Soundscapes – Music can ruin everything

Music is powerful. It can tell you what type of game you’re about to play, what time its set in and the intensity you can expect from the gameplay before you see any visuals on screen. Great music can be enough to carry an entire game experience that otherwise would’ve been perceived as tedious by the players, like with some JRPG games. It can also undermine the entire game experience if used incorrectly. This is easily demonstrated in Crysis, where the music isn’t designed for the kind of game that Crysis actually is.

Levels in Crysis are designed like sandboxes allowing multiple solutions and approaches to almost every situation. The music however works to limit your imagination and leads you to believe that certain scenes are intended to be action or stealth scenes. Going into the options and muting the soundtrack frees your imagination and that’s when you truly discover the possibilities that exist in the game and level design. A clear example of this is the train mission in Crysis Warhead that appears to be a completely linear action set piece that is literally on rails. But if you jump off the train and go against what you first perceive to be the intended goal you’ll discover that the mission doesn’t punish you for exercising free will. In fact the level design predicts you jumping off the train and running into the woods as there are weapons and enemies prepared there for the player to find. If you stay on the train these areas aren’t even visible. 99% of players most likely never thought for a second about jumping off the train and exploring freely as it breaks with the expectations of what a train level with turrets in an FPS is like. With the music enabled, you’ll hear a short loop of drums that emphasize action and excitement if you jump off the train either by accident or intentionally. This edges you on to seek out action as soon as possible so that the music and visuals match each other. This means getting back on the train or rushing as quickly as possible at whatever enemies you spot off the track. There is no voice over telling the player to get back on the train and there are no invisible walls either. Only the music tells the player what to do. All this is demonstrated in the clip of the train level. Check your volume as it starts out loud.

The music of the train level only supports one style of play, while the level itself is designed like the rest of Crysis. Crysis is not only a benchmark in its use of technology and graphics, but it also gives the player an almost unprecedented freedom in how to play. Lead Designer  Jack Mamais said this about the design of Crysis:

“I don’t like linear gameplay, I think it’s bad. It’s not fun. You might as well watch a movie. Interactive means interactive. We like it to be player-controlled. We give you waypoints, but you don’t have to go the obvious way–you can steal a helicopter and do what you need to do. We always build multiple paths in every scenario.” “When Deus Ex came out, they showed the way, but nobody listened!” Laughing, he added, “We listened, though, and hopefully now people will listen to us.”

Deus Ex had a constant looping soundtrack with a dynamic action music track ready to play whenever hostile AI engaged the player. The style of the looping music was such that it supported all the approaches to solving the missions that existed. What the Crysis Warhead train mission does is the equivalent of playing Deus Ex with the action music track constantly looping instead of the calmer tracks. In order for the music in Crysis and Crysis Warhead to work it should’ve been done in a more experimental manner rather than to copy the style of the makers’ favorite action films. The music of Crysis is reminiscent of the movie Predator while Crysis Warhead tried to emphasize action over stealth by adding guitars and loud drums to the music style established in the original Crysis.

In Crysis 2 the same mistakes of Crysis and Crysis Warhead were repeated with the music. It plays almost constantly in an attempt to make every second of the game feel “epic”. The consequence of this is similar to the prequels as it puts stress on the player to act in certain ways, even when the game in practice is designed for a more inventive style of play with numerous solutions and routes through the environments. When the music emphasizes action, sneaking past all the enemies feels like cheating. Also, during moments where the music hints at stealth being the correct approach, shooting your way out makes if feel like you’ve failed even if it turned out to be equally as effective. Crysis 2, just like the games before it, transforms from a linear corridor shooter into a game full of possibilities where you’re free to play however you want at any pace you wish simply by turning off the music.

It’s possible to have music be in perfect harmony with the game design, no matter the kind of game you’re making. Left 4 Dead and its sequel Left 4 Dead 2 both use music to enhance their design and are lesser experiences without it. When there is nothing of particular drama happening in the game the music either does not play at all or only does so with short subdued clips. Loud music is only used to underscore set piece events such as a large wave of zombies or boss fights. Had the music been loud and frantic during the lulls between set pieces players would not have felt compelled to explore the environments and would instead have pushed forward as fast as they could. When there is no music you feel free to play around at your own pace as there is no set expectation of what you’re supposed to do. The silence also works to build tension as you learn to expect the worst whenever music starts playing.

Music is powerful and can make or break a game experience. In order to fully exploit the possibilities of music the game requires clear focus in design and setting so the composer knows how it’s supposed to be used. A tightly scripted shooter with invisible walls and limited possibilities for expression requires a completely different kind of soundtrack from a free-form sandbox style game where anything can happen. If the music doesn’t support the game design it’s better to not have any music at all. Underestimating the power music has over the entire game experience and how it will be perceived by players is done at the developers own peril.


  1. Matt

    Music is probably much more important than we give it credit for, as far as determining what games become classics and which are forgotten. Go back and just try to play the first Legend of Zelda. Just reading the title brings the iconic theme song into your head, but what you don’t remember is that a good 10-20 percent of the game is burning trees with the magic candle or bombing rock faces with bombs. There is a fair bit of grind involved in that game, but the overworld theme just keeps you pushing forward.

    • Peter Hasselström

      Yes there’s no lack of retro games that rely heavily on the music to carry the experience through the rough bits. Then of course there are the true retro gems that don’t really have any rough bits like Super Mario World, Link to the Past or my personal Amiga favorite Turrican 2. Those are the sort of titles that reinforce 90s game nostalgia even today as they hold up well when replayed.

      But for every one of those classics that hold up well there are 10 others that have design choices that seem baffling today. 90s and 80s games did tend to throw in “puzzles” for the player to solve that had almost no clues at all and boggled the mind when you learned the solution. I suspect one reason some songs have become unforgettable is because we had to listen to them loop thousands of times while trying to figure out what to do next.

  2. Lalaland

    I know it’s probably aging me terribly but for me no games have done this quite as well as the Lucasarts iMUSE system used to such great effect in the X-Wing and TIE Fighter games. Now given that it was MIDI (I miss my old Gravis Ultrasound) I’m not sure such a system is even possible in this era of redbook audio or maybe I’m just equating it’s death with the rise of CD-ROM gaming. Maybe I’m just growing old but they seemed to have an almost telepathic ability to understand when to raise the tempo and drama and when to let it subside again.

    Long story short: Lucasarts bring back iMUSE (and TIE Fighter!!!)

    • Peter Hasselström

      I noticed as well that older titles that either used midi or other similar systems tended to transition between calm and action tracks better. Gothic 1 and 2 for example had music folders which were only a couple of megs as it was just instrument samples that the game later played back in “real time” according to music sheets that I assume were in text form. It might just have been midi with some tweaks, no idea how it really worked. It didn’t have separate mp3 files or something like that and as such the transitions were different from the sharp cuts you get when changing mp3s. Sometimes the system would spaz out for a bit and play the wrong instruments for a couple of seconds, so that’s kind of how I noticed the kind of system they were using.

  3. Edward

    I enjoyed this section.
    It came after a large section of sneaking around caves (if memory serves).
    I finished it by jumping by moving around the train so I was always in cover, though I don’t think you have much choice about that on the higher difficulty settings, and I barely shot anything except the helicopters.
    I agree that the music didn’t suit all styles of play, and downright discouraged some, but it made for a good change in pace in the larger structure of the game.

    I wonder if this was more of a bug or an intentional design choice?
    It would only take a line or two of script to turn off the music once you were out of combat.

    • Peter Hasselström

      Crysis Warhead was made amazingly fast, like 6-8 months I believe, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they simply didn’t have time to do fix the music.

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