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GDC 2005 Report: What Makes Music for Games 'Music For Games'

One of the final panels of this year's GDC discussed the nature of game music; video games, being their own mode of expression with their own demands, require a different scoring approach from other forms.

One of the final panels this year discussed the nature of game music; video games, being their own mode of expression with their own demands, require a different scoring approach from other forms. Over the years, this has resulted in game music becoming something of its own super genre; as different as one game score might be from the next, nearly all are linked by some quality that makes their sound and purpose unique to videogames. In this panel, a sequence of five game music professionals explores the nature of this distinction, each in their own way.

A Few Familiar Genre-Specific Game Music "Families"

Bay Area Sound Department composer Jared Emerson-Johnson began with a lecture on the most common schools of influence and style found in modern game music, compared to film score or concert music. The five categories he identified are as follows:

  • The "Hans Zimmer School," a hard, driving style, typified by parts of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and Chronicles of Riddick; the orchestra serves as a percussive ensemble, often including "ethnic" elements. It is similar to what you might expect from a Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay film, like The Rock.
  • What Emerson-Johnson dubs the "Danny Elfman School," for the sake of clarity: an alternative, quirky, playful, dark, subversive style with a strong 1-5 "oompah" progression in the bass line. Elfman was himself inspired by Bernard Herrmann, as Emerson-Johnson notes; Nino Rota's Fellini scores often fall into this style, as does famed Warner Bros. composer Carl Stalling. Emerson-Johnson chose Elfman as the face in part because Elfman is one of the more recognizable film composers, in part because one of Emerson-Johnson's key examples of a game score was Fable, to which Elfman wrote the main theme. Other examples are Psychonauts and parts of MDK 2.
  • Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana": as Emerson-Johnson described it, "epic choral primitivism, undeniably hard-core;" one of the most distinctive and oft-imitated works in the twentieth-century classical lexicon. Emerson-Johnson chose Star Wars: Republic Commando and Brothers in Arms as examples.
  • "The Planets," by Gustav Holst: "driving, solid, intense, serene but dominating;" Emerson-Johnson played a clip from the upcoming God of War, for comparison.
  • Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring": what Emerson-Johnson described as "Danny Elfman through a John Williams filter." He made note of Stravinsky's "orchestral primitivism, formal schizophrenia, [and] meticulous orchestration," and referenced KOTOR 2: The Sith Lords.

The Panel

The Panel

The Role and Function of Music in Games

Clint Bajakian, the Senior Music Supervisor for SCEA, began by whirling a ball-and-cup toy. "This is a video game," he said. He then showed a slide of his son playing one of those games where you roll ball bearings around on a plane, trying to get the balls to stick in the right indentations. He claimed that his son was playing a videogame, too. Next he showed a woman playing Dance Dance Revolution, with the caption: "Dancing or Playing a Video Game?" If it seemed cute, he was going somewhere.

The next slide had a series of paraphrased thoughts from Lucasarts designer Hal Barwood: that narrative and story are becoming more critical in games; that unlike movies, games tend not to adhere to classical structure - acts 1, 2, 3 - "rather, they are more rhythmic in their unfolding, undulating like a sine wave," meaning a musical groove is more useful in games; and that game music spurs not only the emotion, but the game playing activity itself. To press the point home, Bajakian played a clip from the Ray Harryhausen classic The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, with Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" playing in the background. It came off as ridiculous. "See," Bajakian said, "it's stupid. In games, it tends to work." He then dropped the same song into a clip from God of War. Indeed, although imperfect, the driving quality of the music kind of fit the narrative of the gameplay.

Next, Bajakian put up a quote from composer Ron Fish: "In a way, you could compare the experience of game music to theme park rides. The comparison drawn is based on the experience of traveling through a space as opposed to having the audio experience, music included, come to you. You, as the composer, have to immerse the player in a 3d world."

Bajakian proposed a situation: one person is playing a videogame; another is sitting on the couch next to him, watching the game being played. "Is there a difference in the way the each perceives the music? Does this difference vary in degree on the music genre and on the game genre?" He then answered the question himself: "I think there is. I can't explain it, but I think there is."

Bajakian compared standing in front of a painting and studying it to watching a film, while strolling around the art gallery is more akin to playing a videogame. Choosing music to accompany the painting, he said, is an effort to reinforce or enhance the painting's message; choosing music for strolling is an effort to enhance the overall experience of the activity. When you score a videogame, you're not scoring the action of the game so much as the activity of holding the controller, playing the game. He made another parallel to the tense drumroll a circus band will play as a woman performs a dangerous stunt on a trapeze: the same score they used at public hangings. "You've got to think about that. It doesn't make any sense." What's going on is they don't score her jump; they score the crowd's emotion.

In closing, Bajakian urged the audience to consider "how people use music; the function and role of music; the social and psychological aspects of music" and that "music wields great power." He then played "Iron Man" again, over the clip of his son with the ball bearings. It worked pretty well.

Turning 1.5 Hours of Music into 40 Hours of Game Play

Jack Wall's presentation was more direct; he demonstrated the way he scored Myst IV: Revelation - a slow-paced game, where the player might stand in one place for hours at a time - such that the music never repeated or grew overly annoying. "I've tried scoring interactively; I just can't do it," he confessed. However long he works on game music, he still thinks of it in terms of rise and fall.

What he does, then, is mix his score down into a collection of "families": all of the rhythmic instruments go in one group; all of the melodic ones in another; the pads in yet another. He then randomizes the playback of these families, and ties certain musical events to specific game events. His sequencer is built to play up to six tracks at once, while each track can play unlimited files. The parameters to any individual file include whether it loops or not, and how much of a cool down period should pass before it comes up again in the queue.

Making Game Music Work: Basic Nuts and Bolts

Peter McConnell explained the difference between what he calls "vertical" and "horizontal" game scores. He demonstrated a laid-back piece of walking music he wrote, and how it transitions into action music when enemies evince themselves. After the player defeats the enemies, the music cross-fades back to the original piece. This, he explained, was a three-dimensional approach. To show what he considered two-dimensional, or horizontal, he showed an HTML map of his music for Psychonauts, and how it relates to the game's structure; each piece tended to relate to a different area or event in the game. He commented that a map like that, that you can throw up on your website, "is really helpful [when working] with companies, because they can always check what you're doing."

The Developer's Perspective

Chuck Doud, Music Director for SCEA, spoke in detail on the organizational logistics of getting music into a game: how to communicate with a composer, when he is not an internal part of the design team; how to give him all he needs to do his work, how to keep track of who is doing what (as the composer might not be the one to record his music or to implement it in the game). There are technical issues: does the score require live recording? Can it be done in MIDI? Doud commented that MIDI will "go away" in the next generation of hardware. He mentioned union issues and the occasional need to hand music over to another composer, to rework it before it can be implemented. He talked about the approval process: how many people are in the approval loop, and what are they approving? To Doud, the main distinction of videogame music is the process.

In Conclusion

When the lectures were complete, the common consensus seemed to be that what matters in game music is not so much what's happening now, as what might come next. When you score a game, you are not scoring known action; you are scoring potential, based on what is going on in the player's head. The idea is to reflect that emotion into the game world, to help the player's immersion - that immersion being the main point of playing. As Jack Wall put it, "Videogames take you out of your life; keep you from beating your wife or whatever." Therefore, Clint Bajakian says, music wields great power.

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