As you likely know, SCUFF loves video games and especially delving into video game soundtracks. It is great then, to share that passion with other writers such as Mind. If you love all types of musings on video games and more then check out Mind over on his Instagram page @minds.archive and (if you don't like to ctrl+c you can click the scuff boy to the right and it will take you right there.

The presence of ambient music can be felt across numerous genres of music and comes in almost too many forms to count. From the Western origins of Muzak; the stereotypical easy-listening background music often heard in lifts and supermarkets, to Japanese avant-garde and environmental music heard in the likes of Satoshi Ashikawa’s ‘Still Way’.

Even in more popular and mainstream genres of music such as hip hop, the presence of ambient music can be found, particularly on instrumental tracks, such as MF DOOM’s Special Herbs series of albums. Its influence can even be seen across the medium of film; Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack is a fantastic example of a film score that utilises elements of ambient music.

Soundtracks in video games are just as important as they are in cinema and is an area where ambient music has thoroughly flourished. The pairing of ambient music and interactive media heightens the experience of each other. Music in video games is always designed to build a certain atmosphere, to partner with the visuals and other elements of the game to elicit a certain feeling as you play. Though this is always the goal, it can be achieved in countless ways to create and build a certain atmosphere.

The Meaning of Ma

One of the primary purposes of ambient music that I think is incredibly valuable is what Studio Ghibli mastermind Hayao Miyazaki calls ‘ma’. ‘Ma’ is a somewhat difficult term to define, as is the nature of translation, but Miyazaki describes it as the moment in between clapping your hands, that quiet and still moment that interrupts the moments of action and abrupt noise. Miyazaki explains that without stillness and without quiet moments for reflection, you become numb to the non-stop motion and tension.

Miyazaki is talking about this idea of ‘ma’ in relation to his films, such as Spirited Away, which utilises ‘ma’ in the fantastically beautiful scene on the train. Miyazaki uses ‘ma’ in every one of his films, allowing the viewer a moment or two to breathe, relax, reflect and quietly admire the beauty of what they are watching.

It is easy to place these moments separate from the motion that precedes and succeeds the stillness, detached from what comes before and after. However, it is more accurate to place these moments within them, part of a larger process but still intrinsically connected. One cannot exist without the other. Motion leads seamlessly into stillness. Unending action is the same as unending stillness and numbness to the sensation is an inevitable consequence, therefore, motion can only exist in the presence of stillness and vice versa. This is what makes these brief moments so important.

Ambient music fills the same space that the idea of ma does, its purpose is born from the need for calm and tranquillity and encourages periods of quiet reflection and awareness.

The idea of ‘ma’ can also be translated into video games.

The Importance of Reflection

Hollow Knight is many things – enchanting, charming, haunting and beautiful – the subterranean world of Hallownest is a testament to the dedication and passion of the developers at Team Cherry. One of the most visually striking games I’ve ever played, Hollow Knight has a soundtrack fitting for such a beautiful game.

The composer of the soundtrack, Christopher Larkin, produced a masterpiece that is equally melancholic as it is mysterious; that perfectly reflects the world that you find yourself in. Greenpath feels alive and moving with its upbeat tempo and plucky strings and very much reflects the live and vivid area of Greenpath, yet the track is still drenched in a thick atmosphere of antiquity and mystery.

The rest of the soundtrack conjures similar feelings and images perfectly suited to the various areas found in the game such as Dirtmouth and City of Tears, but the entire soundtrack retains that veil of timeworn mystery.

The primary track to mention when thinking about ambient music is Reflection. This track is not only beautiful but is utilised in the game perfectly. Reflection is played only in safe areas of the map, usually where benches can be found, which serve as checkpoints. However, these areas also serve as quiet, meditative areas for players to rest between the perilous journeying through the tangled web of tunnels and caverns.

These quiet moments are some of the most cathartic that I’ve experienced in a video game. The release of tension as soon as you step into an unfamiliar place, just to hear the comforting strings of reflection, is alone worth buying the game for.

The track itself is beautiful and deserves a listen even when you’re not playing the game, but the synthesis of the music with the beauty of the artwork that went into creating the world, as well as the cathartic, meditative aspects of the moments that reflection plays, combine to create the ethereal and enchanting ambience which makes the track so powerful.

These brief junctures are the very essence of ‘ma’: the brief calmness between periods of action and tension is heightened with the presence of reflection. Hollow Knight delivers these meditative periods of time perfectly.

The Stillness of Movement

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst encourages perpetual movement. Cleverly structured rooftop pathways, tucked away service corridors and conveniently placed ziplines all shout to you: “Don’t stop, keep running!”. The free-flowing movement that can be achieved in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst as you progressively learn the quickest routes across the shimmering rooftops of the City of Glass feels terrific, and only makes you want to keep running, carving out your own paths between the colossal glass and steel monoliths that tower above.

Solar Fields’ soundtrack for the game further encourages this playstyle as he incorporates various electronic genres into the soundtrack. The influence of trance and techno can be felt through the droning, repeating synths and driving bass that permeates across much of the soundtrack. All of this coalesces in-game to serve as blinders for you, driving the need for perpetual movement forward, almost propelling you through the city with every thumping drumbeat.

Solar Fields, however, draws a lot of ambient music into the soundtrack too, which serves as a cold and clinical, yet calming and relaxing backdrop for the brief occasions where you stop running. The City of Glass is a grand and dazzling setting. Buildings shimmer in the daytime like metallic blades of grass wet from morning dew and glow with a warm neon hum during the night. The City deserves to be appreciated in all its minute detail, not simply in passing as you dash across the rooftops, with barely a chance to really take it in.

While the soundtrack is worth a listen itself; similar to Hollow Knight, or really any video game, what makes the music truly special is the presence of the music within the context of the game. While Mirror’s Edge Catalysts soundtrack may be cold and often somewhat alien, there is certainly beauty and comfort to be found in the quieter moments of the soundtrack. In particular, portions of The View District, Rezoning District and Downtown District stand out to me as some of the best ambient moments of the soundtrack.

These portions of ambient music in the soundtrack are the most impactful during the moments of brief stillness in-game, where you might have stopped on the edge of a building or tucked yourself away into a hidden pathway. But these moments would not be what they are without the driving movement prior to and succeeding the stillness; we return to ma.

Even in a game designed to keep you wanting to keep moving, each step quicker than the last, brief moments of stillness persist. The impact and power of a simple interruption of action is hard to overstate. It's a catharsis, similar to Hollow Knight, but the calmness and beauty of this interruption is emphasised by the accompanying soundtrack.

Overlooked Moments

The impact of ambient music, or even any music for that matter, within video games is not dictated solely by how good the music itself is, although this is important. Rather, the way that the music is used in-game plays such a vital role in how impactful it will be.

The utilisation of ambient music in video games works so well with these quiet moments, it’s hard to overstate the heightened impact of these ma moments when combined with elements of ambient music.

I think a lot of people overlook these quieter, subtler and less noticeable moments. But once you begin to notice these moments and begin to appreciate the stillness that they bring, they can be some of the most poignant.

by Mind @minds.archive
The Quiet Moments - Ambient Music in Video Game OSTs