I’ve been playing a lot of co-op games lately, or at least as much as my schedule will allow. You know, because I’m so busy and important and everything. My brother got me a copy of Army of Two: The 40th Day as a birthday gift recently, and although it’s something I would probably never play solo, it’s really fun to pump mountains of ammunition into a legion of mercenaries and security guards (who probably all virtual families at home and virtual park passes for Disneyland yet unused) with another human at your side.
On top of that, I’ve been hitting up Gears of War 3 with a few friends online, trucking through the campaign, becoming dangerously desensitized to violence, and generally giving myself a new host of body issues. Did I mention I’ve started mixing muscle milk into my coffee? And by coffee I mean steroids?
Anyway, all this co-op play got me thinking; these games are so much fun because they let you work as a team, interacting with other people while maintaining independent control. You and your friends can each tackle different parts of the same objective, overcoming obstacles and supporting each other while communicating and sharing the experience in a way that just isn’t possible with an AI partner. The entire nature of a game changes when you play with people; you behave differently, using different strategies and tactics. The difficulty usually ramps up to accommodate multiple human players at the controls. Sometimes there are even new objectives or entirely different campaigns to play through in the co-op modes of certain games.
So how come the music doesn’t reflect this?
I think game composers are missing a big opportunity by not tailoring the soundtracks specifically toward multiple players in co-op modes. There are a lot of ways that music could (and should) be written differently when there are multiple listeners on the other end, each with their own role to play. Here are a few ideas I had on the topic:
Influence Each Player’s Emotions Separately
There are plenty of times in co-op games when you want everyone to feel the same emotion. After a big battle is over or a puzzle is solved by the team, go ahead and pump something victorious through everyone’s speakers. If a main character dies or a base is lost as part of the story, we should all hear something sad. Boss fights are another great example of this.
But what about times when you want players to feel something independently, and act on those emotions themselves? Say you and your team just finished a huge battle. You’re approaching an area with a save point, so everyone assumes it must be safe, but really the developers have an ambush planned for you. Wouldn’t it be cool if the music turned ominous and foreboding at that point, but only for a single player? Not only would it give them a real life reason to use the line “I’ve got a baaaaaaad feeling about this,” but if they’re paying attention to what the soundtrack is trying to tell them, it might give the player and his/her friends a better shot at handling what’s coming. Kind of like simulated, musical intuition, I guess.
I think there are a lot of applications for something like this, and it could really lend to making players feel like their really inhabiting their characters together.
Custom Themes for Each Player
In most movies and games, the composer will often write a main theme for several of the main characters. Whether it’s a short motive of a few notes, or something more elaborate, the stars of the story usually have their own musical cues that play off of what they are currently doing or thinking. Well, when you play co-op, you and your friends are the stars, so why not have the music reflect that?
Think about it. If each character had a recognizable theme, it would make another great way of making everyone aware of how their friends are performing, rather than cluttering up the HUD with too much info. If Player A goes on a berzerker rampage and starts laying waste to hordes of enemies all on her own, why not have her theme layer in triumphantly on top of the level’s existing music? If Player B is wounded and crawling around on the ground like a warthog searching for truffles as he pathetically gropes at his team mates’ boots for a heal, have a desperate or somber arrangement of his theme filter in, alerting players to his suckery.
I know it would take a bit of extra work to make sure that these themes (or various arrangements of them) could be worked in with the level music, and also written in such a way where they don’t clash with each other, should multiple themes need to play at once, but overall I think it would really elevate the experience and make it feel more cinematic for everyone involved.
If I ever get a contract for a co-op game, I think it would be great to implement features like these. What about you guys? Would anyone else be interested in playing a game where the music is partially crafted to each player? Anyone else have ideas for co-op oriented soundtracks? Think this is a terrible idea and I should just go get an accounting degree already? Let me know in the comments.