Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

What Games, Music and Movies have in common?

Hey! I hope you have a great day! You know.. recently I had this impulse to learn something new. I was playing with new things and I stumbled upon the program that simulates the modular synthesizers. A lot of fun I tell you! You mingle and play with all these cables generating more and more of the sounds. The thing is, most of them qualify more like noise screeches and scratches. Not a lot of musical things are going on.

And that pushed me toward the question, why is that? What constitutes the bunch of sounds and noises as a ‘music’?

The complicated world of music

Inevitably I moved with my leaning toward the music theory. It tries to make sense of all that and put it into the set of reasonable theories. Those theories allows you to compose this sounds into something that we — the homo sapiens — recognize as a pleasurable musical experience.

So! I am reading, watching tutorials, explanations and basically hit every material that I can find on this subject. Then I found this guy, who explains the harmony tension in an unusual manner.

“Listen to this two notes! Can you hear how this one is stable? And how tense this one is? It needs a resolution! Music can’t stop here, it has to go somewhere, to go home”

It appears that one of the most basic technique of arrangement in musicianship and composition is: set the base, and then take the listener for an adventure! Create some tension, surprise her, bring the emotion out. And then bring them home, let them feel that they got somewhere, this very feeling of resolution.

Wait for a second! have I not heard that before?

That seems familiar! And it was, of course. It’s the narrative arc, isn’t it? Establish a character and challenge that she/he facing. Show the ups and downs of the journey, and then bring the story to a (good or bad) resolution.

Not only that! I can show you one more example of the base, tension, and resolution in a place that you may not think that much about — the gameplay of video games.

And I am talking here not only about the gameplay. Stories that are told in the games are of course based in the same writing techniques as movies, theater, and books, so they also fit what I just described you.

Excersize in not making game boring

But! Let’s take the gameplay and dismantle it on our mental workbench. To make things streamlined I will focus on just a part of it, but the part that is important for every genre of video entertainment: the pacing.

The pacing of the game is nothing more (in my humble definition) than how much of stimuli we throw at our player at any given moment. How fast she needs to react? How scary the situation is? How difficult?

Basically, everything that requires our player to be more alert, more anxious and fight harder against the challenges that we threw at her contributes to the pacing.

And believe me, getting the pacing just right is as necessary for a good game as any other element of it. Get the pacing too flat and low and the player will get bored. The game will not challenge her enough so all the skill she just acquired will feel quite pointless.

Make the game intensive without any low pace moments and you will have a game that is a pain to play and exhausted player. It will feel more like work than entertainment. It’s like playing hight pitch note all the time. First few seconds may get you excited about what’s coming next, but if nothing comes, then it will be just ear pain. Followed shortly by disappointment.

So you probably guessed where I am going with it. It seems to me that the concept of establishing a base, creating the tension and finishing with the satisfying resolution is universal to the storytelling. It’s just that satisfying.

It’s all about the story and journey

I do consider how the game is designed and how the music is composed both to be storytelling. Music tells me the story of struggle, love, fear and fight. Do you remember 1812 by great Tchaikovsky? You can learn all about Napoleon invading Russia just by listening to this.

But it can’t be done with one note, it cannot be done without the context. A note cannot feel sad or happy unless it follows another note which has prepared the stage for it.

Similarly, the game is taking you for an adventure and trip where you will learn new skills to beat the challenges that we - as the game developers create for you. One of the marks of the great game is that you are happy that you are getting better at the game.

Let me get back to the movie story for a second to illustrate it from this perspective.

The hopeless hero example

Tell me if it sounds familiar: you watch a sci-fi movie with a protagonist who is introduced to you as a gentle scientist. Then the problem arrives in the form of a company of aliens as ugly as their temper. Our hero gets a gun and go to help his crewmates. The next scene we are thrown with him into the gunfight where he eliminates tens of aliens with the proficiency of Space Marine. The only thing that he is apparently better at than shooting in this scene is throwing badass one-liners about the alien’s ancestors.

That does not feel right. The dissonance is too high, and we can’t understand what’s happening. For a good reason: we have not been shown the process that took nice pacifist scientist to the superhero badass fighter.

Something is missing and we can feel this missing part and it stings us. It was not a transformation, it was a sudden jump from the ‘base’ to the ‘resolution’ that left us confused and in my case truly annoyed. Especially if I get a shitty explanation after the fact. Something along the line of “you know, I was a good sport shooter in the high school”.

Sure… and that also prepared you for the fear, emotional distress of gunfight and grenade throwing yup. If that was the case army training programs would be much simpler.

Flatline of emotions

What I am trying to say here is that we do want to be surprised by the outcome, but we also like to understand how we got surprised.

Let me illustrate it with an example that is done so wrong so often that it annoys the heaven out of me — jump scares.

A good jump scare can get your heart pumping and is an old and respected movie technique. But have you watched the movie where jumpscares are apparently the only thing that the director uses? You roll eyes after the fifth scare, after tenth you are bored. Two more and you get the hell out of the cinema because the director apparently doesn’t respect your ability to connect the facts.

Surprise, by its very definition, changes circumstances in an unexpected way. If all that happens is ‘unexpected’ it becomes the opposite. It becomes a baseline. At this point, any logical and calm proceeding of the event becomes surprise by itself.

We, the audience, are human. We adapt.

So why is that? Where all those similarities come from?

If I would have to make a guess, my bet would be on the fact that all these media share a common and very ancient root. It’s hard to overestimate how important in the history of our species was the ability to tell the stories. It has been passing down the wisdom and knowledge for countless generations. It also entertains us, warns us and tries to explain our lives. It’s amazingly universal no matter the tools that we use to tell it.

And I just think this is the way we like to be told our stories. With the base, tension, and resolution. Just like probably our ancestors gathered around the campfire did.