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Analysis: How To Get Creative With Game Music

Game music creator Duncan Watt spoke at a recent conference on why audio is massively under-rated in shaping a game's success, discussing games from Jet Set Radio Future through Portal to attempt to define why, for a game designer, music is
Generally considered one of the biggest afterthoughts in game development even now, music is of utmost importance to developers attempting to create depth within their work. So said Duncan Watt, founder and creator of game music production company Fastestmanintheworld, at a Gamasutra-attended Montreal International Game Summit session aimed at offering developers better understanding of music's place within other creative works. "Music has an incredible hold over the viewer," Watt said. "Not only does it follow the action of a work, but it tells the story behind the story, and can inform the viewer on what they should be thinking. As a game designer, this is an incredibly powerful ability that you should use." In any creative work, music is either ambient, or background music, referred to by composers as underscore -- or source music, where something within the world is generating the tune. (This can also be called diegetic versus non-diegetic music, as columnist Gregory Weir recently explained in Gamasutra.) "The great challenge faced by composers, particularly when writing underscore, is that they do not know exactly what is going to happen. A player could choose to walk into a bar and walk right back out again, or they could spend twenty minutes there," said Watt. However, not all techniques in creating game music require taking player behavior into account. "Even static ambient music -- music which doesn't alter to fit what is going on on screen -- can bring a lot to a game in communicating the mood and setting to the player immediately," said Watt. "A game like Jet Set Radio Future communicates as much by playing Cibo Matto's Birthday Cake as it does from its cel-shaded visuals." "Reactive" ambient music is probably one of the most well-used methods in games, but Watt emphasized that "it doesn't just have to show that the player is in battle or not," remarking that casual games were leading the way with reactive scores that communicate a variety of different states to the player. And though the form may still be too nascent for this, Watt noted that music affects how players feel to such a great degree that it can be used to trick them for dramatic effect. "You are telling the player what to think when he hears that battle music. He thinks, when he turns the corner, here come the enemies, but there's no reason that has to be true." To discuss source music, Watt referred to what he felt was the best example of what it can do for a game - Portal's radio, which is found in the very first area. "It's right there behind you, so it gets you used to the space and informs that you could, should turn around, which gets you used to the controls, and as you start to warp around, the distance you are from the radio helps keep you straight." One recent example of source music that also excited Watt was Fable II's bard, who sings songs of the player character's adventures. "This is reactive source music driven not only by the player's action to initiate it, but by their previous actions in the world," he said. These examples were important enough that Watt used them to argue for an improved connection between game and music design - which doesn't mean things like Guitar Hero. "Songs with lyrics are completely valid story drivers," he said. "You can't think of every musical as 'High School Musical' - there is so much potential to this; compare Portal without 'Still Alive' and with it, and then tell me you wouldn't play something as silly as a minigame collection if it promised a thematic link to Portal through the music." "The bottom line is that is timeless, it's universal, it doesn't matter where you came from or who you are, you understand music on an intrinsic level," Watt concluded. "It's like a smell; it puts you on that spot, and we should use that."

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