Hold it. If you've got something with a speaker running, shut it off. Noisemakers, stereos, televisions, small animals - if you can mute it, do it. Now just wait a bit ... there. Besides whatever is in the background, be it your fridge, the whine of a computer screen, or a fidgeting dog, there's nothing but silence. Surreal, isn't it?
As videogames tell stories that rival movies, game soundtracks also are moving towards the quality and complexity of film scores. Any good writer knows that a proper story can't just be high-octane bass-thumping madness the whole way through, not if you want your audience to really climb into the story's skin and walk around in it a little. There have to be lulls, softer moments, moments where the bad guy is in the next room waiting for the hero or the hero finds himself back in a time before he was a hero at all. It's in these moments where that pulse-pounding techno soundtrack or even the saddest violin solo is too much for what there really needs to be: silence.
When I first popped in the original Resident Evil, horror movies and games were, to me, still strictly within the realm of the crazy people on the street corners wearing too much black and enough studs and spikes to be legally classified as weapons in twelve states. Blissfully unaware of what awaited me amidst the whirs and hums of the game disc, I was soon struck with something altogether more terrifying than any zombie. (Or so I thought. Ah, youth.)
My first steps in the Arklay Research Facility were greeted not by an eerie cello or a menacing horn line, but by the echo of each footfall as I made my way through a huge empty mansion. There was no tune telling me what to feel or subtly suggesting that something terrible might happen soon - I was completely and utterly alone. When the first zombie came into view, there was no shrill blast of sound. Just the gasping of breath and shuffling steps told me what I should be feeling at that particular moment: fear.
Sometimes there are places in a story where a musical number just doesn't cut it. Indeed, some of the most memorable moments in videogames are when the music stopped. Aeris' untimely demise in Final Fantasy VII was made all the more unreal when Sephiroth's sword was the only shrieking instrument. Immediately, all that was left was the drum of a fading heartbeat. Only once the White Materia hit the ground did the music start again.
The problem with the music/silence interplay in games is how inexpertly it is used, if it is used at all. There are games in which music is played when something important or unexpected (to the character, at least) is supposed to happen. If fear is looked at as half-surprise, half-shock value, then already half of its value is lost. Nothing is more irritating than when you're watching a film or playing a game and a friend leans over to say, "Dude, get ready. Shit's about to go crazy." Crazy it may be, but isn't it the surprise that makes it so crazy?
Games could stand to do with a little bit more emphasis on subtlety, perhaps having more thought put into the subtext of a game's world and story. If one were to look at a typical audience as made up of intelligent people and brutes, there's no shortage of games for the brutes. Not to say that we can't all enjoy a good Devil May Cry-esque beat-em-up now and then, with the soundtrack hard and bumpin' the whole way through, but a game where it's the nuances that really make the tale is hard to come by. Misuse of sound, or the overabundance of it in any case, ends up being another method of hand-holding. If you really want to get the player thinking, don't give them any hints. If you want them to get into the game world, don't close them out of it by popping earbuds in their character and having them play whatever's on their current playlist.