A great genre for video games is science fiction. Being able to play around with advance weaponry, fighting off aliens, spaceship battles, all make for great fun. Sci-fi is a popular choice for video games, and there’s many ways to depict a futuristic world. It may be a bleak, dystopian future, or a shining, sterilized future of sparkling wonders, realistic, cartoony, comical, retro, the list goes on. While I’ve worked on a variety of futuristic games, I found that the most common choices I needed to make were to decide if I am composing techno and electronica, or a more friendly, olderschool “outerlimits” soundtrack with a retro vibe.
While there’s plenty of paths forward for the audio design of a sci-fi game, in this entry, I will be comparing and contrasting two different approaches to a possible soundtrack.
The future is out there
While it’s true there’s plenty of ways to inject a bit of future-tech into a soundtrack, what it has boiled down to for me is if the game design warrants a slick, “realistic” techno feel, or more of a retro analog, theremin-filled soundscape . A lot of this is determined through checking out the art and game design docs. Decisions like these are definitely best made after speaking to leads of design and art, because while you may be the master of music, not getting synched up and creating a soundtrack (albeit a perfectly wonderful soundtrack) for the wrong game would be a big mistake. Having a high tension, supped up techno track play for a friendly alien/spaceship match-three game would be disastrous. Conversely, throwing in comical effects of warbling whistles and ooooooOOOoooohs for a Halo franchise would raise more than a few eyebrows. There are definitely grey areas, and games where either direction may work. Figure out what the game is trying to do – is it to excite, is it to make the audience laugh and smile, is it to set the stage for a larger narrative, and then determine which path forward is best for the game.
Instruments of tomorrow!
When going for a realistic, future-possible sci fi soundtrack, rely on the staple of modern electronic music composition: the computer. We are looking to synthesize every instrument of the orchestra, from strings to percussion. Repeating patterns analog and electronic drumkits, and most important, great electronic bass samples make for a great techno track. If you're looking to make the soundtrack sound even more modern, lay a track of a realistic string orchestra on top of your synth strings, for a more professional and mature sound.
For low-fi instruments, try to find some retro synth strings. The trick is to get a more 60's sound and less an 80s rock group. So you'll need to find older synth, but not the kind you found on your first player keyboard growing up. Try for moog and korg pianos, organs, and of course a theremin to finish. For the brave, recreating and sampling the telharmonium, may add a very distinct feel. I'm also partial to the saw, like the actual tool, although I'm sure saw waves would work too!
Musical differences and similarities
Repeating patterns of music, called sequences, is useful for both styles of sci-fi. For fun, try out a pattern of 16 notes at random. Make it play quickly, and repeat it 10 times. Have a digital instrument play it, perhaps an electronic keyboard sample. While this pattern is going on, add a resonance filter sweep and change the eq balance. Very interesting effect going on here! Next, add other instruments to the mix in sustains, such as synth strings or an organ, and we have a great start to a sci-fi soundtrack.
For the retro track, melody and musical riffs will be more important than the driving low-end electric bass and drums of a techno track. Intersperse these riffs into your song with high-pitched instrument choices. Just be careful you're not annoying the listener. There's a reason it sounds odd and old to us - try to use this to your advantage instead of sabotaging your sound and upsetting ears.
Parting thoughts… as the tractorbeam locks on
There’s a lot of different ways to go about a great soundscape for a sci-fi game. Most importantly, decide how to move forward with the design of the project. A more grown-up game aiming to set the stage for a realistic future will have a distinct soundtrack from one trying to be humorous or a bit cute, but there’s a fair amount of crossover. What works best is to peruse the art design doc and play a prototype build if it’s available. Have discussions with the leads about your opinions, and always keep your target audience in mind. The best advice is to find which style is going to work for the game and listen to a bunch of different tracks from similar sources. Hear the commonalities for yourself and keep in a pile the types that may work for your game’s audio design. Remember to be creative and original in your scores, to only draw inspiration from sources!
Harry Mack is an audio designer with more than 10 years industry experience, composing video game music and sound effects for over thirty titles. For examples of his latest work and samples, visit www.harrymack.com.