, “as an integral part of video games, background music has a major impact on players’ immersion during gameplay.” They also noted that audio helps to overcome the two-dimensionality of the image, and helps the player feel immersed in a three-dimensional space.
The RPG genre incorporated this idea extremely early. Juggernauts like Square Enix really latched onto the importance of music as an integral tool in the developer’s toolbox. RPGs like Chrono Trigger, the Final Fantasy series (some of my favorite tracks include To Zanarkand and Innocence’s Theme), and NieR (The Weight of the World) are great examples of how music can meaningfully capture the audience into a world. Hearing the score to Final Fantasy VII for the first time while playing growing up was such an important experience. Thinking about the opening sequence, or that scene with Aerith… the visuals weren’t that realistic, but it’s remarkable how the music elevated those moments into something deeply emotional and impactful.
Now, imagine for a moment that you’re dropped into your favorite game world. You hear your favorite song from the game. Does it bring you a sense of comfort, or possibly remind you of a specific time in your life? A 2009 study from Petr Janata at the University of California, Davis found that there is a part of the brain that “associates music and memories when we experience emotionally salient episodic memories that are triggered by familiar songs from our personal past.” Video game music ties into not only our immediate emotional response but also helps us remember specific key moments from the game (Vergil’s battle theme from Devil May Cry 5). It may even help us with something as small as timing the right moment to block or attack. In Final Fantasy XIV, for example, some boss fights even have specific music transitions in different phases relevant to what part of the fight you are in.
When I look back at my time playing games over the years, it’s very easy for me to see how much the music has influenced or in many cases has helped elevate my attachment to a title (Separated by the Storm from Ori and the Will of the Wisps). It’s a daily part of my life; I actively seek out new music from games and follow fan renditions on YouTube. There’s always some new fan cover or rendition to a classic that just reinvigorates my excitement to jump into the game all over again. Video game music has helped me to escape reality many times and feel connected to something bigger in these games. It’s helped me through tough times, empowered me, and even sometimes broken my heart. It has brought me new friends, connected me with family and will be something I cherish daily.
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