Music as narrative tool in games

posted by Ben Hill on 26 October 2016 in Articles

Music as narrative tool in games

As video game technology moves forward, developers are met with an increasing demand to provide gamers with rich storytelling experiences. Indie developers have some flexibility on this front, but they aren’t entirely off the hook.

Take No Man’s Sky for example. I’m not going to go deep into the ongoing drama surrounding the game, but essentially, gamers are not pleased with the lack of story content, among other things. People are selling the game back to retailers because the lack of narrative and features leaves nothing to motivate players to keep playing. Even if you’re a solo indie dev making a simple mobile game, you’ve got to do something to keep your players invested in the game. One great way to do this is with music.

Having the right music in your game can add a layer of depth that enhances – or dampens – what the characters are feeling, or what the player should be feeling. It certain situations it can even be an effective replacement for dialogue, moving the story along with shifts in instrumentation and pacing. I’m going to use the indie game Journey as a case study here, because its Grammy-nominated soundtrack is completely interwoven into the narrative experience. Composer Austin Wintory created a hauntingly beautiful score for the game that ranges from ambient solo cello to emotional full-orchestra swells. The effect is that the music becomes a tool that parallels the player’s own emotional journey with the playable character. Certain musical flourishes react to player action as well, which adds another layer of immersion. Journey really isn’t a story-driven game, and yet in a way it is, thanks to the expressive score and mysterious nature of the cutscenes.

Journey by thatgamecompany

Journey, developed by thatgamecompany.

Lots of visual mediums use music for emotional impact, but music for video games is unique in that there is an interactive component. For example, music can be cued from a game event that tells players they are approaching a boss, or that they are low on health. In this way, music can be used to signal plot points in the narrative or simply illicit a reaction from the gamer. If you want the player to feel anxious, throw in some tension-building music to augment that feeling.

Indie or mobile games will often have static, looping background music, because there isn’t much need for anything fancier. However, my suggestion for composers out there that want to get into games is to at least take a look at learning middleware such as WWISE and FMOD. These programs are used to implement interactive music and sound effects into games, without requiring the composer or sound designer to do any actual coding. Being a sound designer myself, I took a WWISE course and learned to automate audio parameters in real time, such as a filter on a heartbeat sound when a player’s health drops. In the same way, composers can learn to adjust or trigger parts of the music at various times in-game, and that can be a really useful tool for helping a game achieve an immersive narrative experience.


Wwise, interactive sound engine for games developed by Audiokinetic.

So what does this all mean if you’re a developer but have no expertise in music? Luckily for you, the internet is crawling with game composers or music producers that want to get some experience in games. In fact, the game industry is oversaturated with composers, meaning there is more supply than demand. So if you’re a developer, you’ve got options when it comes to finding the right person to do the music. If you have connections or know a talented composer personally, I would go in that direction first. But if you don’t know any composers, the gameDevClassifieds page on reddit or Indie DB are great places to start. I highly suggest you only consider composers who have some sort of demo reel or portfolio available so you can hear what they can do.

Once you’ve got a composer locked down, you can start having conversations about how the music can best serve the atmosphere and narrative experience of your game. I’m not saying you have to hire and record a live orchestra, like they did for Journey. But putting thought into the pacing, instrumentation, style, and purpose behind the music can make it become a great storytelling tool and can add a layer of depth to your game!