Let's talk about music and gaming, shall we? Music is one of two very direct ways to convey emotions, set a tone and get a mood into a room full of people. Simply watching the same movie-scene twice with different mood-setting ambient music can be a jarringly different experience. So what about gaming? In this post I'll talk about the musical scoring of video games and then give you my thoughts on whether or not this can be conveyed to a pen and paper RPG-session with your friends.
Music in video games is almost as old as the medium itself, starting with bleeps and bloops, then at some point turning into nice MIDI tunes and then going to full on audio-soundtracks. The big difference between making a soundtrack for a video game work as intended in comparison with a movie (which is, let's face it, where a lot of video-gaming has its audiovisual language from), is as with so many things, player agency. If you're not making just an interactive movie with quicktime-events (don't even get me started! F*** you, Fahrenheit!), you need to either tie in the music with cutscenes, make it generalistic (to fit the overall mood of the game without going into the moment too much), or have the game intelligently react to what's happening on-screen and change the score accordingly. Early games had music of the generalistic sort, as cutscenes were as-of-yet unknown. Later games, like the golden-age adventure games featured music mostly in cutscenes, having learned from earlier game-generations that a constant loop of MIDI-music can get rather annoying. You could get away with it in some action-games, as the soundtrack would change with levels but in an adventure, where the player might be stuck in the same situation for hours or even days, having constantly blaring music was out of the question. Then came games that recognized situations on-screen and adapted the playlist accordingly. Still, most games have had and still have bland, non-recognizable soundtracks. Which ones stood out well enough so that I DO remember them, melody-wise?
Well, the earliest example for me must be Sonic the Hedgehog for my GameGear. Yes, I was a Sega-kid. My hardware had more power than yours, shut up! As Sonic ran through a world of constant-loop music, I remember the music of the first few levels, probably more for their repetition than for their emotional impact. So onwards to the next bit on the list, which actually does invoke some emotion with me even today: The Secret of Monkey Island. Now there was a MIDI-soundtrack that invoked mysteries, adventure and the Carribean setting so much that I want to be in a Baccardi-commercial even today when I hear it. It played in the introduction of the game and then not much more, just setting the mood and then letting you off into its world. A nice piece.
Then there is a rather large gap in my memory, probably filled with bland, generic music from games too obsessed with graphical advances to notice that sound is important. Next up is... Metal Gear Solid. Now here was a game that had a fitting soundtrack, adapting it to the situation on-screen. The various pieces from the soundtrack revolve mostly around the same themes, making them instantly recognizable as variations of the same but adapted to different situations during gameplay. Brilliantly conveying threat, action and a certain level of despair this remains one of my favorite soundtracks, a very good aspect on the game that sometimes gets overlooked. Just look up the 7 seconds of death-soundtrack that would play whenever you saw the game-over screen while one of the other characters was frantically yelling your name over the radio. Short but so effective and evocative... The next big step is from another console-game, I fear. Shadow of the Colossus isn't just my favorite game of all times, it also features one of the best video-game soundtracks I have ever heard, switching it from cutscenes introducing the individual colossi to more somber music while you and the colossus stalk each other, then going up into a pitched battle-music when you attack, then changing once more into a triumphant tune when you start getting the upper hand in the fight. Then, when the foe is dying, it immediately goes into a more sad tune, making you really feel that you have just destroyed something ancient, beautiful and important.
So, how does this translate to pen & paper RPing? That's a tough one. I know several GMs who like to play music during a role-playing session but there are some problems involved. If you have a specific taste, it can go all wrong if your players don't like what you're playing or have completely different associations with certain pieces of music. That isn't much of a problem if you stick to more generic movie-like music. The other big issue is setting the right tone. Pacing of gameplay in a pen & paper setting can be rather slow-moving, so playing a glaring, epic-battle hymn (like one from Shadow of the Colossus, just saying) can be cool for the mood but if the track only encompasses a timeframe equal to one turn of your battle it is either over way too soon or gets repeated ad nauseam. Another thing to consider is that you as the GM are there to tell the story, not to be the DJ. If you interrupt yourself all the time because you need to scroll through your tracklist that can be rather bad for the overall suspension of disbelief. In addition to that, the players may have things up their sleeves that totally skewer the mood you were going for, which can be a very bad thing but can also be quite alright if the group is good with each other. You cannot possibly prepare for every scene and the mood therin, unless you're the strictest railroader I have ever not seen.
Where playing music during gaming can work, is where there is background music in-game. Say, your players are in a tavern, talking to Jimmy-One-Eye who wants to hire them for a treasure-hunt, or in a post-industrial dance-club, scouting out Willy the Pimp-Vampire in the VIP-lounge, this can help your players imagine the scenery more vividly. Make sure to interrupt the music when it should stop in-game though, be it because someone threw a chair at Jimmy-One-Eye and the musicians panicked and fled the room or the group left said dance-club and are now in the parking space whilst battling a group of vampire bodyguards.
Even if your players dislike the type of music you're using as background, it's alright because maybe their character doesn't like it either but will have to bear with it (or be psychotic about it, which is also okay if you can RP it well enough).
So, I'd be careful with doing a complete soundtrack for my game-world but some in-game music is easy to arrange and manage. Just my opinion, of course...