How Music Can Make Or Break A Sale

The idea of a jingle – a short sequence of notes intended to catch the attention of a prospective buyer – has been around for ages. It’s an advertising cliché. Yet I, who prided myself in basing my ultimate game purchasing decisions on review scores, was stunned to discover recently just how much of my purchase and subsequent enjoyment of a game has been due to its music.

The very first game I distinctly remember selling me, at least in part, with its music was that classic of early nineties PC gaming, Wing Commander. The non-playable demo I got off a floppy disc back in 1990 was more like a movie trailer, with shots of space fighters duking it out to the best soundtrack a SoundBlaster could crank out back then. But as simple as it may seem now, I still remember three pieces of music that really got me going: The scramble music where your player ran to his fighter craft after the mission briefing, the post-landing tune where the tech surveys your bullet-ridden ship and says, “Glad to see you made it back alive, sir.” and, of course, the Wing Commander fanfare.

The music wasn’t the only element that sold me on the game by a long shot – it was the computer game I’d been wanting to play ever since the space battles in the Star Wars films burned themselves into my young brain – but the music certainly cemented my want of the game, so much so that I was distinctly disappointed when I bought the game and the scramble music didn’t sound quite the same as it had in the demo.

When I finally got my hands on Wing Commander thanks to a loan from Mum that I never paid back, I discovered that it was full of music – every screen or scene that had an attendant tune – and I loved virtually all of it. I still have fond memories of the jazz playing in the bar aboard the TCS Tiger’s Claw, the tense but steady briefing room music and, oddly enough, the music of the barracks which, while not quiet, was still warm and slow enough to make me think of soft beds and comfy blankets. Sometimes I’d just sit and listen to that tune until it started over again. 21 years on, I still hear it in my head, crystal clear. Wow.

Heck – you can hear most of what I’m on about here! God, I love YouTube…

The next game whose music grabbed my interest came out nine years later; Relic’s 3D real time strategy, Homeworld. Beyond the good reviews and the space fleet combat setting, the fact that the prog-rock band Yes had recorded a song for it just got me even more curious. Now, I was no Yes fan (I’m still not) and I hadn’t even heard “Homeworld (The Ladder)” before buying the game, but I did get the demo off a cover disc, and the haunting ambient melody that played as I worked through the training mission in orbit over the planet Kharak hooked me right in.

The only thing I regret about Homeworld is that to this day I’m yet to finish it (difficult? Ha! Try punishing). And Yes’ offbeat and epic “Homeworld (The Ladder)”, which played over the end credits, was, I think, the first song I bought from iTunes.

Three more years, though, took me to the big one, the first game whose soundtrack I actually bought on CD: Halo: Combat Evolved. Microsoft putting the whole “Halo” theme as a stream on their website sold me on the game, the Xbox, the Xbox 360 and eventually the whole FPS series (but not the RTS Halo Wars, the novels or other ancillary product).

The announcement trailer for Halo 2 was the first time I’d seen a trailer for a Halo game prior to purchase, and again the music was great; so much so that it stuck with me. The strings as the Master Chief appeared in his new suit of Mjolnir armour, armed himself and stepped into the elevator, and then the monks and nuns as he… jumped out of a gorram spaceship. If there’s one thing Martin O’ Donnell and Michael Salvatori know, it’s how to make a tune that makes people want to buy.

Over the subsequent decade, they proved it with the trailers for Bungie’s next four games in the Halo universe. I fell in love with that piano call and orchestra response in the Halo 3 announcement trailer where the Master Chief discovers what the Covenant have been digging for in Earth’s soil. I was in the midst of talking myself out of Halo 3 – which was going to be exclusive to the Xbox 360, a console I was sure I wouldn’t be able to afford – when that trailer came out, and it turned me around. Heck, that string of five notes was pretty much Halo 3’s jingle.

Then there was 2009’s Halo 3: ODST, which took a step back from the big, mythic, Celtic sound of the main series to build some understated themes around a lonely saxophone and a whirling piano melody. Not only that, but hearing the tune “Rain” in a preview of the game pretty much landed me, and it was for that tune I bought my second game soundtrack CD ever.

Finally, last year’s Halo: Reach, which went for relaxed, heavy bass horn and electric guitar badassery to underscore just how much business the Spartans of Noble Team meant… and then some long strings at the end to remind us that no matter how hard they’ll try, the battle against the Covenant for the planet Reach won’t end well for them, or anyone.

So far, all the games I’ve mentioned are ones I’ve been glad, in the end, to purchase – the music has not done me wrong. Maybe it’s because the music in question reflected that in the rest of the game, was done by the same people. If so, it should have been indicative that I wouldn’t like 2009’s Borderlands, a game I bought for the Xbox 360, then traded later toward Bayonetta, then bought again cheap on the PC just so I could once more own the game with that opening sequence, the one set to Cage The Elephant’s alt-country tune “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked”.

Look, Lisa Foiles was right; Borderlands’ opening sequence sells its theme of Mad Max badassery through a zany lens perfectly and the song is a big part of why. But the game itself… Well, I know I gave Borderlands a good review for the paper but once the gloss wore off after a handful of weeks… Ehh. Most everyone was giving it good reviews, but for me, at least, it’s middling. Not unqualified good, not even great. In the end, I’ve barely touched it on my PC, mainly because it can’t handle the graphics load as well as the 360 could. No, I don’t intend to buy it on the 360 again.

On that score, at least, my current unrequited game-crush, Child of Eden, which came out mid-way through this month, has promise. Its soundtrack is remixes of tunes by a band called Genki Rockets, yes, but Genki Rockets is the project of Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Child of Eden’s lead designer, and the remixes were created specifically for the game. I’ve also listened to a couple of stretches of music taken from gameplay for a Gamespot Sound Byte interview, and they sound really off the wall, ethereal and intriguing.

I think what pushed me that final inch over the precipice from “gotta get sometime” to “OMG W4ntz N0w!” was my visit to the official website, where Ubisoft make available via soundcloud the Glorious Remix of Genki Rockets’ “Heavenly Star”. While the raw version of “Heavenly Star” that I found on YouTube bordered on the annoying, I’ll listen to the Glorious Remix any time.

In fact, I want Child of Eden more than I want the recently announced Halo 4. This is an intriguing sign in and of itself. I’ve been a Bald Space Marine male power-fantasy type for years; the Halo series is right up my alley. Why has the Halo 4 trailer failed to motivate me back toward buying the game as the Halo 2 and 3 trailers did?

Part of it, I think, is burn-out. Halo 4 is not a Bungie product. Instead, it’s being developed by the Microsoft subsidiary company that now owns and is responsible for all things Halo, 343 Industries. Rather than keep to the three year gap between the four main Halo games that came before, 343 are releasing Halo 4 barely two years after Reach’s release. Another part may well be burn-out on the whole Bald Space Marine theme.

It was just yesterday evening that I hit upon the main answer. The music of the Halo 4 trailer, created with CGI external to the game, is all rhythm, pounding urgency without any real mood. The only melody to appear is the classic “Halo monks” with an undercurrent of bass. It doesn’t really tell you anything, doesn’t help the visuals and other sound effects carry the story.

The brief reprise of the Halo monks (now with more bass) at the end feels like the score saying, “Yes, it’s another Halo only a bit more spooky.” It doesn’t work it into the mood of the on-screen action, like the Halo 2 trailer score did by putting high strings in behind the monks and nuns as the Chief drifted through space toward the Covenant cruisers. There’s no mystery, no lead-on, no real grip there.

Even the visuals don’t really tell us anything new. Halo 2’s trailer told us we were back to protect Earth. Halo 3’s trailer showed us the massive Forerunner construct under the African soil that the Covenant were just activating. Halo 4’s trailer shows the Master Chief coming out of a cryotube as his broken ship plummets toward a massive Forerunner structure – and the end of Halo 3, if you finished it on Legendary difficulty, showed the Master Chief in a cryotube as his broken ship plummets toward a planet that looks like it’s a massive Forerunner structure.

Looks like Child of Eden and its odd, bouncy music and uplifting themes caught me at just the right time…

Although I’ve known it for a while, the concept that I’ve bought so any games largely on the mood their music conjures still amazes me some – and what amazes me more is that, with the odd exception, my ears have steered me toward games that not only have I found subjectively fun, but have also been objectively good. I’d like to think it’s because a developer who takes the time to really incorporate music into the game also tends to ensure that the game as a whole is solid. Regardless, though, it’s interesting that it’s not necessarily the gameplay or visuals that sell you on a game – or off one.

But Enough About Me, Gentle Readers: What About You?

Has music ever influenced a purchase? If so, what was the product and what was the tune?

Which games’ scores and soundtracks have stuck with you after the game ended?