Game Score: Not The Number Kind, The Music Kind

Let’s talk about my two favourite things: Games and Music!!!!

In film, music provides scenes with deeper meaning by establishing things like setting, environment, mood, or character. Game music is analogous to film music; in games music is used to give deeper meaning to scenery in addition to game experiences. Let’s first take a look at how music affects film, and then see how those concepts can also apply to game music.

Professor Anahid Kassabian, Professor of Music at the University of Liverpool, gives film music three purposes:

1. Identification

2. Mood

3. Commentary

The musical score in a film has the ability to identify the characters, places, objects, events, plots, and cultural influences in a film through theme, melody, and motifs. The music’s ability to evoke mood is an equally important factor in film music and the ability to provide commentary helps us to properly understand the significance of a character’s actions, or the events that take place within a storyline. Commentary music is similar in effect to mood music; the difference however, as Kassabian notes, is that, “mood is more often associated with [unconscious] identification processes, while commentary often requests reflective evaluation.”

The Cantina Scene from Star Wars is a great example of these three principles. The music, interacting with the scene, identifies the bar as a type of western saloon, where shady and sketchy people may congregate. The mood implied is relaxed; it is a bar after all. The music stops when the band ceases to play, reacting to Ben killing the murderer during the confrontation between it and Luke. When it starts again, the music seems almost uninterrupted, commenting on the type of place the Cantina is, and that this violent behaviour is normal.

With these three processes one can see the purposes of film music.

These concepts easily transfer over to the game world by identifying characters, locations, and environments; and establishing moods and applying commentary in the same way.

Now that we have a purpose, how can designers go about implementing music into games?

There are two broad sources of music in games; and also in film. Music that comes from within the world of the game; things that the characters are aware of and can hear, is called diegetic. Generally, the source of diegetic music comes from a character or an object in the scene. Remember the cantina band from Star Wars (see above)? Or the radios from Portal? Those are perfect examples of diegetic music. Music that characters in the game cannot hear, and that doesn’t live inside the sphere of the game world is referred to as non-diegetic. You can generally think of non-diegetic music as background music.

These terms come from the word diegesis:

The sphere or world in which these narrated events and other elements occur.

But, as I mentioned, these are very broad.

Thankfully Professor of Film Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma, Claudia Gorbman, outlines 7 Principles for us which we can apply to games music:

1. Invisibility:

The technical apparatus of nondiegietic music must not be visible.

2. Inaudibility:

Music is not meant to be heard consciously; as such, it should subordinate itself to dialogue, to visuals, (i.e., to the primary vehicles of the narrative)

3. Signifier of Emotion:

Sound track music may set specific moods and emphasize particular emotions suggested in the narrative (See #4 below), but first and foremost, it is a signifier of emotion itself.

4. Narrative cueing:

Referential/narrative: music gives referential and narrative cues, (e.g., indicating points of view, supplying formal demarcations, and establishing setting and character.)

5. Connotative:

Music “interprets” and “illustrates” narrative events.

6. Continuity:

Music provides formal and rhythmic continuity — between shots, in transitions between scenes, by filling “gaps.”

7. Unity:

Via repetition and variation of musical material and instrumentation, music aids in the construction of formal and narrative unity.

Gorbman goes on to say “A given film score may violate any of the principles above, providing its violation is at the service of the other principles.” That is to say that a composer can forgo one principle, such as Inaudibility, if that will enforce the others. To carry on the inaudibility example, music can be prominent to the viewer/player in order to further convey mood and emotion. Music can also act as a referential cue to a character or place if it has a leitmotiv or a theme (more on that later).

Now that we have purposes and principles, we turn to film composer Earle Hagen who has conveniently outlined three categories in which we can implement our game scores.

Source music pretty much sums up what we discussed about diegetic music. Source music comes from within the world of the game. A band in a bar, a radio on the table, an ocarina in a temple. The players and/or characters hear it and interact with it.

A great example of source music comes from the bards in Skyrim (Bethesda, 2011). These character inhabit the taverns of Skyrim regaling its citizens in song. The characters are the source and interact with it using their instruments, and the player interacts by requesting songs. Another great example comes to us from Fallout 3 (Bethesda, 2008). The player controls a radio on their Pip-Boy, a device bound to their wrist. These examples identify the political tension in the world, the moods of the various environments, and comments on the world around the player’s character.

Dramatic scoring is your non-diegetic music; it is heard by the player only and used to enhance the emotional experience of the player’s game experience. These typically include background mood music, or more prominent pieces that illicit fear or excitement when an enemy is near.

Bastion (Supergiant Games, 2011) has some amazing dramatic scoring, composed by Darren Korb. I found that his score emphasized the atmosphere of the environment. If you make it to the 4 min of this play through video (thank you CoffeeHolic93) you can hear the music change as The Kid transitions into an old saloon, and the music reflecting a sort of western movie vibe.

We can find more amazing examples of dramatic scoring in Jeremey Soule’s atmospheric in The Elder Scrolls IV (Bethesda, 2006) and V (Bethesda, 2011):

Hagen also provides a third category of music, and honestly it was difficult for me to find a gameplay example instead of a cutscene because this one is best related to scripted events, rather than fluid gameplay. The third category is source scoring. This kind of music can jump between diegetic and nondiegetic. Hagen explains, “It follows the framework of the scene more critically and matches the nuances of the scene musically.”

The best example I could find is from The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Nintendo, 2002). In this excerpt you can see that although the music is non-diegetic the melody progresses along with the action in the scene. Additionally, each time Link makes a successful strike chords move along a progression. This can also be referred to as Mickey Mousing.

Our friend, Professor Kassabian, gives us three MORE categories to use in our designs: quotations, allusions, and leitmotivs.

She describes a quotation as, “importing a song or musical text, in part or in whole, into a film’s score.” A composer can quote a piece of music in a film to identify time, setting, and even the culture within a scene.

Kassabian describes allusion as, “a quotation used to evoke another narrative.” That is to say, a piece of music is quoted to inflict a certain mood or commentary by using a tune familiar to the viewer. The radio on the Pip-Boy from Fallout 3, and the car radio stations in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (Rockstar, 2002) are both examples of allusion and quotation.

A leitmotiv is basically a short melody used to refer a film viewer’s attention back to a certain character or a certain scene in a film. Some examples in Star Wars are Luke’s Theme, Leia’s Theme, and the infamous Death Star Chord; played each time the Death Star is seen on screen. These themes identify these parts of the film as important and key to the plot line. A leitmotiv can also identify an aspect as good or evil. Jeremy Soule makes use of leitmotiv in his score for Skyrim, where the same leitmotif is found in the track “Dragonborn” and “The One They Fear.”

Both Hagen’s and Kassabian’s ideas, in addition to Gorbman’s principles, about film music provide deeper meaning in movie scenes by identifying environments and characters, establishing mood, and commenting on the events happening in the narrative. These can come from both inside and outside the world of the film. These concepts are transferrable to the game music world, seeing as so much about video games is analogous to film.


What are your favourite scores from games? Let me know in the comments here, or tweet me: @adamthegameguy


Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music byAnahid Kassabian
Unheard Melodies by Claudia Gorbman
Scoring for Films: A Complete Text by Earle 

Shoutout to Jeremey Soule and Darren Korb; you guys do awesome work.


Referenced YouTube videos were not made by me and footage wasn’t me. It was:

Dan Tharp

Check out their channels, there’s some fun stuff there.

I was not paid to say these things, I legit love these games and their respective scores.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s