Music in video games tend not to follow a strict adherence to the genre or form of music they are trying to emulate, especially in video games with a real life cultural background. For instance, games like Skyrim use a more streamlined ambiance in each piece to have a surrounding atmosphere rather than making the music the focal point of the game itself. Although they use instruments from viking cultures and the landscape is that of Scandinavian cliffs and mountains, the music presents a welcoming warmth into the world itself, a place to get lost in rather than stomped on.
Unless, of course, the giants and… well you know…
But I’m getting off track.
It’s usually better when a game’s music score follows the art, feelings, and mechanics of the game rather than try to take the forefront as a cultural standalone. Great video game scores accomplish both. However, I would rather listen to the ancient Nordic choirs with orchestral strings and clanging drums when fighting a dragon than listen to a soft Tagelharpa or Lyre in the midst of a fire-breathing dragon fight. The former music fuels the tension of the fight based on the need for it, not the want, which is exactly how the music should work.
Star Wars Score and Standalone Music
Imagine watching the lightsaber duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Star Wars Episode III without the music. It loses its tension and grandiosity. Besides a few short cut-scenes for dialogue, the entire battle becomes a mish-mash of random grunts, lightsaber hits, and one force duel. Whether or not the force duel keeps its airy vibrations as the two force users try to knock the other down, it still wouldn’t have the same impact emotionally without the music.
One of the main reasons why music that stands alone is so effective is because it uses the creation and release of tension through sound to grab your attention throughout each part of the song. “Hotel California” wouldn’t sound the same without the Spanish flavored guitars, the single singer during the verse and then a harmony of singers during the chorus. Having a song feel monotone throughout its playback loses a song’s disheveled catchiness, wherein a song has different melodies, parts, and possibly key changes that both disrupt your listening experience and enhance it.
Progressive rock bands, which are a topic for another essay, are great at creating changes for the listening experience. It’s sort of like taking a vacation on a beach, closing your eyes and relaxing, then being transported to a medieval army where you have to fight an enemy with swords or think your way through a mental maze. Of course, you may eventually go back to the beach setting, but the building of the song creates a better experience than the lack of a build-up and remaining stuck on the beach.
Total War: Shogun 2
This brings me back to the soundtrack for Total War: Shogun 2. A well-placed composition within the heat of battle, just like the soundtrack for Rome: Total War, helps create and elevate the atmosphere in which it resides. Total War: Shogun 2 has a more unique identity that can stand on its own as opposed to Rome: Total War, which was innovative for its time, but had the usual medieval battles of most strategy games in 2004, beyond its mixture of turn-based campaigns and real-time battles. The use of samurai duels not just on a scale the size of an army, but also being able to zoom in to each samurai’s individual duel creates a unique perspective in the realm of gaming, where the player can see both the strategy and the blood shed for the victory of the clan.
When the main theme to a game opens up with a delicate series of strings and wind instruments, followed quickly by a big blast in sound by both drums and strings, then enters into a fast-paced samurai duel of a song, the music develops a whole new layer as the rest of the soundtrack plays during each piece of the gameplay.
Total War: Shogun 2’s opening song manages to accomplish the above and also sets the tone for the rest of the game. For a culture known greatly for peace, tea, and religions based on individuality, there has always been a time, like other cultures, where war went on for hundreds of years, with intermediary times of peace, and then more war to define the ruler, or in Shogun 2’s case, the shogunate. The music reflects both the peace of Japanese culture and the war-climate during the time period as well, specifically because it’s a video game, but also because it fits the paradigm of Japanese samurai, bowmen, and the taking of the title of shogun of Japan.
And that’s where music should take you. It should place an image in your head, whether it’s from the game or simply from the time or place it’s trying to depict. There’s a certain atmosphere created from Shogun 2, namely being that of a Japanese tea-drinking general leading an army of well-trained swordsmen into bloody battle and dusty death. Shouldn’t the music both create and enhance the atmosphere?
Shogun 2’s soundtrack does.