Game Music and Gamer Anticipation

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When the circumstances of a gameplay scenario create a sense of anticipation, this is usually engineered for a good reason.  The developers want the gamer to be tensely expectant of the monster attack, or the sniper ambush, or any other enemy-type that might leap out and yell “boo!”  In the article, “The Story in Surround – Game narrative and sound,” author Cormac Donnelly of Designing Sound makes a case for the role that audio can play in creating that sense of expectation.

The theory hinges on the idea of “mental modeling,” in which we develop expectations about the outcome of future events based on our past experiences.  Donnelly suggests that by initiating specific sound design elements in advance of certain in-game events, we can train the player to associate the sound with the impending event.  This can then be used to manipulate the emotions and even the subsequent actions of players who will respond to the sounds with immediate reactions based on their “mental model.”

It’s an interesting concept that we, as game composers, can also apply to our own work.  In cooperation with the audio teams, we can plan music systems that include music precursors to significant events. These anticipatory musical elements can then become built into the players’ “mental model” concerning the event in question.  This music becomes one more way in which the game can sculpt the emotional dynamic of gamers and nudge them in specific directions.

The article by Cormac Donnelly, “The Story in Surround – Game narrative and sound,” appeared on the Designing Sound web site – it can be found here.

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