I’ve recently had an interesting conversation. During one of the recent meetups of Cracow’s (just a small village in Poland) gamedev community, I’ve heard about a game which in terms of ingenuity could compete with such bestsellers as mahjong or chess, and the sound design of which had overshadowed literally everything – including the fun.
The gameplay, supposedly, mostly consisted of throwing boomerangs (infinite number of them) by the main character, and if I’m remembering it correctly, it served as not only a way to kill enemies, but also to solve puzzles. The problem is that the sound effect connected to this mechanics used a male voice and sounded, as I remember the description of my interlocutor, like a grimace of a dying badger. And it made the game literally unplayable.
So I started to wonder – what is the value of the human voice in video game music, in video games? How risky is it to use vocals as part of the gameplay music itself? Would founding the soundtrack entirely on the vocal chords be rather an easy way out for a stagnant composer, or perhaps him being a visionary? Is it even „worth it” to invest in vocals more often than only for the credit songs?
In normal conditions, not disturbed by the chaos of war or alien invasion, human voice draws our attention better than any illusionist. The sound of another human is a signal that information comes our way – and because we can hear it is, in fact, a human speaking, we subconsciously prioritize it. We are, after all, social beings and for the most part, it is interactions with other people that condition our psyche, environment, the needs and desires. This is one of the reasons that songs with lyrics seem to most of us more emotional than their instrumental equivalents.
What is the value of the human voice in video game music, in video games?
The fact that we prioritize the human voice is gracefully used in video games. Their world, as a medium conveying stories about people/beings resembling people and serving as one, big arena or rivalry, gives the vocal chords a place in practically any aspect of this kind of entertainment – throwing life into the story’s characters, signalling the consecutive stadia of the game (Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, League of Legends), commentating an esport event or during Twitch streams. Whether we like it or not, we have been accustomed to a certain headphone psychosis where our ears get constantly attacked by words with seemingly no source.
Those are words, though, that we connect with the „hard” narrative, meaning one that is strictly anchored in the presented world. The protagonist has a voice; space marines have voices; Resident Evil 4’s merchant has a voice. If we looked at human voice in the music, the situation changes drastically. There, vocals are treated like an aggressive spice, changing the flavor of the dish entirely.
It’s also hard to give examples of games in which the composers more eagerly engage vocalists – where they give them space in the gameplay, not only in main menu, cutscenes or at the end of the game. We’ve had The Witcher, Far Cry 2 and its Baaba Maal, Assassin’s Creed II and experiments like Silent Hill 1 or Transistor (the main character is a famous singer in the game’s city, Cloudbank). Yet, nobody is going to say goodbye to choirs (Bloodborne, Blizzard games), and from time to time a completely fresh ideas are being implemented (like in Tom Clancy’s Endwar and its mechanics of commanding the army with our voice)
Here the pioneers are the film music composers, which keep showing that it is possible to use the human voice in a very aggressive way and get very curious results. Although I’m far from being called a Hans Zimmer fan and the Oscar for Black Panther’s soundtrack seems like a stretch to me, we need to give them justice – they arrive at completely new musical lands.
But in the search of new narrative and aesthetic horizons, video game music makers could want to experiment.
Both the battle roars resembling African folklore and Pharell Williams’ whispers in Spider-Man’s soundtrack are something that the movies can afford – because there is no interacting with the viewer, and thus the makers only juggle with their attention, not with what they are engaged in. But looking at how strongly video game music has been coming closer to film music’s fundamentals, it’s easy to forge a theory that the games might also start to engage singers more.
…Which might mean that there will be interesting switches in the credits section. Of course, there is no way the orchestra would ever be abandoned in this scenario. But in the search of new narrative and aesthetic horizons, video game music makers could want to experiment with something that is perceived as one of the most perfect instruments.