Different, but familiar

Game characters with inconsistent personalities don't make sense. We say they're poorly written.

Game mechanics that change every minute don't make sense. We say they're confusing.

What's the underlying plot here? Lack of repetition. Repeat more, and things start making more sense.

When the characters repeatedly behave according to their personality, they feel realistic. When game mechanics repeatedly stay the same, we can learn them, and are fun to use.

When things make sense, they're more satisfying.

When it comes to game music, bet on repetition.

Whether working with a composer or making the music yourself, aim to use repetition on your game soundtrack.

Define a set of themes for the most important cahracters, locations, situations, etc. A theme for each main character. A theme for each important location. A theme for a game faction or ideology. Then reintroduce them each time they reappear or each time you want to hint at them. It will help your soundtrack make more sense and be more satisfying.

But there's a catch: Repeating the same music often can be boring for the players, even tedious.

The key is to recycle.

Don't just reuse, recycle

Part of the magic of music is that it's incredibly supple. You can take a cheerful melody and turn it into an aggressive Trash Metal riff, a tear-jerking ballad, or a nightmare-inducing scary track (SPOILERS: have you played Doki Doki Literature Club?).

It's like recycling. You take something and turn it into something new - but it's still made of the original material.

Ori and the Blind Forest's soundtrack uses the same melody almost everywhere. But when there's action, it's recycled into an action track. When there's a touching moment, into a tender track. When there's an exotic location, into a wild-sounding track. The result? It adds a ton of personality, and it's satisfying to listen to, while it never feels tiring.

Undertale's soundtrack uses similar themes for related characters, letting you feel something connects them even if the game hasn't explicitly told you yet. But it's not using the same exact track - that would be boring and predictable. Instead, it keeps things fresh by recycling themes into new versions.

Recycle themes, and your game will make sense while staying fresh.

Restrict the sound palette

You can also apply this principle to the instruments and sounds used on your game's soundtrack.

Stick to a restricted palette of instruments and sounds. Make all music reuse a similar set of instruments and sounds, and it will give the soundtrack a sense of consistency and personality. It will make your game soundtrack immediately recognizable. 

Think of Celeste, Bastion, Gris; you could listen to any random track from their soundtrack, and you could probably tell it's from that game. This repetition of sounds gives cohesion to your game. The sound of your game.

Different, but familiar. That's the sweet spot.

Save this post on Instagram:

Games with good music sell more

I'll teach you how to ensure your game ends up with a great soundtrack.

Join my newsletter