Most of the time, the music we hear in movies, TV and video games is simply part of the soundtrack. The characters go about their daily lives, completely unaware that their activities are accompanied by music. For all we know, even real life works like that! Maybe, right now, as you read this, a Phoenix song is playing and you’re about to get an IM from that super-cute guy you met at the post office! Or maybe Mike Post wrote the soundtrack to this scene, in which case you’re probably about to get wasted by a guy in a ski mask.
Sometimes though, the characters are aware of what they’re hearing, such as when the music is coming from a stereo or live performer somewhere in the story. This is called “diegetic music.”
While it rarely gets used in video games, I love when developers and writers decide to put a little diegetic music in at some point. Usually, because the characters can hear it too, the music is actually part of the story (and sometimes a significant part at that). Below are my three favorite examples of diegetic music and sound in video games:
1. Brütal Legend – The Deuce
Brütal Legend, designed by the legendary Tim Schafer is a game about traveling to a mystical land of rock and roll, driving around the war-strewn countryside in a monster truck and using the power of heavy metal to literally melt demons faces off. I’ll pause here for you to take a moment and contemplate just how awesome that sentence was.
. . . you alright? Ok, let’s continue.
One of my favorite parts of the game was riding around in The Druid Plow, a ridiculously-proportioned dune buggy also simply known as “The Deuce.” It could travel about 200 mph, shoot rockets and lightning, and I desperately wish I could take it to work.
Just like in the Grand Theft Auto series, whenever you hop into the car you have control over the radio which, because the music is coming from a physical source inside the game world, is diegetic. The difference is that in Brütal Legend, all the music is heavy metal classica, everything from Judas Priest to Megadeth. Being born in the mid 80s, heavy metal had already returned to Valhalla by the time I was old enough to appreciate it, so I would spend long bouts of time just cruising around in this game to appreciate the power of rock gods long gone, much in the same way you might stare at a T-rex skeleton at the museum and think “why don’t we still have these?”
The best part though? Knowing that the last thing some hellspawn heard before you rolled up and crushed his stupid head with your roadster was “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath. Tim Schafer, please hire me and come to my birthday party, I guess is what I’m saying.
2. Silent HIll 2 – That #$%@ing Radio.
Silent HIll 2 is one of my favorite horror games of all time. It even came out the victor in my first horribly-titled Scoreclash feature a while back, and for good reason; the music is terrifying, so much so that I actually felt glad that protagonist James Sunderland couldn’t hear it. He had enough to deal with.
Near the start of the game, upon arriving in Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his supposedly dead wife, James finds a little portable radio that serves as one of the creepiest elements in the whole game. The radio was often silent, but if there were monsters in your vicinity, you’d begin to hear eerie, distant static. The closer the creatures were to you, the louder the static got, and there was nothing worse than hearing blaring white noise coming from your pocket and having no idea what was about to rip you open.
Occasionally, you might hear the voice of your dead wife, pleading with you to come find her. At one point *SPOILERS* while trapped in an elevator, the radio suddenly flares up with the voice of a cheesy game show announcer who begins to ask you ominous questions with the implication that wrong answers aren’t going to go well for you. It was scary enough to hear, but doubly so because your character was freaking out just as much as you were.
3. Bioshock – Cohen’s Scherzo
I could spend all day talking about how awesome Bioshock was, but I’ll do my best to keep it short. You spend the game in Rapture, an underwater city that used to be an Art Deco utopia until the inhabitants learned how to modify their genes at will. It started with people simply changing their appearance, then moved on to self-administered superpowers, and ended with a city full of psychopaths and murderers. You explore different sections of the ruined city as you try to make your escape, but my favorite part was Fort Frolic, the section ruled by former entertainer turned lunatic Sander Cohen. He used to produce concerts and musical theater, but now spends his time turning living people into horrifying sculptures and working his performers literally to death.
Bioshock contains my favorite piece of diegetic game music by far: “Cohen’s Scherzo.” Not only is it an amazing piece for solo piano (and being a pianist, I’m really into that, since you don’t see it too often in games outside of Final Fantasy) the circumstances under which you hear it are one of the most memorable parts of the game. As you explore Fort Frolic, you stealthily come across an auditorium where a pianist is frantically hammering out the tune while Cohen rehearses him over a loudspeaker. It doesn’t end well.
NOTE: Video below contains a bit of harsh language and is NSFW.
You thought the regimen at Juliard was tough.
That’s it for this week. Have any comments, or an instance of diegetic music in something that you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about it!