Assassin's Creed III

Music – Why It’s More Important Than Graphics

Nathan talks about why he thinks that while gameplay trumps presentation, music trumps graphics.


Most gamers agree that graphics aren’t all that important, and that it is the gameplay that carries the game. I agree, but I’d like to take it a step further and say that music is more important that graphics. Why?

Well, think about it for a second. Music has a very strong memory-creating factor. Personally, and maybe this is just me, but when I think of Morrowind‘s sweeping landscapes of weirdness and Super Mario Bros. Goomba stomping, I don’t think so much of the visuals that transported me there, but more of the epic and memorable music that scored my journey. Music creates nostalgia.

I’ve always loved movie scores, including the bombastic orchestra to the quite violin. To me, it’s way more important than the special effects, probably one of the closest things comparable to our industry’s “graphics chase”. The music sets the tone for the whole piece, and if done right, gets me pumped and immersed and emotionally involved in the adventure. Imagine Star Wars without the Imperial March or Lord of the Rings without any soundtrack, or worse, a bad one. A huge piece would be missing.

It’s the same with games, whether we consciously realize it or not. Music can transport me into that game’s world and make me pumped to kick alien butt or whatever. Of course, the power of music is versatile, and it can induce fear or melancholy. I ask the question again, but a bit differently. Imagine the Final Fantasy series dead silent, or with a horrid soundtrack, and try the same for the Assassin’s Creed series, (Assassin’s Creed III had one piece in particular called “Trouble In Town”, which is incredible for pumping you for chases) Super Mario Bros. or heck, even GTA (as GTA‘s soundtrack/radio stations REALLY do a good job of dragging you, kicking and screaming, into this crazed version of the U.S.) Throw some Justin Bieber into GTA V and that game would very quickly fall apart, unless it was a parody.

” Imagine the Final Fantasy series dead silent…”

Developers have to be careful with this music though, lest it really break the experience. For starters, devs must really try and not rush their music production, and shouldn’t slap something together just to get it out the door. Also, they must understand the importance of silence. Sometimes things need to quiet down and breathe, and silence is a huge part of music design. Lastly, they shouldn’t stop innovating. When people say they like innovative games, that doesn’t just have to extend to the gameplay. Experiment a little with music as that is just as legitimate a cause for experimentation. Just be careful and make sure it sounds relatively appealing to the ear (or not, if that is what you’re going for I guess).

Well, that’s enough of me trying to sound like some expert doing a GDC seminar on music in games. What are your thoughts and opinions? Do you agree? Disagree? What’s your favorite piece of music (or a whole soundtrack) for a video game? I’d love to hear from you. Thanks!

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  • jb224

    Totally agreed, great post here. The only piece that I feel was left out that should definitely be mentioned is basically anything from Naughty Dog but specifically Uncharted 2. Easily one of the greatest video game scores I’ve ever heard and when I hear those strings swell, I know I’m in for a fun ride. The third title used elements of that core theme but it focused on a more drum heavy rhythm based sound for the main pieces, like the opening one used in the London pub. The Last of Us was amazing for a totally different sound, the intimate classical guitar pluckings from a virtuoso Oscar winning musician was almost threadbare, only popping up lightly from time to time, but all the more effective because of it. If I had to pick a favorite of all time, it’s easily UC2 for me. Shame that the series will never be the same now that they let go of Amy Hennig. Hopefully this isn’t just the cracks in the facade showing at one of the best devs around, but it doesn’t bode well for the upcoming generation. Definitely makes UC4 all the more important though.

  • “Imagine the Final Fantasy series dead silent…”

    That is the most upsetting thing I’ve thought of in a long time.