I love visual novels. The genre is a wonderful platform to tell just about any story; a union of captivating storytelling, beautiful artwork, and engaging music. Visual novel developers are masters of telling stories through immersive text and attractive pictures.
But, are there perhaps ways we can make visual novel soundtracks even more engaging, even for developers with smaller budgets? Let's start by quickly considering the role of music in games, which is to:
- Provide background music for certain locations or events.
- Attach unique musical identities to characters, places, or ideas.
- Evoke an emotional response and emotional attachment from the player.
The first two points are not difficult to achieve. The third point - evoking an emotional attachment - is a bit trickier to navigate, but is also what makes game soundtracks truly engaging. This article will go over a few strategies to level up point #3 so that your player is more invested in your story - here we go!
Tip #1: Spot The Critical Story Points
In the film industry, there's a practice known as "spotting". This is when the director and composer go over the movie together, and pinpoint the "spots" for certain music tracks.
Do something similar with your visual novel. Set aside an hour or two to go over your story with your composer - the two of you are going to collaboratively identify which characters/objects/ideas/scenes need the most attention or priority in the soundtrack. These are the points where custom music is most important. This is beneficial for projects on a tight budget, because you're forced to make the best use of your music budget.
Any point in the story that does not 1) show character growth/change, or 2) impactfully build upon the story world's lore, can safely be assigned a royalty-free track. It is unlikely that the player will notice this; thus, their immersion remains unbroken.
Tip #2: Prioritize Motifs
In a nutshell, motifs are melodies or musical phrases assigned to specific characters, objects, places, or ideas. These motifs are then reused throughout the story to reflect how these characters/objects/places/ideas change.
The keyword here is change, because all stories are about change; a character wants something, but cannot get it. They go through trials and tribulations, and they either get what they wanted, or realize that what they wanted wasn't what they really needed. Either way, the character undergoes change. Without change, there is no story.
Visual novels are actually the perfect environment for motifs to flourish. Because visual novels lack complicated mechanics and are ultimately centered around characters, we can use our music budget in a more targeted and efficient way.
Tip #3: Use A Motif Web
For an even more emotionally engaging soundtrack, create a web of motifs and have them "play with each other".
Here's an example: Let's say your main character's desire is to be in a romantic relationship with the love interest. Give each of them a unique motif, and have your composer write tracks that utilize both of those motifs. If the characters go through conflict (like a major disagreement, or a break-up), this is the perfect place for a sad/bittersweet track that uses both of the characters' motifs.
When we initially attach a motif to a character, what we're essentially doing is planting seeds within the player's mind. Paired with strong writing and character development, these seeds grow into trees that become entangled with one another. The more they grow, the more they become entangled; and the more the player resonates with these characters.
Tip #4: Trade OST Rights For More Tracks
Most composers will be open to negotiating a lower upfront price in exchange for retention of their rights, especially for large projects like full game soundtracks. Although you'll lose out on the right to sell/distribute the game's soundtrack, it is well worth the trade-off; being able to commission a higher number of tracks will give your soundtrack the room it needs to build the player's emotional attachment.
#5: Use Silence Where It Feels Right
They say that silence is golden, and in some scenes this can ring true. Not every moment of a game needs music; in fact, silence can actually strengthen the emotion in some scenes.
Scenes in which major plot twists are suddenly revealed, or a character makes a difficult decision - or simply scenes where you want the player to take in the atmosphere and ambience of a certain location - are just some instances where silence could be more impactful than music. There isn't one "right" way to determine if a scene would benefit from silence vs. music - just get a feel for it, and perhaps consult with your composer to get their input.
Custom narrative music is an incredibly powerful "must-have" tool for any visual novel developer whose goal is to make a game with an emotional, character-driven story. By using strong motifs and focusing the music budget where it matters most, we highlight the story's strong points and build the player's emotional attachment to the game - and it is this emotional attachment that turns casual fans into diehard superfans who will come back to buy your next game.
About The Author
Darrell “Dibur” Reconose is a professional composer and sound designer with a fascination for storytelling. He has composed music for award-winning indie games, and is passionate about sharing his love and knowledge of both audio and storytelling with the game development community. Feel free to get in touch for work inquiries or general game audio questions!