Develop talks to leading composers about the challenges of interactive music
The games of today are often praised as highly for their soundtracks as they are for any other aspect.
From the emotional cues in Gustavo Santaolalla’s score for The Last of Us to Garry Schyman’s BAFTA-winning work on BioShock Infinite, and even to the striking and unique tones of Monument Valley, Device 6 and Tearway, game music is now as diverse as that of any other entertainment medium.
With chiptunes now a distant memory – aside from those found in retro-styled nostalgia titles – composers and developers are taking the use of music much more seriously. It’s a welcome sign of maturity from an industry often thought to be lacking any.
“In the last few years, music for major console games has grown more sophisticated, engaging some of the best music composition, recording and production talent on the planet,” says John Broomhall, composer and co-founder of Game Music Connect.
“It was always a given that technical fidelity would blossom to today’s high standards. But it’s very encouraging to see growing sophistication in the way music is used.”
Jim Fowler, composer and music production supervisor at Sony Worldwide Studios, agrees and adds that the improved technology available has enabled studios to get more creative with their music: “As with games themselves, I feel like there’s less emphasis on what’s technically possible and more on what’s emotionally possible.
“For a lot of games now, data size isn’t a big issue and audio middleware is mature enough that most things you think of are achievable.
“Music discussions are now about how can the music best serve the gameplay, the story or the mood of the game. And it’s exciting, as a composer, not to have to overly worry about technical constraints.”
Interestingly, it’s not the long-running and publisher-owned studios that are pushing the boundaries in video games music – although they are certainly moving the goalposts when it comes to quality. Instead, it’s the newer, indie developers that experiment the most, despite limited budgets and manpower.
“Where people care and can find the right resources, you end up with a Monument Valley or Device 6,” says Broomhall.
“Music and audio can provide massive ‘bang for buck’ in enhancing the overall gaming experience and it’s very interesting to see indie games from Beatnik Bandit to Dear Esther being nominated for BAFTAs, alongside premium console titles.”
Composer James Hannigan, who wrote the scores for Jagex's RuneScape and the upcoming Transformers Universe, agrees that it’s refreshing to see indies take music more seriously than perhaps some of the larger studios ever have.
“There are many, many exceptions but historically, music has rarely featured as an integral part of game design from the outset, and has often been a bolt-on or an afterthought in development – even if it has been greatly appreciated by gamers,” he says.
Hannigan is also a major proponent of interactive music, cues that change depending on in-game events or even the player’s position and actions. While film scores are written specifically to give power or evoke emotion from key moments – and games can certainly still accomplish this – perfecting this interactivity is crucial to the medium, according to the composer.
“There have been advances in interactive music in recent years – not as many as people think, as it’s been going on for decades – but a seamlessly delivered interactive soundtrack should never take precedence over a memorable music score. There’s often a fine line to walk between delivering interactivity and musicality in games.”
Jessica Curry, composer at Dear Esther dev The Chinese Room, agrees: “We’re still taking those shaky baby steps. It’s such a steep learning curve, especially when it comes to nailing that elusive blend of interactivity with meaningful musicality.”
Interactive music isn’t just limited to new layers coming in and out of a looped tune at given points. Sony’s Fowler says there’s real potential for composers to come up with soundtracks that mould themselves around any player’s individual game experience.
“This can be through using smaller building blocks that can be recombined at runtime into bespoke pieces, or having increased numbers of transitions based on particular modulations that allow movement between moods and themes in a seamless fashion,” he explains.
“And maybe you could even have whole pieces of music that will only play in a particular set of circumstances. That may mean that some people don’t hear what you’ve written but that level of tailoring music to create an individual experience is where interactive music is at its most exciting.”
Perhaps the most important factor of game music is quality – but that doesn’t mean getting the London Philharmonic on board for every title you produce.
“Always strive for the best quality the budget will allow,” explains Fowler. “People expect game music to be professionally produced, whether it’s an 8-bit score or a gargantuan symphonic epic. This might mean making sacrifices. If the budget won’t stretch to a full orchestra then maybe think about using just strings – what could you achieve with that sound?”
Hannigan concurs, adding that if you are aiming for an orchestral sound, getting time with the real thing should be a priority.
“A live orchestra is going to add value and, for me at least, would be preferable to a sampled orchestra,” he says. “A hybrid approach can also work well. For example, a combination of synths, samples, smaller ensembles or soloists. There are no rules.”
However, Curry says that reduced public exposure to orchestras means synthetic alternatives remain viable: “I am loathe to say this but many people whom I play sampled music to can’t tell that they’re not live instruments. Perhaps this is because not so many people go to hear orchestras any more and are also very used to sampled instruments from TV and games.”
She adds: “It’s also important to consider the amazing work being done by digital musicians – there is no need to feel constrained by having to use a classical orchestra.
“But for me, an old-fashioned girl, there is no way you can replace the music that has been crafted in a bespoke way for the game.”
The industry’s growing love of remakes has highlighted for many composers just how far games music has come in the last few decades – even the most experienced ones.
“Music in games is always changing, but in several directions at once,” says Hannigan. “There’s no ‘right’ way to create music for games. The needs of a triple-A ‘filmic’ blockbuster may lean towards a Hollywood score, but the same wouldn’t apply to LittleBigPlanet or an iOS puzzler, which takes a quirkier and more unique approach."
Broomhall adds: “My original game music roots are in creating midi scores for classic PC titles like the original XCOM and Transport Tycoon, so it’s amazing how things have developed – from soundcard to symphony. The original Transport Tycoon was nine-note polyphony on an FM soundcard, whilst we recorded some of San Francisco’s finest orchestral musicians at Skywalker Sound for Forza Motorsport 5.
“Game music has been on a very exciting journey and it continues as composers and audio directors bring further interactivity into music systems to help the score respond even more closely to gameplay.”