This post was originally published on the old Library of Game website in the summer of 2011.
Music is the shorthand of emotion. – Leo Tolstoy
In the visual and preforming arts, music has traditionally been used to underscore the emotions of characters, as well as creating an atmosphere, which allows for the audience to better understand the themes of story. This use of music however has been lacking in the video game medium. Most games simply use music as sound; it’s just there to ensure that the player’s auditory sensibilities are not lulled to sleep during the game. Only a few games such as Legend of Zelda and the Mario games have broken this mold. In recent years though, some games have been breaking the barriers between the more artistic film score world and the shallower world of video game score. Those games are Red Dead Redemption and L.A Noire.
Red Dead Redemption is a story of epic proportions. Its narrative consists of themes of heartbreak, guilt, greed, power, violence and ultimately redemption. These themes are presented through a variety of complex characters, dialogue, and visuals. However, it also conveyed these themes using its score – a rarity for video games. Every bit of music underscores the emotions of the characters at that particular moment. When John Marston is amidst an epic gunfight in Mexico, the music sweeps up the players in a raging western/Mexican score which helps the player feel the adrenaline Marston is experiencing. When Marston is dealing with the corrupt federal agent Edgar Ross, the music is mysterious and makes the character feel uneasy, just as the entire scene conveys a sense of uneasiness to the player. The score works with all of the other pieces of the game, visuals, graphics, story, and dialogue, to convey an overall message. All the individual pieces of music broadcast the driving message of Red Dead Redemption. The message that civilization is useless, that humans are a despicable and bloodthirsty species, that cynicism and nihilism are the only truths in the world. And no matter how hard you try, you can’t outrun your past. All the pieces of music in RDR make the player feel that time is running out. The fast songs make the player feel uneasy, as if death and retribution waits around every corner. As if everything the player has worked for, is about to end. For example, as Marston arrives in Blackwater, the symbol of expansionism and the end of the old west, the music takes a mysterious and dark turn. It feels as if the player has entered a film noir. The music creates an atmosphere of uneasiness. The player feels like their being watch or followed. The music makes the player feel as if they are in an alien world. The music is radically different from the more western soundtrack of Nuevo Paradiso and New Austin. The music is early 20th century ragtime mixed with a Twin Peaks type film noir soundtrack. The music also has no relation to nature. It is a distinctly urban soundtrack with no relation to the wide-open plains of the rest of Red Dead Redemption. By making Blackwater’s soundtrack so foreign, the player truly inhabits the emotions of Marston. They feel nostalgia for the old days of lawlessness and freedom. The music of Blackwater, just like the city, is choking, cold, and lifeless. The music throughout Red Dead Redemption conveys the emotions of the characters at the moment. That is the true beauty of Red Dead Redemption. It is a game that not only shows emotions through gameplay, but also used all the threads of a video game to convey a feeling and message, which is a true accomplishment for the video game medium.
Rockstar’s other period piece, L.A Noire, like Red Dead Redemption, uses music to help bolster the emotional impact of the video game, but does so in a different way. L.A Noire is set amidst a very important part of American and L.A history. L.A, along with the rest of America, was in the middle of the largest economic boom in American history. America had come out of WWII and was now an industrial superpower. Prosperity seemed to be everywhere. However, underneath the glitz and glamour sat an ugly truth. The murder rate in 1940’s L.A was one of the highest in the city’s history, only the 90’s can match it. Drugs were beginning to hit the streets with deadly consequences. Corruption was rampant, not only in the LAPD, but in every facet of LA government. White flight was primed and ready to start and the city was on the edge of falling into the decade’s long decline of racial violence, drugs, and depopulation. Deception is everywhere in L.A Noire. Cole hides the sins he committed in WWII with a tough exterior. Roy Earle hides his corrupt mafia connections underneath a veil of Hollywood glamour. The early music of L.A Noire is as deceiving as the characters. Early on in the game, when the fresh-faced Phelps is moving through patrol and traffic, the music is stirring; it is beaming of hopeful optimism. The corruptions of homicide and vice have yet to be exposed. Phelps works with honest people in traffic and patrol like Det. Bukowski and Capt. Leary. However, the soundtrack foreshadows the greed and corruption of the later desks. There are noir underpinnings in the soundtrack, brief moments of sadness and darkness in the music gives the player a sense that something awful will happen in the later desks. The music and the story work together to create this mood. For example, the scene in which Vice Detective Roy Earle, Coles’ future corrupt partner in Vice, protects a child pornographer that Bukowski and Phelps are interrogating, calling him an “informant”. The story and the music work together to create a feeling of uneasiness within the player. As the game progresses the hopeful optimism of the early music is washed away, replaced by the noir underpinnings, which now bloom throughout the soundtrack. As Phelps’s uncovers the rampant corruption in the LAPD, the soundtrack becomes mournful, as if the music if wallowing at Phelps’s loss of innocence throughout the game. When Phelps’s hits rock bottom with being demoted to Arson and losing his family, the soundtrack becomes nihilistic. Phelps’s world is loss – it can never be regained. Even as it appears Phelps may get his life back, the player knows better. The music lacks the foreshadowing of yore. It is pure darkness and sorrow. When Phelps dies it comes as no surprise, the music tipped us off. The music of L.A Noire mirrors the world of L.A Noire. It is complex, layered, and ultimately, hides an ugly truth of corruption which, in the end, crushes the optimism and good of the early music, and Phelps himself.
These two games, in terms of music, are revolutionary. The music is a breath of fresh air. They are different; not just in terms of the actual notes, but in how they are used to enhance the complex narratives which, thankfully, video games have been adapting in recent years. In order for games to reach their potential and become a high art form, all the elements of the game must meld together to create an enriching and satisfying experience. The music of L.A Noire and Red Dead Redemption are simply the beginning, but their example offers hope, that video games are entering a period of artistic prosperity, where use of music such as these two games use it, will be the norm rather than the exception