28 Jan 2011

Encounters That Rock!

Earthen Pantheon after their first Lich King 10-man kill

There’s a great shared topic over at BlogAzeroth right now: Naithin asks what causes an encounter to ‘click’ in our minds. When do we reach that point when a boss fight switches from being a difficult challenge to possible, then to trivial? It’s a good question, but I don’t think it’s just down to preparation, planning and persistence. There’s something else besides.

For me it’s the music.

I’m not talking about the melodies playing in the background, serenading us from the moment we’re greeted with the login page to the point we click the Exit button.  I’m talking about the soundtrack that plays in my head.

I’m not mad, I promise you. Next time you’re in a heroic or raid I want you to do something.

Mute the game sounds

Switch off Vent or Mumble or whatever

and Listen.

Listen to the rhythm that starts to pick up inside your head as the fight progresses. Listen to how it alters in pitch and tempo as the phases switch back and forth, how the boss abilities coming off cooldown mark the end of a verse or a change of chord. Listen to the crescendo build as the health bar slowly ticks down, the boss enrages and the musicians go nuts for the big finish.

It’s all there, just waiting for you to pick up.

I’m not just making up some nonsensical mumbo-jumbo either. It’s well documented in first-person-shooter circles that rhythm and pacing is used to set the feel of the game, from zone to zone and level to level. Half-Life 2 demonstrates this exceedingly well by embedding developer commentary within the game. You can listen to why they designed encounters the way they did, what they tried to achieve and how they hoped to influence the player’s mood.

It’s also why I get really annoyed with long post-wipe discussions. It’s like the conductor is banging his baton on the lectern before starting an epic debate. I don’t want to listen to this. I just want us to pick up and start hearing the music again. And each bossfight has different music – from the speed rock of Vaelestrasz through the the Tubular Bells-esque instrumental orgy of the Mimiron encounter. A hundred different musical scores from a hundred different encounters.

Rhythm and music isn’t just in encounters, it’s everywhere in a game. Quests, travel time, they all contribute towards the pacing, the feel, the mood of a game. It’s why Uldum with its huge amount of cutscenes just doesn’t work for me – it’s like I do a bunch of quests when all of a sudden this comes up.

Getting a feel for a particular encounter is tough. You’re trying to take everything that’s going on – all the placements, the movements, the cooldowns, the reactions and push it into memory so accurate it’s almost instinctive. But it’s all based on timings, and those timings mean there’s a pattern. A sequence. A rhythm. And wherever there’s a rhythm, there’s a tune just waiting to emerge.

What do you think? Sound theory or complete balderdash? Do you listen out for the music, or rely on something else? Sound off in the comments.

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