Musical Feel Versus Mechanical Integrity

In a blog article for Gamasutra, game designer Rodain Joubert explores the role of music in games, particularly those in which the music is a central part of a puzzle-solving mechanic (such as the gameplay in Auditorium, FRACT OSC, and Circuits).  He also brings up an idea which arrested my attention, and which will be the subject of this blog:

What is the relationship between Musical Feel and Mechanical Integrity?

Joubert defines Musical Feel as the emotional payoff that is delivered by the game’s score, which depends on the quality of the compositions and their ability to deliver a good experience to the player.  Mechanical Integrity, on the other hand, is the ability of the gameplay to exist apart from the music and still be enjoyable — the implication being that music can either provide a crutch for weak gameplay or interfere and distract from strong game mechanics.  While Joubert concentrates on music games, I found myself thinking about the broader implications of such a tug-of-war scenario as the one he’d described.

As composers, we typically strive to create a score that has a very strong musical feel. Elements such as melodic composition, complex harmonic progression, thematic development and sophisticated instrumental arrangement can all combine to give our tracks that strong musical feel.  But what if the development team would rather we strip away these elements?

Sometimes, a development team may choose to assign the musical score a set of very simple tasks, such as setting the pace with the use of a basic rhythmic momentum, or establishing an atmosphere by using synthetic pads and ambient textures.  These choices may serve the mechanical integrity of the game, by creating a musical undercurrent that supports the gameplay without interfering with it.  But such tactics can also go too far, when the music becomes so simplified that it is perceived as uninteresting by players.  The score loses its musical feel.

Personally, I think that these two objectives would need to be well balanced.  As long as both musical feel and mechanical integrity are given appropriate weight and consequence, we can be confident that our game music will be both entertaining for players and supportive to the mechanics of the game.