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Sometimes games are better without music

Ben Prunty

Ben Prunty is the composer whose music you've heard accompanying the death of your crew in FTL: Faster Than Light. His column for PC Gamer covers the role of music in games.

Hi, I'm Ben Prunty. I make music for indie games. You might know my music from FTL: Faster Than Light, Gravity Ghost, The Darkside Detective, Dead Secret, the upcoming Into the Breach, or a few other indie games. PC Gamer asked me to write a regular column about game music. So, of course, I thought the best thing I could do is write about not using it. 

Why do we have music in games at all? It provides emotional weight to a scene, very similar to how music in movies works. It can work in tandem with the visuals to build an atmosphere. Most interestingly, by using these methods, a game's music can direct you, the player, by telling you what you should feel in a given scene. Let's illustrate with an example. 

Imagine a simple, reasonably well-lit living room. There are no characters in the room. Now imagine that breezy, fun, bouncy music is playing, like say, something from the excellent soundtrack to Dream Daddy. You look at that living room, you expect some interesting characters to appear and you might have entertaining conversation. Witty dialog will be exchanged. It'll be great. 

Now imagine the same thing, but now creepy, ominous music is playing, like, say, something claustrophobic from Silent Hill or The Evil Within. Suddenly your whole perception of the living room has changed. Something horrible has happened here, or something horrible is about to happen. You know this room isn't safe. Now you're scanning every shadow in the room. Is something in here watching me? Who or what is going to appear in this room? 

...there are two games that use their lack of music to incredible effect, and they teach us a lesson about why we choose to use music in the first place.

Same image, completely different feelings. All directed entirely by the music. The music told you what to expect and, indirectly, how to feel. We call music non-diegetic, which means it exists outside the world of the narrative, in the same way that a narrator is outside the story. I like to imagine that the music sits outside the game with you, the player, gently offering encouraging advice. 'Here's what's happening right now… Now the mood is changing, watch out! OK, now you're safe.'

I'll just leave this here.

A game's music is a guiding presence, even when it's trying to creep you out. It can be an infinitely useful tool in game design and storytelling. Many game enthusiasts, and even some professional composers, believe that music should be ever-present. "The best game soundtrack would be the one that never stops through the whole game," said one composer colleague of mine. 

But what if that's wrong? What if we shouldn't have music playing at every moment? Game music enthusiasts may scoff at this, but there are two games that use their lack of music to incredible effect, and they teach us a lesson about why we choose to use music in the first place. 

Dark Souls. You know it. Everybody knows it. It's become one of the most influential games of the last decade. Did you notice that there was absolutely no music during any exploration parts? Even if you didn't notice the lack of music, you might have noticed that the game feels super unsettling. Like, all the time. It's eerie, almost like a horror game. Some of this is due to art, the sound design, and the dark fantasy setting. But I think much of it comes from the lack of music. 

And that's why this is hilariously inappropriate.

For most of Dark Souls, that guiding presence I talked about earlier has been removed. The music has abandoned you. As you wander through Lordran, you're constantly unsettled, because you have no idea what to expect. Is this area more dangerous than the last one? Is something gigantic going to jump out and murder me? Is that guy sitting on the ground over there friendly? You simply have no idea; the music isn't there to help guide you. I'm not saying the lack of music is the only thing making the game unsettling, but having no music anywhere has a powerful effect on the entire game's feel.

It's an incredibly tense experience. And there's no music at all.

This leads us to another game. Duskers is part-roguelike, part real-time strategy, and part horror game. In it, you use a command-line interface (yes, really) to pilot drones to explore derelict spaceships that may or may not have monsters on them. The information you receive about the environment on these ships is limited by your drones' capabilities. 

It's an incredibly tense experience. And there's no music at all. Not in the title screen, not when a monster appears, nothing. There are only sound effects. This is actually related to a key part of the game's design: verisimilitude. The experience is not that you are controlling an avatar who controls these robots. You, with your keyboard and monitor in front of you, are directly controlling the drones. Since the information you work with is just the lo-fi data collected by the drones (there's no all-seeing, floating camera for you to spin around, looking at the drone, for example), it's actually pretty easy to imagine that you're exploring a real space. 

When designer Tim Keenan realized that the realism of Duskers could be so powerful, he made the bold decision to have no music whatsoever. Having music would kill the fantasy, because you are supposed to imagine that you are really controlling drones. "I don't walk around and hear a score playing in my head," says Tim in his GDC talk about developing the game. That omniscient, reassuring presence simply doesn't make sense in this context. Removing it made Duskers a better game. 

By removing music, a designer can make the player feel unmoored, alone, and unsettled, and can increase the realism of a game in some cases. That's a lot of power in one simple decision.

There are many games that remove music at key moments for dramatic effect. There could be a whole separate article on that, in fact. But very few games use the absence of music a core part of a game's design. Dark Souls and Duskers help us ask the question of why we use music in our games at all, and their answer reveals a lot about music's elemental role. 

Pay attention to the parts of games where no music is present. Why is there no music there? What do you think the designers are trying to make you feel? Let me know in the comments about your favorite situations where a game removed music and it enhanced the experience.