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Is Game Music All It Can Be?

November 7, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next
 

Level Design

Video games typically have long segments of player-controlled action that require atmospheric background music on endless loop. This is certainly something that's unique to video games, and presents its own difficulties. The composer must create audio that (a) tells the story of the area or level, (b) has enough interest to avoid fading out of the player's notice entirely, (c) can be listened to ad nauseum without driving the player insane, and (d) stays cohesive with the rest of the music in the game. Game composers in general seem not to struggle too much with B, but A, C, and D can present serious hurdles.

What does it mean to "tell the story" of a level? Does it mean "this is an ice level, so we should sound aloof and use high, cold instruments like the glockenspiel and high-register piano a lot" and "this is the fire level, so let's use heavy brass and industrial sounds to bring the heat"? (Like Metroid Prime, maybe?) Does it mean "this is where they are in the story and how the characters currently feel, so let's score to that"? Do you foreshadow events to come? Look back on the past?

The answer is all of the above, in varying degrees. Very few games have managed to consistently pull this off. The field is littered with boring, cliché, and just plain bad level music. First let's look at the good, though. To do this, I'll turn to Nier, a woefully underrated adventure that has one of the best scores I've heard in a game.

It's a well written and very cohesive work, and every piece, even the town music, all lean into this general feeling of malaise and pervasive dread that the game possesses. This is not a happy game. It is a game, first and foremost, about loss -- of loved ones, of a life gone by -- and the music is a large reason that this is conveyed so well.

Nier's soundtrack was written to convey this profound sadness in every track; the composer noted in an interview that even the "thrilling" high-tension boss battles were composed with this pervading feeling of sadness in mind. Interestingly, the developer thought so highly of the music that elements of the game design were shuffled around to match the music, rather than the other way around. This interplay where the director occasionally bows to the composer is commonly present in film, notably.

One of the main reasons it feels so cohesive and fitting as level music is the presence of one or two female voices on each track. In the story there are two women who feature prominently, and in fact who (minor spoiler) turn out to be a sort of watchdog/architect duo, looking after the world. One, at least, is always found singing and strumming a guitar. They also have an "on-stage" performance. So in a sense, they sing the soundtrack as they watch over the events of the world.

In other words, the female voices that are heard on nearly every track have actual diegetic in-game significance, which is a very nice touch. The music and the plot are tied together in a compelling and interesting way, and this heightens the narrative considerably. Let's look at a few specific examples from the game:

What do you "see" when you listen to this?

Not just general mood, but more specific. I'll tell you what I see: I see a place of great history and mystery. The minor key and open underlying string pad add to the openness, and the soaring soprano and what I would describe as Vaguely Middle Eastern Percussion place it in a desert region (notice that, as with the Hobbits example, we rely on the listener's outside knowledge to shorten what we have to explain). In truth, this level is an ancient desert temple of unknown origin, which (as is cliché in games) holds a secret of great power. I also hear a great pathos to the music, as if it's crying out for things long gone.

I can attest to the fact that listening to it for over an hour won't wear on you, and as we will soon see it is cohesive with the rest of the game, while at the same time expressing its unique location. Now the next cue:

This cut uses the same voices (though laid a little lower in their register) and the same general "feel" to the song as the first example. It sounds as though someone is looking...out a window, or to sea maybe, and longing to see someone or something. This is only played in a single room in the game, which is not ever necessary to visit for main story reasons, though if you side-quest a lot you will be visiting often. It is the longest and perhaps most bittersweet sidequest in the game.

In brief, this is the interior of a lighthouse, whose sole occupant is an elderly woman whose husband went out to sea long ago. He began to write her letters, and sent her something important, but his death notice reached the post office first. The postman couldn't bear to tell the woman of her lover's demise, so he writes letters to her in her lover's name, with the town's knowledge. For 50 years. In the end, it turns out she knows this and was playing along to keep some façade for everyone else in town so they wouldn't all mourn the loss. You get the idea.

Next cue:

This track begins with the sounds of metal on metal, which instantly take me to "factory" (not "cybernetic espionage," which was a confusing thing about the earlier Assassin's Creed example). There's an indifferent drive to it -- a minimalistic Philip Glass tribute -- as if this factory is completely automated like clockwork, and pumps out the same thing day after day without stopping or changing in any way. Oh, but that voice is back, layering another yearning for bygone days, and the sadness that has been brought upon the land.

These are but a few examples of the many intriguing and cohesive sounds you can hear in the Nier score. I would once again encourage you to pick up this very good game. At least, as long as you don't mind soul-crushing despair as a central theme. But we've seen the good, let's study some of the bad.

I loved Persona 4. It, like its predecessor, has become one of my all-time favorite games for its mature (in a good way) look at human nature, but also because it is masterfully created to have this cohesion of theme that runs through the story, world, and even the game mechanics themselves. However, the music falls flat in support of this otherwise tight package. Contrast the cues below with what you just listened to from Nier. Do they show the same cohesiveness, whether it be in instrumentation, style, or anything else? Do they fit the visuals or theme of the game? Do they evoke any of the feelings the game leads you toward? Emphatically, they do not.

What do you visualize when you hear this?

To me it sounds kind of like we're in a rave, or a late-night meat market bar. We're actually in a sauna. In the story, there are overtones of a gay bar, which leads a little more toward this music, but as the character of Kanji is further revealed to you this doesn't seem to fit either. Now, just imagine listening to it for over an hour on endless loop. In fact, just hit that replay button in the YouTube box and do it yourself two or three times. It wears on you, right?

Staying with the same game... What do you hear?

I don't even know what the composer is trying to imply here because the theme of the music is so muddled. A bit muzak-y, which to me implies just waiting around; a bit playful; a bit "we got some work to do, buddy". In truth, you hear this music in what is supposedly a secret underground base of someone who grew up reading and acting out detective novels. So... right. They're running from a normal life path and are even trying to escape their own gender, but does the music say any of that? I don't hear it.

One more Persona 4 track:

Here we have what is perhaps the most egregious example yet. At this point in the game you are well aware that those you're trying to save in each level are experiencing horrible things and will wind up hanging dead upside down from a light post unless you can save them. At this point, they have gone too far -- the victim is your nine-year-old cousin with whom you are staying, and who has probably built up the most emotional cachet with you throughout the course of the game. At this point, you feel anger, and a sense of dread of what could happen to poor, innocent child, and an incredible urgency to find her before she ends up like the rest of the victims. So to drive home this point, you get a song that would be perfectly at home on J-pop radio. Huh?

Persona 4's tracks clearly do not tie together in any way. There's no common theme, no musical ties between the cues; no real cohesion at all. Granted, each location is very unique, but ultimately the player is there to accomplish the same goal in each one. Even granting the unique locations, the cuts don't seem to be appropriate for their individual placements. That whole "To Picture" thing that I mentioned? Not found here. In a game that is otherwise masterfully created, this is disappointing, to say the least.

Nier, on the other hand, found a way not only to convey the feel of the individual locations, but create an over-arching theme and tie each piece back to it -- bonus points for doing so in a diegetical way. This is a perfect example of writing a score instead of just a soundtrack. Unfortunately, it is the exception rather than the rule.

Subtlety, Subversion, and Secret Meanings

A passable score will accomplish no more than to echo the actions that are occurring on-screen. This isn't a bad thing per se, but there are many opportunities to actually add to and enhance the viewer's understanding of the visual elements through music. The score can quickly convey many thoughts, both consciously and sub-consciously, that diegetic narration can ever hope to. It can represent the more general theme of the work (as we saw above with Nier); it can bring back an old theme to shift the perspective; it can do many things. One easy example of this comes from the late Bernard Herrmann, perhaps the greatest film composer to ever live.

Joseph Mankiewicz's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is, at first glance, a 1940s romantic comedy that happens to include a ghost. Here is Herrmann's score for the opening credits, setting the tone for the film:

What do you hear? Does this scream romcom? It almost sounds like a mistake, right? It's dark, brooding, and melancholy. Feels out-of-place. But if you watch the entire movie you realize that one of the main themes of this movie -- unspoken by any character yet omnipresent throughout the footage -- is the fleeting character of human earthly life, and the inherent sadness in contemplating the passage of time. Herrmann sensed this and gave the film an incredible score that elevated it to one of the all-time greats.

As a counter-point see the trailer for Wise's I Want to Live!, a 1958 movie about an infamous murder trial. It's a typical jazzy '50s score by Johnny Mandel that at first feels appropriate, because the protagonist is a jazzed-up wild girl from the '50s. But as the movie progresses and she's tried and executed for a murder she swears she didn't commit, the movie turns very dark indeed. I think Mandel saw this and used less and less music as the movie went on, but nevertheless the music has aged very badly and simply doesn't carry the weight it needs to for such a heavy subject. This trailer gives the general impression of the score:

This is an important technique, and one upon which multiple papers could be written. However, its use in games has been basically non-existent to this point (save one exception). Suffice it to say that game composers -- and directors -- would do well to remember they have this tool in their kit.


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Comments


Bjornar Herstad
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.

Daniel Campbell
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I've been complaining for a LONG time that music in games doesn't get the credit and attention it deserves. I know it's kind of an easy target but, look at the Final Fantasy series. I have no doubt that those games wouldn't be even half as successful as they are without Uematsu's music.

Daniel Campbell
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Oh and let's not forget that some of Uematsu's best work was when he was working with severely limited technology. His work with the SNES is simply astounding proving you don't need an orchestra or big budget, you just need well crafted melodies.

Bjornar Herstad
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agree:)

Cartrell Hampton
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Hey.

"...music in games doesn't get the credit and attention it deserves."
As a composer of music in my own games, I definitely agree with this one.

"... you don't need an orchestra or big budget, you just need well crafted melodies."
Also agree. Furthermore, an understanding of music theory (which I couldn't find any specific mention of in this article) also helps.

______________________
- Ziro out.

Robert Boyd
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I gotta say I completely disagree with your general premise so it should come as little surprise to me that you used the game with my favorite soundtrack (Persona 4) and even my favorite song in the game (Heaven) as an example in your bad use of music section.

Let's take a closer look at Heaven, shall we?

The composer of Persona 4 specifically said that he wanted to feature the sort of music that the game's characters would actually listen to, to increase the game's feeling of "Japanese teenagers in high school" that is the game's setting. So Heaven being a form of J-Pop is just sticking true to the game's overarching musical style.

Second, with Heaven, we have several key moment to the music.

0:00-0:17 = Melodic with an element of dischord & menace (Oh no! Something's not right!)
0:42-0:50 = Rising intensity. (Let's fight to save her!)
0:50 and on = More cheerful J-Pop (Everything's going to be okay!)

Since this is the first time that the game has put a young child in danger (and one that the player likely has great affection for), I think it's very telling that the game uses the music to reassure the player the player that everything is going to be okay in the end. The stake's are high but don't lose hope yet.

Also, if you pay attention to the lyrics, they're all about your cousin & uncle's internal struggle. The song is all about being lost in your memories & what is their big struggle in the game? The death of their mother/wife and their inability to move past that. And of course, the title ties into that as well (for your cousin, being in a heaven would be to be reunited with her mother).

Anyway, I suppose going all cinematic with the music is a valid choice for video game music but it's not the only choice. Like for me, I've been playing Mass Effect 2 & 3 a lot recently and I can't recall a single song that played in that game. It's not bad music but it's all stereotypical Hollywood blockbuster stuff that works fine while you're playing it but immediately leaves you as soon as you talk. I prefer music that stands out, says "Listen to me!" and sticks in your head as a pleasant reminder of your experience - you know, like most of the famous video game songs from the 8-bit & 16-bit eras of gaming.

Andrew High
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I agree that lyrics fit the area pretty well, but whether or not Meguro hit his exact intention with the piece I feel that it was flawed. So much pressure in that game had built up to a head with Nanako's capture, and I felt that the game was really trying to get you into a rushed state. Urgency, anger, etc. And to me, this did not fit at all. The music was too relaxed, too upbeat...it was jarring in its dissonance to my emotional state as a player. I can't believe that they were trying to foreshadow that everything was going to be okay, since it's very possible to end the game shortly afterward with (spoilers for anyone who cares at this point) Nanako's death.

In regards to cinematic game music in general, remember that I was more focusing on a cut-scene heavy experience. This specific section with Nier and Persona 4 counter-points was designed to focus on how the principles of diegetic sound and logical cohesion could be applied to dynamic level music, something I readily admit game composers are much better at.

I was not a big fan of the music in either ME 1 or 2 (haven't played 3 yet), but we have a pretty clear difference of opinion of the music we prefer. Highly memorable chiptune melodies served a good purpose just like highly-recognizable TV themes did in the '70s, but lack of recognizability does not lead to a bad experience. Limbo had a brilliant score, but there was no "melody" to speak of. Similarly, Journey has rightfully had its score praised to the heavens but doesn't really have a big recognizable theme. Its recognizability comes from that single, unique cello playing pretty basic lines.

Robert Boyd
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From your article, it sounds like you believe that music in games should be a means to an end (enhancing the mood & feel of the work as a whole) whereas I feel like music in games should be its own reward. I want my players to be excited when they get in a fight or travel to a new area because they get some great music to listen to.

If you don't like my foreshadowing theory for Heaven, here's an alternate idea - the mostly upbeat music in Heaven was supposed to show Nanako's purity & innocence and contrast that with everyone else who had been thrown into the TV (everyone but Nanako had a major character flaw they needed to overcome whereas Nanako was still in a state of childlike innocence). Since Nanako was an innocent young child, the dungeon her psyche created was very different than everyone else's.

Ultimately, I think video game composers could learn from both past video game composers and from cinematic composers. Like in your FFVII example - the vast majority of the soundtrack is very much old-school video game music with strong memorably melodies but they weren't afraid to use cinematic audio techniques to emphasize certain parts of the story like the introduction to Migar sequence & Aeris getting stabbed.

And for a more recent example of a game that does this well, I strongly recommend Gravity Rush.

Andrew High
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Not necessarily, but for the style of game the article is written for...

"This piece is directed toward those who make, compose for, and/or enjoy a cinematic game experience common to most triple-A and an increasing number of indie titles."

Yes, I do think that. When you're trying to create an experience, to elicit an emotional response, anything a player/viewer consciously notices detracts from what you're trying to build. It pulls them out of "living the experience" and reminds them that they're looking at a two-dimensional screen with a piece of plastic in their hand. For very "gamey" games, for lack of a better term, this is fine -- the player is never in doubt of what they're doing. But for a cut-scene in Mega Shooter Du'Jour 4, it hurts what you're trying to build. I would say it's roughly analogous to solving a crossword puzzle versus becoming engrossed in a novel: both are fun, but with one the page is its own reward whereas with the other you forget the book exists.

Frank DAngelo
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All I'm going to say about this is that the Persona 3 and 4 soundtracks are quite possibly my favorite game OSTs as well. Every piece is wonderful, including Heaven. They are different and unique, but catchy and pleasing.

I can agree that the dungeon themes have never been a highlight of the recent Persona games, but Heaven or Secret base don't fall into this category. In Persona 4, they are lacking a bit up until after Rise's dungeon, and from there on out each one is excellent.

Regardless, still my favorite game OSTS, and the music is definitely a high point for me when playing P3 or P4.

Hakim Boukellif
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The thing with games is that unlike film, music isn't just capable of supporting what you're watching, it can also affect what you're doing.

To use a classic as an example:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-41y9S5dLbI

When playing this game, I'm very much aware of the music, bopping my head as I play. But exactly because of this, I'm put into a certain groove. I feel motivated to bump into every enemy I come across, instead of just taking the most efficient route to my next destination. Of course, since I need to be at a certain level to beat the upcoming boss, I'd be doing this anyway, regardless of what the music is like, but then it would mostly be because of a conscious decision I made by treating the game as a purely mechanical thing, instead of the adventure it's trying to be.

Roger Haagensen
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Nice article, but you a forgetting to mention one type of music that only games (currently) can provide.

Dynamic Music.

By that I mean music that change as you enter/leave an area, or that change on the type of action (walking, running, combat, danger, calm), music that change depending on the enemy or characters, music that changes depending on which path in the story you take (if multiple paths) and the length of the music may also vary, but it all remains seamless.

With this the composer is not the only "musician" but the player is unknowingly one as well as the way the play actually changes the music.

Andrew High
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I did actually have a section on this, but decided to cut it for several reasons. One of the main ones being that I feel game composers already have a strong grasp of this since, outside of a couple esoteric 20th century composers, they basically invented the concept. I left in one section dealing with level sound design just to illustrate how the cinematic concepts can be skillfully paired with the dynamic level music tenets that game composers already know well.

The focus of this article is really geared toward those big, cinematic moments -- the ones most gamers will remember for years afterward (at least, the designers hope!). If you ask a Final Fantasy fan to think back on Final Fantasy VII, he's not going to think about the many hours he spent mindlessly grinding materia; he's going to think about Aeris getting a sword in her back. The idea is to find those impactful moments that so many triple-A games have now (as noted, upwards of five hours for games like MGS4 and Xenoblade) and use principles that have existed elsewhere in music for literally hundreds of years to our advantage. The information is there and easily accessible, but it's not being utilized.

Even so, it's worth paying attention for pure level music designers, as well. I'm struggling to think of an example off the top of my head, but there have been multiple occasions where the music has been written to cover the full spectrum and it winds up sonically hiding certain sound effects that are important cues to the player, like battle noises and whatnot. Since the sound effects are diegetic, they should take precedence, but people don't seem to write with that idea in mind and it's up to the mixing engineer to complete the unenviable task of trying to find a way to make the two co-exist, which is very difficult. Better to compose that problem out of existence altogether.

Nejc Eber
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I really liked Red Dead Redemption music. How they combined different stems, and ambient sound to really create a compelling soundscape. I have prefered it in comparison to more cinematic music in other AAA titles.

Nejc Eber
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I really liked Red Dead Redemption music. How they combined different stems, and ambient sound to really create a compelling soundscape. I have prefered it in comparison to more cinematic music in other AAA titles.

bob rice
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Game music should compel the game player to feel what the game developer wants the player to feel at every moment in the game. Additionally, it's very cool when not playing the game, the music is still playing in the mind of the gamer.

Bob Rice
four bars intertainment
World's # 1 producer of music for games.

Michael Joseph
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Rome Total War soundtrack

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12HXnYNA6Cg

Medieval II: Total War soundtrack

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLnXaZsBjv8&playnext=1&list=PLC058
CA6EB0A8AD57&feature=results_main

Jeff van Dyck composed two of the best soundtracks for any turn based strategy or real time strategy game... ever.

And as Roger Hågensen talked about, they did a great job of making the music dynamic/contextual/apropos to the current state of the game.

Robert Marney
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Jeremy Soule's Total Annihilation soundtrack is also a standout in the strategy genre, despite some painful dynamic cuts. The full orchestra and wide mood palette really lend an air of melancholy and gravitas to a relatively abstract, unrealistic game.

Conor Brace
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Great article, with lots of interesting references to investigate further!

At first I thought you might be placing the term "cinematic" on too high a pedestal. I have little patience for developers whose primary goal is to create a "cinematic experience," resulting in highly-scripted sequences devoid of any meaningful gameplay. (It's not just the odd "press X to not die" moment, either; google "modern military shooters in a nutshell.") We have a whole new medium to explore here, and we MUST be willing to step out from big brother Film's shadow.

But (and correct me if I'm wrong) I think you are more referring to the way that cinematic music can paint vivid pictures, develop themes, evoke emotion, be carefully crafted to suit the needs of the medium and yet still stand on its own as art. Yes? :)

I'm a young composer who's constantly learning from the film music tradition. But writing for games has its own challenges. As you ask on page 3: what does it mean for music to "tell the story" of a level? How to structure a score that's cohesive yet stands up to repetition? And further, how to deal with variable pacing? (Not to mention variable plot?) How should player action cause changes in the music... and how can changes in the music cause player action?

Two recent indie game scores I've really enjoyed:

JAMESTOWN has forgettable cutscenes but fantastic level music. It immediately calls you to action, and takes advantage of the game's mostly-set timing to create a sense of anticipation, tense concentration, or brief respite at the appropriate moments.

BASTION has a couple of stages that use diagetic music to provoke a response from the player. Who is that singing? How do I reach her? What does it mean? It creates an enticing mystery. At the end of the game you finally hear and understand the whole song -- using the music as both an emotional hit and a reward mechanism.

The bottom line for me is this:
"Producers should think very clearly about their emotional and intellectual goals with their projects, and how to convey those to composers." Yes yes yes. And composers should be willing to lead this conversation if necessary.

Andrew High
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Yes. :-)

As you intuit, I don't necessarily mean cinematic in a sense of "like movies"; after all, there are plenty of ineffective or downright bad film scores. I mean cinematic in the sense that it is the marriage of music, visuals, and usually spoken word. This intertwining of media has been going on for thousands of years, and there are many lessons broadly applicable to any medium that marries these stimuli into a cohesive whole.

It's fine to escape big brother's shadow and strike out on your own, but hopefully you can learn a lesson from big brother's DUI without having to actually get caught under the influence yourself, right?

Joshua Howard
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Hi,
Am I right in assuming you are the author of this article? I ask because I couldn't find any author's details in the article itself. Your article gave me inspiration for the topic of a thesis I am working on for my Audio engineering degree I am currently doing, and I would like to make sure I can give due reference for the article.
:)
Cheers
Josh

Joshua Darlington
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You kind of lost me when you disrespected Conan The Barbarian (1982). I have no idea what to make of that. To me, it's like calling Star Wars a cheesy 70's film. It's John Milius! Do you think Apocalypse Now sucks?

When I think about game music, my biggest concern is the quantity of the music. Why would a 20 hour or 200 hundred hour game have one or two hours of music? It's painful like retina burn. I wish every game had a way to turn off the music so I could supply my own soundtrack.

Andrew High
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Haha, fair enough. :-) I actually really love watching that movie, and it does have a great score, but from an acting and cinematography perspective I don't think it's very good. You are certainly welcome to disagree.

As to your question, I'm pretty sure it has to do entirely and 100% with money. Composers have to eat too, and composing hours and hours of music takes a lot of time and money that isn't necessarily there (although I am clearly ALL FOR throwing more money at your composers, guys!). So instead you get several 4-minute loops of music that run roughshod over dialogue because they're one-size-fits-all compositions that are designed to slip in wherever the developer needs them.

Unless art asset creation suddenly gets much less expensive or budgets suddenly grow a lot, that probably won't change. What I would recommend is to find the peaks in the game -- of emotion, of tension, of plot -- and focus heavily on hand-crafting scores for those. Start there, have a proof-of-concept that you can test, and if it works out well start looking at how that can be integrated into other parts of the game.

Michael Theiler
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I think music gets old in games because it is relied upon as a crutch to whatever is happening in-game. If it were to be used to highlight certain key points, in certain situations dynamically but sparingly, I don't think it would get old.

Alexei Baboulevitch
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Thank you for the fantastic article!

Some of my favorite moments in games have been when the music interacted with the visuals in some way:

* Portal 2 — When you use a jump pad, another layer gets added to the music. (I also noticed this in Nitronic Rush.)
* Super Mario Galaxy — It blew my mind when I went underwater for the first time and the background music actually changed orchestration instead of getting run through a filter.
* Jamestown — When you find the lost colony of Roanoke, the clouds part, the enemies disappear, and the music rests on a haunting cadence.
* Rayman Origins — The soundtrack, static though it may be, references things in the current scene. For example, in the water level, the Lums close to the surface are happy and swim around in formation, while the Lums you find in the depths are asleep and float silently in the darkness. Compare the two tracks:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JV0MJ4NfW1E
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fm4CXA-YBiA

Fez is another interesting example, where the orchestration, structure, and possibly even the mode of the music changes dynamically based on the setting, time of day, and other factors. You can learn more about it in the excellent Fez technical postmortem.

I wish games experimented more with music.

Pres N
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Apropos of nothing else in the comments section, it was awesome to see you link to the Music of Nier wikipedia article. It's not my best writing, but it's nice to see that someone appreciated it.

Roger Haagensen
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Has anyone else been annoyed by having to reduce the volume for SFX and Music, sometimes by more than 50% (about 6dB reduction) and still at times music or SFX drown out the dialog so you have to resort to subtitles to make sure you do not miss anything.

I can't recall this being such an issue in the past with older games, but more so in modern games.
And don't get me started on cutscenes, there the SFX or Music volume is ignored (I presume it is using the Music volume instead then as often the cutscene ends up too low and dialog is drowned out), that is if the cutscene do not crash the game (I've always had issues with Bink video it seems) or has issues with flickering or resolution change hickups. Sorry, kinda ranting off there for a moment.

Somebody is screwing up something somewhere as dialog should always be more important than SFX and Music.
And I'm not talking about a grenade going off an armlength away from you on the battlefield. But instead someone talking in a car, or on a ship, or even in a cutscened (but if pre-rendered then any dialog setting is ignored it seems), situations where the designers/musician/sound engineer "should know" what sounds are being heard at that moment (or can control them) and can properly balance them vs dialog.

Adam Bishop
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Yes, this is a really frustrating problem that far too many games have. Any dialogue that is part of the main narrative thread should be crisp and clear.

Luis Guimaraes
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Baba yetu, yetu uliye Mbinguni yetu, yetu amina!

Daneel Filimonov
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Civ. 4!

Noisy Nothing
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This is a terrific article but I feel I should point out that at least part of the music in the Conan trailer is from Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, and is not by Basil Poledouris. You can hear the piece in question here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xy84N_U5jw0 - it is perhaps not a coincidence that Prokofiev himself wrote music for films.

Peter Silk
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I think Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge is one of the best sountracks in terms of both cohesion, with all of its recurring but varied motifs, and intergration with the game, where the iMUSE system prevented jarring cuts between one musical moment and the next (exemplified in the Woodtick section at the start, but the conversations LeChuck at the end are also very clever in how they wait for certain dialogue moments to happen before progressing the music, and begin to weave important motifs from the series together). It was ambitious in 1992, with well over an hour of music, and going back and listening to it, it still feels ambitious.

JoseArias NikanoruS
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Great article!! And thanks a lot for sharing it.

I would try to defend Persona 4 a little... for me the Persona games (and Shin Megami Tensei as a whole) is about feeling "perturbed". When I heard the music of the first dungeons on Persona 2 it was reall disturbing how the music played. As you say, the music seems more fitting to a rave and that's something that I would say actually plays to its favor. If you are an outsider an you see a rave, you see this music that is kind of aggressive (or really "hyper") and you see all the people going around lost in the music... it doesn't feel comfortable, even if the music isn't that aggressive it does feel intimidating. Now, let's say that the ravers are demons (digital demons, if we get back to the main series). I do agree that music like in Near helps for a more cohesive story... But I feel like the approach of the Persona games is effective on its way. For example, the last piece... it makes me feel more desperate because it seems like the music is the one playing for the ones around you (or it's playing on the radio that is obviously not playing something to fit your mood). So your going through this terrible trance and everybody else is just living heir lives (or that's how it would seem).

On the other hand, what do you think about Kirby's Epic Yarn music? I found it quite interesting since it all revolves a piano and now that I think about it, maybe it's a way of reforcing the theme that everything is made of yarn.

Also, Little King's Story? I found the music incredibly fitting with the whole setting. But also that it did communicate a lot both through the previous knowledge we have of some of the songs and also because they really REALLY fit the mood. Right now I'm remembering the songs of the Ripe Kingdom and also the songs of the Worrywart kingdom.... and let's not forget the last boss theme!!

Have a great day!!

Christian Nutt
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Kirby's Epic Yarn's soundtrack is at times completely astounding. It falls very much into the "music while you play" mode (which works well for a platformer, anyway) but the level of technique is just fantastic, and it's beautiful.

dren mcdonald
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Very interesting read, and thanks for sparking the discussion.

I'd like to add that I think when we see game composers start to integrate/implement their own cues and stems into the game, we'll start seeing a higher level of score sophistication. Some people here have mentioned titles like Portal 2, Fez, Bastion and Limbo, where this was exactly the case and we were witness to some wonderfully creative moments. In fact, to one of your points, at a recent GANG summit, Mike Morasky talked about the opening to Portal 2, where Wheatley's voice acted as the lead instrument for the cutscene.

Sometimes, due to varying circumstances, a composer's cue will be pulled into a scene that wasn't originally intended, or the stems will be reconstructed in a way that might surprise the composer etc, and while most teams try to avoid these scenarios...crunchtime has a way of forcing some tough decisions.

Michael Theiler
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This is the best critical piece of writing on game dev practice I have read on Gamasutra. It encapsulates my fumbling philosophies on this subject perfectly, and much more eloquently and precisely than I ever could.

I particularly liked the contrast between the great film composers and then the Assassin's Creed example. It is a design based piece of score, in that it is there to serve a purpose, but that purpose is so unintelligent! There is the possibility of incorporating some sense of remorse or sadness into the act of killing, but it is instead purely a "run away! Faster! Yikes!" piece of music. The possibility of using music for something more subtle or complex is disregarded.

I work in audio for games, so perhaps I have a different ear to most gamers, but I pay attention to the music in games, and more often than not, probably 80% of the time, I am actively frsutrated or angered by it. As mentioned, filler music does nothing for a game, yet is in almost every game I have played in the last few years (bar Limbo). Music in games is largely stagnant. Games like Journey and Limbo are changing this, but it appears to be slow going. This article is the type of writing that may help alter the course. Comparisons to film can be unproductive for games in general, but in this case, the examples teach so much!

Ryan Elder
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Really great article here. I've done a bit of composing for games and the problem I see with most scores is that they are nearly always pre-scored (meaning the composer is given a rough description of a scene and some reference material and told to write a piece of music without seeing the action that the piece will accompany.) I think most of the problems you reference in game scoring come from this. Games come out so fast and furious these days that studios don't have time to create the game and then have a composer really get into the nitty gritty of scoring it. Unfortunately what this does is it puts the job of "scoring" the action in the hands of editors and directors as opposed to composers as they will craft the visuals around the already approved music. All of the great film examples you reference were most likely post scored. The music got to react to the picture as opposed to the other way around. Most games (especially triple A games on tight schedules) can't afford the luxury of time it takes to post score sadly.

WILLIAM TAYLOR
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Interesting article and I really love how you pulled all of those examples to make things crystal clear.

"It's sad commentary that the first thing I typically do when I load up a video game is turn the "voice" slider to maximum and the SFX and music sliders down considerably,"

I do this as well, but I never thought it was the actual composition of the music that caused this. I figured it was more of the designers being like, "nobody cares about the story anyways" or "they'll just speed read through the subtitles so why bother getting a good balance?"

Liz Cormack
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Love this post, Andrew! Your mentioned of Bit.Trip & Audiosurf at the end inspired some more research on music games -- I'd love to know what you think of the games we featured! Thanks for this post! http://thetaplab.com/blog/865

Guy Whitmore
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Your critique is not so much about 'game scoring', but about the 'film scoring' done within the context of games. And the thesis seems to be 'there's a lot more game composers need to learn about film scoring techniques'. Fair enough; every good composer never stops learning and gaining new tools for their craft. But you missed an opportunity to truly talk about 'game scoring'.

The film scoring aspects of games are a subset of what game scoring is ( or could be). Cinematics are an important filmic part of the overall experience, conveying emotion and story, but even they are often dynamic and non-linear. A key difference between film and games is that you, the gamer, are often considered the protagonist, not simply an observer. This changes everything.

In-game scoring is far greater underseved than cinematic game scoring. Your comment above that 'most game composers have a strong grasp of' dynamic in-game scoring, is completely misinformed. The truth is that the majority of game composers don't integrate their music into the game (most often it's an audio lead) or design where how and when their music will play in a game.

For every technique you mention in the article, we should all ask 'how could that best be done in a dynamic situation, where timing is not predetermined?' Then you'll really start to get at the fun and challenging issues that game composers face. We're just scratching the surface of what scoring a game can be creatively and technically. And if we're not talking about its dynamic aspects, we're not really talking about game scoring.

Lennie Moore
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I'm with Guy on this one. Although I appreciate your points relating to effective film scoring techniques which could be used to more advantage in games, the heart of game scoring IMO is that it is ADAPTIVE music.

I come from film/TV and I fell in love with scoring for games 14 years ago when I scored my first title because I could see the tremendous possibilities in adaptive music composition as it relates to the game experience. I have found no other comparable medium as rich in its potential as it is in game scoring.

Sure you can learn to hit beats, stay out of the way of dialog, emphasizing/de-emphasizing story points. That's easy. You can get that out of a book (Earle Hagan: Scoring for Film if you wish). What's hard and for me the most thrilling part of scoring for games is to write an adaptive score that acts as the emotional undercurrent of the game experience while dynamically synchronizing with the dramatic moments that could happen any any time, based on player choices. That, my friend, is an unique and special experience that film can't touch.

I'm proud to call myself a game composer over being "a film guy." I honestly feel that the film community could learn a thing or two about the craft of composition from folks like us.

By the way, Guy...
NOLF = frikkin' genius adaptive score brutha!

Douglas Scheinberg
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Voice acting seems to have changed game music a lot. As you note, the music you write to be heard behind spoken dialogue is not the same music that you write to be heard when there is no spoken dialogue. The SNES era had some amazing soundtracks; I still don't think Final Fantasy VI's soundtrack has been surpassed, nor has any game since used its soundtrack as effectively to deliver emotion.

This scene is the perfect example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAWZvS_faV0

Also, notice that the music doesn't start until a few seconds into the video. This is *not* an artifact of recording - the game really did have a moment of silence when the scene started, making the first few notes stand out more.

Damon Smith III
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Wow. I JUST signed up today and this was one heck of a first-time read! I greatly appreciate the information! It's refreshing to know that there are people out there that have noticed music nowadays have just become backing tracks for pictures. Thank you so much!

Tim Haywood
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I find the whole article long winded, inaccurate, self serving, and the conclusion section insulting. I can tell its written by someone who has NOT worked that long within video games (if at all?) As far back as the Commodore 64; music was used to great effect to aid the story telling, perhaps not enough research was done before writing this article - and that with 4 pages of text perhaps being more succinct would of improved it, even if the point being made was wrong (as it is).

My advice would be to do much more research before insulting an industry of composers.


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