277: Enjoy the Silence

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Enjoy the Silence

The right musical score can add layers of depths to a game experience, but sometimes music is more powerful for its absence.

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Silence is a very powerful tool for immersion.

To put it into perspective in an oft-forgotten genre:

This is probably why many racing sims have little to no music play in races. To immerse you in the race.

Portal had nothing but diegetic sound the entire game, giving the player the opportunity to hear original tunes as made by the development team, but in a more unobtrusive manner. If anything, hearing the music grow louder as you approached and fade off as you made your way to the next challenge only helped the feeling of immersion, granting a depth that players just can't get through visuals alone.

I can't agree with this more... In fact, I always felt Portal's soundtrack was orchestrated kind of like a movie soundtrack... for instance, at the pivotal point in the game

So yeah... The right application of music combined with silence tends to make a game far more immersive and interesting. Plus I just love talking about Portal.

I had recently an inadvertent experience of this when I got Minecraft. For whatever reason, all the sound bugged out save the sound of footsteps and mining. So, the animals, the music, and especially noticeable being the lack of enemy sounds, made certain parts of the game far more frightening than they would have been otherwise.

Now, underground, and in the caverns is already pretty nerve-wracking at times, but it's doubly so when you can't -hear- that zombie sneaking up behind you, and if you aren't diligent about checking your back, it's only that flash of red that alerts you, but by then it could be too late. Jump scares still, sure, but the atmosphere the silence creates is palpable.

I just know that good music can make a good game great, and bad music can make a bad game horrible. Music (and the lack thereof) really helps the immersion. Like that lack of music in the Halo: Reach level "Lone Wolf" Or pretty much the entire MGS soundtrack. I also know that "Enjoy the Silence" is an awesome song by Depeche Mode:)

Music set the tone. Sometimes too forcefully IMHO (scary music cue, now player you have to feel scared! Or sad music cue, player must be sad/have pity even if he doesnt care)

When there is silence our imagination have less to busy itself with. From this point on imagination just make stuff up in our brain, and it often leads to us being a bit paranoid or just immersed (look at games like Myst, Riven ect where sometimes the only sound you hear are the natural sounds of the environment).

Great article. Spot on, too. Not just games but films use music incorrectly, especially mainstream horror films. What should be a scary scene can be easily ruined by tense strings, etc signifying the approach of the killer/monster.

However it was expertly used in Jaws, leading the audience to believe an attack was imminent, when in fact, it was throwing us off completely. That is when soundtracks can be used to toy with emotions and expectations properly.

I'd love to make a horror film of some kind relying purely on the action to deliver an emotional response.

I also know that "Enjoy the Silence" is an awesome song by Depeche Mode:)

And also amazingly covered by Lacuna Coil.

I don't know what's with me and Fallout 3. I almost never turned on the radio from the Pip-Boy because there was always music playing in the background. Everybody says they never heard any music in the game...

Silence is music in and of itself, and can do wonders for suspense. I learned this not from video games, but from Greed (the short-lived big-money game show). Essentially a ripoff of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? with teams, but at the big reveal of the answer, all the hyper-dramatic background music silenced for several seconds until the "right" or "wrong" chord sounded. Much better than anything Regis ever did, and a good object lesson in NOT using music to build excitement.

Silence also works wonders for simple, calming immersion. It's why to this day I insist on playing Morrowind with no background music (and will viciously edit any mod that adds it to kill it). Simple adventuring and exploring works so much better with pure ambient sound.

I love music (my wife is a professional musician) but knowing when not to use it is as important as knowing when. And Cage's 4'33" is one of her favourite compositions.

This reminds me of an odd example that is oft forgotten. The battle against Nascour in Pokemon Colosseum was unique in that no music played while you battled. It game you a sense of a much more threatening opponent while still hiding the truth from you. Was this your final opponent? Will you be able to stop him?

It wasn't as well done as it could have been, but it's an interesting addition worth mentioning in gaming lore.

You guys just love making musical references don't you?

I also know that "Enjoy the Silence" is an awesome song by Depeche Mode:)

True, wouldn't it be cool to hear in in a video game?

Silence is inmensely powerful in horror. Just play a little of Amnesia: Dark Descent. Most of the time there's nothing but ambient sounds and you can only hear your nervous breathing, wind blowing, creaks. It builds up tension incredibly and then when music does play it just seems to be synchronized with your disturbed mind and rapid heartbeat. It's in this silence that screams and rufflings stand out as much some disonant violin chord.

I think that music that just contrasts with what's on screen can also create very different emotions than the usual fare of aligning feeling/tone. Also from horror, the movie The Strangers unnerved me to no end when the whole disturbing situation is often framed by happy, joyful country music coming from the stereo. Masterful.

The original tomb raider, the PC version, used silence in great ways too. You're there, all alone in the depths of some ruins and all you hear is rocks sliding, water flowing, air blowing through some crack somewhere. It was excellent inmersion.

I will say that I believe Valve is the king of silence.
For 90% of Half Life or Portal or any of their spinoffs, there is no music. Sure, it appears in some major confrontations, or for ambiance like in Portal, but the quietest moments are the most memorable.

Case in point, the hidden Resistance outpost near the start of Water Hazard in HL2. Just you, headcrabs, and the squeak of a rusty old windmill. Creepy.

Music has seriously ruined some games, especially "Horror" games. I'm looking at you, Dead Space.

Sure it had some panicky moments, but you ALWAYS knew when bad guys were afoot - the music told you.

So, yeah, good article. I agree.

This reminds me of Morrowind. It had almost no music (at times it was completely silent, if not for some low ambience music) and it succeeded in creating one of the most oppresive and lonely atmosphere I have seen in a game.

Apparently Bethesda is good at this

I have been going without music for the most part in Fallout:NV and it has enhanced the experience. I mostly listen to my pip-boy in towns.

I often turn the music off so I can listen to my own. I don't do this with all my games, but a lot of them. I remember this one time I wasn't playing any of my music, but the music in the game (Mass Effect, I believe) was still turned off... I got to a dramatic cut scene and seeing the characters jump around to nothing was actually really funny.

Yeah, the power of the lack of sound is often underestimated. Sound is as important to music as music itself.

This applies to everything, not just its application.

I'm playing Aquaria and the music is great, but it's no background music. It gets on my nerves sometimes.

I totally agree about silence. Music or audio in general need to be used more (well, less) depending on the situation and the dynamic. For instance, look at what happened to Alan Wake. Whenever enemies spawned onscreen they started the music to either startle the player or just say "Oh hey guys! I just thought you might want to know that a bunch of ghouls have been spawned and are coming to eat your face." So from the first time on from that, all we have to do is walk around practically knowing we're safe until that music starts up again. It also serves to tell us when we defeat the last enemy so we can relax again...though in some cases it gets freaky when you're running around and the music is still going, so you know that there's one more out there lurking for you.

In relation to movies, Hitchcock's "The Rear Window" and "The Birds" had the most suspenseful moments when there was hardly any sound at all. I mean for sure no music, but no dialogue, and sometimes no other sounds either. And it worked really well!

There's a scene in The Godfather, where they're speaking Italian in the restaurant, where there is no score, just the dialogue; yet they subtley use the background sound as the tension building. There's the sounds of the trains outside, you can hear ever-so-softly in the background. You have to build up to the gunshots somehow - but if the music cuts in too early it would ruin the impact. ...probably one of the best scenes in movie history, and the cleverest use of sound I've ever seen a music composer use.

I'm glad you all liked my article. :) I didn't mention this in it, but it also (in my opinion) depends pretty heavily on what genre of game it is too. Maybe it's a given? What are your thoughts?

In older games sometimes the musical soundtrack was in fact, natural sounds. If you get the original Fallout, it has a few tracks of music, and then quite a bit of almost nothing but nature, like wind blowing in the irradiated desert. Sometimes minimal music is better than no music.

I'll have to give New Vegas a shot without music, at least once I hear it all. I find the musical selections of that era used in the games pretty interesting.

Music in older games was filler, because the lack of noise would seem just wrong, so they tried to go for basic themes. Imagine Super Mario Brothers without any music at all. Imagine the Legend of Zelda without any music at all. The music was put there to make a good game great. Some developers forgot that music isn't a requirement for a game. If done correctly, it is a tool used to help players out. If done incorrectly, it can detract from a game. Silence is in fact its own style of music, and can both enhance and detract from a game.

When I think of how music both enhances and detracts from a game at the same time though, I can only think of Left 4 Dead. The music composing software is great, but it does get a bit repetitive, and it never shuts off. Sometimes I think some points in the game would be better without music. Picture the music shutting off when you're sneaking by a witch, the only things you can hear are your footsteps, and her breathing. I think it would freak you out more than any music they could add.

It sounds like what everyone is saying is that music CAN heighten a game experience - if it's not used predictably. Silence for the most part with music at critical points in the game seems to be the winning combo :)

Fatal Frame 2: The music and sound was rather subtle for most of the game, eery and only got more dramatic when you were attacked. For the most part you find yourself on the edge of your seat ears cocked to the slightest sound.

Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory: I remember sneaking around stealthily trying to avoid being detected and the fucking soundtrack just gets louder and louder, one big Alex Van Halen drum solo, and I'm thinking how the hell am I suppose to sneak around stealthily with all these blaring jungle drums. Sorry Amon Tobin, just don't need all that noise in a stealth game.

I noticed some games fade in and out music to indicate a battle situation or when you are near enemies. Sometimes I appreciate that as I know when I can or cannot concentrate on other things than battle. At any rate music shouldn't ever overpower the scene, at the game's climax you can get away with really intense music but otherwise it can interfere with what your watching/doing.

I'm in complete agreement with this critique. The addition of dynamic music in most games these days has really become overbearing and quite obnoxious and for me it often does disrupt immersion. Music if present, should compliment the gameplay, not be telling you how to feel. If them game is good enough, you will hopefully already be feeling those things, sans music. I had this same issue with a certain TV show's final season not long ago.
If a certain tune kicks up every time an enemy is around, it completely dislodges any tension and atmosphere after a while.
More often than not, I find myself turning off the music in games where I really want to soak in the game world.
Dead Space for example didn't have a running soundtrack, and it really made for a great atmosphere, however it did feature dynamic music that kicked in whenever an enemy appeared, which undercut the horror after a while (the game also just became predictable very quickly)

Joe Myers:
I'm glad you all liked my article. :) I didn't mention this in it, but it also (in my opinion) depends pretty heavily on what genre of game it is too. Maybe it's a given? What are your thoughts?

Genre definitely is a huge factor. If a game is simplistic enough and not meant to be complex and atmospheric at all, then constant music isn't much of an issue. It's the "serious" games where atmospheric tension and real emotion are at steak where it's more of an issue. Either way, it's always a delicate balance.

I agree, silence would work brilliantly in a physcological horror game, just a chilling atmosphere, no noise, causing the player to desperately shit themselves in fear of what will appear behind the door.

I've always wondered where these stock photos of hot chicks come from and also I really enjoyed the music from Enslaved, some tracks sounded at home in SoTC and the song played in the credits was quite trip-hop-ish

Very Cagean insight, Escapist.

My xbox 360 was loud as hell, if the game stopped playing music i would hear noise, not athmospheric silence.
Thats why most 360 games don't shut up and shouldn't.

I think some games should have silence. Others not, namely Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time/Darkness/Sky.
That... Is the fifth time I've mentioned that game today... Yep, I'm a fanboy...

I usually just turn off any music in most games, unless it's very important to the feel of it. So, yeah, this already says it's redundant from my side.

I actually agree with this.

That was the thought I had as I ran around Gran Pulse in Final Fantasy XIII.
The transition would have had so much more impact if it wasn't for that incessant tune that plays constanty.

Its also part of the reason I love Shadow of the Colossus. Yes the colossi fights are noisy and intense. But the exploration moments are quiet with mostly environmental sounds to set as atmosphere.

Half Life 2 was good for this also. Only really kicking into music when something exciting was going down.

I mostly do listen to the radio in fallout, although my brother finds this strange. But when I'm wondering the wasteland it keeps me company.

Although yeah in some games the amount of music is unnecessary.

In older games sometimes the musical soundtrack was in fact, natural sounds. If you get the original Fallout, it has a few tracks of music, and then quite a bit of almost nothing but nature, like wind blowing in the irradiated desert. Sometimes minimal music is better than no music.

Music was constantly playing in Fallout 1 and 2. Random encounters in wilderness had the wind noise playing, but everywhere else there was music. But the music was effective in that it set the tone for the environment you were in.

Also, silence versus music is player preference; you can turn the music down really low or off if you want. This is the case in almost every game.

Some say the same thing about music/silence in mainstream American films.

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