This morning, as I was getting ready for work, my background soundtrack was the “music” of the video game Minecraft as my eight-year-old step-daughter played before she left for day camp. It was driving me crazy; it felt like it was music that would be used for hypnotism and even felt sad. I remember playing Super Mario Brothers, Excitebike and Zelda in my youth. The music in those games seemed to go with the activity on the screen with the sound effects of motorcycles, doors sliding open, and such. Not having played a video game since circa 1988, I am understandably unfamiliar with how these games work and sound.
My curiosity was piqued and I did a little research this morning on game music. The first record of a game with music is from 1978 (the year I was born!) in the game Space Invaders in which four chords were used throughout the game, increasing in tempo as the gamer progressed further in the game. Now there are music scientists that analyze video game music and conferences for the experts to talk about techniques.
The things they research, discuss and do make total sense: they try to replicate the emotions that the game makers want to induce in the players and the express the emotion of the activity in the game. The music mimics what your body does when you feel emotions in real life: if your avatar is running, the music speeds up to mimic your heartbeat as if you were the one running.
But none of this explains the somber music of Minecraft. A little deeper digging, and I came across this article in The Guardian. From the creator of the Minecraft soundtrack, Daniel Rosenfeld:
“…I decided to work with experimental simplistic acoustic music that doesn’t actually tell you anything about the game.”
It works because the slower tracks give players permission to take their time – Minecraft is a game about making stuff, and Rosenfeld’s gentle minor key songs provide a peaceful sonic playspace.
He also wanted the music to be unobtrusive enough to be easily phased out in the player’s mind. “I almost hoped that they’d only notice it when something interesting happens in the game,” he explains. “That way the player automatically identifies the music specifically with events that they themselves created. Imagine you’re building a house and the sun starts setting, and the theme the music comes in – or you go into a cave and there is lava and there are diamonds, and then the music plays. People still come up to me and tell their story of how they did this or that and then the music came in and it was like magic to them – even though it’s completely random.”
While not a completely satisfactory explanation for the Minecraft music, it is at least an explanation. And now I know more than I did this morning.