Killer Tunes – Music in Gaming

by Jamie Chinery

Music is a very powerful thing; one of the most universal and intrinsic parts of human culture, yet also one of the most personal. Alongside our own personal collections available at the touch of button anywhere we happen to be, music is integral to most of our entertainment and media as well. With the power to enhance and convey various emotions and add much needed gravitas to many situations encountered across TV, movies and games.  

So as I sit here listening to the soundtrack to the 2013 reboot of Killer Instinct, I got to thinking about how music is utilised in games, in particular how it meshes with the unique interactivity available to this medium. 

Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you I’m not hugely into fighting games, especially the arcade-style ones where the possibility exists for someone to KO you in a single, never-ending combo (looking at you Marvel vs Capcom 3); and yet, I was drawn into Killer Instinct the moment I was told to listen to its soundtrack. You see, Killer Instinct utilises its soundtrack in a really interesting way, but before diving in, a quick brief as to what Killer Instinct is for the uninitiated.   

Killer Instinct is a reboot of the original series from 1994 which debuted on the SNES and also released on the GameBoy in ’95, originally developed by Rare and published by Nintendo, the 2013 edition was developed by Double Helix Games and published by Microsoft exclusively on the Xbox One and is currently being ported to the PC.  

It’s a “2D Fighter”, as in, the fights are fought on a 2D plane - a lá Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, and relies on fast paced, arcade style, combo-centric gameplay to take down your opponents life bars, of which there are 2 per round. The 2013 version, along with updated visuals, sounds and music, also added some new gameplay enhancements in the form of “Instinct” meter, “Counter-Breaker” mechanics and a “Knockdown” value to curb potential infinite combos. 

Featuring almost all of the characters from the past 2 Killer Instinct games (plus some new additions) for a total of 18 characters split into 2 packs, or “seasons”, and with a third season coming in 2016, Killer Instinct boasts a large roster of very diverse characters to suit all manner of players. 

Now, back to the music, as I mentioned I was drawn in by both the sound and style of the music (being a rock and metal fan helped here), but also by the way it utilises its soundtrack. As above,  there are currently 18 playable characters in the game, and each one has a unique musical accompaniment with a unique theme, tone and sound based on the character’s personality and traits, whilst also for the returning characters at least, remaining faithful to the 1994 theme they each had.  

For example, werewolf Saberwulf’s reinvented theme comes straight out of a Jekyll and Hyde classic horror movie, played almost exclusively on violins, screeching off beat to instill this feeling of somebody losing control; or ancient golem Aganos’ music is every bit the epic, orchestral piece you would expect for a giant god-like creature. From blistering industrial heavy metal, to dubstep and dance, the soundtrack is every bit as varied and diverse as the character roster, every track has clearly had a lot of attention and love paid to it, and it shows. 

It would be easy to think that just having a good soundtrack would be enough, and usually it is for most games, as most games do have an appropriate soundtrack designed to elevate the gameplay and invest you further in what’s happening on-screen. However, Killer Instinct goes one step further in a way I wish every game would take note of; for while most games the music is cued by certain events and triggers (for example, in an FPS when a firefight starts, the music will also start), the music for each and every round in KI is dynamically played depending on a variety of factors.  

Starting with the stage/arena which is selected by players, this decides which of the 18 character themes will be playing in the fight, pick Cinder’s stage, you get Cinder’s theme. So far, so simple, however once the fight actually begins in earnest is when things get interesting. Sticking with the Cinder example, once the fight starts rather than simply playing Cinder’s theme from start to end and on a loop, the game dynamically skips and cuts through the tune depending on how the fight is playing out; if someone hits a long or high damaging combo the music will boost the volume and skip to a faster tempo section of the theme; if a player gets very low on health, the music will shift again to an ever faster section of the song and steadily increase the tempo the longer the low-health player remains alive; there’s even an eventuality where if both of the players do nothing the music calms down and slows (and, character depending, you get a throwback, classic theme played as a nod to the original fans). 

All of these subtle cues take place dynamically, as before, but also whilst still keeping time and within the musical framework of the tune, which is an added bonus of not being completely jarring every few seconds as it would otherwise be cutting back and forth and losing any semblance of rhythm. 

This all adds up to the effect of immersing you fully in your fight since as you pull off impressive combos or inflict massive damage and then hear the music react accordinglythis incredibly rewarding feeling comes over you pumps you up even further. It leaves you craving that feeling even more, which in turns makes you want to be better at the game and keeps me hooked on a game in a genre I don’t usually dabble in.  

Video games are different from other forms of media, the interactive element provides experiences, stories and fully realised worlds that cannot be replicated within movies, TV and books. In recent years this interactivity has been woven directly into the narrative of games, examples like Mass Effect, Telltale Series and Until Dawn have clearly shown how player decisions can affect how stories play out, providing wholly different experiences from player to player, and I don’t think it should stop there. 

As I mentioned above, music is integral to immersing people into games or movies, providing an extra layer of tension and adrenaline; or simply helping portray a particular emotion to heighten on-screen events. While it’s far from the only example of this, I’ve singled out Killer Instinct here as a step toward where I hope music will go as it pertains to its use within gaming. 

Others include Alien Isolation, where the classic tense music taken straight from the movie slowly creeps up as the titular Alien draws near you, ramping up the tension in-game immeasurably; the Halo series is very well known for its soundtrack, being one of the first games to truly implement the memorable music based on what the player was doing at the time, piping up during dramatic engagements, and equally keeping down during the quieter, explorative sections of the gameand arguably Dark Souls, since it uses its soundtrack (or lack thereof) very sparingly, and while not overtly interactive, players know that upon hearing music, the game is communicating that you have reached somewhere or met someone important. The list goes on and I have missed a fair few, these are just some examples that spring to mind to help illustrate my point.  

To wit, my point is these games demonstrate what can happen when real attention and care is used to not only create a memorable soundtrack (ones I’m quite happy to listen to outside of the games themselves), but utilise the unique interactive elements found only within video games. It’s something that I hope continues to develop as gaming further matures; as personally I feel soundtracks to games are often overlooked, and while usually fitting to their particular genre, are rarely particularly memorable, or indeed using this incredible medium to its fullest potential. We currently have stories, characters, worlds even, that respond to players and react to their actions; so why not the music?  


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