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When I first got Skyrim, my friends kept ranting about how great the music was. I found this odd, since I only remembered the same old music only popping up during random encounters. After awhile I just assumed that my installation was broken (for some reason the music files were corrupted or something). Then I saw my one of my friends playing their copy, and lo and behold, their game was just as quiet—with only footsteps sound effects.

Now my roommate's version of Breath of The Wild shows up, and even Legend of Zelda games are following this trend?! What happened? What happened to the obnoxious Morrowind music? The ambient musical feel of each region in Ocarina of Time? Why would game developers eliminate such a powerful tool for creating atmosphere?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Why do people close-vote questions as "primarily opinion based" just because they don't know the answer? There are quite a few big budget games that use this design decision, and it's pretty much guaranteed there's a design rationale behind that decision every single time. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Mar 6 '17 at 19:45
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Poignancy / relevance. Over the '90s-'00s, people got tired of music constantly overwhelming every aspect of their play. The same thing has happened over the course of my life in TV and movies. I think many people prefer having long periods of just being exposed to the natural sounds of the world in question, or straight dialogue, and then occasionally having the music pop up when appropriate, making the experience more meaningful. This, along with the large number of tracks in Skyrim, reduces the chances that you'll get utterly sick of one track or another, thereby improving enjoyment at key moments. I would also say that gaming has matured as a large portion of gamers from the 70s-90s have grown into middle-aged folk. A good example of "less music" in TV is True Detective.

Anecdotally, I enjoy the nature ambience of Skyrim these days, often more than the tracks themselves. It's low key, and requires less mental energy to parse / process when your mind is on other things.

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The problem is that such open world games are often played for a very long time. Even the best and longest soundtrack becomes repetitive over time. Whatever emotional impact it had when heard for the first time gets diminished to obnoxious background noise sooner or later.

That might in fact be the reason why many people remember the music in Skyrim so fondly: Because it only appears in situations where it has the maximum atmospheric impact. The epic Skyrim theme song, for example, is only ever heard in the actual game when the player is fighting a dragon. These fights are very rare if compared to the rest of the playtime, but are among the most epic moments of the game. The rare music makes these fights even more epic. If intense music like that would play all the time, then it wouldn't add any more to these scenes.

Also, background music tends to drown out other sounds from the surrounding or even worse might contain parts which can get mistaken for gameplay-relevant sounds. This can be especially troublesome in games where listening to the environment is part of the game mechanics. That can be enemy chatter and footsteps during a stealth part or random phrases spoken by NPCs while exploring a city which might contain interesting exposition.

That's why some game designers developed the tendency to only use background music in those moments which warrant some additional emotional impact.

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