But WHY Is Portal 2's Music So Great?

One of the highlights of Portal 2, like it was with the first game, is its music. Most will agree that it's a wonderful soundtrack, perfect to accompany the on-screen action, but just why is that the case?

Dan Bruno has an idea, and it uses sound editor Walter Murch's theory of the "aural spectrum". According to this spectrum, speech (which is "encoded" sound) lies at one end, the "violet end", with music (which is "embodied", in other words, raw sound) at the other end. The "red" end.

Lying between those two are sound effects, which are both "embodied" in that they're raw sound, but also "encoded" in that they require an understanding of what they're representing for us to understand them. They're "yellow". That's the simple version; for the full thing, you can read it in detail here.

Anyway, Bruno's idea, and I like where he's going with this, is that Portal 2 lies between the violet and the red in an "orange" point on the spectrum, because it pushes "sound effects and music towards each other".

He argues, with embedded examples, that Portal 2's sound effects work as musical events, programmed to form as much a part of the soundtrack to your progression as the actual, well, soundtrack. Combine this with the fact Portal 2 already has an "interactive soundtrack" of sorts, with music changing in tempo depending on what you're doing, and you can see where this all comes together.

You can hear examples for yourself at the link below, the best probably being the "floaty high-pitched arpeggio" you hear when bounding off a jump pad.

Music and sound in Portal 2 [Cruise Elroy, via GameSetWatch]


Comments

    This is similar to the system used in LucasArts games from the 90s: iMuse.

    I love the way the sound works in Portal 2, but it has been done before.

      There was actually a ridiculously over the top snowboarding game on original xbox that had a soundtrack that would take actual songs and they'd build on themselves the better you were doing. So if you crashed you'd be reset back to just the most basic beat and as you did better the song would build in complexity. Go off a hugeass jump and it'd get a bit more simple and run a flanger over the beat to give an "up in the air" sort of feel.

      I know, it's not exactly the same thing but it's another example of contextual music working to immerse you in a game. Music can help immersion so much.

      Oh and the music in Portal 2 kinda reminds me of the more ambient stuff done by Solar Fields. In fact this convergence of "sound effects and music" really isn't a new thing as far as electronica is concerned :P

        I personally believe music is the most powerful immersion tool. It is ironic that something that doesn't apply to real life (last time I checked, we didn't have emotionally appropriate themes following us around) is what really contributes to your absorption into the game.

        Ironic because commonly talked about 'immersion breakers' are based off how much they conflict with real life, eg, UI on the screen. Music is a prime example why immersion should be based off emotion and not logic.

    As a fan of music from classic jRPGs (and Dune 2 / C&C), I've always found modern game music to be mostly ambience and completely forgettable.

    I miss having catchy memorable tunes that stay with you even after you've stopped playing the game. Probably the only recent one I can think of is the Ar Tonelico series.

    Granted, musical preference differs between everyone, but I think overall recent games tend to treat music as a backdrop rather than something powerful in its own right.

      I completely agree. For some reason I cannot fathom, Western game composers seems to be allergic to melody. Without melody, you will forget the song as soon as it stops playing, if you even notice it to begin with. This is one of the few things that Japanese games seem to do objectively better.

      Portal 2 is one of the few Western games I've played that had decent music and even then I sure wouldn't be able to hum you a tune from it on the spot. ('Want you gone' is a special exception of course).

      Guild wars? That game had some great music.

    Monty on the Run had the best music of any video game ever!

    Assassin's Creed 2, the music played during the Thief racing sequences "Venice Rooftops" was incredible for setting the tone and pace of the mission at hand.

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