Ahh GameBandits…what music they make!
Prepare yourselves… you thought COVID was bad…today you may witness me dance!? Why? Just to make Bratlett cringe? Nope…In Today’s GameBandits, we’re talking Video Game music!
Tune in (see what I did there!?) 11am EDT
Music is such a huge part of what makes a good video game great! What’s your favourite video game music?
There are so many great ones out there. From Mario…
To Modern Warfare:
Minecraft which was very much enhanced by it’s moody, eerie, but calming score by C418 (And for PinkNinja Bandit here’s Minecraft Music composer C418’s remix of the Stranger Things Theme:
Baz is quite partial to Legend of Zelda… and it’s really fun to listen to how that soundtrack has changed over the years:
Evolution of The Legend of Zelda Theme
Personally I loved the soundtrack and music mechanics of ARK:
Which do you prefer the soundtrack for Sims 2 and Sims 4…and why?
Bratlett and I are huge fans of Overwatch and thanks to my time on Stargate I’m crazy lucky to know the incredibly talented Neal Acree, who composed the music for it!
Perhaps this little ditty sounds familiar to you?Overwatch Victory Theme
Despite recording an orchestra in Australia from his home in LA, (and it being something crazy like 3am in the morning!!) he’s very kindly given us a whole bunch of insights about music for video games.
His first suggestion is that we watch the Disney+ series “The World According to Jeff Goldblum” episode on video games…which I immediately watched!
Here’s what what else Neal had to say… Function:
Game music usually involves either triggered, looped or interactive music.
Triggered is a single piece of music that is triggered when you enter a specific area in the game or a specific event happens. This can also involve a playlist of music that plays at random intervals while you are exploring a certain area. This is common in MMOs like WoW or open world games that need to cover a wide variety of gameplay. The music is more about the mood or enhancing the scenery than tracking specific actions.
Interactive or adaptive music uses the game engine to score the scene in real time by adapting to certain variables like proximity to danger, how much or how little health you or your enemy might have or how many bad guys you are fighting. This is most common in FPS games that emulate a cinematic experience.
At its most simple, interactive music is made up of layers that are faded in by the game engine based on proximity to the event that needs to be emphasized. The base layer is often a simple, ambient pad or repeating pattern that can play while you just sit there for an hour without annoying you. As you get closer to danger a slightly more complex version fades in on top. This has to work both musically and dramatically. You can have quite a few layers depending on the game engine and the music has to be composed with the big picture and the individual layers in mind.
On a more complex level, adaptive music can work like a Choose Your Own Adventure Book but in musical form. The music is composed in short, loopable sections that cover a wide variety of scenarios and then there is someone on the game team that implements these cells into the audio engine. These “horizontal” cells that change with your actions can also have vertical layers like the previous example I mentioned. There are some scores out that are incredibly complex in regards to how they adapt to the player’s choices.
A game like Overwatch uses music more as auditory cues to alert the players that the match is about to begin or end. The sound is designed so you could almost play with your eyes closed and know whats going on and the music is part of that. (That’s an interesting point… can (or is) music being used to help people with hearing disabilities navigate games?)
My friend Austin Wintory did a great behind the scenes breakdown on an interactive score he did called Erica. It’s a great visualization of how the interactive score is working under the hood and he talks about the musical choices he made:
These are the technical considerations that first need to be worked out before a note is even composed. Then of course comes the actual music. How do you capture the mood of the game? What melodic/harmonic/rhythmic devices will help enhance the player’s emotional connection to the game? What instrumentation will help establish a sonic aesthetic and identity? These are all things that are asked of film and tv music as well.
But game music has the added challenge of having to be impactful without being annoying upon repetition. Either repetition through looping in a game or through the same pieces coming up in the triggered playlist format. Players will usually play a game for many more hours than they would spend watching a single movie yet the amount of music in a game is never enough for the player to never hear it repeat.
Career-wise there are many avenues into game music. There are the technical aspects of audio implementation, meaning the people that program the audio engines that will trigger the music in-game. Sometimes the composer does that as well but not always. I have never been asked to do the programming though I have been asked to deliver all the sliced up layers.
On the actual music side of things there are all the same music roles as in film or tv. A lot of game music is done by one person using synthesizers and home studios to produce the music. I’ve done plenty of that. Then there are a lot of huge orchestral game scores that involve a composer, orchestrator(s) to translate the music into notation, copyists/music librarian to print the actual sheet music and put it on the stands, the musicians themselves, recording engineer, pro tools operator and more.
Ever since Myst allowed for CD audio to be included with the game, game music was no longer limited to preprogrammed “beeps and boops” played by a mini 8 bit sound generator in the game. Once that happened it meant that anything you could record audio of could be used as a soundtrack. It took a while for someone to decide to put the money behind hiring an orchestra for a game but once it did, it has become the norm.
The best and sometimes worst thing about game music to me is that it feels like the early days of hollywood sometimes. People are still figuring things out but its getting to a really interesting place where people are doing a lot of experimentation with the technology that sets the medium apart from film. As games have become more profitable than films in some cases (or at least on par), it has attracted a lot of talent from the film world that has increased the scope and quality of the work.
This whole idea of talking about music in video games was a suggestion by our friend and Patreon Patron, Bertly…who was inspired by this video about the history of video game music and the problem with Twitch and Youtube gamers playing games with the sound off…or their own soundtrack.
How do you make game music that isn’t going to drive you crazy… especially if you’re playing the game for hours and hours every day…no that we do that, right!? 😉
And if you actually want to sit down and play some of this amazing stuff…how about this montage of the music notation starting way back in the 1980’s with Pacman and going right up to Fortnite!