I love music! And I have a habit of inevitably replacing most in-game music with my own. Do you do this too? How much does this effect the game experience?
After the first 300 hours of Slay the Spire I started to get a little bored of the same ol soundtrack. And at any rate, as much as I love StS, their music isn’t a strong suit. So now, Donu and Deca murder me to the tunes of El Huervo and The Neighborhood, which is a much-needed improvement…
…but it’s not strictly better to replace music, is it? Even unassuming music - especially unassuming music - does its own job of establishing a lot about a game.
Obviously, music establishes tone and atmosphere. High-intensity music helps you feel ready to ROCK in combat, while slower music can do stuff like help you recognize a town as a safe space from monsters. This stuff, I think, we all know intrinsically. But there’s other stuff that’s maybe less obvious too.
For example, we know that background music should generally be unassuming / loopable / tune-out-able so that players don’t get annoyed. But also, I think unassuming songs are also good because they can “fit in” a wider variety of contexts. Conversely, the more the bgm slaps in a game, the narrower its application probably is. For example: combat music has room to be exciting because it’s only going to be used in high-adrenaline situations. But town music can sometimes be difficult to make “special” if a variety of moods are going to happen in that location. This is a big argument in favour of letting the game select appropriate music for you (assuming the game is well made) - the music is more likely to match w/e you’re doing and not accidentally ruin a sad time or sully a happy one.
There’s another neat thing that I think in-game music does too… The fact that game music is “isolated” - that is, rarely heard outside its own game - means that hearing its soundtrack can easily re-immerse you into that world. Comparatively, an IRL song may be loaded with other associations, and therefore may prevent you from getting as into the mood even if the tone matches. Things get murky once you download Darren Korb on Spotify, but you get the idea.
What I mean to say, I guess, is that a well-made game will have good sound design that makes conscious choices with their music. And, once you spend enough time in a game, even just hearing a certain song will give you a kind of gut-instinct-pavlov-doggo-reaction due to association. Cool!
Buuut, the thing is, I think choosing your own music has a lot of benefits as well.
Like, okay, so you get to replace potentially-annoying/boring music with something of your own taste that you enjoy. But also, if you happen to be in a particular musical phase in your life, you get to form associations between a “real-life” artist and that game. Maybe whenever you listen to Future Islands you’ll get some faint nostalgia pings for Spelunky? Maybe you were on a Madonna kick when you were grinding for a specific set of mats for a gun?
Since a song you chose can traverse both “out of game” and “in-game” experiences, your real-life experiences with a song could influence how you perceive the events, tone, atmosphere, etc of the game you’re playing. This isn’t a strictly bad thing, in my opinion - while yeah, you can drift away from the “intended” atmosphere you were “supposed” to be getting from a certain location/game/event, you also get to put a bit of a personal spin on it.
In other words, listening to your own music when playing a game is a small way of personalizing your experience and interpretation of that game. If game BGM can do a good job of setting tone, real life music should be able to the same. And if that’s the case, choosing music carefully can be your way of "shaping” what kind of game you’ll end up playing. Your experience could end up being very different from another player’s just because you were listening to Bjork? Seems great!
Conclusion: Music affects your gameplay experience in a few ways. It seems like playing with the default music is best until you have a good sense of the game, then swapping to your own music is cool for subsequent playthroughs.