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The importance of audio: How music makes games better

Masterchief from Halo wearing headphones
Image created with Microsoft Copilot

If you try and think about some of your most memorable moments with games you’ve played, those memories will likely feature a song to go with it. Final Fantasy VII’s battle theme, Halo’s canticles, or Tetris’ incessant thrumming will be rattling around in the minds of those who have enjoyed those titles.  

Music plays a huge role in games, from setting the tone and atmosphere of a game to helping build a greater sense of immersion by engaging your ears as well as your eyes. But just how do composers make these iconic tracks?  

Halo was written in a car 

Halo’s blend of chanting monks and sweeping orchestral swells are some of the most iconic sounds in gaming. Composer Marty O’Donnell was tasked with creating something that would “give a feeling of importance, weight, and a sense of the ‘ancient’” to Halo. It wasn’t just a case of making something that sounded cool: there was reason and rhyme behind it.  

The problem was, he didn’t have all that long to do so, and as a result ended up taking inspiration from the unlikeliest of places

“[A]s I was driving, I thought ‘Okay, ancient… you know, monks are ancient, so I’m going to start with some sort of monk chant, and it’s got to be hook-y, it’s got to stick in people’s heads and then we’ll go on to something sort of epic and pounding; cellos and drums, and stuff.’” 

“Yesterday” by The Beatles was what came to him and how its irregular melody sticks in people’s heads.  

“The Yesterday melody inspired me to put that together, because I thought, ‘Well, if I have one high point, one low point, to four irregular phrases but still do a legitimate monk chant melody…it may be able to have legs.’” 

O’Donnell recognised the need to have a melody that hooked and stayed in the memory to help leave a lasting impression in the minds of those who watched that presentation. It’s fair to say that he succeeded, as the song has gone on to become an anthem among gamers, with it even inspiring some to form their own choirs to belt out monk chants of their own.  

DOOM’s lack of restraint  

On his own website, DOOM composer Mick Gordon discusses his process in bringing E1M1 or “At Doom’s Gate” to a more modern audience in 2016. His combination of techno and metal gave DOOM an intense and unique feeling, which added to the adrenaline-rush experience of its combat. 

He claims that DOOM is a very intense game “that drills into your face” with “a complete lack of restraint” and so to capture that feel in the music he took the E1M1 riff and quite literally lowered the tone to make it sound more aggressive.  

According to him, it was his job to create an emotional bond with the player through music and give the player the “feeling that [they] can walk into any battle and take ownership of that battle […] the music has to feel like the 300 Spartans behind that player, they’re all edging the player on to complete whatever they need to complete.” 

It’s clear that there’s plenty of thought that goes into these soundtracks, and it’s no accident that they became as iconic as they did: composers use music to connect with the player on an emotional level and make the games much more immersive experiences.  

But how can a few notes and a bit of bass elicit such a strong response in the mind?  

Why is sound so important? 

Sound is a great companion to everything we do, in the sense that it can amplify the experience. Think about how when you’re in a great mood you’ll put on a foot-tapper or an absolute banger, but when you’re post-break-up and downing a pint of Ben & Jerry’s you’ve got Evanescence on full blast. The lyrics, melodies and pitch all seem to make so much sense in those moments because humans are empathetic beings.  

We relate to things and build bonds with them. We make friends and relationships based on shared interests. We develop our taste in things by seeking out more in the same genre.  

And that is why sound is so important, and why these scores make these games hit so much harder to the point where they can form core memories. These soundtracks didn’t happen by accident: they were made with this specific response in mind. The hard metal of Mick Gordon’s “Rip and Tear” kicks in when we’re… well, ripping and tearing. The synth lines squeal like the demons we’re putting down while the bass thumps and booms with every punch and shotgun blast.  

The monks float their sombre and enigmatic melody as we hover over the menu screen with the Halo beckoning in the background to create a sense of mystery and intrigue with the alien structure.  

These are just a couple of the countless moments in gaming where you feel chills when a certain note kicks in and you can feel the anticipation of a significant moment coming. The timing is everything and it’s all down to science, specifically the brain’s limbic system. 

It’s science

The limbic system is responsible for controlling memory and processing our emotions and is particularly responsive to music cues; the brain likes to recognise patterns and triggers positive emotions when it does.  

This is what O’Donnell, Gordon et al are all looking to tap into with their music because when it is well-timed and fitting with the genre. It sets up sonic patterns and regularities that tempt us to make unconscious predictions about what’s coming next. When our brains spot that pattern it triggers a hit of dopamine (that lovely little pleasure hormone).   

Listen to a particular song and it will bring up fond memories you experienced while it was playing. In particular here, maybe Halo’s climactic Warthog run, perhaps? It’s also likely that you’ve gone back and revisited moments with a memorable soundtrack. Partly because they were great to play, but also because of the auditory response you experienced when playing them.  

Even fans of FIFA may be suddenly reminded of the game when one of the hundreds of songs featured on those games pops up on the radio. It’s the same thing at work here too.  

A lot of the games we hold near and dear owe a lot to their music. So next time you’re having a cup of Liber-Tea, or when you finally head to Vice City, pay attention to the soundtrack. It’s likely to end up lodged in your subconscious anyway. 

Danny grew up on a diet of Resident Evil, Half-Life and Halo. Nowadays, in between life as a freelance writer, author, parent and dog owner, he’ll try anything, but has a penchant for all things FromSoftware – and won’t hesitate to tell anyone about how Sekiro is the greatest game he’s ever played.