Since this is the first Music for the Mind article, I wanted to make sure it was a special game that sets the tone for this column, so I decided to choose one of my favorite games of all time. The Metal Gear Solid (MGS) series has been around for quite a while now, and even goes back to the 80’s if you include the Metal Gear games that came before it. There are many things to be said about what defines this game and what it pioneered for the genre: unique stealth action, graphics that raised the standard, cinematic cut-scenes that resembled more film than game, and a story similar to what you’d find in an over-the-top spy novel. MGS had a lot to offer, but what I want to focus on is the music and voice acting within the game.
This is a far cry from Spy Hunter…
Can you think of a game that came before MGS that had orchestral arrangements of the same quality? What about the somewhat cheesy, but extremely effective voice acting riddled throughout the entire game – especially from David Hayter, the voice of Solid Snake? The KCE Japan Sound Team (comprised of Takanari Ishiyama, Gigi Meroni, Kazuki Muraoka, Lee Jeon Myung and Hiroyuki Togomade) made sure to put their best foot forward, offering a truly unique musical experience that pioneered music in gaming in its own way. So, to get started, have a listen to the Metal Gear Solid Main Theme (which was actually composed by Tappi “TAPPY” Iwase):
(Click the Image to Hear Main Theme)
The Metal Gear Solid main theme…it just sounds like spy music!
In 1998, I was 13 years old and beginning to get into mature-rated gaming. In fact, MGS was the first mature game I spent my hard-earned money on (I did a lot of odd jobs to get it!). I actually semi-tricked my dad into getting it for me, as he didn’t know anything about mature games or gaming in general. Don’t worry, I ended up confessing that it was a mature game, and it wasn’t nearly as “bad” as I thought it would be. I remember very vividly playing the game for the first time; my young mind couldn’t comprehend exactly how well-crafted the game was, and how it would affect my view of video games later on in life. There were many memorable moments that stick with me to this day (SPOILER ALERT – IN CASE YOU’RE CRAZY AND HAVE NEVER PLAYED THIS GAME): sneaking up on an enemy taking a leak, then later seeing him beaten up and naked; a female protagonist that rivaled the main protagonist; the language and blood/violence; the revelation that Liquid and Solid Snake were clones. I could keep going, but that’s not what this article is about. What I didn’t notice was how the music affected my emotions and how I played the game.
Since I could easily write a 40 page essay on this, I’m going to narrow my points down to three specific instances: the musical cues when spotted by the enemy, the moment when Meryl is shot by Sniper Wolf, and the revelation that The Master is actually Liquid Snake. Music and voice acting were key to these events.
(Click the Image to Hear Alert Theme)
Alert Phase: music that really makes your blood pump!
MGS is a stealth game and punishes the player when he/she is spotted by the enemy. It is better to run and hide when discovered by the enemy than to take them head on. For example, you could always disappear into an air duct, follow it to another part of the map, and sneak up on unsuspecting baddies. To emphasize the surprise when being discovered, there is a loud (iconic) horn-like noise that blares, then the above music follows immediately. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when this music began playing directly after being startled by the “alert noise,” I began to panic a little. I would start making mistakes when I normally would be perfect in my timing or judgment. I would run into an enemy I didn’t know was there, get spotted by a camera, or use stun grenades that I would most likely need later on in the game. It wasn’t until years later that I realized it was because of the fast paced, dynamic music. The music has a fast tempo, reflected by the rhythm, and had swells of volume, emphasized by the strings. The midi noises give filler to the music, creating an atmosphere that resembles action sequences found in movies. The direct contrast between the tension-filled, slow sneaking music and the alert music helps to build the dread of being spotted. To this day, when I hear this music I’m instantly reminded of the many deaths I experienced while trying to evade enemies in MGS.
(Click Image to Watch Scene)
Note how the music guides your emotions when Meryl is shot.
Now we experience a mix of story, voice acting, and music. The above scene is from the Twin Snakes remake of MGS. It is when Meryl is shot by Sniper Wolf and held as a sort of “ace in the hole” against Snake. At this point, it’s been made known that Meryl has feelings for Snake, and that Snake has started to finally open up to her – which is something he has never done before.
First, notice the musical swells and the change from a lack of music to “panic music.” At first, there are only the sounds of footsteps and breathing, creating tension for the player. Meryl is about to be shot! That can’t happen, right? The lack of music plays with our emotions, and we don’t like that, do we? Our concern is rewarded by a sickening shot and Meryl falling to the ground, just out of reach of Snake. The music suddenly changes, and so does the player’s reaction and emotions. The situation just went very sour, and the music reflects this. Notice that the music goes from non-existent to huge in a matter of seconds, with a timpani section booming along with strings. This musical cue symbolizes the severity and urgency of the situation, and that Meryl has just been mortally wounded. There’s nothing Snake can do; there’s nothing the player can do. The music emphasizes this, and when the next task is given (to find a sniper rifle and save Meryl), the player is already in a state of panic because of the music. So what does the player do after hearing the roaring drums and swelling strings? Why, run out of the room to go find the sniper rifle of course!
Second, the voice acting here is superb. Meryl’s frightened voice as she assures Snake she can make it out of harm’s way on her own, and her weak pleading with Snake to go on and leave her, tug on the player’s heart. We don’t want Meryl to die! She and Snake just had their big breakthrough, and Snake needs a reason to keep going! Snake’s response helps reassure the player and bring them back to the task at hand: Snake will save Meryl. His gravelly voice shows only a little nervousness, comforting Meryl – and the player – that everything will be okay. Without these two actors emoting through their voices, or the music pushing the urgency in the background, this entire scene would be completely different. Music and audio, once again, have a huge influence on the experience.
(Click Image to Watch Scene)
Finally, we have the huge revelation that Snake has been played the entire time. After going through 2 discs and an emotional roller coaster ride spanning hours of gameplay and story, we find out that the Master has been dead for some time, and that Liquid has been impersonating him. The conversation begins with no music; there’s only Master and Snake talking to each other via Codec. Master begins saying some odd stuff, and as he keeps talking, we realize that we’ve been duped. Little does the player notice that the music is slowly creeping up in volume, building up to the revelation that Liquid is Master. The volume swell reflects our swelling realization that there is bad news coming. When Master suddenly changes his voice, takes off his glasses, and let’s loose his hair, Liquid begins taunting his brother; the music takes the cue and becomes frantic and urgent (do you see the correlations between all of the specific scenes I’ve discussed thus far?). We have to right this wrong; stop Liquid before he takes over. How could we have been so dumb; so blind? Meanwhile, the music suddenly lets up, and Liquid bids farewell to his brother, expecting Snake to be killed in a few minutes time. Once again, the music and voice acting build up this story arc, and somehow make a boring cut-scene (come on, there are only two faces with moving lips on a black background!) into one of the biggest moments of the game. Watch this cut-scene with the volume muted and tell me it doesn’t seem to take forever to finish. Without music and audio work, this dull visual sequence would drown the gamer in boredom.
Metal Gear Solid is an outstanding game in many ways, but without the orchestral music mixed with futuristic midi sounds, and the varied voice acting from a large cast of characters, this game may have fallen flat on its face. MGS also lead to artists creating music specifically to be fit into video games. On that cue, have a listen to Rika Muranaka’s ending song, “The Best is Yet to Come,” performed by Aoife Ní Fhearraigh.
(Click Image to Listen)
The best is yet to come.