How music shapes the way we play video games

How music shapes the way we play video games

In 2020’s Ori and the Will of Wisps, the vast majority of the emotional game is free-roaming exploration, whether it’s jumping and climbing in the soft, hazy forest of the Wellspring, swimming and gliding through the aqua blues and popping pinks of the Luma Pools, or digging like a drill through the tan sands of the Windswept Wastes. That exploration and platforming (and small enemy encounters) are punctuated by these difficult, adrenaline-triggering chases and boss battles that stick out like mountains amid the rolling hills of challenge that make up the rest of the game. For a player, there’s a huge difference in feeling between those sections of the game. For composer Gareth Coker, he makes sure his music gets that feeling right in both cases.
Coker composed both Ori games and has also scored music for other games including Ark: Survival Evolved and Minecraft. Before that, he started piano at the age of 8, went to school for music thanks to his ability to write melodies, and started putting his music up online to places like ModDB, a site for gamemakers and modders to share addons and mods they created for games.
In a phone interview, Coker described the delicate, stirring music during regular Ori gameplay as “fairly not in your face,” but when those big moments hit, he hits players over the head with a musical sledgehammer.
“They want moments,” Coker said of players.
In order to create a moment, it has to stand out in terms of gameplay, story writing, and music. Not only does that mean that everything has to have elevated intensity in those moments, but the rest of the game has to facilitate that elevation. From Coker’s perspective, all of the music in Ori exists on this intensity scale. There’s the low end which is regular gameplay, the medium space which includes mandatory combat sequences where players have to defeat an enemy or a few enemies before moving on, and then the high end for chases and boss fights.
“Having that differentiation between combat music and boss fight music and then regular gameplay music and there being quite a wide dynamic range between all three of them is the key to building an emotional experience,” he said. “If you have everything at 10 all the time, it’s just not going to register.”
When Ori does hit 10, it’s really something. Coker pointed to his work on the gripping song “Mora the Spider” that plays during the boss fight against a huge spider named Mora, deep in the dark tunnels of the Mouldwood Depths. The fight has three phases, starting with a typical first phase in a room with the big spider and bold, scary, spidery music. Around halfway through, a shift happens and Mora chases the player up a rotten tree to a new area. The music transitions dynamically along the way and lands in a space that’s like a more optimistic, bombastic version of the first phase’s music.

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