A good melody is the oldest form of storytelling. While a book tells a story through words and a movie tells a story through visuals, a song invokes emotion and that emotion evokes the story. The story itself is one of our own creation — the sounds we hear could bring sorrow to one and misery to another, happiness to one and excitement to another. Then that emotion calls forth our own memories and imagination to create a tapestry in our minds upon which that story is told. Let me show you.
Musical genres are often associated with certain emotions. Punk music is all about raging against authority and institutions — you can hear this rage in classical punk. Country music is all about connecting to everyday life — that girl you love, drinking beer and watching NASCAR, driving your tractor. Christmas music is all about Christmas, of course — and those who love it do so for all the joyful memories it brings of the holidays. Depending on the story we want to feel, we gravitate toward certain genres and styles of music because they connect with us and bring forth those emotions. It's what makes music work.
Now at this point you're probably wondering if you somehow began reading a music blog. You haven't. A few months ago, I wrote an article about storytelling in gaming and the medium's failure to tell stories well. I argued that storytelling in any medium is successful when you believe in the story and that belief comes from emotion. Without that emotion, you don't believe in the story and it falls apart. I still believe gaming can't effectively tell its own stories for that very reason, but perhaps I should have been clearer. The stories in games will never be good, but our own stories about games can be quite powerful indeed.
Music is one way a game conveys emotion that allows us to tell our own story. Think back to Halo and Halo 2. Those games have some of the most iconic tracks ever created. That opening menu of Halo with its chanting is magical to many of us. In Halo 2, those tracks were remixed with electric guitars and made to convey new emotions while still calling back to those joyous memories. More recently, perhaps you loved the radio in Grand Theft Auto V or Forza Horizon 3. These songs add to the joy or struggle you feel while you're playing and help to elevate the experience beyond simple mechanical input.
This music alone does not tell the story of the game even when it's the game's own composition. Halo's is not beloved because it has good music in the menus. But that music does nevertheless affect our own feelings toward the game and the story of it which we compose in our minds. When we think of a game, we do not think of the story. We think of the time we spent playing it and the emotions we felt during that time. That span of time is our story.
This isn't an article about music. This is an article about how emotional triggers in games shape how we feel about it when we play. That emotion we feel — whether it be thunderous intensity, beautiful comfort or jovial humor — dictates how we feel about the game itself. Our own emotions then create a narrative unique to our experience. Just like music itself, that's the type of story a video game can tell.
Of course, it's not just limited to music. Any aspect of a game that creates emotion can define our personal narrative. Things like mood and atmosphere are crucial to a game's success at being not just played, but felt, the same way we can do more than just listen to our favorite songs. A jubilant world is going to make you excited and happy while a dreary world full of rain might leave you a bit more depressed. The best example of a game using these aspects to create a personal narrative is Dark Souls.
In case you missed it, Dark Souls is a game that is defined by its atmosphere for everyone who has played it. That goes for those who are several dozen playthroughs deep and those who gave up and quit before ringing that first bell in the Undead Parish because the Capra Demon was too hard. Those who persevered found a world full of challenge and mystery. A world where you could only rely upon yourself to overcome the odds. When the final boss fell, that feeling of elation was, for many, unmatched. It's why they call it one of the greatest games ever made — their story was arduous and full of as many lofty emotional highs as deep emotional lows.
Even those who quit early have their own story. That story is perhaps the reason why they quit. Dark Souls is a game that does everything in its power to crush you. Not through difficulty — Dark Souls isn't easy but it's certainly not hard and the vast majority of you could beat it. When you step into the world of Dark Souls, you are alone. You wander the world and find nothing but foes in most locations. Dangers are accompanied by only a devastating sense of isolation. Even the few friendly faces you do meet seem off — there is nearly no voice acting and the game's presentation makes every character feel absolutely depressing. In short, it feels like every aspect of Dark Souls is designed to make you feel alone, powerless, desperate and scared.
It's those emotions that cause players to quit, not the difficulty. Players can make it through a difficult game. But making it through a dense forest blind to any positive feelings is not so easy. Anyone who makes it through the beginning of Dark Souls does it on the wings of hope for something more. For many, that hope is ephemeral and for others it's nowhere to be found at all. The story of Dark Souls those players tell is one of abject misery. It's powerful and it is very real. It's a story told through atmosphere and mood. It's told through the player's own journey, not the game's writing.
I stand by my belief that games will never tell a good story. For those that disagree, I'd posit that perhaps you are right, that there was a good story to be found. It was just your own all along.
Get the biggest Xbox news delivered straight to your inbox every week.