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Music from Myst III: Exile - The Evolution of a Videogame Soundtrack

When I started writing music specifically for videogames in 1995, my own personal mandate was to bring the quality of music heard in film to video games. Why not? The videogame industry now produces as much revenue as the film industry. Why not produce music for games that hits the player with as much force as the opening cinematics in a film? When Myst III came along, I realized this was our chance.

In 1993, when I first played Myst, being immersed into that strange world for the very first time, it was obvious this was a seminal moment in computer games. The story, the ambience, and the mystery of the Myst universe consumed my free time joyously; there was some relief in knowing that I could be so smitten by a computer game without constantly having to kill something.

The original soundtracks to Myst and Riven were an absolute determinant in rendering the player's experience immersive and intriguing. Both Soundtracks are, to date, two of the finest examples of the effectiveness of good-quality music and sound in a video game. Of course, in producing the next Myst soundtrack, we would be remiss if we didn't look at ways of improving the music and sound.

When I started writing music specifically for video games in 1995, my own personal mandate was to bring the quality of music heard in film to video games. Why not? This business now produces as much revenue as the film industry. Why not produce music for games that hits the player with as much force as when the opening cinematics in a film roll? Obviously there are fundamental differences between film music and game music, but why reinvent the wheel? When Myst III came along, I realized this was our chance. This was an enormously successful series that was now being produced by a company that had nothing to do with the original game design. They were bound to be looking for ways to set this title apart and make a truly high-quality game.

In order to make the music for this game stand out, I told them that it's not simply about writing great music to suit the title. It's also about understanding and implementing the highest of production values. It's about shedding the metaphoric blood, and the real sweat and tears to make the perfect mix — it's about how to make the music, and therefore the game and it's characters, come alive!

Myst and Riven are, to date, two of the finest examples of the effectiveness of good-quality music and sound in a video game.

Anyway, this hyperbole was part of a proposal that I had to write in order to "get" the game. Yes, I had to audition. I didn't mind though. This was a good sign. It meant they were taking the music production seriously. This was good. If I was going to be the one to compose the music, I wanted to know that everyone was on board and behind me. After all, I knew I'd have to work closely with the people at Ubisoft (Mattel, Gores Technology, Game Studios and various other monikers during the production!) and the developer, Presto Studios to get this done right. During the audition, I was competing against a number of talented composers. However, from the beginning, I felt that it wasn't simply about the composition that would land me the job. I had to be part of the team that was concerned about how to set this title apart from its predecessors. I felt that the production of the music would be of paramount importance. I wanted living, breathing people playing real instruments on this score. I wanted a grand theme with an orchestra and choir. I wanted exotic instruments; I wanted melody, ethereal backgrounds. I wanted the score to be different than the wonderful sonic pastiche of that of Myst and Riven, yet tied to it in a way that demonstrated that this was, in fact, a sequel.

I probably could have copied word for word, stylistically, Robyn Miller's work for Myst and Riven, but that seemed too safe, too expected, and basically, it just didn't resonate with me. I felt that these six new worlds in Myst III: Exile deserved their own voice musically. Yet, I wanted to make certain that there was a connection musically to those titles. After all, Robyn's music and how it affected my view of Myst are the main reasons I got into video game composing in the first place.

This article is about the evolution of this music; how it was conceived, planned, produced and finally implemented into the game.

First, I needed to do an analysis of Robyn Miller's music, play the first two games again, immerse myself in everything Cyan ever released concerning Myst and then (and here's the hard part) find some way to improve on it wherever possible.

In listening closely to the original soundtracks as well as talking to Robyn Miller about his process, melody was rare. Robyn felt that melody could easily get in the way of the experience of playing the game. I agreed with him, but I also felt that some melody would go a long way to giving the player something thematic to grab onto. Therefore, I had to find a way to use melody judiciously. Also, Robyn used one synthesizer to do Myst and only one to score Riven. I wanted freedom to use any instrument I desired including a full orchestra if it was appropriate. Next, I wanted the music to have as much "purpose" as possible — not just be tied to areas within the game, but also to have a level of randomness and interactivity to it. We came up with three ways to achieve this:

  • Orchestra and choir — For all live action and cinematics.
  • Reward Music — For achieving certain important puzzles within the game. These would be the Age Themes for the three "Lesson" Ages in the game use as thematic material for that age also.
  • In-Game Music — Similar style to the music in Myst and Riven. Tied specifically to Ages and areas, but also played in a random, ever-changing, interactive fashion.


    Preparation

    The first thing I did to prepare myself for this score, was immerse myself in everything Myst. I re-played both games, read all three novels, and gave Robyn Miller a jingle. Once he gave me permission to do my own thing, I must say that a heavy burden suddenly disappeared!

    I was hired in January of 2000 but I really wouldn't have much work to do until April, just prior to E3, where I scored a trailer to show the game. Therefore, for the first three months, I read the three novels and the Presto design document, listened to the soundtracks and played the games in my spare time. This was time well spent. It gave me a chance to steep myself in the series and put myself in the right frame of mind. This is a real testament to the idea of hiring a composer very early in the process. But also, I was partly motivated by fear at this point; fear of turning out a lousy score! I had lots of time to put ideas on my dictaphone and begin to develop some thematic material — again, over a long period.

    I realized early on that I'd want to compose a wholly original score to reflect the fact that this was an entirely new game with six new ages. However, I also wanted to make sure that there were some invisible lines of connection with Robyn's scores so that it was clear we were working on a sequel in concert with Cyan's groundbreaking games. I listened intently to the Myst and Riven soundtracks and found that, story-wise, the only character that had a true melody associated with it was Atrus'. That would be the thematic thread I used to connect Myst III with the rest of the series.

    The novels were an inspiration. The level of detail in the back-story is just awesome. Cyan has totally created these parallel worlds down to the most intricate detail. I wanted the score to reflect this effort.

    I realized early on that I'd want to compose a wholly original score to reflect the fact that this was an entirely new game with six new ages.

    Lastly, in the preparation, I wanted to make sure I had a unique instrumental palette with real people playing these instruments. There have been many fine electronic scores done for video games and movies for that matter. But when you bring warm bodies into the recording studio and you hand them their parts and they begin to play, it always sounds better than the electronic demo of the same music. It has that "X" factor. It feels real; it feels fresh and alive. The players bring something new and multidimensional to the music that one person simply cannot originate on his or her own. The composer is the visionary, but the players become the conduit to the sublime. Once you watch the players in the studio, and then hear the final mix, it's hard to justify making music any other way. Not that electronic instruments are bad, I just think it's important to use the best of both the electronic world and the real-musician-playing world to get the finest results.

    Production

    Orchestral Music
    Early on, Dan Irish, Greg Uhler and Phil Saunders of Presto, and I agreed to use the orchestra for the cinematics in the game. I began receiving QuickTime movies about the 2nd week of September. There would be 14 cinematics to score and the recording date was set for December 4, 2000. Once you set the date, you've spent the money, so it had to go off without a hitch. I think that this necessity helped in it's own way to keep the entire production on schedule. These cinematics simply had to be done on time, set in stone to the orchestra's timetable.

    The process was that I would score the scene with rudimentary notes from Phil and Greg. I would mock up the orchestra with samples and synths and do a rough mix of it. I'd then convert it to an MP3 and FTP it to Presto. Within 24 hours, Phil and Greg would do a review and then we'd have a conference call. Always there were back-story points that needed clarification and I would need to adjust the tone here and there to really marry the score to the story. Later that same day, I'd send a revision and we would then go through the same process until all three of us were satisfied that the music was truly helping the storyline come across.

    As each musical cue was completed with Presto, I would spend a few hours honing the orchestration of it. Then I sent a midi file of that basic orchestration to my Orchestrater, Steve Zuckerman. Steve and I would then go back and forth with a conductor score. Steve's incredible gift as an Orchestrater is making 51 players sound like 75 and making difficult passages easily playable. After all, I had 4 hours to get 23 ½ minutes of finished music recorded - including rehearsal time. They need to be able to play each piece perfectly the second or third time through — no small task, but a always a wonder to observe!

    My talent in the orchestration process was arguing with Steve about the way he was changing, say, my cello part in order to make it so they could play it that second or third time. "But I want it this way Steve — you know, the way I wrote it!" Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost. Steve was fair and extremely knowledgeable. However, if I won, it's because he let me win. I can tell you this: The end result speaks for itself — we got our 23 ½ minutes of music done in 4 hours, and it sounds pretty damn good, if I do say so!
    When the conductor score was completed, one copy went to me, one to my music coordinator, Audrey DeRoche, and one to the copyist, Ross DeRoche. I studied the score and rehearsed the conducting part with my ongoing coach, Brad Keimach, while Audrey built a session database so she could organize and run the session with precision timing. Ross copied and categorized all of the parts for the recording date.

    For every single cue, I had pre-laid tracks of electronic instruments and recorded percussion that I had to prepare for the session on DA88. I conferred with my recording engineer in Seattle, Steve Smith about putting down the proper click and SMPTE time code for the session. Next to the click, I also recorded a vocal measure count so it would be impossible to get lost while conducting.


    • The Recording Sessions. December 4, 2000 will always be one of those days you will never, ever forget. And I'm not just talking about me. Everyone at the session, outside of a few musicians perhaps, simply couldn't believe how great an experience this was. Everyone from Ubisoft and Presto that was witness to these 4 hours came up to me either during or afterwards and said something to the effect that this totally changed their perspective about music in games. Wow.
    It was unfortunate that I still had a choir session to do and that none of them outside of Audrey, Steve Zuckerman, and Steve Smith would make it.

    The choir session happened a week later at a studio in Los Angeles called Sound Chamber. Two years prior, I heard a group of eight singers perform at a concert and they sounded like 30. Their choir director was Phil Smith and I simply had to track him down. When I found him, he was incredibly excited about the project. He found all the original singers except for one and put them together on one of the most fun days I've ever had in the studio. These people could sing anything and turn on a dime. Because they were so flexible, I changed parts right on the stand for them and they would sing them perfectly the very first time. It was simply amazing. For every part, I overdubbed the eight of them three more times for the big choir sound that is on the CD and in the game. We got all 14 cues done in 6 hours. They were fantastic musicians.


    Reward Music
    The next type of music I designed for this latest version of the Myst series was "Reward Music". That is, music played when you've actually accomplished something. When you solve the puzzle to make it to a particular age, the "age theme" plays. These are linear pieces of music with melody that serve to define each of the Ages. Unlike Myst and Riven where the music is almost exclusively ambient, the music has ambience as background, but it's designed to be listened to. It's 2 to 3 minutes long and only plays once — so it's not possible to get annoyed by it. It's meant to be a break or respite in a musical sense at least. When you arrive at your destination, the thought is that you would simply be in awe of your surroundings. This reward music is the score for that emotion and for that first few minutes where the player is experiencing the new environment.

    In-Game
    Once you are passed the reward music inside a new age, then the familiar ambient Myst music takes over. Of course, the in-game music is the largest single category of music in this game, since this is where you are spending most of your time. The main idea here is to introduce melody. However, how do you do this without annoying the player? Enter the Presto audio engine.

    Presto developed an audio engine for the Journeyman Project series that endeavored to solve this problem. The basic concept at the beginning of the production was a looping pad or some mixture or texture of sounds, with what they called "stingers" that randomly play on top. Working directly with the man who programmed this engine (as well as the whole of Myst III), Roland Gustafsson, I asked him if it would be possible to make some modifications to the engine in order to enhance the functionality to do what I wanted to do with the music. Roland's response surprised me. He said "yes". It was truly amazing working with Roland, because he never said no to anything I asked for. His enthusiasm was mind-blowing. He was a great partner in getting the music to play properly in the game.

    Once you are passed the reward music inside a new age, then the familiar ambient Myst music takes over.


    • The Process. My basic idea was to compose and fully produce a 2-minute piece of linear music without any constraint whatsoever. I wanted melody, rhythm, texture, dynamics (at times) and counterpoint to add to the ambient music the audience was accustomed to. When I got a mix I liked, I recorded the mix in stereo. Then I would record multiple passes of every element of that mix — various rhythms, melodic instruments (all real by the way — almost never electronic), textures or pads, counterpoint instruments, etc. I would import these files into Protools and edit them to their core elements. All of these music elements would then be available for scripting into the Presto audio engine.

    • Scripting. Once all files were edited and ready, I would write a script that dictated specifically how each file was to be played; how often it would play, what files would loop, which ones would play only once and also, and very importantly, when there should be silence. Scripting took the last 3 weeks of production and went right up to the gold master date. It was a nail biter for me. Of course, almost everyone was feeling the gold master pressure common at the end of every production.

    Conclusion

    I'm very proud of the Myst III: Exile score, not just for the music itself, but the process of making it. Working in tandem with Presto and Ubisoft could not have been better. Working with the genius of the musicians that played on it and having the opportunity to work with such great teams of people made this a truly memorable production — and I think the score was better for the fact that everyone involved truly cared about it and supported the making of it.

    It took more than my talent and experience to make this score work. To me, that's only about 50% of it. The other half comes from the audio programmer working to implement it properly. They have to really care. The designer and the producer making sure that the music is fulfilling their vision. They have to really care. The publisher and executive producers who pay for the score. They have to care. The sound department that mixes the music and sound together. They have to care. Everyone cared.
    The best part is that no one cared any more or any less about the music than any other single part of the production (gameplay, sound effects, cinematics, story, graphics, etc). That's what makes the best scores.


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