Communicating Morality and Humanity in War Games


When we think of violence in video games
we most commonly imagine first-person shooters, whose casual approach to
violence includes driving music meant to propel the player forward. However,
several recent games take a very different approach to war. With plots
that revolve around morality and consequence, these games focus on the
effect of conflict on individuals – and as such their music evokes regret, grief, and
sorrow. This video will examine the music of
three games that explore themes of morality, choice, consequences, and what it means to be or in one case to become human. Unlike first-person shooters, the
point of these games is not to eliminate opponents but rather to engage with
moments of decision-making that dramatically influence the outcome of
the game. Perhaps unexpectedly, music has a strong
role in the emotional impact of such choices. Katherine Isbister, in How Games
Move Us, argues that video games have the unique properties of choice and
flow that generate a sense of responsibility, consequence, and empathy
in the player. She cites specific musical elements that contribute to these
emotional outcomes, including the use of the minor key and a slow tempo to
produce sadness and anxiety in the player. In this video I’ll explore other
examples of such musical elements and I’ll discuss how they link to the
emotional landscape of the game as well as the resulting effect on player
immersion. Let’s examine our first game: Papers, Please, an indie game released in 2013 by developer Lucas Pope. Pope, who also
composed the music for the game, combines puzzle and simulation elements to
explore the experiences of a border crossing agent in an implied Eastern-
Bloc Cold-War country. Players must verify travel documents, interrogate
travelers, and keep track of ever-changing regulations regarding
entry requirements. From a moral standpoint the gameplay allows the
player choice on a variety of issues. They may choose whether to support their
rigid government or whether to covertly assist a dissident group and they may
also decide on whether or not to follow the rules based on their sympathy for
other characters or even for personal benefit. A major influence on these
decisions is to preserve the well-being of the players in-game family by having
enough daily income to feed, house, and keep them warm. The player’s resources
become more meager as the game progresses and as unexpected events
impede their ability to earn income. The main theme, “Glory to Arstotzka”, enters at
the end of each workday, when the player receives the results of their daily work
and makes decisions about the impact on their family. The song in many ways
represents the repetitiveness of the player’s daily work. The theme features
significant repetition in its bassline and in the loop of the melody itself.
Harmonically, the music features a very simple chord progression, primarily
focusing on a tonic-to-dominant motion in d minor as well as its relative key
of F major. The song concludes with a typical cadential pattern of common-practice tonality, the chords i (one) – iv (four) – V (five) – i (one). More evocatively, though, the
death theme music has features that both unsettle the listener and suggest the
unfortunate consequences of the player’s choices throughout the game. The bass line
reverses the direction of the main themes and accelerates its rhythm. The
key is unstable, switching every two bars between e minor, B-flat major, an
ambiguous tonal area possibly in g minor, and a minor The phrase begins with the repetition of
its rhythm suggesting a standard sentence organization, but at the location where we would
expect a cadence to occur, the melody instead leaps away from any stable
arrival point. The tuning is also distorted. All of these features and
combinations suggest, both sonically and narratively, that instability
predominates – stressing the fact that the protagonist has lost one or more family
members. This War of Mine, another indie game, takes a very different approach
with a sparse and often melancholic soundtrack. Described as a war survival
game, This War of Mine is also structured around moral choices and their
consequences. The player controls multiple characters trapped in a house
during a siege of their city. The gameplay alternates between daytime,
where the characters build, repair, and manage their resources, and nighttime,
where one character goes out into the city to scavenge resources in oftentimes
dangerous locations. Players must decide whether to steal in order to survive, to
trade, or to suffer consequences such as illness or starvation if unable to
acquire resources. In This War of Mine, the music is omnipresent and reflects the dystopian environment. Let’s take a look at one song from the game, “Someplace
We Called Home”, which you are currently listening to in the background of this
video. The song features harmonic and tonal instability in a few different
ways and this instability mirrors that of the characters day-to-day lives. The
melody often resolves to scale degrees 4 or 5 rather than returning to the tonic
scale degree. Mirroring the narrative elements of unease and conflict even
further, the song uses prominent dissonances. Chords sometimes include an added second, a dissonance against its root, or occur
under a high register pedal tone, mixing tonic and dominant functions. Digitally
altered sounds occur frequently as well representing the unnatural and uncanny:
something doesn’t quite sound right! Lastly, shifting rather than stable or
repeating rhythms and meter also unsettle the listener: some beats last
longer than expected in the song’s 4/4 meter. Detroit: Become Human, released in
summer 2018, features a different style of gameplay. Its hyper-realistic motion
capture combined with branching narrative paths makes the game feel much
more like a choose-your-own-adventure film than a typical adventure-style
video game. Despite the different visual aesthetic, it shares certain musical
characteristics with Papers, Please and This War of Mine. Detroit’s story takes place
20 years in the future, where androids are sold to the general public. These
androids work as public servants, caretakers, and companions but also in
less savory roles as mercenaries, prostitutes, and worse. Initially seen
merely as disposable machines, the public’s views on androids change
throughout the game as they are discovered to not only be sentient but
also to be self-aware and empathetic. In the following clip, androids are
protesting on the street and some have been murdered by police. The rebel leader,
Markus, makes the decision about what to do with two captured police officers.
Notice a few musical features as the player makes decisions within the
narrative. The opening moments build tension as
Markus walks up to the scene of the conflict. Musically, we hear a rising melodic
glissando but also a growth in volume, dissonances, and an increase in
density. Underneath this a heartbeat-like rhythm pulses in the low bass register. Next, Markus must decide what to do with
his prisoners. While the player considers their decision, most of the music drops
out, leaving only a pulsing rhythm in the trumpets and a high-pitched pedal tone
on scale degree 5. Upon making the decision to spare the human officers the
music then progresses to a clear scale-degree 1 doubled in several voices. This
5-to-1 motion and the elimination of dissonances at the arrival point
strongly suggests an authentic cadence, one of the most stable harmonic
paradigms in western music. Perhaps in response to Markus’s statement “we won’t punish a crime with
another crime”, the music quickly shifts to a style heavily reliant on voices
rather than instruments, reminiscent of a church chorale. The melody descends in
distinct pitches rather than via a glissando which reverses the earlier
ascending motion and thereby dissipates the tension. The shift from high
intensity to low intensity, further emphasized by the slow tempo and minor
mode of the concluding chorale, sonically mirrors Markus’s shift from anxiety to
sorrow over the unnecessary conflict. The music thereby gives us a window of
understanding into his emotional state These examples are only a brief glimpse
into the interaction between music and players’ emotional engagement. However,
other sources suggest this relationship may be more substantial. Karen Collins
identifies several studies that demonstrate music’s effect on player
immersion and their emotional connection. William Cheng, in Sound Play: Video Games
in the Musical Imagination, asks whether such games reveal anything about our
true moral selves and suggests that Cheng suggests that a map between musical and emotional instability is not in fact
unusual: the discomfort and unease suggested by musical features thereby
contributes to the player’s emotional engagement with the game.

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