Tempo changes in Video Game music

I’ve been playing a fair bit of Braid recently, and I’ve been thinking about the way the music reacts when the player starts playing around with time; I started wondering where else I had seen the use of music tempo used in video games, and I’ve thought of a few. I’d just like to talk about what’s going on in each example, and what it achieves. These are discussed in order of date:

Space Invaders (1978)

There were no good videos for the music

Possibly the simplest music ever designed for a video-game, yet incredibly effective. A descending melody strongly reinforces the idea of “down”, and also matches the speed of the falling aliens. As they near the bottom of the screen the music is becoming really quite fast, and the increased speed means that these 4 simple notes can induce intense panic in the mind of the player. With power like that…who needs an orchestra?


Super Mario Bros (1985)

Again...no useful videos

Similar to Space Invaders, the music in Super Mario Bros speeds up to increase a player’s adrenaline and work them up into frenzy. This isn’t a steady speed-up; it is simply marking out to the player “You’re nearly out of time!” And because the player is already familiar with the music (from the first few minutes of the level), the increased tempo is very distinct to the ear.


Braid (2008)

(skip to 1:30 for a good example of music reversal)

This is an entirely different concept. For those who haven’t played Braid, much of the gameplay requires the player to reverse/screw around with time in various ways. And the music corresponds exactly to what the player is doing with the flow of time; if they reverse time then the music plays backwards, or if they fast-forward time them the music will speed up. At this point something strikes me; from film and television we have come to assume that whereas sound is usually diegetic, most music is non-diegetic. This line seems blurred in Braid in that the player controls the scenario, and the music is directly affected by their actions, which ties the music to the controls, which would imply a diegetic musical role. However the music is not being produced by any specific intrinsic game elements, suggesting the more traditional non-diegetic role.


Red Alert 3 (2008) *CONTAINS SPOILERS*

NB: Final Allied Mission only

This is just for giggles really. In the final Allied mission, the player’s MCVs (Mobile Construction Vehicles…essentially the home base) are shrunk, which speeds up their movement. As you can hear, the music speeds up and goes very high-pitched. Unlike in the previous examples where the musical tempo was providing information to the player, the altered music in this level is purely for entertainment value, adding a cheeky, comical and possible “cute” aspect to the gameplay.


Osmos (2009)

(Skip to 0:50 for Speed-Up)

The music in Osmos reacts in a similar way to Braid; it speeds up/slows down depending on how the player manipulates time. However there are a couple of key differences, the first being that the music is never reversed, and only the speed is changed. The second point is that the speed of the music can never be changed enough to make it incomprehensible; in Braid, the music doesn’t have a “musical appeal” when it is being altered, the change in sound is more functional and short-lived, whereas in Osmos, the changes can last for much longer. As a result, the music still sounds very appropriate at any of the available speeds. The reason the player controls time is either to allow for very specific and granular decisions (i.e. when slowing down time), or to pass time while waiting for opportunities (i.e. speeding it up), and the music is there to reinforce the effect the player is having on the gameplay environment. Again, like Braid, the music in Osmos seems to have a slightly diegetic role in that it is tied to activity within the gameplay, but is clearly based within a non-diegetic dimension.


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One Response to “Tempo changes in Video Game music”

  1. DeadCat Says:

    Nice post, thanks for sharing.

    I’ve never really heard of the idea of ‘diegetics’ before, I find it fascinating, however. How does the idea of the semi-diegetic soundscape affect its function?

    I think it could be used as a kind of fourth-wall breaking device, could get some entertaining storytelling out of it.

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