by Daniel Bullard-Bates
“Supposedly Cousteau and his cronies invented the idea of putting walkie-talkies into the helmet. But we made ours with a special rabbit ear on the top so we could pipe in some music.”
Modern video games give us a number of ways to customize our experiences; we can change the outfits the characters wear, the weapons and vehicles they use, and in some cases even change the appearances, skills, and powers of the characters themselves. This is one of the great advantages of the interactivity and malleability of video games: they allow us to have unique, individual experiences that fit our tastes. So why are we stuck with the soundtracks the designers have chosen?
The music we hear has an enormous impact on our enjoyment of the games we play. I wrote off the RPG Blue Dragon entirely based on the fact that the battle music was some kind of horrid thrash-metal abomination, and a surefire way to irritate someone is by having a boring tune play throughout long sections of gameplay. Anyone who has gotten stuck on a puzzle in the Professor Layton games or spent any extended time with the Magic: The Gathering Xbox Live Arcade game will probably voice their irritation with the music.
When I first started playing Burnout: Paradise, I found myself enjoying the driving but annoyed by most of the songs that played in the background. Imagine my delight when I discovered that the soundtrack, although limited in scope, could be customized to leave out certain songs or genres entirely. Soon my races bordered on the sublime, as classical piano accentuated each terrible crash and slow-motion leap.
A customizable soundtrack may not make sense for every moment in every game. For the most intense, authored moments in story-driven games, I understand the desire of the designers to maintain their control over the music and emotional cues. That being said, I think that designers could find a lot more excuses to allow the player to customize what they are hearing. In Mass Effect 2, there are a few options for what type of music plays in Shepard’s personal quarters. Why not let the player pick the soundtrack for less important missions, like those that take place on uncharted worlds? Like Steve Zissou, maybe Shepard could have the helmets rigged with little radios to pipe some music into them. That way the team could listen to something to keep them calm or get them primed for combat. It might help with morale in the vasty nothingness of space.
The various radio stations in Grand Theft Auto games are a fantastic idea, but they would be even better if they played the same song for everyone sitting in the same car when playing online. That shared experience of hurtling through Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV and listening to a great classic rock tune while running from the cops is the kind of scene that movies are built around. Turning on a jukebox in BioShock or Left 4 Dead 2 can result in some inspiring moments of music-fueled violence. Fallout 3’s radio stations were a good idea, but the options were too limited; Three Dog’s record collection was pathetic, and he had no worthy competition in the wasteland. Understandable, but unfortunate.
While visuals are set in stone by the time video games release, the idea of a customizable experience has brought the medium to a place where the way a game is played or the writing that is experienced can be different from one player to the next. Giving the player some control over what they hear can provide a greater sense of involvement and simultaneously make the game better fitted to individual tastes. After all, human beings cannot live on heavy metal and synthetic instruments alone.