Escape Room Narrative: Music
“Immersive” is definitely a buzz word that has been growing in popularity in the escape room industry over the last few years. Designers and companies strive to make their players feel immersed in a world. There are many discussions of elaborate sets, seamless technology, and environmental storytelling.
But there is one tool I have rarely seen discussed: music.
Music has shaped so much of our art and entertainment. Whether it is opera, film, or video games, I doubt there is anyone who can imagine these mediums completely devoid of music. It lets us know how to feel. It helps tell the story. It builds the world. It is one of my favourite parts of the entertainment I consume. And yet I rarely see it discussed in escape rooms.
So. You have decided to use music in your rooms. What are some of the factors to consider?
Is It In World or Out of World?
One of the first things to consider when putting music in your rooms is whether the music belongs in the world of the game or if it is separate from it. Another phrase for this is diegesis.
If the music is diegetic to the world, it means that everyone, audience and characters/players, can hear the music. This term is most often used in film.
Back when silent films were transitioning to “talkies”, some filmmakers believed since films were now more realistic, the sounds within the film needed to reflect the real world as well. Therefore, music would not be used in the film unless there was a natural reason for it to be there.
I had the chance to see the original Dracula a few years ago. In the movie, apart from the opening credits and one single scene set at an opera, there was not one note of music heard throughout the entire movie.
I was shocked how unsettling this was for me. It made me realize how much I had come to depend on music in film to tell me how to feel. Obviously filmmakers abandoned this line of thought. But there is a good place for diegetic music. It serves the dual purpose of building the world and of informing the tone of the scene.
A shockingly good example of this is in Star Wars Episode III, in which the Emperor and Anakin Skywalker have a discussion during an opera. It builds tension and world building for the audience, while at the same time affecting the characters listening to it in the movie:
An example of non-diegetic music is…well…basically almost every film and video game ever. Any time you hear an orchestral score going over top of a scene, that is non-mimetic music. The characters are not aware of it. They do not hear the action music following them around. It is purely there for the audience to know what is going on emotionally and narratively.
Most mediums that employ music in their story use a mix of non-diegetic and diegetic. Whatever you decide to use, once you decide this, you can then move on to consider…
What Does It Tell You About The World/Setting?
The music you select should reflect the world you have decided to set your game in, whether it is diegetic or non-diegetic. There are three things to consider:
Where does the game take place? What geographical location are you in? The type of music played in America differs greatly from the type of music played in Japan. If you have a story taking place in a fantasy land, consider what type of music that fantasy land will have. It likely will not be rock music…unless…
When does the game take place? Is your game modern or historical? The music can do a lot to convey this information. A story taking place in the 40’s should have music that is period appropriate.
And finally, what cultural considerations should be taken into account? You might be in a particular location, but there can be many cultures in one country. In a fantasy country, you could have elves or orcs or dwarves. All of these would have their own style of music.
How Does It Build the Atmosphere and Theme?
Once you figure out what type of music you want to look for, you have to consider how it will make your players feel. Is your room a horror? Is it comedic? Do you want players to feel tense? Sad? Excited? Music can go a long way to help achieve that.
If the music is diegetic, you should also consider how the music will sound in the world. An old, tinny radio playing 1930’s music sounds can sound very creepy in a horror room, moreso than if it were to play through a modern sound system. Look to BioShock for how they make fun classics sound creepy and unsettling.
If the music is non-diegetic, picking a score appropriate to the tone of the room is essential and not always easy. Part of the difficulty comes from finding non-copyrighted music. Yes, my personal North American opinion is that you should not use someone’s IP unless you have paid for the rights.
Where to get orchestral scores then that won’t get you sued? One option is to get a composer to make the music for you. Another option is to find a site that makes copyright free music. One of the more famous ones out there isIncomptech.
The other part of the difficulty with selecting any music though is…
Can It Be Played On A Loop?
There is a reason the music of the Legend of Zelda and Mario is so successful. It was designed in such a way that the music could play over and over again on a loop without the player getting tired of it.
When I start getting frustrated in an escape room, one of the first things I become aware of is the damned music playing over on a loop and how much I want it to end. It is difficult, but when testing out your rooms, try listening to the music you selected for an hour straight and see how much you can let it fade it into the background. If you can, then you have a decent piece selected. If it starts to drive you mad, then it’s time to go find something else.
There is another option, though…one I have not seen explored much in escape rooms yet…
Can The Music Change With The Narrative?
Narrative is about building and releasing tension. This can be done through a combination of writing, direction, lighting, and, of course, music.
However in escape rooms there is usually only one piece of music selected for the entire room. There are examples of rooms that change the music when things happen, such as a new room opening, but it does little to add to the tension and excitement of the room. It is a single level line when it should look something more like the three act structure.
I have played one escape room that changed the music as we reached certain points in the experience. It was subtle enough that I did not immediately realize why I was becoming more tense as excited as the game progressed. It was only toward the end when I noticed the music had racheted up to a fever pitch as we scrambled to solve the last puzzle and resolve the story.
When I asked the designers after, I learned it was indeed true that the music was changed up any time we hit a certain narrative beat. This was brilliant to me, and it is not something I have seen in many escape rooms since.
There is a very good reason for that. It is a lot of work. The escape room mentioned above did this process manually. Most escape rooms have one GM for several rooms and therefore do not have the resources to pull it off. I am sure there is a way technologically to automate it but, again…resources.
Still, consider it. Music is a powerful tool, one I hope escape rooms will use more. It’s time to end the era of slapping a Lord of the Rings soundtrack over a horror game. I am excited to see what happens!
What are some of your thoughts on music in escape rooms? Do you have favourite musical moments? I would love to hear your thoughts!