I know we like to talk about AAA games being dumbed down and over-tutorialised but to an outsider they can still seem like a blistering attack on the senses. These days, I find the early honeymoon hours often start out with bewilderment rather than wonder as I blunder around for an hour. There’s a limit to how much tutorial my brain can internalise in such a short time span.

When I embarked on Prey (Arkane Studios, 2017) it was the same old routine of relying on WASD muscle memories then working through the game’s many systems. Its surface writhed with information: personal and suit health in the bottom left corner; pop-up inventory matrices whenver I examined someone or something; objective updates blasting out across the top of the view and nav markers skating across the screen whenever I turned my virtual head to admire the sheer depth and attention to detail in the Prey environment.

There was another layer of feedback embedded in the game which is not unique to Prey. Feedback I’ve come to resent. Let’s call it the warning orchestra.

Wind the clock back to the first hour of the game, just after you’ve escaped the blatant tutorial and Prey switches into its Bad Shit Has Gone Down and You’re All Alone In The Night phase. I was wandering around when I heard an electronic squeal segue into some action techno. I was convinced something was happening, but what? I kept my in-game eyes peeled but didn’t see anything, no in-game cutscene. The techno receded. I’m not alone in this – check out this Prey Let’s Play from the 17:07 mark:

Next time it happened it was pretty obvious what the music was for. A mimic, Prey’s weakest enemy, was upon me. This techno was combat techno! I flailed around with a wrench, trying to hit a black enemy against a black backdrop (Prey darkens the display if you get too intimate with the enemies, a design choice I find irksome). The music only stopped once I’d wrench-translated the mimic into globs of liquorice, handily containing bullets for weapons I didn’t have.

I think I first encountered combat music in fabby brilliant first-person shooter No One Lives Forever: The Operative (Monolith, 2000). One of the selling points was its “adaptive music score” where music responded to the immediate situation instead of playing the same muzak on infinite loop. (I’m not ragging on E1M1, you know.) Get into trouble and NOLF would transition to something more tense and urgent.

No One Lives Forever
No One Lives Forever

I liked the dynamic musical relief of NOLF but over time the adaptive soundtrack has morphed from supporting the player’s emotional experience into signalling. Suppose there’s a mimic hopping around a room in Prey like a money spider on heat. Once it spots you, Prey spools out tense music which ratchets up if the mimic attacks. But this musical event happens independently of whether you’ve seen the mimic at all, so the Prey player is rapidly conditioned to react defensively upon hearing these recognisable loops, this warning orchestra. And it irritates me.

In Spielberg’s Jaws, John Williams’ iconic theme is used to build the tension until the moment the shark finally strikes. But the synergy between the visuals and music are damaged without synchronisation. The modern game, however, synchronises music with the developer’s interpretation of events and the developer doesn’t know what’s going on in the player’s mind. They do, however, know what’s going on in an antagonist’s mind. I can see you! CUE ACTION MUSIC. Because the music reflects what a hostile is doing, it often manufactures a player reaction distinct from their experience to that point. The musical dimension can feel out of phase with the player and contributes to that sense of dislocation during the tutorial chunk of a busy game like Prey.

If all those musical cues were removed or fixed, we might discover the player gets backstabbed billions of times with Twitched rage-quits broadcast from cities across the world. I hate this game, it’s so unfair, I want my money or my musical augmented reality back.

There’s also the technical difficulty of fixing cues to match a player’s interpretation: suppose a zombie is shambling from the shadows, but we can’t make it out yet. How would any game know when the player has actually seen the zombie? Developers can use tricks to get the player to see things at the right moment. Early in Half-Life 2: Episode 2 (Valve, 2007) a fence guides the player towards the hunter’s debut appearance on the opposite side of a yard.


Despite Half-Life and its sequels being virtually straight lines from start to finish, they only play music when the developers are absolutely convinced the player is in the correct mental space for it. This brutally stage-managed approach is a world away from the adaptive soundtrack and is perhaps an admission that a developer can only be confident of what the player sees if they force feed that player a cutscene.

I’m not sure if the problem of a player-focused adaptive soundtrack is solvable but, regardless, I just don’t like where we’re at today. Games are happy to cajole the player into feeling something, whether they’ve earned it or not. It feels sloppy, appropriating music as just another feedback system.

Perhaps one day these games will have a toggle for “Warning Orchestra” and I will toggle that shit off.


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27 thoughts on “The Warning Orchestra

  1. I was away from the tab and navigated back to the video and it was at 12:35 and the game is giving you the flipping Trolley Problem? WTH? Maybe I need to hire myself out as a philosophy consultant to videogame designers (for the jobs Tom Jubert can’t take), because there are many strange and wonderful philosophy examples that AREN’T THE MOST SINGLE CLICHED EXAMPLE IN THE WHOLE DISCIPLINE.

  2. No Matt! Not that tune again! Nooooooo!

    When the trolley problem appeared, I was disappointed. I would totally have pushed someone in front of a train if it saved us from having to deal with the trolley problem again.

  3. For what it’s worth (negative dollars/pounds, probably), the first game I remember with an “adaptive soundtrack” was the original Wing Commander in 1990. It was one of the selling points for the game. I don’t recall if the music tipped you off to a Kilrathi attack. I’m pretty sure I remember it ramping up to a dramatic crescendo during space battles and calming down after you’d defeated the enemy battlecruiser (or whatever the game called them).

    Took me forever to realize what those notes meant in Prey. I actually had to read about them in some forum first, which shows you how much attention I pay to the soundtrack. By the time I notice them it’s too late to change to the appropriate weapon and I just start running until I’m attacked by something worse. (I think my anger over that has subsided enough that I should start playing the game again.)

    Maybe VR headsets could perform an EEG scan on the player and play increasingly dramatic music when they detect a decrease in alpha waves. (I have no idea if that makes sense; I’m just lifting the terminology from Wikipedia.)

  4. This is an interesting one. I’m quite conflicted.

    On reflection, it’s fairly obvious /why/ “the warning orchestra” exists: music has a very close relationship to human emotional states and has the capacity to drive them. In the context of Prey, a game that is very much about tension, something that can reliably up tension levels at critical moments of conflict or danger is very useful. This in turn ups heart rate and response time in the same way as seeing certain forms of movement in your peripheral vision can.

    And this simple trick can be regarded as emotionally manipulative, which people resent, as often as it can be seen as accentuation of what other elements of the design are already doing. So far, so obvious.

    I can see Prey working well without any soundtrack whatsoever. And, presumably, one can turn it off entirely. In a game where the basic enemy type is essentially an ambush predator, you’re then reliant on other audio cues: the sound of something morphing, objects moving, and hopefully the physics engine not accidentally terrifying you when an object gets trapped in something else’s geometry.

    That said, for me what this quandary resolves to is whether the game is conceptually a simulation, or conceptually a rollercoaster. And in the context of exploring a decaying space station, riddled with dangers and infested with a hostile alien species, led from objective to objective by figures I can only mistrust, in a plot framework already very familiar to me… I’m perfectly happy with a rollercoaster.

    But that’s just me. Although I’ve no idea what it might look like, it would be very interesting to see the solution of adaptive combat music applied to a slightly different problem, or applied… differently. VR headsets taking EEG scans might be one way to go. I’m sure there has been gaming hardware in the past that monitored heart rate. But at that point we’re talking the addition of expensive hardware to solve what isn’t, for a lot of people, a serious problem. Still… designers constantly surprise us all.

  5. Chris, there’s a delightful core to Prey which I want to get into soon, so I think it’s worth it. I thought NOLF couldn’t have been the origin of the adaptive soundtrack but wasn’t willing to put in the research time…!

    Shaun, I have nothing against the use of the audio to drive up tension but I just think here and in similar games it just sounds like shit. I realised when chatting to the developer of Bezier on Twitter that this is just a specific case of music enslaved to game play. That is, the music gets jerked about by the needs of the system, so you get this constant interruption of music which often relates to something the player might not have seen.

    Whether it works for a player – I guess it’s in the ear if the beholder. What was more tension building for me was the sound of a phantom pottering around and talking to itself, wondering when I would bump into it.

  6. I love it especially when you get the ‘Straggler Orchestra’. You’ve dispatched what you think is all the enemies in an area but the action music is still playing and you know–you just know–there’s a straggler stuck somewhere, glitching out. Not to be confused with STALKER and that one bandit that’s hiding. You know he’s out there because you can see his PDA on your radar…

    I’m trying to remember how SOMA deals with this problem. I think it’s just generally a very uneasy game and the moments when the music swells can be as empty as when there’s something really there, so you tend to rely on your eyes and ears rather than what the Warning Orchestra is doing.

    Interesting piece and funny you mention NOLF; I’ve had a recent hankering to play it after (finally) getting round to Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving. I much preferred Thirty Flights. Gravity Bone felt like a great intro and ending in search of a middle bit. Brendon Chung said as much in an RPS interview, and it shows. The second heist, before the finale, was bloody horrible.

  7. “I can see Prey working well without any soundtrack whatsoever.”

    I meant to add too that, back in the day, I actually muted the music in System Shock 2. It wasn’t adaptive but it hugely influenced how I played.

    I love Eric Brosius’ soundtrack but his thrashing techno just sent me into a frenzy. The combination of the tension breaking as the first mutant runs at you, and the MedSci techno kicking you in the drums made me dash around those opening corridors, panting and sweating no less, like it was a run-and-gun first-person shooter. My clapping footsteps attracted enemies, I was triggering alarms which attracted more enemies and I maybe ran into gun turrets.

    So I turned the music off and it made ambient sounds and the shuffling and barks of enemies nearby much easier to hear. My pace slowed, my senses focused and the dread crept back in again. I didn’t finish SS2 at the time but years later I kept the music on and just turned it down. Still, I’m not convinced we need Warning Orchestras.

    Another problem: if enemies die quickly then you only tend to hear the Warning Orchestra revving up only for it wind back down again. If it’s the same piece of music each time then that intro gets quite repetitive.

    The most recent example of this for me is in Zelda: Breath of the Wild where a stupid jelly or bat can trigger the orchestra but they die in seconds. It’s weird because the ambient music is really sparse and quite lovely, but the interruptions for this short-lived action thrum get pretty irksome.

    (Now I want to see a game where the Warning Orchestra is an actual band that pops into existence when an enemy is near. They’d probably end up as the horror themselves. “Oh shit, the Warning Orchestra is here!”. Come to think of it, it’s a great band name.)

  8. Gregg, I feel like we’ve had this conversation before, a bit of deja vu! Prey actually gets round this problem by sticking a “alert bar” above the target’s head. You can see that through walls, so it fixes that particular problem… with more augmented reality. I wasn’t exactly keen on that either! (I wanted to drop a mention of that in this post but it didn’t quite fit.) I don’t mind music raising the emotions of a sequence, but the trouble with all this “emergent play” is that there’s no amping up, rising to a crescendo it’s just DUHDUHDUHDUHDUHDUH all of a sudden.

    On NOLF I actually don’t know how well it would play out today. I still have my copy but did you know its impossible to find on any online service due to messy rights issues that no one has been able to resolve?

    I’d forgotten that System Shock 2 does have that THUMPING TRACK during combat. I was less of a connosieur back so these things bothered me less but, yeah, now I remember it was really loud!

    No one expects the Warning Orchestra!

    Currently working on my main Prey piece, maybe we’ll see it on Wednesday…

  9. Seems like the Warning Orchestra per se an issue that arises only in games that are kind of open-worldy; otherwise what you get is more of a “You enter the boss chamber and the boss music plays” kind of thing, I guess. VVVVVV did have an effective use of that where the music changed when you moved from the overworld into the main areas; the tower worked particularly effectively for me there, because as soon as you walk in the music starts playing and you have to do something. (Also maybe because it was the first main level I played that hadn’t been in the demo.) And there’s an excellent one in Cave Story with Monster X, where you’re walking along in an area with normal monsters and suddenly the boss music starts up and the weird thing you just walked past comes after you. (This is the only boss that doesn’t start with a cut scene other than Red Demon and Heavy Press, I think, and those are still waiting for you in an area that is free of normal mooks.) Probability 0 has the siren that comes on when a boss is approaching (and when you’re at low health), which I guess is related, though it’s not like you’re not about to freak out when that happens anyway.

  10. Hi Joel.

    Usually, the first thing I do before starting a new game is to go to the options menu and set the volume of the background music to zero.

    For me, the music in the majority of the games I have played is only distracting, annoying and immersion breaking (any kind of music that loops over and over became annoying, it’s a law of nature). Few exceptions come to my mind, Thief 1-3, Half-life 1&2, Portal 1&2… Notably the Thief games have only ambient music, while in 90% of the time of Half-life and Portal there is no music (the music plays only in sparse and specific stages and never repeat itself.)

    In some cases, when a game is particularly hard, I switch on the music exactly to cheat, exploiting the “warning orchestra” as a method to be alerted in advance of not yet visible enemies/dangers that are approaching.

    p.s. first time to comment, I have been following this blog for the past year…

  11. Matt, probably some shooters suffer from it too. When the scene is more managed, then the music tends to flow better; or even, if the music is allowed to segue in gently. NOLF seemed to do this very well, as if following the player’s mood, whereas a modern piece will throw in the warning score as quickly as possible.

    2D games also get away with this better as they’re about total visibility, but 3D games particularly of the realistic sort, end up with their monsters going unspotted half the time before the music spins up.

    I love the music work on Prob 0, especially the smooth escalation of the music as you’re close to death!

    Nifft, welcome and thanks for dropping something in the comments and long last! I’ve never thought of turning the music off. I know my father used to do that on lots of games in the 80s, he found the wailing 8-bit loops irritating pretty fast but he has always been an audiophile and being forced to listen to rubbish is practically a criminal offence.

    Prey is a game goes for ambience but I’ll admit sometimes it’s a little too noisy for my liking, and that’s before the warning orchestra gets in on the act. It feels like it lurches from mood to mood when I’m just out exploring. There are a few times when I enter a particular area that the background music suddenly changes and I’m wondering if it’s because of some bad thing creeping up on me. It isn’t and I just resent that it wasted my time.

    I like leaving on the music because I’m always want to see what the developer was trying to put across. But this might be one of those times where you throw the rulebook out the window. Suggestion noted 🙂

  12. In a lot of games, I think the Warning Orchestra functions as compensation for the lack of peripheral vision and other senses. I can think of many times in games where the music alerted me to the presence of an enemy my character absolutely should have been aware of if the camera hadn’t been in the wrong place.

    I’m usually happy thinking of the music as the equivalent of the feeling of your skin crawling when you sense that something is behind you.

  13. Hi Urthman! Yeah that’s what I was getting at with “If all those musical cues were removed or fixed, we might discover the player gets backstabbed billions of times…” and that the meaning of the music has changed from experience to signalling, that it’s system feedback. In a game like Prey which is more emergent, it just doesn’t sound good, because the music can switch on a heartbeat. The gameplay drags the music all over the place.

  14. The worst example of this I’ve seen was, I think, Resident Evil 4. For the first two hours I was constantly on the edge of my seat, desperately scanning the world for enemies, terrified one was sneaking up behind me. It was true survival horror.

    Then I figured out that no music = no enemies, and poof, it became a shooter. The Warning Orchestra literally *changed the genre*.

  15. James, I do find that: initially, I approach the game a little nervously, worried it’s going to bite. But music, I find actually does take the bite out. It doesn’t put me on edge, it just puts me into crosshair mode.

  16. I think that’s one of the things I admire about Teleglitch: it’s mostly silence and ambient noise from buzzing alien machines and breezy open spaces. This makes it all the more alarming when you hear movement and the subsequent crack and blasts of gunfire and explosives. There’s no music to set the tone and key you into events; you take every moment as it comes.

  17. If music isn’t working to compensate for the camera’s limitations, do you have any alternate ideas to make the player aware of things the character ought to be able to see or sense?

  18. Although I doubt many developers are intentionally using music that way. They just want to be ‘cinematic’.

  19. Joel, in light of your comment about the gameplay dragging the music all over the place, I thought something like this:
    Problem: Music gives a disjointed experience because of sudden shifts going along with the gameplay.
    Question: Why doesn’t this indicated that the gameplay is also disjointed? If it’s not a satisfying musical experience when your combat music randomly pops up in the middle of your exploring music, how can it be a satisfying experience when your combat gameplay randomly pops up in the middle of your exploring gameplay?
    Thesis: The gameplay isn’t also disjointed because there’s supposed to be some tension–whenever you’re exploring, you can be tossed into combat at any moment. So even the quiet exploring isn’t really quiet.
    Antithesis: But the Warning Orchestra overrides that. You can’t really be tossed into combat at any moment if the music’s always tipping you off.
    Synthesis: Urthman, maybe the answer is that the developers shouldn’t be signalling in this way… or at least the signal shouldn’t happen unless you’re really going to have to fight.
    (Also I realized that in my previous post, my last sentence about Probability 0 was unclear. What I meant was, when you’re playing Probability 0 you’re freaking out constantly.)

  20. Gregg: Take a look at this question on Twitter.

    Urthman: It seems strange to use music to do this, because these games are full of AR overlay. In fact, in Prey, every enemy gets an “alertness bar” stuck on its head whenver they notice you. You can see it through a damn wall. So the game really piles on the signals. I just feel when the situation can rapidly change, music is a bad way of doing that, because it sounds so discordant – I’ll expand on this a little in Matt’s response below. I think it would be okay for music to weave in slowly, or insert rapidly in a special situation. But in this case, it happens far too regularly. The soundscape of Prey is not interesting to listen to.

    Matt: I think you raise some interesting points. Prey clearly wants to be a frightening experience and so you can have mimics jump out at a moment’s notice. Indeed, there are lots of early moments where you’re looking at something and a mimic bursts out of a cup and the music shrieks at you. It’s beautifully synchronised! Prey: the horror game trying to do the Amnesia experience. But there are far too many moments, where that doesn’t work at all like my first mimic encounter and the one in the video. And as you get further into the game, mimics popping out cease to be a problem and it’s possible to see them even while camouflaged. It gets so routine. Thinking again – I feel like the game should play those shock noises in the early game but then forget about it completely. Job done.

    I suspect there is definitely truth to Urthman’s assertion that the intent behind the music is for the Cinematic Game. But these games are just upsetting to listen to. (I’m exaggerating but for the most part the switching of musical gear really grates after a while.)

  21. @Urthman: that makes me think of loot glint/highlighting if the thing is visible on-screen, or maybe an indicator pointing to the edge of the screen if the object is beyond the screen edges? I know people hate loot glint sometimes but I think it can be very fitting if the avatar is meant to have spidey-senses anyway (see Assassin’s Creed’s Eagle vision).

    @matt: I like that idea. So maybe if the player is in an explorey-but-can-become-combat zone, the music shouldn’t jump from chill to apocalyptic, but should maintain a constant unease?

  22. Joel: I think the reason the mimic jumpscare works is that the music changes there only when the game is absolutely certain the player is going to be in sync with it (ie. jump-scared). It sounds like a lot of this problem could be removed if they just moved the system from

    if (enemy detects player) then { change music }


    if (enemy damages player or player damages enemy) then {change music }

    It wouldn’t be perfect – there would be some cases where the player sees an enemy and the music doesn’t change to recognise that – but I think it’d be the smaller of two evils. It’d be the “slightly underwhelming orchestra” rather than the warning orchestra.

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