How to compose for video games: Urgency vs Persistency
Having created music for a multitude of games, I found that player urgency is a big factor in deciding how and what to compose. For example, I’m asked to create music for a puzzle game. The first thing I want to know is what the art looks like to determine a style. But the second and almost as important question asks if the player forced to make actions quickly, or do they have unlimited time in which to choose moves wisely. Knowing this can drastically change how I approach the soundtrack.
Evoking a sense of time-pressure in music is an important choice in game design. Music is a powerful tool in enhancing and enriching the mood of the moment. Creating low-stress music for a high-stress situation is as misleading to the player as playing a penalty whistle for grabbing coins and one-ups in Mario. But what makes a high tension situation even tenser is a rocking soundtrack that kicks up the energy.
We can accomplish that a variety of ways, but the most important tool is rhythm and tempo. We can either sustain the urgency or have it ramp up and down in swells based on how we adjust rhythm.
Another important thing to know is how sustained the urgency is. If we have a game that has moments of high pressure and urgency, such as one-minute-to-self-destruct, that’s going to need to be very intense, with a lot of pressure. However, that type of music would be a bit too much for sustained urgency, such as a game of tetris. We don’t want our players to have heartattacks from all the sustained pressure!
As a composer it’s important to know what the emotions the game is attempting to elicit from the players Too much or too little, and the music will completely change the way players interact with and perceive the game.
Turn-based games or games where you can sit on a move or action indefinitely will have a completely different soundtrack than one promoting urgency. Some of this is common sense but it’s important to really define your goals before you just start creating music.
Casual games such as puzzle and social games may have one track that lasts an entire level or playsitting. For these types of tracks, we will need to convey the average emotion of the level or sitting. What that means is the music from the beginning of the level and the end, and all the drama inbetween needs to be levelled out in one persistent track. If you have time and are allowed to get a bit fancy with the audio design, you can layer your music to make it more exciting at times appropriate for the game, but your overall, normal composition needs to be fairly level.
The same is true for turn-based games. A player can sit and think for an unlimited time. The music needs to be able to support this. Too much action, drama, a score that has peaks and climaxes, cliffhangers – this all connotes movement, which may be harmful to the design. Even out the emotion, and focus more on the scenery and aesthetics of the game’s design. You can still add emotion as it makes sense for the game, you're not necessarily stuck to one track for the entire game. Add diversity as the game changes - are there enemy turns, are there combat turns, are there different environments or menus that a change of pace make sense for?
Quick! Parting thoughts…
Choosing the right amount of drama and pacing is a very important step to creating a soundtrack! Figure out if your players have a time pressure to interact with the game or not. Have discussions with the leads about what they expect the players to be feeling during the game, and keep this in mind during the composition process. The end goal is to create a soundtrack that doesn’t give the wrong impression and mood. Treat players to a well-balanced listening experience.
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.