Finding Playable Instruments in Video Games

A thing I’ve been thinking about lately is playable instruments in video games. To be clear, I’m not talking about rhythm games with plastic accessories (though those are great fun), but games that have modeled instruments and let players noodle with them to improvise melodies and such. Specific examples I’m thinking of include the instruments from Majora’s Mask 3D, which led to this person doing multiple pop song covers, the piano from Myst, the most recent King’s Quest let you fuss around with a music box for a puzzle, Animal Crossing: Wild World and New Leaf let you compose the town tune, and this guitar in Lumino City.

Making music brings me such joy and I love that developers go out of their way to create these tiny composition tools inside games. Are there any others y’all can think of? Also, is there a specific term for this type of novelty? I feel like my Googling only ever leads me back to Guitar Hero/Rock Band.

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GW2 has playable instruments both scattered about the open world (mostly in the form of interactable keyboard instruments that replace your skill bar with notes) and as lootable/purchaseable items – there are entire guilds dedicated to standing around playing covers on the latter! Plus one of the mildly GH-like winter festival minigames includes a “free play” segment where you can play whatever you want.

I’d just call it an “in-game instrument”?

In Fable you can play the lute and even get money from it by busking. I can’t remember if it included a Guitar Hero-like minigame or not :thinking:

Good question. There’s always a little spark of delight that flares inside me every time I find a playable in-game instrument.

I think my first encounter with something like this was in Ocarina of Time. I feel pretty confident saying everyone who has played that game for a decent chunk of time has tried to make some ghastly noise on the ocarina. Wind Waker had this too, with the titular instrument, in a more limited capacity.

Overwatch has bells on the “Dorado” map spawn area that you can play by shooting them. I think there are 3-4 different notes there. Not much but it’s neat.

I remember a part in Super Mario RPG where you could arrange tadpoles on a musical staff to make a short melody for a composer named Toadofsky (hmmm…). Not technically an instrument but it’s way more musically in-depth than a lot of games go.

I also feel like I’ve played a game, maybe a JRPG, with a floor piano. I’ll edit it in if I can jog my memory

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For 2064: Read Only Memories, I did a little twist on this with my voice acting and music for a rapper character trying to finish a song. The idea is that you show them different items or ideas you have and they’ll rap about it. Only six or so of the lines that can be generated actually solve the puzzle, but you can make them (me) rap about 30 or 40 different things.

I wanted to implement a feature where players could hear the song they helped the character create somewhere in the world later, but it was a stretch goal and I didn’t have enough time. I definitely want to do more things like this throughout my career, like a ToeJam & Earl style drum machine, sound tests, all that good stuff.


I never knew that about Guild Wars! Here’s someone playing Hallelujah in-game. It reminded me that LotR Online has playable instruments as well. It’s funny to note how both videos have the ‘real skill no macros’ disclaimers in them.

The Overwatch El Dorado bells are a good example because they feel so small and easy to miss.

I also need to get to finishing 2064 ROM. That sounds like a neat idea all around. One thing I remember is that the music was great, so good work!


It’s not quite what you’re talking about here, but the game Sentris is actually not much of a game and more of an instrument itself. The gameplay is designed to give you a simple goal in the interest of getting you to start playing with it, but you’re free to make just about anything you want with it. The same goes for Cosmic DJ which is a bit sillier.

funnily enough all the LOTRO song files have found a new use in Starbound, which uses the exact same abc format for playing songs with ingame instruments. sadly there’s no way to manually play those instruments, as far as i know.

also FFXIV is adding a “perform” function for bards, with a really funny disclaimer right next to the announcement:

System Updates
We will introduce a new system called “Perform.” This is a bard-specific action, which is unlocked at level 30. Individual music notes will be added as an action, which can be assigned to the hotbar to play those notes.

In the future, we would like to gradually add more at home-like content similar to this. New instruments will be slowly added over future updates.

However, please make sure to perform music that is FFXIV-related. We don’t mind if you’re using it for personal use; however, if songs and music from other titles are being recorded and uploaded frequently, we may have to remove the feature, so we would like to ask for everyone’s support…


Starbound has some really good virtual instruments and even has a system for forming a band.

It makes use of ABC Notation which makes importing custom music tracks really easy. There’s also a lot of interesting custom instruments on the workshop.

The bass minigame in Night in the Woods was so cool when it first came up.

It genuinely reminded me of my friends and I hanging out in my basement playing shitty music we wrote and covering punk songs.

it also spawned some cool covers.

Edit: I remember downloading a mod for Skyrim that made lutes, drums, and flutes playable. I got to finally live my dream of being a cool-ass wandering bard who slays dragons on the side. The mod would even allow your character to receive tips, and play the vocal versions of songs using both the default VO and a handful of newly recorded stuff.


So it did feature a Guitar Hero inspired mini-game, I couldn’t remember. Too bad you couldn’t make your own tunes or find new sheet music throughout the world. Busking was fun though, more games should implement that.

I haven’t had the chance to play Sentris and it’s not quite what I’m looking for, but step-sequencers with game wrappings are neat things as well. I didn’t much like Cosmic DJ, but I really loved Fract OSC. If I remember correctly, the puzzles had space for creativity and it also came packed with a step composer that was really impressive.

I wonder if that FFXIV disclaimer is included just to cover their backs or if they’re sincerely going to make an effort to clamp down on people covering Sandstorm in the town square?

Since MMOs and musical instruments seem to come up a lot, does anyone know if early Star Wars Galaxies had full-featured instruments? I often hear people speaking highly about the game’s systems and economies early on so it seems like it would be place where players could do some detailed jizz-wailing.

How has no one mentioned Mario Paint? Granted, it’s not a narrative game and more of a toolset. But still, you get awesome stuff like this:

Also not what you were asking about, but the only DS cart I kept after selling my DS years ago was the Korg DS-10 Synthesizer. After getting a 3DS, I started messing around and making some beats.

Oh right, Fract OSC was one of my favorite games of the year it released! Cosmic DJ was definitely the weakest of those sorts of games I’ve played, but I’m still a sucker for anything of the sort.

More on target for your original topic, this seems like something that ought to be a concept on the giant bomb wiki. I’m gonna do a little digging and either find it or get one created.

Ahhh, FractOSC is so good. I kind of forgot about it too. It’s one of those games that’s good as pure experience, but also has decent puzzles that pay off pretty nicely with audiovisual splendor. It’s definitely an instrument too–it has a “Studio” mode, and as you unlock stuff in the game it appears in your studio, where you can actually make music and export it.

Why isn’t THAT in VR?

Oh god, yes PLEASE.

I made a concept page for this, btw:

Please take over!

I’m not sure if this counts, but the PSP version of Little Big Planet had some musical parts you could use in levels. There was one level where if you built it right, the riff off of Spiderbait’s ‘Glockenpop’ would play as you ran across the stage.

Other than that, the only playable instrument in a game I can think of was the band part in Night in the Woods.


@dr_monocle mentioned the example that comes to mind for me, which was the Ocarina in Ocarina of Time. I was never a huge Zelda head, but the idea of making real music was always fascinating to me (and, as I recall, the Scarecrow Song gives you a reasonable outlet to express that).

I’m not sure that there’s a name for the novelty of in-game playable instruments, although it is something that I feel like should have a term of some kind.

I don’t know if this really counts, but Warioware DIY had a fantastic music tool. Like the one from Mario Paint taken to the next level. The coolest thing about it, though, was that you could hum or whistle a tune into the DS microphone, and the game would do a pretty good job mapping it to the in-game instrument you selected. And then you could go in and tweak it to get some really perfect results. Made replicating songs super easy, and composing your own stuff super fun, even for people who don’t really know how to make music. The accessibility of that is something I’ve never seen another game replicate.

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Woooooow I totally forgot about the Scarecrow Song (which I shouldn’t have cause I’m playing 3DS OoT…yes…playing kicks 3DS back under the bed). I kinda wish I could go back and see what a mess I made of it when I was a kid. I can’t remember what happened to my 64 unfortunately.

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