When we defeat a boss in one of FromSoftware’s games, it’s safe to say that – with our hearts pumping and hands shaking — we are rewarded with one of the best feelings in gaming.
Always somber, playing high tones, big and Wagnerish, it catered to the monumental atmosphere of the bosses.
Overcoming something so difficult after losing hope because of all the fruitless attempts is truly amazing and one-of-a-kind experience. For a good reason — FromSoft’s design of bossfights is their staple that utilizes theatrics, menacing enemies, varied movesets and grandiose music to form an epic duel that will drain the life out of you. The shaking hands after an edge-of-the-seat fight is what we love receiving game after game, celebrating the victory after the screams, slashes and orchestra stop playing.
Music — despite FromSoft having various composers throughout the years — has remained in the same place. Always somber, playing high tones, big and Wagnerish, it catered to the monumental atmosphere of the bosses, their arenas and their importance to the games’ lore, always hinting that they are a menacing, skilled enemy crucial to the storyline. They also serve as a change of pace and as a reward after progressing through a level full of small fish enemies in complete silence. Cue the music, walk through the fog and hope for the best. That is how it’s been even when FromSoft shed its skin by releasing Sekiro.
We all should look not only for what music gives us, but for what it takes away as well — control, pleasure, concentration.
The idea has remained because it mostly works. Why change something that isn’t broken? Lady Maria or Dancer of the Borreal Valley are on of the best gaming moments you can give yourself and the discussions about Soulsborne music usually end at how good a piece is or when it will finally be released officially. Not if the piece is properly balanced to the game’s difficulty and tempo, clearly putting art above balancing the experience. We do that because those bossfights are awe-inspiring and their soundtracks are usually regarded as good orchestral music. But what if we changed the perspective from the music to the game?
After playing Sekiro, something cracked and — being a person who does not love that kind of music this much but has a soft spot for Soulsborne music — I noticed that — intentionally or unintentionally — music is yet another thing designed to crush you and fight you, being ultimately disruptive towards the player experience and reducing their odds of winning. There are some moments in life when we turn of the music to focus better and be sure we won’t make a mistake, like parking a car when usually radios are turned off. But imagine parking or doing anything demanding for you with music on, with additionally it being Ride of the Valkyries, while fighting the urge to turn it off. A nightmare, isn’t it?
That „artificial” fear (which appears because we are hardwired to respond to this kind of music in a certain way) makes things twice as bad than they really are.
Sure, then a fight is more dramatic, the adrenaline kicks stronger, the aesthetics work nicely, but the game becomes more difficult then it really is and at the same time as hard as we want it be. The point is that our perception of music in those moments is a double-edged sword. The music occupies our attention so much that we feel like our abilities are limited because we want to be enchanted by the experience more than we want to excel at the challenge. We love having our wings clipped by music in those games, but even though I see the music as pointless noise here, it is justifiable in Soulsborne games to some extent, as the bossfights are fairly simple (but not easy) as mentioned above. It is ultimately limited to three buttons that solve all of your problems (attack, dodge, heal) and there is only one reaction to a plethora of attacks — dodge. Music has be to extremely complicated and loud to mess with such simple concept.
Soulsborne music is that annoying radio music sometimes, despite its beauty, magnitude and poetry. Not per se, but in the broader context of having to fully concentrate on a difficult foe, managing life and stamina, responding to status effects and reading the enemy’s moves. Then — despite the art — it’s a distraction and it’s unnerving, ultimately being an obstacle in itself that you have to fight through mentally not to let it defeat you. Even the easiest and most gimmicky of the bossfights can be potentially suspenseful because the music tells us so, not because they really are (Micolash, Curse-rotten Greatwood). A slightly psychodelic, oppressive music can turn a breeze of an enemy into something bigger, and that „artificial” fear (which appears because we are hardwired to respond to this kind of music in a certain way) makes things twice as bad than they really are.
Compare how the video feels while listening to the track above.
In Bloodborne, Bloodstarved beast’s music is horror distilled into sounds and the second half of the piece makes you fight it more than you need to fight the monstrosity. You struggle for control, cold blood and steady hand. It’s frustrating but extremely rewarding to overcome that fear, even though you die 30 times before you win. The music is not helping you either, it plays against you. If you turn it off or turn your sight to, say, Mergo’s Wet Nurse (which has dirty tricks but only features a looped music-box melody), you will see the fight is a child’s play.
And you gotta give it to FromSoft for finding ways to torment us and getting us to like it.
That said, I am not saying (yet) that too much music is bad in such instance as we all enjoy being tormented, but we all should look not only for what music gives us, but for what it takes away as well — control, pleasure, concentration. It’s not always about art, sometimes it’s about balanced challenge and fun. And you gotta give it to FromSoft for finding ways to torment us and getting us to like it, even in music department. More in Part II.