Some Video Games Are Better Without Music

I think it goes without saying that I love music in video games. But not all games require a soundtrack, and in fact, some games that have a soundtrack are better without it.

Music can be a distraction, an unnecessary layer of sound that pulls attention away from the game in question rather than enhancing it. Sometimes, there's nothing else to do but turn the music off.

The first big-budget game that made me turn off the music was Fallout: New Vegas. I played for a handful of hours and found myself feeling smothered by the endless mournful strings and guitars that played as I wandered the wastes. Every time the music would stop, I'd hear the wind in my ears, the chirping of insects. The desolation around me felt palpable; it was a breath of fresh post-apocalypse.

And then, the music would start up again. Endless syrupy strings and mournful guitars.

So, I turned it off. I never play that game with the music on anymore (though I do still listen to the excellent in-game radio stations). In fact, when I go back to Fallout 3, I do the same thing.

I think it's something about open spaces, at least for me. I adore Bill Elm and Woody Jackson's music for Red Dead Redemption, but sometimes I just don't want to hear music in that game. I want to wander the prairie, me and my horse, and take in the fantastic sound design, which I've long thought to be some of the best of all time. The sound design is almost a musical score of its own; and while its interplay with the dynamic music in the game is organic and never feels crowded, sometimes it's cool to just listen to the audio on its own.

(Seriously, I recommend doing that. Even if you haven't played RDR in a while. Boot it up, turn off the music, and put on headphones. Go sit on the prairie, close your eyes and listen. Notice every sound that comes and goes. It's really cool.)

Sometimes I'd turn off the music in Bioshock and Bioshock 2, as well. As amazing as the music in that game was, there were times where exploring Rapture while taking in the ear-bustingly incredible sound design was enough.

Is it a sin to turn off the music in a game? No. I remember a while back, boss-man Stephen Totilo wrote a thoughtful editorial about how he finally decided to turn off some games' music.

He, too, found himself turning off the music to Red Dead Redemption, though he was doing it to listen to podcasts at while playing. I've met a lot of people who do their podcast-listening while playing Minecraft, and while I personally love the music and audio to that game, I can also understand turning it off and listening to other things.

Stephen also mentioned listening to podcasts while playing iPhone games, and there I also agree with him. A while back, I played an obscene amount of Bookworm for the iPhone, but I found that in very little time, the music made me go a little bonkers. It took me far too long to realise that I could listen to whatever I wanted while I played, particularly as I was playing on a device that held my entire music collection! But rather than any albums I owned, I listened to podcasts.

In difficult action games, I'll find that the music makes it harder for me to focus; in fact, the audio in general can be overwhelming and distracting. When I get stuck on a particularly difficult boss in, say, God of War II or Bayonetta, I often find that the only way I can make it through is to take off my headphones or mute my speakers and play with no or very low audio. Suddenly, things feel far less complicated and I'm able to focus on the task at hand. It's sort of my last-ditch technique for getting past a frustrating boss.

I'm the last guy who would ever make some sort of sweeping generality about video games not needing music. Music is an essential part of life just as it's an essential part of all of my favourite games. More than any other aspect, is the thing that ties me emotionally to video games in general. But sometimes, I just need to play without it.

I'm guessing it's not just me, so I'm curious: What games inspire you to turn the music off?


Comments

    I ALWAYS turn the music off in FPS type games. Things like street fighter etc, it doesn't bother me, but when I'm roaming around Skyrim or running around shooting people, I just can't stand having the music on. Especially if there's any kind of stealth element to the game. I like to be able to hear footsteps etc, not have them drowned out by music

      Wow, you missed out big time bro. The music in Skyrim was amazing. The timing on it was perfect as well. There were times when shit would get real, and the dragonborn theme would come blaring on, it sent chills down my spine.

        The music in Skyrim is good, but not amazing. Its rather repetitive too.

    I did the same with Fallout 3, and GTA Vice City. Except with the latter I turned off the radio and put on my own music. The first time I was reall compelled to turn off the music though was with Dead Space, because I found the music would alert me to enemies before I could see them. Plus the music added little to the intensity and I found that the game became much more contextually atmospheric with nothing but the sounds of a spaceship. Since then, I tend to keep the tunes off for most horror games to make them feel more realistic in a sense, except with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The music in that was perfect, and really added to the overall intensity.

    System Shock 2 had an incredibly out of place techno soundtrack, the Von Braun was about 90% creepier just turning that off. There's other games where I've found the lack of music jarring. Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine in the Hamilayas was made all the better by playing The Last Crusade OST in the background.

      While I agree with the article, I have to disagree with your comment about System Shock 2 - I loved that soundtrack! For me, anyway, it added to the atmosphere. Thinking about it though, if I had turned it off completely, the game would still have been scary as hell.

    Some games like splinter cell and far cry are ruined by the soundtrack. Whenever an event happens and the music changes ruins it for me.

    I really wish you could have turned off the music in Resident Evil 4; I found myself really irritated when the music would start as soon as the first enemy arrives, and stop the instant the last enemy is dead. It took away from the tension. Having said that, it never occurred to me to turn the music off in Dead Space, but I absolutely will the next time I play it.
    Largely I tend leave the music on but some games in my collection would definitely benefit from it being absent...

    For some reason I always thought Closer to the Edge would fit with Fallout NV. It probably wouldn't, but it always seemed to work in my mind.

    I turn off the music when playing Left 4 Dead not because I dislike the music but because it gives away which special infected are approaching and when. It's much more intense when I'm not alerted to their presence.

    Yeah, usually with Open world games, I'll listen to the music for a fair while, than turn it off for pure ambience. Fallouts, elder scrolls, gta, red dead etc.

    Some films are, too. I was shocked when I discovered that No Country for Old Men had no soundtrack.... I never realized that while watching it!

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