Soundtracks and Immersion

I’ve found that the first thing I examine whenever I form an opinion on a movie, TV show, or video game is the soundtrack. To me, it’s the most natural progression for me: does the music match the content? Is the soundtrack aurally pleasing? Does it pull me into the media?

This past weekend, I went to Boston to go to the Symphony of Goddesses, a concert comprised of the music from the Legend of Zelda series, which is now more than thirty years old. It was an amazing experience as a fan of the LoZ series, a musician, and an audio-visual synesthete. There were moments when I was so overcome by the music that I found myself breathing in time to the music – if I was breathing at all. The fact that I was listening to such a large part of my childhood and my experience of growing into who I am today had a huge impact on me. If I were to sum up the concert in a sentence, I’d have to say that the music hit me like a truck, and the nostalgia hit me like a train.

The music hit me like a truck, and the nostalgia hit me like a train.
The music hit me like a truck, and the nostalgia hit me like a train.

What is it about soundtracks that affect our immersion so intensely? I’m not sure I know any precise answers to that question. What I do know is that the soundtrack was the difference between me playing as Link and fighting Ganondorf and actually fighting Ganondorf. I wasn’t just a girl with a Nintendo 64 controller in her hands when Ganondorf used the Triforce of Power and became Ganon, I was Link, exhausted from fighting Ganondorf only to find that I had to defeat a demon boar about three times my size.

I had to defeat a demon boar about three times my size.

The vast majority of that distinction came from the soundtrack. Of course, when Ocarina of Time was out on the Nintendo 64, video game soundtracks hadn’t quite come far enough to pull off what Symphony of the Goddesses did, but there were enough layers of sound to mark a difference between Ganon’s fight and the rest of the soundtrack. Hearing a full brass section play Ganondorf’s theme in Symphony of the Goddesses brought back the memory of the suspense and even fear (of losing the game and playing through all of that just to lose to a huge pig) that I felt while playing the game, tenfold.

Maybe it’s because I literally see what I hear in colors (#synesthetepowers) but I’m a sucker for good soundtracks. Usually, when I say “good”, I mean “fitting”, so for example, although I find the Lavender Town theme from Pokemon Red extremely jarring (especially because that C# DEFINITELY doesn’t doesn’t belong with the blue and green and yellow of the rest of the theme), I think it’s good because it’s fitting for what the game is trying to go for: a quiet town with some really creepy secrets.

a quiet town with some really creepy secrets

On the flip side, I find it almost impossible to get into any kind of media if the soundtrack is too far off. Even if all the other pieces are in place, if the soundtrack isn’t there, then I can’t stay in the game. A few games that I’ve tried have that problem, especially in games like KartRider and Sudden Attack where the music doesn’t fit the stage (track, in KartRider) or I just don’t see the point of having music, as is the case with Sudden Attack [Disclaimer: it’s been years since I’ve played these games and I’ve seen and heard a lot about major overhauls and updates so this may be outdated information].

What kind of effect do soundtracks (good or bad) have on you? Do they majorly affect your perception of the movies you watch or the games you play?

0 thoughts on “Soundtracks and Immersion

  1. Absolutely fascinating…as someone who often commits the cardinal sin of muting the game music and listening to podcasts instead (only so many hours in a day where I’m not dragging my way through classwork or homework, gotta make the most of them!), this was an eye-opening read.

  2. I’m curious to know what you see when you hear sounds. I’ve always found synesthesia fascinating and I have never met a synesthete before!

  3. This is really interesting! I really love soundtracks in general, but like Ott there are times when I just have too many things going on, so I mute games. I don’t find it completely necessary to play with music/sound all of the time.

    I’m curious, which soundtracks are some of your favorites and why?

  4. I totally agree how important the soundtrack is to the immersiveness and overall experience of a video game. One of my favorite gaming memories is in Red Dead Redemption where they play an extremely dramatic piece as you ride across the sunset into Mexico.

  5. Yes, Soundtracks make a game! A bad soundtrack can easily be a deal breaker for me but if a game has good music I can become immersed in it for hours.

    Games like Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2, GTA:San Andreas, and NBA Streets:Vol. 2 were such a huge part of my childhood and I specifically remember playing them a lot more than I should have because of the music.

  6. Soundtracks are probably my favorite parts of a game! I love when soundtracks are worked into the game play, always a cool little thing.

  7. For me the soundtrack is definitely an important aspect of the overall quality of any game. Most of the music on my ipod and youtube playlists are the soundtracks to my favorite games and even some that I’ve never gotten the chance to play but still love.

  8. One of my favorite videogame memories is from Red Dead Redemption in a scene where your character rides a horse across the sunset into Mexico. The feeling of success in unlocking the next area of the storyline, and an otherwise cliché scene are transformed completely by an epic score. For those who haven’t played the game:

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