The music of World of Warcraft:
It’s no secret I love the music in World of Warcraft — or, more accurately, Russell Brower’s music for Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm. I think they’re among the greatest soundtracks ever produced, up there with Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings soundtrack and Bear McReary’s music for the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. I often half-joke that the music is what keeps me playing after so long.
But that’s the thing: I’m only half-joking. The music really does make a huge difference in my enjoyment of the game. My all-time favourite zones are the Grizzly Hills and the Storm Peaks. They also have my favourite soundtracks. I’m not really sure how much of my love of them stems from their fun quests and epic storylines, and how much stems from their fantastic music.
But there’s more to this than just my enjoying the music. It can have a major impact on how I perceive the game and its story, and that brings me to my next point.
Audio in games:
One of my favourite things about Cataclysm is its portrayal of Night Elves. For the first time in WoW’s history, they’ve gone back to their warrior roots, as seen in places like Darkshore, Ashenvale, and anywhere Thisalee Crow shows up.
For those who didn’t play Warcraft III, Night Elves are not just tree-huggers. They used to be badasses of the highest caliber. These are the people who fought Grom Hellscream — who was twice the warrior his son is — and handed him his ass on a platter.
A lot of the feeling of the Night Elves being badasses again did come from quest design and characterization. I don’t want to downplay that. But I think a lot of it may also have stemmed from them finally getting some epic, pulse-pounding music that wasn’t just bland, New Agey ambiance.
(Skip to about 1:20 in the video to hear what I’m talking about.)
And then there’s the Southern Barrens. I think this zone’s storyline is among the best in WoW’s history, and there’s a lot of reasons for that, but the music is one of them.
A number of quests take place in the Battlescar, a region consumed by the Horde-Alliance war. Blizzard could have given these area some intense, epic soundtrack to inspire people to battle. But they didn’t. They tied it to a song called “The Land Will Weep.”
It’s a mournful, tragic piece, and it speaks to the futility of war and the senselessness of the bloodshed. Blizzard gave the zone a wonderful moral with just a clever piece of soundtrack.
All this has really shown me the importance that sound and music can have in storytelling, and doubly so in video games, where it’s difficult to apply any real depth without lengthy exposition that most players would resent and/or skip through. And the lesson is especially apparent because Blizzard also provides us with an example of what not to do.
I have a very low opinion of most of the content from classic and Burning Crusade. There are a lot of diverse reasons for this, but the audio is one of them. With a handful of isolated exceptions, the music was extremely bland and ambient and ultimately forgettable.
Voice acting was also incredibly sparse. It sucked so much life out of the game when nearly any conversation or event of relevance had to be read as text on the screen.
I can’t overstate my joy when I got Wrath of the Lich King and heard regular voice acting from scripted events, mobs, and even a fully voice-acted quest (still the only one in the game). The Warcraft universe was reborn for me when I first heard a Vrykul shout, “I’LL EAT YOUR HEART!”
As with music, voice acting can be used to add nuances to the game that would otherwise require lengthy and largely unwelcome exposition. For example, Darion Mograine’s greetings show us his rage and cynicism, but also his hope for a brighter future. “All is not lost… not yet.”
So now, whenever I play a new game, I pay special attention to the audio, and it plays a key part in forming my opinion of the game. Did I stop playing Rift because it was a dull WoW clone, or because it had bland, forgettable music and voice acting?