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Where’s that music coming from? How fight music can help teach us reframing by Alex Dewing

I’m certain that we have all been in a situation where we’ve been overwhelmed by emotion seemingly out of nowhere.

They’re situations like those in video games, where battle music swells when you thought you were just out exploring. At least, that’s how I envision it, and I think it’s an analogy that helps, since this kind of video game music demonstrates a technique incredibly pertinent to dealing with emotions of any kind: reframing.

Reframing is a therapeutic technique that asks you to reframe, or re-examine, a situation, thought, or emotion. It invites you to take the time to look at what it is you’re thinking or feeling from a different point of view, and can help you feel better about an issue or aid in uncovering new ways to deal with it. That isn’t to say that reframing aims to undermine your emotions; instead, it is simply about understanding that there are more ways to view a situation than one, and that positive thoughts can easily replace or comfortably exist alongside perceived negative ones.

It sounds simple, but that’s not always the case in practise, especially since it can be hard to envision the effects of reframing. This is where combat music comes in. The first time Field Battle music sprung out of nowhere while I was wandering in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild I remember being hit with an immediate sense of anxiety, my brain and body telling me to start to panic even though the enemy were nowhere to be seen. After finding and dealing with the relevant Bokoblins, I carried on and the next time Field Battle played I was a little less scared than I had been before.

This is how we can link combat music and reframing (two things that otherwise should not easily go together). As you keep playing your game, the impact of the musical cues lessen and transform in a way that is clear to see. It’s a change in your immediate response to a piece of music that illustrates how over time you can change your response to things in real life when reframing is put into practise. Rather than going straight into ‘panic mode’ as you are likely to do the first handful of times fight music begins to play, your reaction alters, instead simply prompting you to look at your situation and ask “Is this helpful?”.

The space this provides you helps you to validate your feelings and reactions while also allowing you to see them from a new angle. Imagine: fight music begins to play and you see that your enemy is far in the distance, they pose no threat to you now; but if that music hadn’t sounded you might have run straight into the ambush, so now you can safely retreat until the frenetic battle music is replaced with soothing atmospheric sounds. While negative thoughts or feelings won’t disappear or magically change, reframing will gradually help lessen the the paralysing effects they can have.

Combat music and reframing both also find similarities in the ways they can bring a sense of control in an otherwise uncontrollable situation. Whether you’ve stumbled upon a random encounter with a wild Wooloo in Pokémon: Sword or have reached a fight sequence in Twilight Town in Kingdom Hearts, combat music itself will almost universally play before combat actually begins. It’s essentially giving you the chance to take stock of a situation, to decide whether to fight or flee – or maybe find another route altogether. Reframing offers you that same sense of control as, through the practise, you can learn to better control how you view things in your life and consequently how you feel about them. Sometimes all you need is space and a different viewpoint for things to feel less overwhelming.

Combat music in video games is inherently created to evoke well-designed anxiety. Some games’ soundtracks choose to leave no space to breathe at all; games like Hotline Miami or Crypt of the Necrodancer, whose pulsing adrenaline boosting soundtracks encourage the player to an almost unrelenting extent. Games like Zelda, Kingdom Hearts, or Pokémon, however, use this kind of music to punctuate periods of exploration, gathering, or platforming, heightening the music’s sense of anxiety due to its unpredictability. But arguably, games wouldn’t be as fun without these moments and songs. The enjoyment, triumph, and return to relaxation that they provide a player with make it all worth it — much like in real life.

It’s probably not surprising to learn that reframing isn’t far removed from mindfulness. Like this type of meditation, reframing isn’t about an end goal. It isn’t about changing your mind or suppressing emotions. It’s just about finding space to step back with newfound objectivity and calm. Combat music makes it clear that we have more control over our emotions than it often feels. And that, as with most things in life, sometimes all it takes is time, practice, and a new point of view.


 Alex’s Portfolio
Alex is an entertainment writer and (wannabe) community manager. An avid gamer, cartoon fanatic, and lover of pop culture, she is dedicated to diversity on-and-behind the screen and is the host and producer of video game podcast The Lag.

You can find them on Twitter at @alex_dewing

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‘Music On, World… On’ – The Beautiful Connections Between Game Soundtracks and Mental Health by Ruby Modica

“But that isn’t REAL music!” says the impertinent individual to the gamer. “REAL music has words and progression, but all game music is tuneless and repetitive!”

These derisive comments are an occasional occurrence for those who make game soundtracks a prominent part of their music playlists. A possible argument could be made if we were still in the era of burgeoning console development but this is just not true anymore. In a modern world where soundtracks can be composed by one person or a full orchestra, to disregard all video game music as irrelevant is to overlook the immense beauty, creativity and power that comes with it.

To further that notion, video game music is similar in its creation to film soundtracks in that they are focused on being more than just a background musical accompaniment. Ideas of tone, rhythm, emotion, pace and feeling are thrown about, then put to construction with a multitude of instruments and motifs. When done well, it can make a scene become famous through pop-cultural osmosis, like the shrill strings from Psycho or the oscillating double bass accompanying the shark in Jaws. Gaming experiences, however, have the added immersion level of playing through the story in an active role as opposed to passively watching it. One genre of game that blurs the line between the two is the environmental narrative game (also known as the “walking simulator”).

What Remains of Edith Finch and Journey are prime examples of this genre’s storytelling being enhanced by the soundtrack. The former tells the tale of a girl reliving the memories of her family, with an unusual demise at every turn. Themes of mental health, family, loss, innocence and random chance all come into play, and this is expertly reflected by the variation of soundtracks. Compare and contrast the frisson tone from Journey, where the environment plays a larger role in the audiophilic creation, ranging from glistening deserts to deep dank caverns and elevating mountain vistas.

These games would still be playable without a soundtrack, but a player wouldn’t enjoy them in the same way. Carefully calibrated music is integral to the adventures a player undergoes; when listened to in isolation the same emotions and mental pictures are conjured up instantly, establishing a connection in the mind that can boost a positive mood or soothe a negative one. The beauty of having your mental state improved and strengthened from hearing a few musical pieces is the hallmark of why game music no longer fits under the outdated bracket of ‘tuneless and repetitive’.

Another facet of certain musical genres is their ability to help the mind focus and/or relax, a benefit to the neurotypical and neurodivergent alike. The ever-growing interest in lo-fi musicians and playlists is testament to how much of an audience there is for soft, unobtrusive, ambient sounds to accompany both study sessions and chilled moments. But it’s not just indie musicians that excel at these compositions! Plenty of games, be they best sellers or niche, come equipped with beautifully subdued and ambient soundtracks that even non-gamers may find themselves listening to.

 

Perhaps the best known example would be Minecraft, whose Alpha soundtrack is made up of beautiful piano ballads, soft synth pad effects and echoing strings. Composed by C418, very few tracks have any percussion or ‘beat’, allowing for the moods and textures conveyed to take pride of place in the player’s mind. Its inception has inspired many other world-building/simulation games to take on a similar creative outlook, one such example being Spiritfarer. The beautifully idyllic and dream-like state of exploration and play is perfectly encapsulated just by listening to the title track alone, with many more gems gradually unearthed as you play.

wooden robot in the grass

Beautiful soundtracks are not just in these limited genres, however. Plenty of critically acclaimed award-winning soundtracks cover the breadth of gaming history. The ICO trilogy balances puzzles and platforming with action, and the use of a grand symphony ensemble to accompany gameplay. Using your character in Shadow of the Colossus battling atop a mighty beast with the swelling of horns, pounding drums and an entire string symphony behind it has led to many gamers and non-gamers alike being spellbound. Many action RPGs like Skyrim or the ‘SoulsBorne’ series tend to vary each time depending on individual playstyles, but one thing that unites all gamers is the structural variation in music, often utilising every section of orchestras that would typically be seen used for classical performances. Even Super Smash Bros Ultimate brings together so many historical and beloved musical selections for old and young players alike.

This may seem like pandering to the younger generation, who are most commonly associated with the world of gaming. However, tuneful beauty can still be found via reminiscing of retro worlds amongst all the chiptune and Tetris soundalikes. Undertale’s liberal use of faux 8-bit pieces with recurring leitmotifs surrounding famous characters like Sans and Toriel evokes a similar sensation to the arcade games a lot of us gamers grew up with. Someone who’s never played the game before would be forgiven for thinking a battle theme came directly from the 1980s, which can in turn elicit a comforting sense of nostalgia for many. As such, when Undertale celebrated its 5th anniversary in 2020, the occasion was marked by a three-hour-long concert! Clearly, many fans of the game had been won over by the composition’s power, so there was no better way to pay tribute to a beloved game.

Start scratching away at the surface of game soundtracks and you’ll find a treasure trove of sounds that befit every mood, setting, temperament and activity you could wish for. Hearing the love that is put into the musical accompaniment for game worlds is a surefire delight to many, and remains as valid and uplifting a music choice as ever. Perhaps next time you catch someone deriding the game soundtrack you’re listening to, politely introducing them to it could open up a new world for them, both literally and musically.


Ruby Modica is an independent content creator, editor and writer.

She loves sharing insight into video games and discovering new things, with a desire to work in the media/gaming industry full time. Most days she is busy at her computer working on her next big project.

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