In Part I of this article, lead audio designer Gina Zdanowicz discusses how video game music enhances a player’s gameplay experience. In Part II, she offers examples of diegetic and non-diegetic music in games.
A technique that is becoming more popular in games is diegetic music.
Diegetic music refers to music that originates from within the game
world. It’s always nice when a game score can incorporate epic music in
the game world, but in real life when you are walking around in a park
or on a beach, you don’t hear any music unless you have your headphones
on. Diegetic music, although coming from an object within the game, can
still set the mood of the environment.
Let’s take a look at some games that use diegetic music to enhance the player’s immersion into the game world.
Fallout 3 makes great use of diegetic and non-diegetic music.
Characters in the game have wrist-mounted computers called the Pip-boy
3000, as well as radios scattered around the game world which play music
and other broadcasts from in-game radio stations. If the player has
their Pip-boy 3000 turned on, they have to be careful of the radio
alerting NPC’s to their presence. When the radio function is turned
off, non-diegetic background music is played through the game world.
Bioshock also uses a combination of diegetic and non-diegetic
music, as well as no music, to set the mood. In the game’s opening
scene, the player escapes from the plane wreckage to a lighthouse set on
a small rocky island. The lack of music in this scene hints to the
player the feelings of a desperate struggle to survive. After the
player enters the lighthouse, music starts to fade into the scene. The
music is coming from downstairs, which provokes the player to follow the
music down the flight of stairs to find the radio in a bathysphere.
The music plays two roles in this example: It gives the player a reason
to move forward in the game, as well as sets the mood.
The use of diegetic music in Bioshock really underscores the
dying city when the player enters a room with a scratchy, 60’s-era
record playing. Diegetic music, which is used in place of orchestral
background music, can be heard from around corners or can be muffled by
Left 4 Dead allows a player to turn on a jukebox, which will
attract a zombie horde. During this attack, instead of non-diegetic
music playing, the jukebox music continues to play even if the jukebox
is out of visual range.
Grand Theft Auto is, while cliché, a good example of diegetic
music. Car radios broadcast different stations and songs that the
player can choose to tune into while driving the vehicles in the game.
After all, who doesn’t love riding in a car with the music pumping?
A diegetic switch is a technique which can be used to continue the
diegetic music throughout the game. The music starts off as a diegetic
broadcast from a radio or other source within the game, and as the scene
changes, the music switches to a non-diegetic version of the same song
and continues to play in that environment.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time starts with the diegetic
version of Saria’s as it directs the player through the lost woods maze.
As the song grows louder, the player is aware that they are moving
forward in the right direction. If they player goes off course, the
song’s volume decreases, alerting the player to change direction. After
the player learns the song, it becomes non-diegetic music in that
As video games evolve, game music must also evolve, allowing for a
cohesive integration for a seamless visual and aural experience, which
will deeply immerse the player into the game world and keep them there
until they press the pause button.
Gina Zdanowicz is the Founder of Seriallab Studios, Lead Audio Designer at Mini Monster Media, LLC and a Game Audio Instructor at Berkleemusic.
Seriallab Studios is a full service audio content provider supplying
custom music and sound effects to the video game industry. Seriallab
Studios has been involved in the audio development of 60+ titles.