Why video game developers are obsessed with evil, mind-altering music

How the makers of games like Psychonauts, Unpacking and JETT use your very ears against you.

Why video game developers are obsessed with evil, mind-altering music
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

According to the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, our universe isn't just a collection of celestial bodies, but a song. Pythagoras and his followers assigned the sun, moon and planets a tone based on their orbits, generating a mathematical harmony latterly known as the “music of the spheres”. This harmony shapes every aspect of human existence, they argued, from our souls to our vital organs, but we're oblivious to it because we hear it from birth. For most of us, it's just background noise.

In JETT: The Far Shore, a video game from Quebec-based Superbrothers, that background noise is given tangible form. Players join a team of explorers searching a distant world for the source of a mysterious ‘hymnwave’, a heavenly broadcast that is the foundation of their religion and society. This hymnwave shapes a planet that consists of percussive flora and animals that are highly sensitive to sound. Your dropship acts as a kind of flying drumstick; the “pop” of its retrorockets bursting crystals and rousing larger bulbs into bloom, sending waves of wildflower rippling over the earth. With no weapons to defend yourself, a sense of rhythm is essential: excessive, offbeat popping may draw the wrath of flying predators.

At first glance, JETT looks like a simple exploration game – go here, scan or pick up this, listen to some dialogue. But it's better thought of as a musical exchange, an attempt to find harmony between habitat and invader – or if not to harmonise, then to explore the consequences of discord. Later on, the hymnwave becomes sinister, amplifying itself into blastwaves that must be boosted through with careful timing. Certain changes in the frequency also begin to affect the minds of your character and her companions, provoking vivid dreams of skull-faced shadows.

Video game storytellers have long been fascinated by the prospect of sounds that can shape both material reality and the human mind, inasmuch as it's possible to draw clean lines between them. Sometimes, they present this mystical music as benign. Another recent release, Psychonauts 2, sees you entering the mind of a person who has spent years in a coma. Their mental landscape takes the form of a kaleidoscopic rock festival, with bodily senses personified as band members who must be tracked down and reunited to perform a comeback hit, restoring the subject's consciousness. The game taps into the association between music and healing: physicians in the Middle Ages prescribed flute and harp music to treat gout, and 20th century doctors played phonograph records to reduce stress during surgery.

There are also, however, many games that regard the idea of such cosmic, mind-altering music with dread. Take The Blackout Club, a Stranger Things-esque multiplayer game in which small-town teenagers set forth each night to investigate an outbreak of mass psychosis. The underside of the town proves to be a vast acoustic instrument of psychic manipulation, honeycombed with organ pipe passages and metal strings plucked at by sleep-walking ’burbanites. In throwback mystery game Chasing Static, meanwhile, you chase radio signals through moon-bleached Welsh woodlands using a handheld antenna. As you near the source of each signal, past events are given shape as flickering silhouettes, the eldritch frequency somehow spilling over into your character's optic nerve.

These experiences build on scientific research into the many and significant (though hard to quantify) effects of sound and music on behaviour. We know many of those effects from daily life. Take supermarkets: studies show that playing upbeat, engaging music increases cognitive activity and makes people more inclined to purchase. Music can also draw crowds tighter together and make people more cooperative. Nonmusical sound can be used as a weapon, whether to deter teenagers from congregating outside a shop, or (reportedly) injure foreign diplomats. The fact that music can affect our minds and bodies is, of course, what makes it so good, but that pleasure is entwined with unease. Folklore is full of myths about songs that enchant or corrupt the unwary listener, from the sirens of classical mythology and the Pied Piper of Hamelin to modern-day moral panics about the effects of pop music on children.

Video game music is well-positioned to explore all this because video games are uncommonly acute examples of using audio to manipulate people without their knowledge. Far from just a mood-setting device, audio is a potent but unobtrusive way of suggesting things to the player, freeing up limited screen space for other purposes. Fire an automatic rifle in a military shooter such as Call Of Duty, and you'll hear an escalating timbre, the rattle of bullets growing tinny as you near the bottom of the magazine. With time, this may become your primary means of tracking how far you are from a reload, saving you the trouble of looking at the ammo readout on the heads-up display.

To pick a more charming example, domestic puzzler Unpacking recreates the sound of innumerable objects on many kinds of surface. As you drag and drop belongings around a series of rooms, your appreciation and understanding of the game rests as much on the sound of materials colliding as their visual arrangement. Horror games, most obviously, layer up and down certain motifs and ambient sounds to foster suspense. With time, your familiarity with these audio devices becomes a weapon the developer can use against you – springing a monster on you when the music suggests you're safe from harm.

Most of the time, audio designers in games are unseen puppet-masters. But in a handful of cases like JETT, they emerge as antagonists. One absolute standout is “rhythm violence” game Thumper, developed by a two-person team including Lightning Bolt bassist Brian Gibson. Here, you guide a silver beetle through a glaring, multi-limbed hell. Deadly twists and obstacles appear ahead in synch with an accelerating, noise-rock score. There's no trace of Pythagorean harmony, here – and zero forgiveness if you miss a beat. You match the tune coming right at you, or you’re smashed to pieces. The manipulative power of video game music is in full view.

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