It is not easy to walk without music — that much I hope I have managed to say in part one of this article. But why exactly do we need music in walking sims? What purpose does it serve in such games?
Above all, as I’ve said already, it serves a dramatic function. It sets the plot in movement, it blows the audience with an emotional charge and stresses the meanings of scenes or sequences. Home stretch of Amnesia: The Machine For Pigs has the player, well, press ‘walk forward button’ and only that, as they make their way into the Machine’s heart, symbolically ascending. It’s begging the player to reconsider their actions, to spare humanity the pain of XXth century in a memorable monologue. Alongside it, Jessica Curry’s violin composition is pulling the game from the murky mood, adding a really sad tone and shifting the game’s focus from fear into a truly horrifying and tragic experience. For me, some of the best musical moments of thechineseroom’s Amnesia are those of piano and violin. It is music that keeps the plot going in various ways (be it industrial ambience or macabre songs) when the narrative (although masterfully written and acted out) slows down to make the player walk, solve puzzles or get spooked. Furthermore, if we look at this game as a psychological horror, music plays a vital role in presenting the characters mental state, as we cannot see him at all times and the moments we hear him are spread out. In some ways, it’s his fear, remorse and pain we hear, even though can’t see it. In that regard, Machine for Pigs is a great example of composition adding another layer of meaning into a game, making us scared and sad at the same time.
If we are played music, a game will immerse us fully and won’t let unimportant sounds distract us.
The next game of this studio developed the walking sim formula even further, dropping the player into an open world. Even though Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’s British countryside is separated into 6 smaller narratives leading to the conclusion, nothing stands in our way to just head for it. Additionally, the game’s release was met with players being unhappy about how slow the avatar is moving in comparison to the map’s size. I’d say it’s a debatable topic, but why I really wasn’t bothered by it, was because of major presence of Jessica Curry’s score throughout the entire experience. Arguably the best of her creations, music of Rapture is an entire fresco – a big, well thought-out composition with themes, lyrics tied into the smallest elements of the story, amazing sound of AIR studios. Its sacral tone and poetry makes us believe that Yaughton was in fact the epicentre of something more than just The End and the stage for the most important, human dramas related to big questions and matters of life and death. Even though that going from scene to scene is admittedly a bit of a slog, music keeps the emotional bond between the player and characters at all times, often commenting what happened with a piece that plays afterwards. On our way to the next beat, next scene or next piece of storytelling, we are at all times being submerged by the music in the mood that is later turned into emotions. In this case, it’s also noteworthy how music adds another layer of narrative into a genre that relies on storytelling. Trivial is transformed into archetypal with music and lyrics such as this:
Keeping the player in a certain mood is no easy task. After all, to get lost in a fictional world of virtual reality is a process that can’t be completed without music. Our brains look for stimuli and if a game won’t provide them, they will do it on their own, most likely pulling our attention to a ticking clock or a dog barking outside. However, if we are played music, a game will immerse us fully and won’t let unimportant sounds distract us. It’s a crucial matter, especially in games from the survival horror genre, because „whether we are fully immersed” translates in fact into „whether we are scared”. Steady game design of those games relies on cycles of giving the player sense of security just to rid them of it a minute later. It’s very efficient and effective, but to keep the player anticipating between scares and puzzles is another matter. If a developer overdoes it, tension in quieter moments becomes a headache. If they let things go a bit too much, the game will cease to be suspenseful.
If a road to an attraction is not as equally well-crafted and designed as the attraction itself, our reception falls apart and our focus is redirected somewhere else.
Samuel LaFlamme composed for Red Barrels’ Outlast 2 something difficult to describe, as his soundtrack is cacophonic at times, experimental, psychodelic, noisy, but at the same time extremely effective (I’d been scared of this music for 4 months before I decided to finally play the game). Some pieces turn escaping from the wild cultists into something bigger, rendering the game’s supernatural mood way more real than it seems. Listening to that music during many of Outlast’s panic chases is equally stressful to Martha quoting the Bible. In those calmer moments, music keeps the player aware with quieter compositions, never letting them forget they are in hell. Even if we don’t dig into interpretation that much, LaFlammes score affects us psychologically. Squeaks, rattling, shrieks, grinding, hissing are all sounds we hate being exposed to as they make us cringe and result in goosebumps, tiring our minds and wearing us out. It may seem masochistic, but walking sims, as they are rather intimate, first-person experience simulators, are just for that. The music helps the game achieve the fear goal, fully realizing the game design’s premise, taking us for a terror simulation with sonic torture included.
Walking music is just as important in real life, as it is in videogames. Moving around — real or virtual — is a big part of our existence. Something so strenuous and routine, yet taking so much of our time, can really bore us out of our minds and music seems to be the best remedy for it, so it’s better not to forget the headphones again. Remembering about music is also what the developers should do — bigger, smaller, more or less independent. In walking simulator games it’s easy to let boredom slip in and waste the efforts of all the talented creators. If a road to an attraction is not as equally well-crafted and designed as the attraction itself, our reception falls apart and directs our focus somewhere else, breaking the immersion. Videogame music must always maintain it! It welds all elements together, hooks the player emotionally in the world they explore and continues the telling when we least expect it.