So what is it then? What is it that makes silence so powerful, so effective? Soundtracks have fulfilled the role of letting the audience know what to feel at a particular moment for several decades, and done so with skill. To watch one scene several times with different pieces of music behind it each time, the mood and feeling evoked in the viewer changes in time. If this is the case, then what purpose is there for silence in a videogame?


A philosophy session with students in Rio de Janeiro earlier this year sought to answer a similar question by having a group of fifth graders watch a performance of John Cage's 4' 33", which is written with the intent that whatever instrument the performer is using, they do not play it for the entire three-movement length of the piece. The reason? It was supposed to be a "listening experience," where the ambient sounds of life in the room became the score and the audience themselves, along with whatever squeaky chair or uneasy shuffling they were doing, became the instrument. Music, in Cage's mind, is already present in the things around us, the things we don't usually hear. It's something like a natural soundtrack - and what better or more fitting music to play during an experience than the score that life's already written?

Consider Limbo. Playing through a world of silhouettes with nothing but the occasional snap of a bear trap or splash of some water creates a surreal and emotionally draining gaming experience. There is nothing, nothing at all. When you're all alone in a big scary world, music becomes more than just an art form. It's a companion.

Silence, then, in music, allows the events unfolding before us to trigger the emotion, not priming us for the release of fear, uncertainty, or outright horror the director or developer expects us to hear. Another article in Nature implied that when silence takes over during a moment where we would expect a familiar song or sound, the brain already fills it in with what we think we ought to hear. To play a game is to evoke emotions through interactive storytelling. As games become more and more open to experiences and interpretations, such as the morality-driven gameplay of Fallout 3, it becomes less and less feasible to prepare a set of tunes for every possible outcome of a player's actions. Unless you were to turn on your Pip-Boy's radio, you wouldn't even have any music at all through the entire game.

Music in videogames isn't a bad thing. Games could stand to do more with music in a diegetic sense - music that exists within the world, to borrow the film term - in those situations where music is felt necessary. 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.

When a game is looked at and paid attention to like a story, its soundtrack needs to have those ups and downs and breaks and pauses to accurately reflect the feeling and mood the story should have. Time to pause, to reflect, and take a breath. There's no doubt that everybody needs to stop and smell the roses now and again, but it wouldn't hurt to take a backseat and just enjoy the silence.

Joe Myers is a mid-Missouri novelist and cartoonist whose skills are as varied as they are impractical. Until the day when his expertise is needed to save the world, he spends his time working at

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