In the previous parts of this article I mentioned where had minimal music come from and what it is related to. Thanks to its simplicity and due to the natural process of implementing new genres into illustrating music, it found its way into movie and videogame scores to function in a way that goes beyond traditionally hooking the player emotionally in a game’s world and events. As music that is easier to be received subconsciously in order to hypnotize, it provides a different type of information to you or emphasize those which aren’t clear enough. Let me explain.
The pattern from history repeats itself as we are using minimal music to set the tempo for dramatic sequences in works of art, even though it was once used for rituals or marching to battle.
As I’ve said, tempo is way more „hearable” in minimal music. Slow, measured ticking or a quick beat are very simple way to signify passing of time and subliminally lull you into perceiving an experience either as a slow one or quick one. You immediately catch on with the ticking and it’s the ticking that sets the tempo – be it music, performing a boring action near an early XXth century conveyor belt or pressing buttons in a videogame. That is why Neverending Nightmares executes its theme perfectly. Skyler McGlothin’s looped music-box theme that slowly plays and plays and plays, without really going anywhere and leaving you…mad and hoping for a change, which is exactly what the game presents and says about severe depression. The instrument connotes sleeping and the theme connotes an endless loop with no end — it fits perfectly into a game that has purposefully chosen the lack of noticeable progression. The music slowly hypnotizes you, giving you a glimpse of this endless nightmare, closing you in with no means of escaping and not letting you see the end of it. Truly grim and strong statement about depression.
Contrarily, fast ticking can make you put in 6th gear and make quick, consecutive decisions in order to win. Photek used rushing electronic music to further stress you during police chases. His soundtrack is some good racing music, even though the game’s game design and creative direction as „good ol’ NFS” is debatable. The game, however, doesn’t really stop you for that long when you crash into a civilian car or a wall, which is better then either a halt-reverse-accelerate again scenario or being instantly greeted by a long loading screen. No, you come back after a crash with some speed and music still ramping up the tempo, not letting you catch a breath and lose the flow. You catch the rhythm back again, even though you’ve just crashed. Here, repetitive, quasi-minimal music works great as it is perfectly suited for long sequences that require a certain tempo to be kept up in its entirety. Additionally, we do not need to be intro’ed and outro’ed by music, which not giving us a sense of repeatedly trying to listen to a piece but being able to only listen to a small, initial chunk of it. Our brains are kept within one track, a track that essentially consists only of the middle part, neither having a distinguishable intro or an expectable outro. It allows for music to not make feel like you’ve just started, instead giving you a sense of undisrupted, though illusory continuity. It can do so because it is simple enough to go on and still be exciting, even when that excitement boils down to following a fast beat.
The continuity of gameplay and chaining of good decisions, turns, dodges and shots is what makes up for „good”, fast-paced, edge-of-the-seat gaming experience when every small fault can doom you. As long as music goes, so do you, trying to win. You lose, it stops. However, we expect it to end — „When will the bomb go off? Will it go off?”. At the end of the ticking a turn of events awaits, a jumpscare, something we anticipate. With music that blends itself as a clock that counts down the time, a tough gameplay moment can be even more suspenseful as we do not want to be stopped by a loading screen and silence, yet we are ready for it. That said, again, it is not exclusively linked to minimal music, as a traditional composition can build the tempo and suspense in other ways, but not as „hypnotizingly” and with higher demands towards the player’s attention. The tempo factor needs not be in the centre, but it is an interesting approach to music nonetheless.
That said, just like with ambient, it is worth to look at this music from other perspective, because „easy and nice to listen” is not always the most important factor of a good videogame score.
The pattern from history repeats itself as we are using minimal music to set the tempo for dramatic sequences in works of art, even though it was once used for rituals or marching to battle. Even though a mood needs to be signified in minimal scores (previously mentioned Neverending Nightmares), it’s the tempo accentuating is what great about it. But we can stop here and ask ourselves a question that needs to be asked — is it still art and musical programming similar to Muzak in shopping malls? Music is consumed in great amounts and we expect it everywhere, so that’s why videogames implement it even in more tedious elements of their structure, but usually without much concern. Sometimes something just gotta hum around to fill the silence. So, should it be limited to being a filler for less exciting parts, like mining mini-game in Mass Effect 2?
They is, in fact, a simple type of music, but that doesn’t mean it’s worse. We can find good and poor uses of it in videogames and if it’s good, it is still, in my opinion, not an easy way out of making a „better” action piece. Minimal music and its basis can go along game design choices to make for a better and more exciting experience. I’d argue it goes beyond this, into the sphere of art, where repetition is a conscious and thought-out choice to fully realize the premise of this music in order to deepen the game’s message or meaning. It doesn’t have to be forever bounded by being an idiom of action music and ethnic music. It can be more than a cliché. In Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice ending fight, the idea of music that goes nowhere is a direct reflection of the heroine fighting her own self endlessly. Neverending Nightmares use that music to show lack of purpose and emptiness. Even heavy, industrial metal score of 2016’s DOOM is beating a relentless war march to go along the game’s transgressive character and its stream of joyful slaughter.
It’s only a handful of examples of using the minimal music (its repetition and and simple structure) to a meaningful end, seeing a modest piece as highly expressive and valuable to the narrative or gameplay. That said, just like with ambient, it is worth to look at this music from other perspective, because „easy and nice to listen” is not always the most important factor of a good videogame score. It increases focus, controls the tempo and keeps us mentally on our toes to face any upcoming challenges, but not as emotionally. Simple, seemingly primitive (when compared to concert hall legendaries) music affects us just as much if not more. Hence, we shouldn’t outcast it from a „proper scoring techniques” circle and release it from being viewed mainly from the perspective of orchestral, beautiful music we all love.