Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Use of "Combat Specific Music" within Videogames

After having recently returned to play through Bioshock Infinite again (on the tougher 1999 mode),  I couldn't help but notice the use of what I'd call "combat specific music", tying up the transition between combat gameplay and the game's more cinematic story moments, both in and out of gameplay. To properly define the what I mean by "combat specific music" is: any sort of repeated musical score which plays only when combatting with enemies in the game. If you're still not sure what I mean, it's alright, because you've probably encountered it before if you've played Pokemon. Whenever you encounter a wild pokemon or another trainer the game immediately begins playing its familiar combat tune and your pokemon battle commences.

The difficulty of Bioshock Infinite on 1999 mode makes the game's combat sequences much longer, and the accompanying combat music which always returns definitely highlights the game's two distinct elements of combat and story. There's definitely something to be said about the high quality of the sound and music production in the Bioshock series, especially in the way Ken Levine (creative director and writer for the first Bioshock game and Bioshock Infinite) links music with story, like Cohen's Scherzo in the original Bioshock and the "God only Knows" barbershop quartet found in Bioshock Infinite. However the use of combat specific music is definitely a decision which was decidedly made to help the player immediately discern what type of sequence is about to play out.

Interestingly enough, it had been a while since I'd heard and noticed "combat specific music". While I can't quite remember if it was also present in the first Bioshock, the fact that the developers of Infinite chose to include such an archaic mechanic in a game which pushes the boundaries of storytelling is a little confusing. It's not that "combat music" is jarring or unpleasant, but in a game which is so narrative-focussed like Bioshock Infinite, to have a specific musical piece begin playing when enemies are on screen definitely reminded me that I was playing a videogame. It brought to mind that the story I was following isn't much more than some cutscenes all glued together by a bunch of combat sequences (something that developers generally tend to try to mask rather than accentuate).

Perhaps the reason that Bioshock Infinite can pull off having "combat music" without affecting the gamer's immersion is that its environments and gameplay sequences which are out of combat are all meticulously well-crafted. Strolling through Columbia's streets isn't quite like an open-world experience, but the density of story-amplifying elements within the environments (voxophones, npc conversations, differences in white man/black man washroom) definitely helps create that immersive (and sometimes oppressive) game-world which ultimately helps sell the story to the person playing.

A screenshot of a combat sequence of Dragon Age: Origins
But enough about Bioshock Infinite, after all, the "combat specific music" mechanic has origins which are far more interesting than its use in Bioshock. The mechanic of "combat music" has always associated itself with RPGs in my mind. The stark split between in-combat and out-of-combat which older "classic" RPGs built themselves on lends the idea of music associated with the in-combat phase very naturally. While I mentioned Pokemon earlier, there are still newer RPGs like Dragon Age: Origins which use "combat music". However Dragon Age: Origins tends to have a bit of an old-school feel (it remains very true to the origins of the complex RPG genre), making it very different from Skyrim, an RPG which still has "combat music", but is able to blur the defining edges (of in and out of combat) with a more dynamic and varying musical score.

There's definitely a lot more to be said about the way developers link certain elements of their game together with music, especially about the directions in which newer games are taking this idea of a harmony between music and gameplay. I'm definitely curious about people's thoughts about "combat specific music" and its use in games, do you like it? Does it affect your immersion when playing a game? Share your thoughts below in the comments.


  1. Theirs nothing archaic about battle themes and boss battle themes. They arn't used to simply let a player know that they are in a combat situation. The music is used to create a feeling of tension and immediacy to the situation. You probably don't realize how important music is to setting a mood. Theirs a reason why studios spend thousands of dollars to create orchestral soundtracks. A good example is Dissidia Duodecim, the Final Fantasy fighting game. before each battle you can choose from over 80 different songs spanning across the entire main franchise. And you can also choose to play with music turned off. I can guarantee you that if you choose a bad ass battle theme like One Winged Angel rather than having a slow song like Theme of Love or no music at then the battle with One Winged Angel is going to feel more epic and have you feeeling more pumped.

    1. I definitely agree that music in combat situations is firstly used to create a different type of atmosphere (tense, blood-pumping, etc.), however the origins of "combat specific music" are definitely archaic. While in modern games the concept is evolving (think Red Dead Redemption, which has an incredibly dynamic musical score for the many different situations you might be in), I definitely found it interesting that within Bioshock Infinite they decided to go with a singular (non-dynamic) piece of music when combat begins.

      I didn't really mention anything about "boss music", mostly because I think that it's very difficult to compare an epic boss encounter to any other battle sequence within a game. I hope that my post didn't come off as "anti-music", I was just reflecting on how this mechanic is used in certain games I wasn't expecting, and what implications this has on the level of immersion for the person playing.

      Thanks for the comment!