Different Notes for Different Folks: The Affect of Music in Games Part 2

Different Notes for Different Folks is a three-part feature that will take a look at how music can be used in unique and interesting ways in video games. It will focus on games that I believe use music in ways that are different from other mediums.

Part 2: Feel the Rhythm

The games featured in the first part of this series focused mostly on the big picture of game design: building a world. While that’s important, the moment-to-moment gameplay experience of a game is just as integral for players. That’s why I want to focus on one of the more immediate ways that games can use music by looking at how two rather recent games, Dark Souls 3 and Bioshock Infinite, use dynamic music and rhythms to help players in battle. Combat is such a common feature of most games that we often don’t think about how games can condition us to fight according to their own rules. While there are many ways to do this, these two games really use the music to heighten the intensity of battle and to pace the player. The music and rhythm can clue a player into just how they might approach a battle. Intense, chattering strings and warlike drums? Maybe move fast and pick up the pace. Ominous choral vocals and low thudding bass? Slow it down a little and go in for deliberate hits. Music can drastically change the feel of a battle, and Dark Souls 3 and Bioshock Infinite are two great examples of the way games can try to keep players on beat.

From Software, the sadistic developer behind all the Dark Souls games, are aware of what makes a good boss battle. They have created some of the most brutal and rewarding boss encounters in recent memory. Not only do they have incredible character design (see: any number of the monstrosities in Bloodborne), but they also take great care in choosing music for every boss. Dark Souls 3 is the most recent example of From’s approach to using music in combat. I’ll be focusing on this particular entry in the franchise mostly because of how fresh the wound is that that game left on my psyche. Rhythm is essential to most From Software games, since success or failure in combat is based on remembering and anticipating enemy movements and patterns. In fact, you could almost call Dark Souls, and Bloodborne to an extent, rhythm games. Similar to games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the Dark Souls games really rely on the player learning and adapting to the timing of individual notes or sword strikes.

All of this comes to bear in boss fights. The second boss the player comes across in Dark Souls 3 is a large, armored dog-man thing wielding a gigantic mace, called Vordt. Like every single thing in Dark Souls 3, he will crush you if you give him the chance, so timing is key. The music matches Vordt perfectly, as steady pounding drums and deep horns mimic the way he stomps around the battlefield. Similarly, the music keys the player into what kind of opponent Vordt will be. His slow, long range attacks often coincide with the rhythm. Getting out of the way of these attacks and behind Vordt allows the player time for a lot of key strikes that will help bring him down quickly. However, like most bosses in Dark Souls 3, Vordt will change behavior about halfway through the battle. He becomes more reckless and starts charging all over the battlefield. The rhythm picks up, just as the player has to pick up the pace in order to dodge these faster attacks. Once Vordt goes down, the music fades away. His song has been sung.

Many other battles in Dark Souls 3 use music in this way: the eery choir vocals and lack of strong backbeat during the Deacons of the Deep fight keep the player on edge and indicate a more measured and patient approach. The chaotic, constantly spiraling strings and stomping drums during the Cursed-rotted Greatwood battle match the creature’s powerful stomping attacks and the sudden downward movement of the battle when the floor collapses. Like any great song, each boss requires the player to feel and dance to a specific rhythm.

Unlike Dark Souls 3, Bioshock Infinite features dynamic music that ebbs and flows according to the player’s engagement in combat. Some of the battles in Irrational Games’ insane first-person shooter use wide-open spaces and a skyrail system that allow the player to move around the environment quickly. In order to succeed in these fights, the player has to think quickly and constantly move, either on land or in the air. The music in these sections changes with the player. Constantly beating rhythms will steadily play throughout these epic battles, however when the player is engaged in more heavy combat, dissonant, soaring strings will rise up. They fade away or stop when the player swings out of combat, but as the player soars in from the skyrail or runs in on foot, they strike up their tense strokes again. The music in Dark Souls 3 helped a player understand the beat they needed to be on in order to succeed, whereas in Bioshock Infinite the music follows the player’s improvised rhythm, allowing for spontaneous action.

Both approaches provide intense combat for the player by using music and rhythm in perfect harmony with violent action. It might be the scars left from Dark Souls 3, but there’s a certain beauty in that harmony. Music becomes a way to teach players the mechanics of combat without ever taking away control and agency. More importantly, and relevant to the last part of this series, when silence settles over the battlefield, the player has to come down from the adrenaline high and reflect on their victory. At least until the rhythm starts up, then it’s time to begin that deadly dance all over again.

The Dark Souls 3 original soundtrack is available for purchase with most retail copies of the game. The Bioshock Infinite original soundtrack came exclusively with the Premium or Ultimate Songbird Edition of the game, but it is available in full on Youtube.

Part 3 of Different Notes for Different Folks: The Affect of Music in Games launches next Monday August 8th