Music is often seen as something complimentary, a piece of the puzzle that sits beneath all the visuals, gameplay, and story. There are, however, very few moments in games where music sits at the front, driving the narrative or gameplay. But when it does, it can be one of the best experiences that a game can offer.
Case #1 – Sword & Sworcery
Sword & Sworcery is a gem of a mobile game that uses purposefully designed graphics that leave the world undefined. Marrying what almost feels like pixel art and impressionism, the world that you explore is left to your imagination to define. There are no defined faces and no explicitly told story, except for a few exceedingly rare moments. Instead, the emotions and narrative are conveyed entirely through actions and the music you hear.
You are tasked with wandering this world, given little more than a general direction of obtaining the triangles of power. But how do you convey a story of adventure when what you are viewing is doing little to covey the journey you are about to embark on? Music.
What emotion do you feel when you listen to this? Is it the sense of journey ahead, working towards your goals in an effort to conquer them? A sense of hesitant confidence perhaps? When the visuals are lacking that cannot provide all of the context we are looking for, we are forced to rely on other sensory inputs to fill in the gaps. This song is used to convey the feelings mentioned earlier, it marks the start of a journey, small or large, and is used to deliver that information without using text and some basic visual cues.
This process is used time and time again to convey different emotions and narrative. Sometimes it’s to impart fear and a need to run, an epic battle and a need to fight, or simply wonder and a need to explore. It is through this that Sword & Sworcery delivers its story and its direction; your only way of knowing that you are in the right place or doing the right thing is by the change of music.
Take for example one of the main mechanics of Sword & Sworcery; exploring a dream. Each time the player enters the dream, depending on the type of moon, the dream world is a little different. Some of the dream worlds are the correct ones to progress the story, while others are not, but they still provide a different experience. In all cases, the music directs the player by providing context to what you are currently doing—exploring. Suddenly though, in one of the dreams, you come upon a rock concert in the woods, the music changes, and you become aware that you have discovered something noteworthy well before the visuals confirm it. In fact, in this case, the visuals come secondary to the music, which makes the player aware of the progressing of the story because of the music changing and having a dominant role in the storytelling.
In each case, it is music that takes the forefront and isn’t simply sitting in the back, but to give direction by focusing on the narrative in the gameplay at hand, while also providing the emotion to set the tone of any given scene.
Case #2 – Persona 5
Not all music in a game drives narrative or hopes to convey an array of emotion or stories. Sometimes it’s just hoping to tell the same story in different ways. Persona 5, unlike Sword & Sworcery, features defined visuals and plenty of text to explain the story. While these certainly progress the narrative in most cases, this isn’t always the case, especially during the more action-based scenes. Let’s take for a moment the main music that plays when entering combat:
Combat in Persona 5 is typically a narrative-free zone except for special cases such as boss battle. While there may be no text, in the case of the music, it is progressing the narrative of how the protagonists are pushing forward by catching their enemies off-guard (you do play as thieves after all). Even the lyrics lend themselves to pushing this narrative every time you hear it:
You think you got your game
To a T
Yet I’m two
Steps ahead yeah
So… you step into my way
It’s a trap
One more step
And you’re dead
(Yeah you’re dead)
But Persona 5 doesn’t just stop with these standard battles to promote the general narrative of the character, Persona 5 goes a step beyond, and assigns unique music to characters before and after key events. In the game, dungeons are not a cave in a mountain, but rather are fictitious palaces that represent a person’s warped desires. This results in (minor spoiler warning) a teacher thinking himself king of a castle that is a school or an artist considering their home a museum. (major spoiler warning) But perhaps the most iconic and best use of music to push the narrative is with the introduction of one main character, Futaba.
Futaba is a complex character when you are initially introduced to her, she’s a bit of a shut-in and becomes an interesting focus for the Phantom Thieves (the name of the group of protagonists) due to how she differs so much from the Phantom Thieves’ targets. Traditionally, the protagonists focus only on those they deem as evil, but in the case of Futaba, they use their power to save her from herself. It is because of this unique take, that there is more opportunity for the music to drive the narrative. When first meeting Futaba, you don’t actually know it is her. Instead, you are greeted by a hacker who has decided to contact you via your phone through an alias. The music treats the hacker as one might suspect, as a threat. It becomes dramatic, alerting you to know that this person isn’t someone who should be taken lightly and poses a risk to the protagonist and his group. But as time advances and the group learns of who is behind the alias, the music changes, and the tone shifts. What was once seen as an enemy through dramatic shifts and drawn out sounds by violins, no longer exists. Instead, the music becomes sad by slowing down, focusing on soft tones, more drawn out melodies, and pushing the narrative that this is no longer a threatening person, in fact, this person is battling with themselves, eliciting empathy for the whole group.
While the moment is a sad one when the protagonists come to realize the situation Futaba is in, it can’t maintain the same narrative, or nothing would advance. Like many of the scenes in Persona 5 when it’s time for the Phantom Thieves to finally do what they do best, the music becomes upbeat, as now is the time to be inspired and get to work to save Futaba. Once entering Futaba’s palace, the music once again shifts to a tone of exploration and discovery.
The protagonists are in a brand new environment, unsure what exactly needs to be done except save Futaba, and the music matches to push the idea of that narrative on the player without explicitly stating it over and over again. As they progress, so does the music. Once finally reaching inside the main portion of the palace, the music shifts once again:
It’s important to note that in both cases, the song is essentially named the same, “When Mother Was There,” except one is considered a different version. They both are named the same as they both are driving home the same narrative, the protagonists working towards saving Futaba. With the difference being that each gives a different tone depending on where they are at in that process. The first song places you at the outskirts of where you need to be, left exploring the desert. The second has you inside a pyramid, attempting to solve the various roadblocks in your way. For both songs, the same theme is the same, but how it’s presented is fairly different to match the new environment but to drive the same story.
When reaching the final boss, the protagonists come to the realization that the thing plaguing Futaba was the act of watching her mother throw herself into traffic to kill herself, believing she was responsible for this. This manifests itself in Futaba’s palace as the final boss, and it’s up to the Phantom Thieves to end it. As for all boss fights in Persona 5, the narrative is simple, inspiration. The music is not only meant to give the player a feeling of inspiration, but it’s also meant to drive the narrative that the protagonists themselves are inspired to overcome their goal.
The lyrics speak for themselves:
So you know that we’re out there
Swatting lies in the making
Can’t move fast without breaking
Can’t hold on or life won’t change
And our voices ring out, yeah
Took the mask off to feel free
Fought it out in the debris
Now we know that life will change
It’s the music that is driving the narrative during the fight, the music saying that we will hold to our goals and ideas and overcome those who are in our way. It’s not the combat itself or the text itself, as those are all focused on other aspects of what is happening, but the music—the music is the one driving that part of the narrative.
Case #3 – DmC
Regardless of what you may think of DmC, there is one aspect that the game continued to exceed any other in the franchise, the music. In past titles of Devil May Cry, the music served as nothing more than a good beat to match the action and little else. But in the case of DmC, it not only serves as good music to match the action, it drives the story and emotion—through pure metal.
DmC’s story is based mainly around two points, Dante and his brother Virgil trying to understand where they come from, while also preventing the Devil from taking over the world. At every twist and turn, Dante is faced with obstacle after obstacle, all of which are dealt with via two things; fighting and rage. It is because of this that the soundtrack never strays from metal, the narrative it is telling is one that is driven by rage. Games such as God of War provide this narrative through grandiose orchestras that remind one of the war chants men would sing while sailing into a fight. In the case of DmC, metal serves as the modern alternative to provide the same narrative; Dante—is—pissed. Thankfully, DmC doesn’t stop at this superficial level—it goes deeper, by providing variations in the metal itself and the lyrics, providing nuances within the story the music is providing.
“Empty” serves as one of the strongest narrative driving songs in the entire game. (Spoiler Warning) As the final fight in the game, it is left between Dante and his brother Virgil to fight it out. At this point, Dante has defeated the Devil but is still left fighting with his brother. The song in this scene of the game provides the narrative for how Dante is feeling, he’s angry that it has come to this, rage has driven him through much of this journey and to still have to fight his brother has left him empty and purely driven by his hate.
It is what makes DmC such a unique example of driving the narrative in games. Many titles that achieve this change their music dramatically to make the shift in story and tone more obvious, but DmC doesn’t lose sight of its main message while telling different narratives.
Some may be a little on the nose with the narrative they are providing, but nonetheless, they provide a narrative for the protagonist. One who isn’t portrayed as a complex character, but rather, primarily driven by one’s emotions and straightforward thoughts. It is because of this, that the music serves as one of the best examples of music driving the narrative.
Story Isn’t Only Told Through Words and Actions
Many works see music as something to complement the actions and words taking place, but tone and emotion imparted by music are only part of what it can provide. One of the best uses of music is to provide narrative where words and actions cannot. It can provide insight into a character’s thoughts and well-being, provide story where words and actions are already occupied, or go so far as to provide the majority of the narrative when actions and words are purposefully lacking. It represents another sense for us to take advantage of, and to add new ways to create and add narrative to the games we play.
Games that manage to take advantage of this opportunity allow themselves to have richer and more fulfilling stories by taking advantage of even more senses, rather than restricting themselves to words and visuals to convey their meaning. Sometimes, the best way to convey the narrative of a work is to simply allow people to experience it, through music.