Music in Interactive Fiction

Why are there so few soundtracks in interactive stories?

After the remarks on still images, it seems to me that they almost something to a game but perhaps the same can’t be said for sound. I always appreciate sound effects, but music is hit or miss.

As interesting as it was, I couldn’t really play The Art of the Fugue with the background music on, as I couldn’t concentrate on the puzzles. It wasn’t just due to the difficulty of the puzzles: when playing Space Chem (not IF), the most difficult game I’ve ever played, I was well able to put up with the mood-appropriate but unobtrusive soundtrack.

Perhaps the issue is not so much the difficulty of the game: merely that reading is made difficult if you’re also listening to music at the same time. Still, one would expect to see more experiments with it.

If anyone reading this is tempted: there are over sixteen and a half thousand music tracks in the public domain or with free-use licences available at, many of which are downloadable in .ogg format, if that’s an issue.

Part of the problem is that music has a built-in, regular pace, while the rate of IF play is strongly divorced from real-time. This is obviously a problem that’s shared by other videogames, but it does restrict the kinds of music that will work, and it means that integrating music into a game requires rather considerably more skill and effort than just ‘find or make music file, add file to game’. Having music in the background doesn’t distract me, necessarily, but going from dead silence to the abrupt start of a track, then an abrupt switch to another track, then dead silence, is usually just awful.

How easy is it to find particular styles or genres this way? I’ve never looked all that closely, but my impression’s been that it’s really easy to find lots of certain things and near-impossible to find others.

I’ve been thinking about how you’d put music into a game- tying a track to a room seems like a pretty awful way of doing it, as you’d have abrupt switches all the time. Having a track on a loop (like most video game music) could work. The other way (and it would depend on the kind of game you were making) would it be to tie it to in-game music. So if you enter the big band hall, you’re gonna hear big band music, and maybe that same music continues to play at a lower volume in the dressing room backstage. Or you could do it like the later fallout games and have an optional radio function.

The search function at is pretty good. Most tracks have a number of tags, and you can search by those. You can also explore the music by music genre, but this is less useful as the list isn’t very extensive. I had expected that most of the music would be early jazz, blues and orchestral, but I’ve just discovered that there’s a surprisingly large selection (900K!) of ‘community audio’ tracks available.

I do include a recommended playlist with one of my games … players of the game have even made a YouTube playlist and a Pandora channel based on the recommendations, which is cool of them.

But even if I could secure the rights to include the music directly in the game, I probably wouldn’t. Personally, when I have played IF with music included, Job One tends to be turning the sound off, because ick.

Doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done well, in theory. But I don’t personally reach for IF when I’m in a “multimedia experience” mood.

I’ve considered creating a plugin that would allow for a playlist-based, in-game music player that would allow the reader to be in control of playback. Now that Glulx has a pause function (actually, I’m not sure if it has been implemented in the major terps yet), it would be pretty easy to do, whether in text or even a skinnable graphical format.

But there isn’t much likelihood that I’ll create the plugin, since it’s more likely that I don’t want to listen to anything anyway–I turn the music off on pretty much all games.


1893 A World’s Fair Mystery, is the best example I can remember now of wisely used music in an IF work. Worth taking a look just to see how well it worked. It’s a comercial IF, though, and I’m not sure whether the freely downloadable demo had the music tracks or not.

Authors like Michael Zerbo used to include some looping track in their Amiga IF works. I particularly didn’t like the results and used to switch it off asap.

In a similar way, my own “Amiga Christmas Story”, a short piece I wrote for a speed-comp held at Commodore Amiga forums (it was meant to be some intro for a series I never found the time to continue ^_^’) had a really nasty ever-looping variation of the Jingle Bells tune. Luckyly it was switchable and the game took no more than a handful of minutes to finish! :smiley:

I know it’s weird, but somehow my mind associates multimedia with “retro-oriented” IF works, so I usually don’t even think of using pics or sounds when doing stuff with inform but tend to use it with projects targetted at retro-computing forums. Back in the second half of the happy 80’s, when home computers began to display graphics and sounds and IF works were meant to be sold, being colourful was a selling point, so having still pictures and some background noises was the norm rather than the exception.

I guess you never heard a retro text adventure playing music through an MT-32. It was anything but “noises” :wink:

Probably not. Those things were pricey! The only time I heard one in the early 90s was calling Sierra Online for a hint and hearing the tree area music from Hero’s Quest (Quest for Glory) being played through one. Even over the phone it sounded far superior to the AdLib version playing through my Soundblaster.

I like soundtracks in IF games… but it does not have to be constant. It only has to be non-distracting.

Right! when my Amiga days were over and gone and went into the PC I had a soundblaster, it was the mid 90’s and, eer, no one was releasing comercial IF anymore! I didn’t get into the net and the modern IF world untill a few years later. :slight_smile:

Anyway, there goes a fine example with still pics, nice background music, and a menu system you could use as a GUI simultraneously with the treaditional text input. This is Legend Entertaiment’s Gateway 2, and it happened at 1993:

Except that if you do this, you’re drawing the player’s attention heavily towards the band. You wouldn’t be able to put a single track on a loop in this scenario without it feeling fake as fuck, unless you expected the player to be done with that whole section within a few minutes. On the other hand, if you do something a bit nicer – a full playlist, transitions, fades – you’re signalling to the player that the band is important. And important things are there to be interacted with, to be involved in the story… at which point you have to either have the story change the music, or go to great lengths to avoid doing so.

(I mean, you could do it like the old variety show format, where for no justifiable reason Motorhead appear in the Young Ones’ living-room, play a song and then leave. That would be a very odd game, though.)

It’s actually my favorite text adventure. The music was well done (it also supported MT32, though the video obviously is using AdLib which sounds quite horrible) and enhanced the whole atmosphere. It’s also situational; different music plays according to what’s happening. I don’t think you can get these results with just using a random music track. It really has to be made specifically for a game and its environment.

Here’s the MT32 version (a real MT32, not the emulator which doesn’t sound like the real thing):

If you watch that whole intro, it leaves you so incredibly eager to play it when you reach the prompt. Extremely well done. We just don’t see anything close to that these days. Robb outdoes himself from time to time, but still, he’s just one man. These games were a multi-person projects.

OK- good points. I guess it could be foreshadowed that the band always play the same old songs over and over, but that might be annoying for the player. I think it might work in a heavily managed story- perhaps one that involved a scene change linked to the game music ending.

I guess the key thing about most good game music is that it’s mood appropriate, but unobtrusive. At best, it accentuates the emotional features of a scene: making it more tense, romantic, whimsical etc. Also, most of it is amenable to unnoticeable looping.

Gateway 2 does look pretty nifty, and it’s available on Abandonia! I guess I’ll play the first Gateway first. From what I can see of it, it raises the interesting off-topic question: is an optional GUI interface desirable in interactive fiction?

If you do, remember that you can press F3 and you get a classic interface where the whole of the bottom screen is dedicated to text and the upper half only has the graphics and the compass rose without any verb and item lists. (Other F keys switch to different layouts. A few are offered.)

Yeah. The big functions of music (at least as backing soundtrack, rather than as literal element of the environment) should be the management and reinforcement of mood and setting. Cryptozookeeper does a really good job at this, but Robb had some advantages there: his mood and setting are grimy, dark, low-res, a bit nerdy and 80s-retro, and SF. There’s a lot of free music that’s appropriate to that (it’s easier to make with home equipment, people who make nerdy 80s-retro music are more likely than average to be aware of things like Creative Commons and internet archives, and things that are grimy and low-res are more abundant, and more likely to be free, than things with glossy production).

Is there anyone who wouldn’t play this?

Someone please make that game. I’ll pay.

I’m suddenly inspired to make a game with a low-key ambient music soundtrack. And just having ambient sounds instead of music in certain areas (or maybe in addition to) would be nice, too. Would take good sound design, though…

With the band example, you want it to work with a degree of verisimilitude, but you don’t wanna kill yourself doing it either.

Off the top of my head, I’d get 2-3 tracks for the band to play in a row. If they play them all and you just stand there for 6-10 minutes listening, a message appears saying they’re going on break. At that point we could cut to crowd atmos or fade to silence. Adventure players are super used to various time streams halting and not continuing until they perform certain actions, so I reckon they’d buy this fine.

Various other assisting things could include - move 1 room away and they keep playing, but you drop the volume. Move 2 rooms away, we cut to the fade and the ‘they’re going on break’ message.

So I think you can do this kind of thing. The issue is, it’s a freakload of work to manage all this for the majority of your locations. And then you do all this work and an Erik Temple turns the music off anyway :wink:

Also technically - it should be easier to manage the sound channels and timings in the latest Glulx spec than it was even one spec ago, but the audio area is still mostly undocumented/unextensioned compared to the graphical side of things.

I can speak on Six. It had six sound channels (coincidence…). I had to run separate glulx timers to keep track of whether pieces of music or sounds had finished playing or not. I had to program the fades manually with lots of teeny mathematical decrements that took trial and error to get them not to crackle. I think the new glulx has built in fading, which is a huge plus.

In this game, nearly all the music is directly cued to the moment at which it is appropriate. You lose, you hear the lose tune for whoever you’re playing. Win, the win tune. You go in the maze, the maze tune. You meet Rose, the Rose tune. In a heavier game, this approach may come across as laughable, but if the subject matter and gamestyle fits, it can work well.

I do think this is the area (ambient-goaled music or sounds) which is the most doable in general and a good fit for more projects (and players, those fussy bastards) than other approaches. It’s also easy enough to program one sound/music loop per location.