Kotaku had a post the other day: The Moment that Changed How I View Music in Games. When I saw the title, my first though was that for me, it was the Opera scene in Final Fantasy (3 or 6 depending on if you use the English or Japanese numbering of the titles.) I was pleasantly surprised to open the article and find that the author was talking about exactly that.
For those unfamiliar, the article above goes into good detail about the sequence, but in short there is a portion of the game where you are tasked with learning a song for an in-game opera (unrelated to the rest of the story) and “perform” it by selecting subsequent lines of the lyrics.
This was long before the days of voice in games, but the developers did a fantastic job of actually making it seem like the song was being sung by the performer (considering the hardware available at the time!) In the twenty years since what I played as Final Fantasy III on the SNES was released, I still occasionally find myself humming Maria’s song.
When it comes to games, music seems to fall into a handful of categories. First there are the games where the music either really fits well and is used at the right times. To me, these are games like the Ultima series (you can listen to many of the Ultima tunes at Auric’s Ultima Moongates) and the Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim games (music by Jeremy Soule – you’ve no doubt heard music composed by Mr. Soule, as he has composed music for just about every kind of game you can think of.) If I pop in a CD with the theme from the Plane of Time (EverQuest) on it, I can easily recall countless hours spent in that zone.
By the same token, I know that most of my guildies in EQ had turned their music off a few days after starting to play the game. That’s a shame, because some of the music was very good, but it also got pretty repetitive at times. That is a danger in any MMO though, where the developer does not really have any way of matching the pacing of the music to the action happening in the game.
The second category of game music, to me anyway, is music that fits well in the game but goes almost unnoticed by the player. This is good in some ways – it doesn’t distract the player from the game – but it is almost like a movie score. It is there to support what is happening on the screen and not meant to overshadow it. As such, if you remember it at all it is on a subconscious level.
Third would be rhythm or music based games. In these games, the music is an obvious attraction and may be popular music being used as the basis for the game (Rock Band, Guitar Hero, etc) or perhaps original or generated music integrated into the game, along the lines of the Bit.Trip series. In both types of games, the music is fundamental to the game, though in the case of the former you may not associate the songs with the game – you already know the songs.
Finally, there are games where the music just doesn’t seem to fit. I’m not going to call out any specifics here, but we all know games like this, where the music is best turned off and left off.
For the indie developer, when working on a game, music is nearly a requirement these days, and finding or generating good music can be quite a task. If you are a small (or one person) team, you need to not only be able to write the code and generate the graphics, now you need songs too.
One source I’ve found for music for my own projects is OpenGameArt.org – one of my favorite sites. Yup, OGA contains not just graphics, but music and sound effects too. There are some really talented people uploading music to OGA, that fit any number of genres, to 8-bit chiptunes, fantasy scores, and sci-fi inspired music.
Many of the tracks have been released as CC0 (Public Domain) and can be used in anything you want to create. Others have non-PD but generally friendly licensing terms – be sure to check the licenses before you include them in your project – but definitely take a listen.