|The Cost of Victory
How Videogames Use Music to Critique Player Morality
Since the inception of the medium, videogaming has had a complicated relationship with the concept of victory. Gaming stands apart from almost every other entertainment medium because for the majority of its history and unlike novels, films, and songs, games have not been seen as stories to be experienced but as challenges to be beaten. This is evident in the many competitive and multi-player game genres, where competition and triumphing over your opponents are the primary motivators to play. But as the medium has been evolving and focusing more on creating single-player narrative-driven experiences, it is still struggling with how victory changes that experience. Recently, game developers, particularly within the burgeoning indie scene, have begun directly addressing the issue of victory within their games using gameplay and music to recontextualize exactly what it means to win.
For most of its history, videogaming has been defined by its use of “win states”. Win states are conditions set by a developer that, when met, designate when a player has finished the game. They can be anything, from completing your spaceship to Alpha Centauri in Civilization 5 (2010) to discovering the secrets within the house in Gone Home (2013), though the most common win states tend to focus on reaching the game’s end, usually in the form of “reach the end of the level/beat the boss/complete the story quest”. Win states guide the player by giving them tangible goals to accomplish but this often results in the player viewing the attainment of the win state as the purpose of playing the game. This view makes sense in purely skill-based games, where the challenge of reaching the win state drives the player to overcome the game’s obstacles, and in competitive multiplayer games, where the player is motivated to defeat their opponents. In narrative-driven games, however, viewing win states this way can drastically contrast with the narrative and this can cause significant problems.
Emotionally, win states are inherently good. When a player attains a win state, their brain is sent a signal that rewards them for their achievement and they feel pleasure. This pleasure is good and repeated achievement creates a strong association that winning is good. However, this association can conflict with narratives with downbeat or frustrating endings, where the developers want to induce feelings of sadness, anger, or horror in their audience. This can leave the player feeling ambivalent or even triumphant after, for example, killing hundreds of people. The player feels negatively about committing this atrocity but positively about overcoming the challenge of committing it. At the same time, the obstacles that prevent the player from achieving the win state become an impediment to feeling that pleasure and create a strongly negative association. This means that a player may view anything that gets in the way of their achieving the win state as inherently bad and deserving of destruction, which becomes morally questionable when those obstacles are innocent or deemed undeserving of that destruction.
Compounding the moral difficulties a win state can create is the game’s choice of music. The ability of a song to affect the emotional state of its audience is well-established, and music is used similarly in videogames, described by one game composer as “the unseen character…the emotion behind the actions of the player” (Lane). Developers use their music to reinforce the emotions created by their gameplay. Two of the largest game genres, action and role-playing, frequently use battle themes and victory themes to reinforce feelings of power and triumph in its players. The battle themes of military shooters such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 use loud, string- and drum-heavy soundtracks to emphasize the tense, one man against the world atmosphere of the battlefield (Tyler), and the victory themes of turn-based role-playing games both release the tension built up during battle and proclaim the success of its player through upbeat, brass- and drum-heavy themes, exemplified by the Final Fantasy series (Uematsu). Like win states this emotional reinforcement only works when the actions of the player do not cross any moral boundaries, otherwise, the player may feel conflicted or happy when their actions cause harm.
There have been a number of developers in recent years that have tackled the cognitive dissonance that occurs when player action conflicts with a game’s win state and the three games I have chosen to focus on in this essay each highlight this dissonance through the use of their music. Though each of the three games approach this idea using a different musical style, all three use changes in their soundtrack to recontextualize the actions of the player to force the player to consider what their actions mean.
Released in 2008, Jonathan Blow’s Braid is a two-dimensional platformer and puzzle game that received a lot of acclaim due to its unusual gameplay mechanics. Braid is centered on the manipulation of time; the game’s protagonist, Tim, has the ability to rewind time at will and this ability is the focal point of the rest of Braid’s gameplay, its narrative, and its musical aesthetic. All three of these elements come together in a stunning sequence in the final level that redefines Tim’s identity in the game’s narrative.
The majority of Braid’s gameplay is comprised of the player guiding Tim through several worlds, using his ability to alter time to solve puzzles and collect jigsaw puzzle pieces that are needed to unlock the final world. Each world, comprised of a number of levels, introduces a new time-based mechanic, including platforms that are unaffected by time and a ring that Tim can drop that slows down time in a fixed area. At the beginning of each world is a room full of clouds and books, each containing a small passage about Tim and this is where the bulk of the game’s narrative is contained.
The story of Braid is at once incredibly simple and multi-layered. At the surface level, Tim is simply on a quest to find a princess. The reference to Super Mario Bros (1985) is blatant, even having Tim encounter small, mushroom-like enemies, carnivorous plants, and even an entire level modeled after Donkey Kong (1981). But the passages found within each cloud room suggest that this is not the actual story. There are a number of hints that the Princess may actually be Tim’s ex-wife and that Tim is trying to repair a damaged relationship. In the first world, World 2, the player finds this passage:
He knows she tried to be forgiving, but who can just shrug away a guilty lie, a stab in the back? Such a mistake will change a relationship irreversibly, even if we have learned from the mistake and would never repeat it. The Princess’s eyes grew narrower. She became more distant. (World 2 Cloud Room)
In World 6, where the previously mentioned time-slowing ring is introduced, the passages make reference a wedding ring that Tim once wore but now keeps in his pocket. From these excerpts and others the player can assume that Tim in some way hurt his wife and is now trying to repair the damage he caused. However, the difference between the versions of the journey that Tim sees (search for the Princess) and the player sees (find Tim’s ex-wife) suggests that Tim may be delusional and that his interpretation of the events of the game are not to be taken as true, an intimation that is paid off spectacularly in the final level.
Upon collecting all of the jigsaw puzzle pieces, the player is granted access to the final world, World 1. This deliberate disordering of the worlds not only marks the vents of World 1 as happening first chronologically but it continues to play with the game’s theme of time and memory. It is implied that Tim is remembering what happened in World 1 after travelling through the other five worlds and this is demonstrated by World 1 being played in reverse. Tim still moves forward but the graphics, music, and enemies all flow backward chronologically. Also, the player enters World 1 from the last level and progresses to the first and final level of both the world and the game, appropriately titled Braid.
As a level Braid stands out from the rest of the game. It is actually composed of two separate areas: Tim’s area at the bottom of the screen that is composed of pitfalls, enemies and traps; and the Princess’s area at the top of the screen that is a straight, linear path blocked by several walls. Each path houses several switches that affect the other path; Tim can raise the walls on the Princess’s side and the Princess can deactivate the hazards on Tim’s side. The two paths are kept separate aside from several impassible holes that vertically connect the two.
Upon entering Braid, Tim sees a Knight above him descend into the area carrying the Princess, who escapes from his grasp, calls for help and begins running away. The knight stomps the ground, which summons a wall of flame behind both Tim and the Princess, chasing them through the level. As they escape, Tim and the Princess aid each other, raising platforms, stopping hazards, and opening barriers that prevent them from advancing. Tim and the Princess flee all the way to her castle; the Princess runs to her bed and Tim climbs up to a time-resistant platform just outside her window. The screen flashes and then time freezes. The wall of flame is gone and nothing is moving. Everything remains still until the player reverses time and the events that just played out happen again in the correct order. The Princess finds Tim standing outside her bedroom and runs away and Tim chases after her. The Princess activates traps that attack Tim and Tim closes walls that prevent her from escaping. The impassible holes now house ladders that the Princess prevents Tim from reaching. They run all the way to the beginning, where the Knight stands. The Princess calls for help and then leaps into his arms, and they ascend out of the level, away from Tim.
The second half of Braid irreversibly alters the player’s view of Tim. He is not the hero of this story but the villain, and his fairy tale search for the Princess is a delusion, concocted by the unstable mind of an obsessive man who has lost the object of his obsession. But even before we see who Tim really is, the music subtly tells the reality of his situation. The musical track used, “Undercurrent” by Jami Sieber, is a dark, ominous song with heavy use of violins and cellos that mark the events of Braid as weighty and significant. The reversal of the track gives it an even more ominous sound, as the distorted violins sound eerie and unnatural. This distortion warns the players that hero narrative that Tim has constructed and the events playing out in front of them are themselves distorted. The silent pause outside the Princess’s window, the first time music has been absent from the game, gives the players a moment to ponder what has happened and consider why Tim is lurking outside the window of a sleeping Princess. And then as the player witnesses the true events, the forward motion of the music signifies that this is the correct version of events, though no less ominous or uncomfortable. Braid uses its music like a funhouse mirror, to show its players that the heroic image we are given of its protagonist is a distortion and a delusion that hides the game’s true villain.
Like Braid, Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus also seeks to comment on the villainous actions of supposedly good characters, but unlike Braid, it sets its sights directly on its players. The game views the actions of its protagonist, the Wanderer, and the actions of its players as one in the same. As a result, it criticizes the violent, often monstrous actions made by the player in order to reach the end of the game.
The narrative of Shadow of the Colossus is exceptionally minimalist. A young man travels on horseback to the Forbidden Lands, where a powerful god is sealed away, so he can ask the god to resurrect a young woman. The god agrees on the condition that the young man first kills sixteen Colossi, massive beasts scattered throughout the Forbidden Lands. This miniscule amount of information is all that the player receives until the end of the game. The names of the main characters are never mentioned, nor are the backstory of the Wanderer (the young man), the nature of his relationship with Mono (the young woman), the circumstances of her death, or why he asks Dormin (the god) for help.
This withholding of information was deliberate, done to force the player to consider their actions and the actions of their avatar as separate. The Wanderer does have a reason to kill the colossi but because the player does not know what that reason is they are left without a reason of their own, without a justification for their actions. Instead, the player will blindly follow the instructions of Dormin, a character with unknown intentions, and choose to kill the colossus because they are told to. However, this is not a legitimate reason to kill, so when the game shows the player the consequences of their actions, they have no legitimate defense and are forced to consider exactly what they have done.
Once the opening cutscene ends the player is given control of the Wanderer and directed toward the location of the first colossus, where they begin their first fight. To defeat each colossus the Wanderer must find glowing symbols hidden somewhere on their massive bodies, then climb up the fur and stone that covers their bodies and stab at the symbols until they die. However, this task is not easy. The design of each colossus is unique and often requires solving a puzzle to even begin climbing them. Once the Wanderer does manage to begin climbing he has a limited grip gauge that depletes as he climbs, threatening grave harm if it should empty and he fall. On top of this, the colossi will often attempt to shake off or otherwise attack the Wanderer, especially if he successfully pierces their symbols.
The fights with the colossi are dramatic, full of intense emotional moments: the awe at witnessing the sheer size of the colossi, the exhilaration of climbing up their massive bodies, the tension of nearly running out of grip as the colossi tries to shake you off, and the satisfaction of plunging your sword into their weak spot. The intense battle music only reinforces these emotions, surrounding the player in a cacophony of thundering drums and intense brass and string sections, heightening the tension even further, where each stab at the glowing symbol is a feat in and of itself. And as the health bar of the colossus becomes smaller and smaller, the intensity continues to rise, right up until you raise your sword for the final swing.
And then Shadow of the Colossus pulls the rug out from under you. At the moment that the player makes that final thrust, the tone of the scene instantly changes. The camera pulls away from the Wanderer, instead focusing on the colossus, watching carefully as it collapses into a pitiful heap on the ground. The thrilling music immediately stops and is replaced by an elegy of mourning, a melancholy song whose choir appears to lament the death of the colossus. The Wanderer falls from the body of the colossus but camera does not follow him; the game no longer appears to care, and it is only once the magnificent creature has fallen does the game return to its supposed protagonist. As it does, a heavy silence fills the air and tendrils of corrupting magic leave the corpse of the colossus and infect the Wanderer, knocking him unconscious.
The player is left feeling conflicted. On one hand they have just taken down a creature several times their size with nothing but a sword and a bow, but on the other hand, they are left wondering if the creature deserved to die. The colossus does not initially attack the Wanderer; the player initiates the fight by shooting the colossus with an arrow, an openly aggressive action taken against an otherwise passive creature. The camera’s focus on the colossus and the mournful music accompanying its death give the scene an atmosphere of tragedy, which implicitly paints the player as a monster for killing the colossus. The Wanderer is attacked by the corruption, as if punished for his part in the act. Then the screen fades to black. The Wanderer wakes up in Dormin’s temple and is instructed to kill the next colossus, beginning a cycle that will repeat another fifteen times.
However, the silence that hovers over the journey now feels oppressive, haunting the player with the reality that they have committed a horrendous atrocity and will soon commit another. As each colossus falls, each victory “becomes a truly uncomfortable mix of self-congratulation and self-loathing… [each death] a heavy moral burden for the player to bear” (Gibbons, 132). Each time the player sets out for the next colossus, the vast distance they must cover with no musical accompaniment gives them little to do but contemplate on what they have actually accomplished and if in fact they are the villain of this story. As the Wanderer continues this systematic slaughter of the colossi, the corruption that takes him after each fight slowly degrades his appearance, until he is left a haggard shadow of the man he used to be. The player suffers a similar fate, but whereas the Wanderer’s decay is physical, the player’s decay is moral, as their actions become more horrific with each murder. Once the Wanderer kills the sixteenth and final colossus, his corrupted form is taken over by Dormin, at last revealed as a being of pure malevolence. His fate is a warning to the player that committing monstrous acts – whatever their reason for doing so – will inevitably lead to being consumed by evil.
As effectively as Shadow of the Colossus’s succeeds in criticizing the violence committed by its players, it is nowhere near as blunt in its critique as Dennaton Games’s Hotline Miami. The level of violence in Hotline Miami far exceeds that of some of the most violent military shooters, and not only does the game treat its violence as entertainment but scores the player on their viciousness. But the game uses its ultraviolence and the adrenaline rush it generates to question if the player actually enjoys hurting people for fun, and then forces them to witness the aftermath of their violent killing sprees.
The gameplay of Hotline Miami is fast-paced and aggressive, consisting of the protagonist, a nameless man wearing a white jacket (nicknamed “Jacket”) punching, stabbing, shooting, and otherwise massacring his way through waves of faceless gangsters. Each mission takes place in a different building, many with multiple floors, and they end at the point when every living thing inside is dead. The only in-game justification for the violence is the mysterious caller on Jacket’s answering machine, cryptically instructing him to commit these massacres, though as the game progresses and signs start pointing to Jacket suffering a serious psychological illness, the player suspects that his reasons for killing may be born of a delusion. Of course, in actuality the real justification for committing this violence falls on the player, and in most cases the player’s justification will be that the violence is fun to commit. The player is given a variety of different weapons to use, all of which feel impactful when used: shotguns have a loud kick and visibly shred through enemies, knives quickly cut them down, and repeatedly bashing a knocked out enemy’s head into paste generates visceral thuds and squelches as blood sprays onto the floor. The game awards points for each kill and scoring enough points unlocks new weapons. Quickly chaining together kills earns a score multiplier and beating the level quickly earns a time bonus, so the player is incentivized to charge through the building as fast as possible to maximize their score. The scoring system is designed so players view the enemies not as people but as point totals. This comes into play when the game decides to confront the player.
Hotline Miami uses a unique aesthetic style made up of retro videogames and the 1980s Miami techno scene. The graphics are pixelated and awash in bright neon colours and the camera is positioned directly above Jacket, giving the player a distant, top-down perspective of the carnage playing out below. The result is a distancing of the player from the protagonist; the cartoonish graphics keep the player aware that they are playing a videogame and the top-down perspective literally frames the player as above and beyond the character they play as. The visuals are a reminder to the player that, like Shadow of the Colossus, although the protagonist commits violent acts, the player is the only in control of him and thus is the one actually committing that violence.
The music, on the other hand, does everything it can to reinforce the arcade-y, high-energy action. During each mission one of a number of loud, thudding techno tracks plays overtop the violence. Like the visuals they are a mashup of classic games and 80 techno, blending the sounds and fuzzy audial quality of late 80s gaming technology with the heavy beats and fast, high-pitched rhythms common to techno clubs. Listening to fast-tempo music has been documented to cause reckless behaviour (Brodsky, 238) and this effect is used in Miami, encouraging players to not only ignore the risks the enemies pose in order to earn the highest score, but also ignore the reality of the violence they are committing in order to achieve that score.
However, and again like Shadow of the Colossus, once the player has achieved their objective, the game abruptly shifts in tone. The fast-paced techno that imbued the mission with energy is gone, replaced with a seasick, off-kilter, deeply uncomfortable ambiance that follows the player until they exit the level. Of importance here is that the mission does not end once the last enemy is dead. Instead, the player is required to return to the entrance of the building, walking around the dozens of bloodied corpses strewn throughout. Without the fun gameplay and high-energy music the player is left to consider the consequences of their actions and question whether completing an objective through violent means can actually be considered a success.
Videogaming as a medium has long been constrained by its overreliance on using win states to drive player engagement, for as long as completing a game is equated with victory, the medium will be limited in what kind of stories it can tell. But in the last decade the medium has been evolving and branching out and has seen not only the release of games with dark or tragic endings like Braid (2008) and The Last of Us (2013) but also games that openly challenge the morality of their players such as Hotline Miami (2012) and Spec Ops: The Line (2012). The best examples of these games use every aspect of their design – gameplay, narrative, visuals, and music – to push the boundaries of gaming beyond their limitations.
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