• Daryl Barnes
  • Jun 20, 2020

5 Tips For Stronger Story-Driven Game Music

Interactive narratives. RPGs. Visual Novels.

It’s no secret that games are a wonderful platform to tell powerful stories. So how can we make equally powerful music to elevate the story?

Planning and executing a soundtrack is no small feat, and as indie devs, we’re often faced with the challenge of limited development budgets. Here are five tips to help you plan out your game soundtrack, whether you’re a composer or a game developer!

The Role Of Music In Games

Let’s start by quickly reviewing the role of music in games, which at any given time can be any combination of the following:

  1. Provide background music for certain locations or events.
  2. Attach unique musical identities to characters, places, or ideas.
  3. Evoke an emotional response and emotional attachment from the player.

tfw the storytelling is lit af

The first two points are pretty straightforward; make something that sounds good and fits the mood. The third point - evoking an emotional attachment - is a bit trickier to navigate, but is also what makes game soundtracks truly engaging. So let’s talk about that!

Tip #1: Spot The Critical Story Points

In the film industry, there’s a practice known as “spotting”. This is when the director and composer go over the movie together, and pinpoint the “spots” for certain music tracks.

Do something similar with your game. Set aside an hour or two - this time is for the composer and developer to collaboratively identify what kind of music is needed for each scene, character, objects, ideas, etc.

This meeting will naturally reveal what points in the game are most important thematically, and would thus benefit from custom music. Focus most of the music budget into these points.

Any point in the story that does not…

  1. show character growth/change, or
  2. meaningfully build upon the story or world

…will not benefit from custom music as much. If you need to stick to a tight budget, you can use royalty-free music here, or reuse a previous track. It’s very unlikely that the player’s immersion will be broken, because it’s not a particularly immersive part of the story.

Tip #2: Motif Is Monarch

Whoever came up with the idea to use the sad music track for the boss battle deserves a raise.

Motifs are melodies or musical phrases assigned to specific characters, objects, places, or ideas. These motifs are then reused throughout the story to reflect how these characters/objects/places/ideas change.

The keyword here is change, because all stories are about change: A character wants something, but cannot get it, whether by external or internal obstacles. They go through trials and tribulations, and they either get what they wanted, or realize that what they wanted wasn’t what they really needed (or they get a bad end - they don’t get what they want, and they are worse off for it). Either way, the character undergoes change.

Without change, there is no story.

Games are actually the perfect environment for motifs to flourish, because they are interactive. This leavs us with a lot of freedom to exlore motifs in dynamic ways.

Tip #3: Use A Motif Web

I’m sure you’ve experienced this moment before - you’re watching a movie/anime/show, and something really sad happens to a character you like. You think to yourself, “This is okay. I can handle this.” Then, they cue in a sad version of the character’s theme, and the feels hit. You can’t help but shed a tear or two. Or three.

You have “Motif Webs” to blame for your feels! A motif web is little more than an entanglement of musical motifs that play and interact with each other.

Here’s an example: Let’s say your main character’s desire is to be in a romantic relationship with their love interest. Give both of them a unique motif, and create music tracks that utilize both of those motifs. If the characters go through conflict (like a major disagreement, or a break-up), this is the perfect place for a sad/bittersweet track that uses both of the characters’ motifs.

When we initially attach a motif to a character, we’re essentially planting seeds within the player’s mind. Paired with strong writing and character development, these seeds grow into trees that become entangled with one another. The more they grow, the more they become entangled; and the more the player resonates with these characters.

These points in the story are the ones that would absolutely benefit from custom music.

#4: Use Silence Where It Feels Right

They say that silence is golden, and in some scenes this can ring true. Not every moment of a game needs music; in fact, silence can actually strengthen the emotional impact of some scenes.

Scenes in which something extremely sudden or drastic occurs, or simply scenes where you want the player to take in the atmosphere and ambience of a certain location, are just a few instances where silence could be more powerful than music.

Tip #5: Work Out Alternate Deals For More Tracks

This tip may sound like more of a business/logistics tip than a creative one, but hear me out.

Many composers will be open to negotiating a lower upfront price in exchange for retention of their rights over the music. Although you’ll lose out on the right to sell/distribute the game’s soundtrack, it is well worth the trade-off; being able to produce a higher number of tracks will give your soundtrack the room it needs to build the player’s emotional attachment.

You could also work out a profit share model to do this. But if you do, please do it right, with contracts and clearly-stated revenue goals.

In Summary

Custom narrative music is an incredibly powerful “must-have” tool for any developer whose goal is to make a game with a strong story. By using strong motifs and focusing the music budget where it matters most, we highlight the story’s strong points and build the player’s emotional attachment to the game - and it is this emotional attachment that turns casual fans into diehard superfans who will come back to buy your next game, and every game after.

About The Author

Daryl Barnes makes custom game audio that tells a story. An advocate for constant learning, they are passionate about sharing their knowledge with game developers and composers alike.

When they aren't crafting kickass audio or mentoring newcomers to the industry, they indulge in making an edgy RPG about magical girls. Feel free to reach out if you want to chat about game audio!