While most games are content to accentuate their melodrama with large orchestras or hard driving guitar tracks, it’s refreshing to see Breath of the Wild take a step in the opposite direction. In the game I’ll ride down the road on my favorite steed and a single piano plays a simple tune, or there’s no music at all. A few notes are hit at the beginning of night or day. Most of the enemy themes gradually build up so that I barely notice their introduction, rising with the action of the battle rather than anticlimactically announcing “This will be epic.”
(There are NO spoilers in this article.)
This shows an excellent symbiosis of the game’s theme and music. One of the definitions of the word wild is uncultivated or uninhabited, and there’s no better way to create this atmosphere than either muting the musical elements or removing them so that they don’t interfere with all the sounds reminding you that you’re in the wilderness. By allowing me to hear the birds tweeting, the river flowing, the wind scraping against valley walls, I’m able to much more easily buy into the isolated ambience I believe they were striving for.
A stylistic choice like this should be an inspiration to other studios, especially since there’s been a surge of survival/wilderness games out there. Articles I’ve read recently keep bringing up the “Less is more” concept. So, I’ll ask, if one was to take this a step further, could a studio produce something behind the concept of “Least is most?1”
When it comes to any artistic medium, be it movies or games, it’s expected that it will come with a soundtrack. Sound effects are also expected if a director really wants to get the most out of their audience. A good example of this might be the rapid violins of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Just thinking about that sound instinctively fill me with fright, which proves it as a powerful element in art. Because of its effectiveness so many composers experiment with noises and music in an effort to imbue something in the audience that might not normally be felt. As someone who’s played a lot of games and watched a lot of movies, it seems like these composers are all competing with each other, searching for that next Inception sound everyone uses in commercials. Everyone is trying to stand out with bigger and stranger noises, but I don’t think it’s occurred to anyone that removing these noises might be the best way to make your art distinctive.
That Inception sound I was referring to, prominent at the end of the trailer:
Breath of the Wild doesn’t give you any options in terms of music; I would have turned it off if this was true. Musically, the game forces itself upon you, which is mostly a good thing. At times it forces you to listen to your environment: footsteps, Link’s labored breathing after he gets injured, the distant thunder warning you of lightning. It’s proving that a game doesn’t need unnecessary embellishment to have an impact on the player.
My hope is that other studios take this approach even further. Too many times have I played a game where I know my enemy is running up on me long before I ever see them because war drums are sounding their arrival. There have been too many “last stand” speeches in games drowned out by escalating music that sounds like its telling me, “You should be getting pumped up for this,” instead of relying solely on the words of the speaker to inspire me. There’s been way too many overtly sentimental scores trying to be a crutch to a supposedly sad scene.
Much of modern gaming is about leaving choices up to the player. Instead of trying to guide them to feel a certain way, wouldn’t it be cooler to remove the theme telling me that we’re currently watching the “bad guy” planning something evil? Wouldn’t it challenge the player in a healthy way to interject a little more ambiguity into the game?
We’ve all experienced life changing moments. We’ve had arguments or debates with others. We’ve had people stand in the way of what we want. There’s never been any background music for those moments, and yet designers and directors keep throwing music on top of pivotal scenes as if the scenes could not exist without it. If you ask people who’ve been in a car accident they’ll tell you there was no foreboding hum before they got smashed in the side. Trumpets don’t start playing every time a person approaches a podium and addresses the crowd. R&B tracks don’t start playing after you break up with someone.
Recently I wiped out while volcano boarding in Nicaragua. There was no orchestra to make things roll along as I was bouncing down the volcano. Mostly it was a lot of confusion and wondering if I would ever stop moving. I came away with some minor scratches, but during the event I had no idea how worried or excited I should’ve been—that’s what made it so real. If developers want to capture something of the real world for the sake of immersion, then there needs to be more moments where you’re blindsided without a guide. That means limiting the guide of music.
I’m not saying to drop music altogether. Part of the problem with a lot of artwork is accepting standards like music without ever challenging their existence. Instituting the standard of “no music” would just create new problems. All I’m saying is that for certain games it might be more impactful on a gamer if nothing extra was added. Too many studios are using soundtracks to compensate for weak character development or poor story-building where the audience might not be normally invested. Breath of the Wild is actually guilty of this too. Some of the cutscenes would look very silly and excessively dramatic if you stripped them down and did away with the music. The gameplay is where the game shines, and I wish they had expanded the minimalist philosophy over to the storytelling.
There are so many other ways to engage the audience. Instead of trying to make them sympathize with a character who lost something, add more backstory involving what the character lost so the player can actually build a relationship with it.2 If there’s a fight scene find new ways to cripple the player character as they battle; give them a limp or add camera effects to show their disorientation. Make the environment impact them (which Zelda does quite well, by the way, with its sweltering hot and freezing cold regions).
Basically, stop heavily relying on a mechanic that has saturated games to the point that it’s become static.
Could this actually be a new trend? Probably not. So much popular art is jacked up with multiple stimuli that audiences will go, “This is boring,” whenever they’re not supplied with a wall of sound. But that’s what’s making Breath of the Wild so unique.3 Maybe someone will pick up on this.
1. That sounds paradoxical and stupid, I know.
2. And while you’re at it stop resorting to killing off characters as an easy way to “impact” the audience. I’m so sick and tired of seeing articles referencing who died on the season finale of Insert-your-TV-show-title-here. There used to be a time where deaths were meaningful because they happened infrequently. Now as I’m watching season finales the whole time I’m wondering, Who’s it going to be, and it’s detracting from everything else. If someone really wanted to shock everyone (I’m looking at you popular zombie show) they’d have a finale where nobody died. That’s the ending no one sees coming. Yes, it’s devastating when you know you’re not going to see someone anymore, but it’s not creative when you’re doing it all the time. The technique just inures the audience. This is very relatable to cussing: if it’s in all the dialogue then no one will notice it, but if you use it sparingly it will be much more effective.*
*Sorry. I really needed to vent and get that out of my system, even if it has nothing to do with the main subject of this article.
3. I understand that other games probably utilize this style and predate Breath of the Wild. I was just using it as an example here.