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Restrained Use Of Music As Part Of Game Design: A Case Study Of Shadow Of The Colossus

Savor those moments of silence…

A couple of blog posts ago I talked about how Death Stranding has one of the most strange and unique appeal in terms of gameplay, yet I felt there was something that I forgot to cover in that post. And weirdly enough, I always felt that Death Stranding shares the same atmosphere and with another game, Shadow of the Colossus. Why?

In this analysis I will demonstrate how Shadow of the Colossus and Death Stranding share a similar restrained use of music and soundtrack to elicit strong emotions from the players, and ultimately tell deeply moving stories.

Upon first sight, both Shadow of the Colossus and Death Stranding relies on cinematic moments, for example the beginning cutscenes of the game, coupled with specifically composed soundtracks to prepare and foreshadow the tone and emotion of the upcoming journey. This choice is quite common among cinematic games these days. What discriminate these two games from many others is, however, the lack of music for the majority of the gameplay. The world/map of both games are the same kind of vast forsaken land of heartbreaking beauty in which the players spend most of their play time traversing. During these traversal moment, the players could only hear the sound of nature: leaf, wind, waterfall etc. What they don’t hear is, like they do in many other games, music or soundtrack. The vastness of the landscape and the lack of music during these moments allows the players to pay closer attention to the environment, to the beauty of nature. However, the lack of music is not due to any kind of budget cut or hoax. It serves a bigger purpose.

The lack of music and soundtrack, in both cases, works to intensify the emotion when music does come in.

Remember that piece of poignant, pensive, sad yet grandiose music that plays every time you vanquish a colossus? It is called “The End of the Battles”. I always find this piece of music disturbingly beautiful. It makes me doubt if I have just done something terrible. In a lot of video games, players believe that they are the hero, the protagonist, and the killing of bosses is just and righteous. The players of Shadow of the Colossus would only find out, after killing 16 majestic colossi, that they are the ultimate evil who took out the life of 16 guardians of peace. The lack of music in traversal that spans a big chunk of gameplay time, the silence, stands in great contrast to the end of each boss fight where music does cue. Silence is a very intentional design choice just to make moments of music punch harder. The developer of Shadow of the Colossus dared to allow silence to sink in so that they could really amp up the the power of music.

It is a similar case with Death Stranding. Many players I have seen online went to great length to complain about Death Stranding’s missing MP3 functionality. They argued that, compared to Metal Gear Solid V which allows players to play music through a diegetic cassette player at any moment during the game, Death Stranding’s missing MP3 was total nonsense. Why would the game waste such an opportunity when it has a huge list of licensed songs. Kojima was slacking!

No, Kojima was not slacking. As a game that relies on conveying the sense of loneliness and many other intricate feelings, Death Stranding would simply not work if it allowed the player to cue music whenever they want. The lack of soundtrack and music during moments of traversal are designed to intensify the feeling when music does cue. It teaches the players, in a very subtle way, to cherish and savor the moment walking down from the mountain towards Port Knot City, listening to “Asylums for the Feeling” for the first time.

You only know how good food could only after you have experienced hunger.

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