Hold it. If you’ve got something with a speaker running, shut it off. Noisemakers, stereos, televisions, small animals – if you can mute it, do it. Now just wait a bit … there. Besides whatever is in the background, be it your fridge, the whine of a computer screen, or a fidgeting dog, there’s nothing but silence. Surreal, isn’t it?

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As videogames tell stories that rival movies, game soundtracks also are moving towards the quality and complexity of film scores. Any good writer knows that a proper story can’t just be high-octane bass-thumping madness the whole way through, not if you want your audience to really climb into the story’s skin and walk around in it a little. There have to be lulls, softer moments, moments where the bad guy is in the next room waiting for the hero or the hero finds himself back in a time before he was a hero at all. It’s in these moments where that pulse-pounding techno soundtrack or even the saddest violin solo is too much for what there really needs to be: silence.

When I first popped in the original Resident Evil, horror movies and games were, to me, still strictly within the realm of the crazy people on the street corners wearing too much black and enough studs and spikes to be legally classified as weapons in twelve states. Blissfully unaware of what awaited me amidst the whirs and hums of the game disc, I was soon struck with something altogether more terrifying than any zombie. (Or so I thought. Ah, youth.)

My first steps in the Arklay Research Facility were greeted not by an eerie cello or a menacing horn line, but by the echo of each footfall as I made my way through a huge empty mansion. There was no tune telling me what to feel or subtly suggesting that something terrible might happen soon – I was completely and utterly alone. When the first zombie came into view, there was no shrill blast of sound. Just the gasping of breath and shuffling steps told me what I should be feeling at that particular moment: fear.

Sometimes there are places in a story where a musical number just doesn’t cut it. Indeed, some of the most memorable moments in videogames are when the music stopped. Aeris’ untimely demise in Final Fantasy VII was made all the more unreal when Sephiroth’s sword was the only shrieking instrument. Immediately, all that was left was the drum of a fading heartbeat. Only once the White Materia hit the ground did the music start again.

The problem with the music/silence interplay in games is how inexpertly it is used, if it is used at all. There are games in which music is played when something important or unexpected (to the character, at least) is supposed to happen. If fear is looked at as half-surprise, half-shock value, then already half of its value is lost. Nothing is more irritating than when you’re watching a film or playing a game and a friend leans over to say, “Dude, get ready. Shit’s about to go crazy.” Crazy it may be, but isn’t it the surprise that makes it so crazy?

Games could stand to do with a little bit more emphasis on subtlety, perhaps having more thought put into the subtext of a game’s world and story. If one were to look at a typical audience as made up of intelligent people and brutes, there’s no shortage of games for the brutes. Not to say that we can’t all enjoy a good Devil May Cry-esque beat-em-up now and then, with the soundtrack hard and bumpin’ the whole way through, but a game where it’s the nuances that really make the tale is hard to come by. Misuse of sound, or the overabundance of it in any case, ends up being another method of hand-holding. If you really want to get the player thinking, don’t give them any hints. If you want them to get into the game world, don’t close them out of it by popping earbuds in their character and having them play whatever’s on their current playlist.

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?

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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 362studios.com.

Question of the Day, October 26, 2010

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