Music in games is a very strange thing. Given how, over the short lifespan of the medium, sound in general has been treated, the way that music has evolved has a sort of logic to it that sort of defies conventional explanation. Being both a sadist and a pretentious prick, I am going to go ahead with that anyway.
At the start, the music in a game was necessarily a short, looped MIDI sample. There simply wasn’t enough space for more than that. Of course, the best composers working under those constraints created works that have so far stood the test of time, no surprise if you are the type of person who has ever had a catchy commercial jingle lodge itself in your forebrain or wherever it is that earworms cultivate.
As games got bigger, so did the music. Tragically, but perhaps obviously, something was lost once composers were freed of the shackles of having so little space available to them. One of the biggest problems with modern video game music is that, as games have risen to ever-higher levels of definition and complexity, they have been impelled to steal the language of film in many ways. Key scenes in narrative games are undercut with soaring or melancholy or joyous scores, heightening the intended emotion in a way that the gameplay itself apparently can’t, since the player often has their agency taken away from them in one form or another. The pieces are occasionally memorable. (I would be lying if I said I didn’t think that the a capella Snake Eater theme that plays as Naked Snake climbs that interminable ladder was incredible in the moment.)
At issue here is the fact that “memorable” is not necessarily important. The IndieGames.com podcast has discussed the ways in which music in games almost always has little to do with the gameplay. Aside from the rhythm genre, where it is very difficult (although not impossible) to play acoustic, most games could be played with the sound off.
Sad but true; I am guilty of exactly that, at least in portable gaming. I do tend to leave the sound up when I’m playing on a TV, but it is rarely out of any feeling of necessity. The bare fact of it is that, the way most games are constructed, the music is irrelevant to the gameplay itself.
On the surface, it is hard to imagine that this is a mold-breaking game in any sense. It is an open world, mission-based narrative game from Rockstar, the selfsame people behind Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, and L.A. Noire. Still, there was something about it…
There are little touches throughout the game that remind you that you’re not just playing a reskinned GTA game. The class schedule, the legitimate sense of danger from authority, the mad rush to get back to your dorm before you pass out from exhaustion: something about the game spoke to me in a much more personal way than GTA‘s surly anti-hero narratives about how small a part we all play in the big bad world ever could.
There was something else, though, and it took me a few days after finishing the game to figure out what it was. On the train the third morning after I had beaten it, I finally placed the niggling toon that was cropping up at all hours, unbidden if not unwelcome.
It is not like I had not noticed the music in the game, of course. It was thematic in the old-school Super Mario Bros way, looping back on itself as a constant background companion. I also loved the way that the instrumentation became more complex when you were on your skateboard or bike versus running around on foot like some kind of miscreant. It was good, probably even great, in the immediate context.
Yet here I was, days later, having probably heard that two-minute theme loop for a dozen hours off and on, never growing sick of it, welcoming its playback in my head. That made me start thinking hard about it.
I historically have a problem when I start thinking hard about something. I have this way of acquiring information that can take the magic out of… anything. Watching how a film is shot, what techniques they are employing, judging the movie on the skeleton over which the story is laid rather than how good the story is. Finding one little buggy scene or sentence or word choice in a book that colors how I see it going forward. I can suck the joy out of anything. It is not a thing of which I am proud, being told that I obviously hate fun and it being sort of true.
I got to work, sat down at my computer, and bought the Bully soundtrack from Amazon. On CD. I know, it was kind of a weird call, but I do that (buy CDs, I mean). Then I dug into Shawn Lee, the composer, and Holy Fucking Shit you guys. I have been unable to wreck his work with overattention for myself because of how prolific he is. I imagine there will be a time when I have managed to unpack all of his music, but short of hitting up some sort of illegal file acquisition or other, it might be a while.
After a few days of entirely unnecessary delayed gratification, the disc showed up at my office. Then I had to wait until I got home to rip it onto my computer and transfer it to my iPod because I have no way to play a CD outside my computer. (When I spell it out nakedly like that, it sounds even dumber than it does in my head.)
Finally, I had the soundtrack. I listened to it. And the “why” of its working came to me.
I found myself recalling the game, which would seem obvious. The odd thing, the thing that broke the code, was not that I was remembering. It was what I was remembering.
Big narrative moments? Nope! Pedaling around the town, mashing like mad to reach the next mission before time ran out on it. The segues into fights with whatever enemies I had made, each faction with their own equally badass theme. The contemplative moments when there was a lull in the time juggling the game required, just riding my bike aimlessly in a way that I never have been able to manage as an adult.
“Evocative” undersells Bully‘s music to me. I still listen to it, often, to this day. It has soundtracked days at my coffee shop job. It had been the low-level background hum for hundreds of pages of writing and thousands of lines of code. It has been a go-to in times of a pretty dark mental space.
I am almost positive that what Bully‘s music accomplishes is not what the IndieGames.com podcast had in mind when discussing music as part of the gameplay. Could I have played Bully without the sound on? Absolutely. But I didn’t.
Instead, I think it sort of represents the apex for film-style video game scores. It worked in the same way that the best film scores work, a way that they rarely do in video games: it made something good into something great.
It probably comes as no surprise, then, that when Shawn Lee leaked that he was working on Bully 2 a couple of years ago, I was more excited that he was involved than I was for the game itself. We may not have music in games figured out quite yet, but Bully is doing something right, and I will take as much more of that as I can get.