Different Notes for Different Folks: The Affect of Music in Games Part 3

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 3: The Sound of Silence

When the bullets stop flying and the epic soundtrack dies down in Call of Duty or Halo, what is left? Silence. It’s a sound all its own. It can be just as dynamic as any song or note. There are silences that speak emotional volumes and others that reek of awkwardness. Some silences are tense, others are peaceful. The diverse range of feelings that silence can evoke begs the question: why do we always need to fill the silence? In the final part of this three part series I want to focus on a game that makes a tremendous impact with little to no music at all. The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s 2013 post-apocalyptic emotional rollercoaster ride, it uses silence and more ambient music in order to immerse players in its central relationship and its world. This game doesn’t need to shout for attention with a massive soaring score. Instead it whispers and the echo of that whisper sounds just like a full orchestra.

It would be hard to call The Last of Us a small game. Naughty Dog is a pretty sizeable developer that makes extremely polished, mainstream games that always sell millions of copies. The game itself is yet another zombie game (even if the zombies are “infected” and not dead), which inherently involves blood, gore, and guns aplenty. However, it wouldn’t be right to call The Last of Us a big, brash blockbuster title. The central relationship between the grizzled survivor Joel and the tough yet inexperienced teenager Ellie is heartfelt and understated. Their relationship, which at first is merely the result of circumstance but comes to resemble a father-daughter connection, builds itself on long stretches of silence and short bursts of conversation. This silence is key to drawing the player into the relationship between Joel and Ellie. The Last of Us does feature a fantastic score from Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla, but more often than not the score bows out of the way in order to let silence speak for itself. Joel and Ellie’s adventure, which tracks their westward journey through a post-apocalyptic America, is defined by long stretches where the player explores their environment in total silence. As the player explores abandoned houses, skyscrapers that nature has started to reclaim, and empty streets, the echoes of Joel and Ellie’s conversations fill the air. The contrast between silence and conversation makes the conversations even more valuable for us because it relieves our isolation. There is so much empty space in this world, even in the urban environments, Joel and Ellie’s conversations become extra important. Drawing us into the lives of these two characters and filling the environment with a little bit of the humanity it has lost. In these muted conversations, The Last of Us finds a little bit of optimism in its otherwise grim world.

Of course, silence in The Last of Us also brings tension. With the ravenous infected wandering around, silence is also a sign of safety for both Joel and Ellie. If there’s no sound, there are no enemies. The sounds and voices of enemies are something to fear, even while the sounds and voices of our main characters are sources of comfort. One of the three types of infected in the game, known as clickers, use vocal clicks to compensate for their lack of sight. The player has to be extremely quiet and careful around clickers, something the game teaches you very early on. Interestingly, Naughty Dog uses silence here in combat, a completely different way than in the conversational stretches of the game. The player uses conversation to break the silence and bring a little humanity to the world in non-combat sections. However, in combat they must use silence to stifle conversation and kill enemies (both human and infected), essentially removing humanity from both the environment and themselves. Stealth is a huge part of combat and the silence that this kind of gameplay require, make it perfect for this kind of design. There is no music, only the sounds of Joel and Ellie’s breathing and the footsteps of the enemies. Naughty Dog manages to use silence in two very different ways, using it as a tool for human connection and human separation. Silence becomes another way to convey the themes and narrative of the game by conditioning the player both to fear and appreciate silence.

When music does filter into The Last of Us, it doesn’t ever seem overbearing. Like Bastion and Transistor, the music in The Last of Us seems like music that could exist within this world. Primal percussion and soft acoustic guitars are perfect for the survivor’s tense journey through Americana. The music in The Last of Us, unlike most of the other games I’ve discussed, never really draws attention to itself. Instead it sits in the background and lets the characters and world speak in silences and whispers. When the music does strike up, it acts kind of like the conversations between Joel and Ellie by filling the world with a little reminder of humanity.

At one point in the game Joel promises Ellie that he will play her a song on the guitar one day. We never hear him play; instead all we ever hear is the conversational duet between Joel and Ellie. Those conversations become more emotional and resonant for us because of the silence they fill. Without a whole lot of music, The Last of Us makes every sound – whether it’s a human voice, an inhuman click, or a gunshot – matter. This is a lesson more games could take from The Last of Us. While music can help build a world or measure out the rhythm of a boss battle, it can also be just bombastic noise. Without the contrast that silence provides, we can become numb to music. It’s just white noise at that point. Music is a way to immerse players in a world, silence is a way to see if that world is worth living in. Both are necessary and serve different purposes. However, as video games move forward as a medium it will be important for developers, and gamers, to understand when to make noise and when to make music.

The Last of Us original soundtrack is available on iTunes, Amazon, and most major streaming services.