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  • Student Thesis: Adaptive Music for Video Games

    [07.28.09]
    - David Vink

  • Why use adaptive music?

    Why should we use adaptive music in a game if writing and programming an adaptive soundtrack is more complicated than creating a linear soundtrack? Many composers may not even have written adaptive music before and will need to adapt, as it were, to the specific techniques needed to create a successful adaptive soundtrack. Many programmers will also have no experience in implementing adaptive music and will therefore need extra time to create and implement it, making it more expensive.

    However, the pros of using an adaptive soundtrack far outweigh the cons (if it is done right).

    A good adaptive soundtrack can make the experience of playing a game much more enjoyable and memorable because of the effect music has on the emotions of people. How is it that adaptive music can draw players into a game so much better than a regular soundtrack?

    First of all the attentive player will notice that the music fits the events in the game perfectly and will respect and enjoy the game the more for it.

    Studies have shown that during emotional moments the brain takes in ones environment very precisely, including what (if any) music is being played [3]. So if you finally manage to beat a huge and powerful monster, or clear a very difficult puzzle, you will notice very strongly the music and sounds that accompany this event. If this music does not fit the mood of the event, some of the emotional impact of the game on the player will be lost, while the right music will strongly enhance the emotional experience and make sure that you will remember it.

    Then there is something known as suspension of disbelief. Suspension of disbelief is a term used to describe how people let go of their normal ideas about whether things are realistic and logical in order to enjoy a work of fiction, such as a novel, a movie or a book. The television show Star Trek, for example, requires the viewer to 'suspend their disbelief' about whether it is possible to travel through space at light speed or to instantly teleport objects and creatures over long distances. Once the viewer accepts these facts as realistic within the story of Star Trek, he can start to enjoy the show.

    That same suspension of disbelief is needed in most video games, unless they depict abstract events (or are somehow ultra-realistic).

    So how do we make players forget a game is unrealistic and make them believe they are driving a super fast sports car through the center of Los Angeles at 200 kilometers per hour? Or that they are a sword-wielding, magic casting hero in an ancient kingdom? By being as consistent as possible within the fantastic world of the game.

    Let's compare with graphics again. Take a racing game, for example; Having the cars in the game actually sustain visible damage when they hit each other or crash into a wall will make the experience a little more believable, while crashing a car into a wall at high speed without the car so much as getting a scratch on the hood will make the player laugh, thinking to himself: "That's crazy, I drove my car into a wall and it isn't even damaged".

    In a sword fighting game, if the player has bloody wounds in the places where he's been stabbed, it will look a lot more realistic then if being stabbed had no effect at all. Having the graphics respond appropriately to what is going on in the game will make it easier for players to maintain their suspension of disbelief, because they are not constantly reminded that it's "just a game" they're playing.

    So if the graphics should respond to what is happening in the game, why let the music fall behind? If the player gets stabbed with a sword repeatedly and becomes heavily wounded, isn't it logical to make the music sound more tense and perhaps more dramatic? This seemingly obvious detail of audio design can "add emotional depth and soul to scenarios and help maintain the suspension of disbelief that is so crucial for players."[4]

    Whether the player consciously notices it or not, adaptive music will draw him deeper into the game and elicit more emotional response. A regular, linear score, on the other hand, can actually deduct from the gameplay experience. Any piece of music that is not extremely simple or ambient will have calmer and more active parts, emotional ups and downs, etc. If a piece of music is just played in a regular, linear, fashion, chances are the calmer and more active parts of the song are not played at the appropriate moment (namely, when the gameplay has a calm or more active moment respectively).

    Music that is not appropriate for the gameplay and the events in the game can distract the player and destroy the suspension of disbelief. On top of that, hearing the same track over and over again in a certain area or level can easily get on peoples nerves, while good adaptive music usually will not sound exactly the same each time you play the game.

    Some games will benefit more from an adaptive soundtrack than others. In games with a lot of story-telling, such as role-playing games or adventure games, the emotional involvement of the player to the story is very important. Even with good gameplay; if the player does not enjoy the story, he will most likely stop playing the game. And just like in movies, music fitting the events on the screen will make the story have much more impact.

    Another example of a genre that really benefits from adaptive music is the (survival-) horror genre. This genre relies on tension and atmosphere to make the game enjoyable for players, and adaptive music can greatly enhance these.

    Other games may not have a great need for an adaptive soundtrack. In a racing game, for example, a few good normal upbeat tracks that are nice to race to will do the job.

    On the other hand, it is not hard to imagine adaptive music in a racing game. The music could get more exiting as the end of the race draws near, or as two cars are dueling each other for pole position.

    In the end, there is always some degree of emotional involvement of the players in any game, and an adaptive soundtrack will enhance that involvement, drawing players into the game easier, enhancing the gameplay and making the experience of playing the game more memorable. This in turn will result in better reviews and better sales for a game, which will make up for the extra investment it takes to create the adaptive music.


    [3] Reinoud de Jongh, Rillingen over je rug: Hoe muziek ons brein bespeeld (Psychologie magazine, January 2006).

    [4] Guy Whitmore , Design With Music In Mind: A Guide to Adaptive Audio for Game Designers (Gamasutra.com, 2003)

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