Video games’ soundtracks—essential though they are to the identity of countless games—nonetheless often work as narrative or tone-setting elements rather than as a direct part of the mechanics. There are, however, notable exceptions; some of them deserve a highlight.
Note that for this list, I wanted to highlight uses of music that are at least slightly more involved than some of the more well-known examples of music intertwining with game, such as Halo: Combat Evolved’s dynamic soundtrack mixing or Wario Mountain from Mario Kart 8. These are indeed demonstrations of music being used in ways that go beyond movie or television show scores, but they still exist solely for aesthetic purposes. I also wanted to go beyond the more obvious aspects of music and rhythm games.
However, I also admit that there is a very fine line between what I’ve excluded above and what will be seen in the paragraphs below. Part of the reason is that music has been left relatively underexplored in the grand scheme of the last several decades’ advancements and experimentation seen in game design. It is still, by far, the piece of video games most beholden to the conventions of other media, i.e. TV and film. There just don’t seem to be that many games out there which push the envelope, and the ones that do only do so slightly.
All of which is a long way of saying that I will do my best to explain why I think these uses of music are more than just tone-reinforcing window dressing, but will also completely understand if anyone feels otherwise about my choices.
With all of that said, let’s go exploring.
Musical Mechanic: The loadout creates the music
Yep, this already lands us in iffy territory where that fine line between aesthetics vs. beyond is concerned. We’re practically walking that line like a tightrope, really. The music starts when your fighter plane lifts off, it continues and loops while you continue surviving, it cuts out abruptly when your fighter meets its inevitable doom.
It’s as cut-and-dry a case of narrative accompaniment as can be, from the sounds of that, and it even lacks the dynamic nature of the Halo score that is being explicitly left off this list! What gives? Well, Luftrausers does appear to have a single theme song for the first several sessions, but the music is more involved than first glances suggest.
As time gets devoted to the game, new fighter plane parts—weapons, chassis types, and engine types—get unlocked and can be equipped to change how the craft operates vis a vis progression-based loadout systems of multiplayer shooters like Call of Duty. All standard operating procedure so far. Once you start playing new rounds with those newfound toys, however, something unusual happens.
The theme song changes.
Not to the extent of the song being entirely new, mind you. It’s more like a remix. It’s still recognizably the same song, but maybe the beat is now half-tempo dubstep instead of the usual four-on-the-floor pattern? Maybe the synths and/or the bass are different?
As more parts are unlocked and equipped, the theme will mutate into ever more diverse forms, eventually diverging significantly from the original version. It is the “dynamic soundtrack” concept, in other words, but tackled from a significantly different angle than games like Halo.
Usually, the dynamism comes from which level section or scenario you’re entering into, i.e. it’s essentially still dictated by the game’s narrative. The soundtrack dynamism in Luftrausers, in contrast, is more “character-based” and the direct result of choices made by the player. Each ship part corresponds to one of the song’s stems—the weapon determines the drums, the chassis determines the melodic synths, and the engine determines the bassline—meaning that when you put together a fighter plane loadout, you’re also putting together the theme song for the next Luftrausers session.
That last distinction, in particular, is what I think takes the soundtrack beyond aesthetics into the realms of being a game mechanic. Consider this: The music encodes practical information about the gameplay. If you were to listen to any rendition of the theme song without seeing any gameplay, you could still figure out which loadout is being used on the fighter plane by analyzing the beat, melodies, and bassline.
Additionally, speaking from personal experience, the soundtrack absolutely had an influence on how I played the game. Part of the thrill of unlocking ship parts was not just anticipation over what those cool toys could do, but also wondering how they would allow me to change up the music. There were even times where I would literally choose loadouts on the basis of what remixes they would generate. Plus, constantly switching up the theme song kept the soundtrack from getting overly repetitive, thus bolstering Luftrauser’s replayability.
On a side note, the game’s composer, Jukio “Kozilek” Kallio, deserves major kudos, because the music is not only badass, but must have required boundless reserves of patience and ingenuity to come up with a diverse series of five beats, five melodies, and five basslines that could mix-and-match well enough to come up with 125 (!!!) theme song variations that all sound good.
Musical Mechanic: The Metro’s evolving operations score the proceedings
I originally began playing this game when it was still in Early Access on Steam, and at first, it had no soundtrack or even sound effects whatsoever to speak of. Playing it was a completely silent experience. Closer to its full release, there was eventually an update put out that added in the soundtrack; it profoundly elevated the experience.
The majority of train system management puzzle game Mini Metro’s music is procedurally generated. On its own, that may not be so significant—Nidhogg is a notable earlier example of this—but how the game does the generation brilliantly intertwines with what happens during a session. It effectively works similarly to Luftrausers, in that the music encodes practical information about the gameplay, but Mini Metro has a stronger case to make for the music being a legitimately useful mechanic.
Every event that happens in a round of Mini Metro—the arrival of a new train station, a new passenger popping up at a station, the movement of trains, the pickups and dropoffs of passengers on a train, the agitation of passengers at an overcrowded station—triggers a corresponding beat or musical note. The culmination of all events on your train system thus leads to the creation of its music.
On a purely aesthetic level, it is pleasing and relaxing to listen to, keeping everything in a zen-like state even when things get hectic. The music also evolves gracefully and organically throughout a round of Mini Metro, adding on more layers as the train system gets larger and more complex. You can literally hear the fruits of successful management, which adds to the satisfaction of playing well.
However, it goes deeper than that. The music underscores the rhythm of metro operations, something not nearly as apparent from the visuals alone, and bringing that to the forefront helps keep the player attuned to how things are developing, especially as the train system gets ever more sprawling and busy. You can hear, for example, when new stations sprout up or if overcrowding starts becoming a problem somewhere, and embedding those pieces of information in the soundtrack guarantees that they won’t be missed in visual clutter.
Musical Mechanic: Good-sounding songs depend on players performing well
Music/rhythm games have varying degrees of interactivity with their songs. At the lowest level is no interactivity whatsoever, as seen in Dance Dance Revolution, Pump It Up, ReRave, and so on. Slightly above this are games like Taiko no Tatsujin and the various Hatsune Miku titles, where sound effects are piled up on top of their songs.
At a higher level of interactivity is something I’d like to call Harmonix-class games, such as Guitar Hero, Rock Band, DJ Hero, and Amplitude. Players’ performances have a rigid and limited amount of influence over the music, which essentially consists of a series of on/off switches. If the plastic guitarist is doing well, then the guitar track plays; if they miss any notes, the game mutes the guitar track as punishment, only switching it back on when the guitarist lands their notes once again.
Put that in, and congratulations, you’ve just come up with Guitar Hero! Do the same thing for drums, bass, any other song element, and now you have yourself a band game or Amplitude. You could even up the ante by putting in crowd singalongs that get triggered when everyone is playing exceptionally well, just to add the extra bit of juice that elevates performances of “Creep” and “Everlong” to sublime experiences.
Such a system provides the players a solid rationale for doing good that is deeper and more natural than attaining high scores or letter grades: We need to perform well to hear the song in its full glory! It’s a deceptively simple concept that is remarkably effective at conveying the sensation of building towards and attaining rock star glory.
However, the on/off switch style of music interactivity does have its limitations. Chiefest among them is how precision does not affect how the music sounds. You could have someone who consistently hits every note exactly right, and somebody else who rushes and drags most of the notes within acceptable bounds, yet their performances will sound exactly the same despite the differences in precision.
Enter the next level of musical interactivity, emblematic of Konami’s more hardcore rhythm games like GuitarFreaks, DrumMania, and perhaps most significantly, the beatmania IIDX series. Rather than toggling the mute button on a song stem based on player performance, every single note played triggers a portion of the song. String the whole note chart together, and you have yourself a complete song.
What distinguishes such a system from the Harmonix way is that it makes precision relevant. You could hit all of the notes, but if you are constantly playing notes slightly early or slightly late—or hitting notes that you should not be hitting—the song will reflect that by not sounding its best. Thus, making your performance sound better requires that you not only hit all of the notes but that you do so precisely.
One of the cool things about beatmania IIDX, in particular, is that there are often multiple versions of a single song for the various difficulties. That usually manifests itself in assigning the normal version of a song to the Normal and Hyper charts, and then dedicating the exceptionally challenging Another chart to an alternate version of the same song. However, they have also done things as wild as making every individual difficulty sound completely different, like with “Scripted Connection,” whose three charts combine into a full-sized trance track when played sequentially.
Musical Mechanic: Finer-grained difficulty options that change up the music in satisfying ways
Even within the relatively limited confines of the Harmonix-class games, there are still ways to deepen the music’s relationship to the mechanics. Harmonix themselves, in fact, did that with one of the latest iterations of Rock Band. In the run-up to Rock Band 4's release, they pitched a couple of new gameplay features as ways to expand players’ musical expression but ended up as Trojan Horses for useful ways to tailor difficulty settings.
On the guitars’ end, that comes in the form of freestyle solos. When a song enters a solo section, you no longer need to play the note chart as-is. Instead, you can make up your own solo on-the-fly, with only a series of totally optional prompts to guide you if you care about getting a high score. Conceptually, this is a way to add your own flair to your performances, thereby enhancing the rock star glory fantasy by letting you have an actual hand in how the song sounds.
Hidden in all of that commotion, however, is that practically speaking, freestyle solos are actually a way of making guitar charts easier on the player by making it so that they do not have to worry about the sections of any song that are usually the hardest. What makes it truly brilliant is that any guilt that this would have caused is dispelled by how the difficulty toggle is wrapped up in a mechanic that affects how the music sounds. And if anyone wants the full challenge after all, the chance to play the song’s actual solos? Just turn off the freestyle solo feature and go to town!
On the drums’ end, that comes in the form of drum fills, a new way to activate Overdrive. Once you build up enough meter, the game will start giving you a series of short note patterns, pulled from a bank of fills, where the last note puts you into Overdrive. Hitting the pattern rewards you not just with a score multiplier, but also hearing a bit of drum flair not in the original song. Conceptually, it is a median of sorts between the freestyle drum fills of games past and the single-note Overdrive activation from The Beatles: Rock Band, and one that lends a personal touch similar to guitars’ freestyle solos.
Hidden in all of that commotion, however, is that practically speaking, these drum fills are actually a way of making drum charts harder for the player. As the drum fills are pulled at random from a pattern bank, it adds an element of randomness that makes it impossible to perfect a song from pure memory. This instead makes at least a sliver of good sight-reading necessary for getting the best scores. And if anyone wants to make things a bit easier, they could easily turn this off and instead either go old-fashioned with the freestyle drum fills, or strictly play the note chart similar to how The Beatles: Rock Band did things!
Musical Mechanic: Timekeeping
This may be the simplest example of music as a gameplay mechanic, but it also may be of the most profoundly effective ones. Of interest is this particular track from Splatoon, and its new rendition in Splatoon 2. Both may only sit at a single minute each, but they are arguably the most essential songs of each game’s soundtrack.
Continuing a Nintendo tradition that stretches as far back as Super Mario Bros., these two songs kick in once time is almost up, yet they are also far more than just an urgent warning notice. This song is a mainstay for the vast majority of Splatoon games, especially the ones in the Turf War game mode, triggering once there are sixty seconds left on the clock. Given their constant presence, anyone who plays enough Splatoon will hear these songs so much, that they will become intimately familiar with every individual beat—every individual second out of sixty—of its composition.
That ends up being quite useful. Once the match enters its last minute, the chaos gets dialed up so high that the countdown clock is the very last thing anyone wants to focus their eyes on. Thankfully, however, there is hardly any need to ever look at the clock!
Because these songs are auditory stopwatches.
You can hear how close the match is to its end based on how much of the last-minute-remaining theme is left. The compositions of the songs themselves even seem to be written with this express purpose in mind; they fit at least six distinct musical phases in the span of sixty seconds, so recognizing what phase is playing gives you a strong estimate of the remaining time right off the bat.
In a game defined by such a distinct skater punk/hip hop aesthetic in both visuals and sound, weaponizing its most prevalent and recognizable tunes into purveyors of literal time-sensitive information is a choice maneuver.
Are there any other notable examples of music as a mechanic that you would like to highlight? Are you itching to dispute some of my choices? Then post up in the comments.