Music plays a crucial role in video games. Really all forms of audio/visual entertainment, but let’s stick with video games here because that’s what I write about and that’s what you’re here for. But seriously: the sounds that come from your TV while you jump around and shoot everything are vital to your experience. Did you listen to the latest Critical Music? If you played any of those games, it’s likely that you were able to identify them solely by the song.
The sounds of a game play just as much, if not more, into the DNA of a game than the visuals. When you hear the choral thumping of the Halo theme or perhaps the victory shrill of a Final Fantasy battle, so much more is dredged up from the murky depths of your fading memory than if you were shown a screenshot or a title splash. In fact, if you ask some people about Hotline Miami, they’ll say you might as well just listen to soundtrack instead of play the game because that’s how much it plays into the experience.
But did you ever consider what happens when the sounds are taken away? Probably not. Sort of like how nobody realized that Garfield turns into a grave experiment in existentialism when you remove the titular tabby cat, it’s kind of hard to conceive what a game is like without the music until you turn it off.
It’s something I first noticed back when the Xbox 360 first came out. My friend had gotten that and Need for Speed: Most Wanted (but, you know, the 2005 version), and we played it without the default music. Back then, when customizing things happened just for the sake of customization, it was a huge selling point that we were able to play our dumb music instead of EA Black Box’s dumb music. But one time, the music didn’t play. One time, we played in silence.
Think back to 2001 when you watched The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in theaters. Think to the battle with the troll in the caves. If you recall, the music builds and builds as it dawns on everyone that coming down through Moria was pretty much the worst idea any of them has had in a long time, but when the battle finally starts, the music stops. The effect of the lack of music is almost smothering. You are just about drowning in the silence and it’s almost unbearable. Every clang and scream and death rattle lingers in the air, unearthed from every uncomfortable corner of your brain and brought to light. It’s just you and the violence, and it is striking to say the least.
This is the same experience I had with Most Wanted. Just as the race against Wes “Webster” Allen was starting, our custom soundtrack of Green Day suddenly cut out and I was left with nothing but the road noise of two cars racing through these empty streets. The silence gave every screeching drift and every groaning shift such heavy doses of gravitas that I thought I was going to have a heart attack. The empty streets mimicked the emptiness of the race. It had become hollow at this point, a rote exercise on my way to defeating Razor Callahan. Questions began to crop up. Is this what I want? Is this what Razor wants? Why do I bother?
All this due to the silence. All this due to a happy, morose accident.
So now, once I’ve gone through a game, I tend to go back just a little longer and either turn down the music of the game or the sounds altogether if that’s my only option. Some games work; others don’t. Super Hexagon actually becomes a tad easier without subconsciously syncing your motions with the thumping soundtrack, but the pulsing beats—the rapid rising and falling physical reaction you have—is key to Hotline Miami. The somatic response you have to the music is necessary for carrying the murderous impulse you have to your actions in the game. The character has, ostensibly, a surge of adrenaline in killing these thugs, his hands shaking from the sheer thrill of it, just as your entire body is engaged by the auditory call of the game.
The most compelling argument for giving these silent runs a whirl, though, is somewhat unexpected: Super Mario Galaxy. I say somewhat because, well, it’s space, an already muted, solitary experience if there ever was one, but still: it’s a powerful moment when it all clicks. The normally jubilant Mario game unexpectedly turns into a somber tear through the empty void. The blackness becomes all-encompassing; the varied and plentiful colors mocking you. These rainbow pills floating in the darkness like pointless medication, fighting an overwhelming depression, an omnipresent dread that you can only know by staring in the void—and seeing that nothing stares back.
Your yahoos! are lost in the vacuum, swallowed whole by the deafening silence. Every long, lazy jump you make between these capsule planets ends in a hollow *whomp* that seems to echo the original stark moon landing. Left, right, left, right. Neil Armstrong’s bounding steps make Mario’s enthusiastic leaps into the emptiness seem reckless, though you know you’ll always land back on solid ground. The contrast of that iconic 1969 footage makes you question much of what Galaxy purports: is he mocking space and its endless, peerless night? Or is it that he’s mocking you, pointing out the futility of your exuberance on these tiny planets when there is so much out in space that is forever unconcerned with whatever it is you do?
Deafening. Suffocating. Defeating. You are engulfed in the silence so that everything else is made more apparent and plain. You are deaf, so you see everything. You are blind, so you hear all the more. In that same way, everything once perfunctory and secondary to whatever game you are playing immediately becomes chief to the experience because that is all there is. You are filling in the gaps left by the silence with whatever you can find.
It just so happens that you are filling it with crazy. You are filling it with stoicism and you are filling it with questions. So maybe next time you are playing your favorite video game, turn off the music. Turn it right off and see what questions you ask. You may be surprised.