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Developing musical ideas in video games

Part 1

By: Kole Hicks


In Film/TV we work with a linear visual that evolves over time and our musical ideas tend to follow that natural progression. What about Video Games though?

Outside of cut scenes, a Video Game is fully interactive and although many feature a main story arc for the player to follow, the exact time at which they complete that story varies greatly from gamer to gamer. Furthermore, many other games allow the player to create their own story. So how do we develop our musical ideas in Games effectively?

As with everything there is no single solution to this problem, especially considering the fact that the overall objective or goal changes drastically depending on the game. Thus, our definition of “effective” musical development changes. What may be appropriate in one game could be ineffective or actually detrimental in another.

With that said, I’ll describe some of the tools we have to work with, analyze music development in other games, and walk through a hypothetical game situation in Part 2 of this mini-series. All in the hope that many of my Game Composer brethren will find these ideas & observations useful!


Tools

A large majority of Composers have learned, practiced, and applied the first “tool” in our arsenal for developing musical ideas. I’ll label this tool ‘Traditional Compositional Techniques.’ This covers all of the standard motivic development techniques one has probably learned through university/books and applied to traditional concert music (Augmentation, Diminution, Retrograde, Re-harmonization, etc.). These are all perfectly valid and necessary techniques when developing musical ideas for video games.

However, because we’re working with an interactive art our music must be ‘aware’ of the player’s actions in-game and react to them appropriately. This is when the second and game-exclusive tool we have to work with comes in, Implementation. With this tool at our disposal we can control the When, Where, What, & How of our music in the game. When the bass line fades in, Where the guitar layer triggers, What filter we apply to the track as we enter the water, or even How we transition from one cue to another.


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It is essential to think of and treat Implementation as an important Compositional tool in our arsenal. Do not neglect it, as it’s entirely possible to encounter a situation where you’ve written fantastic music, but it was implemented in the game incorrectly and consequently sounds awful. Perhaps the looping points are in the wrong spots, your battle cue is triggered when the player is peacefully picking flowers, or even something as simple as one track overlapping with a lot of SFX/Dialogue and the result sounds like indecipherable audio “mush.”

It’s intimidating and overwhelming for sure, but when handled properly music in games can be some of the most evocative and memorable ways of displaying your art (besides obviously reinforcing the emotional impact of the entire game experience!). With all of this said, let’s analyze and learn from some recently successful titles.

***There may be a few spoilers in here, so read at your own risk!

Journey

The first game I'd like to look at is “thatgamecompany's” most recent release , Journey. If you're not familiar with the game I'd highly encourage you to play through it or at the very least watch a few videos on Youtube. This is because Journey doesn't follow many of the standard game conventions one may expect of video games and Austin Wintory's brilliant score is essential to the overall experience.


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Without trying to spoil the game for anyone who hasn't had the opportunity to play, Journey covers a wide variety of emotions throughout it's course and allows the player to progress through the character's whole life in a matter of a few hours. Austin has carefully crafted his score to reflect the details of this progression, with one of the main features being a transition from electronic elements to live orchestra.

As we begin our journey, the score is almost purely made up of electronic sounds. Although, Austin pointed out that many of the electronic sounds were in fact live instruments that were stretched, squashed, & tweaked until a new sound was created. As the game progresses further and we become more invested in our character's outcome the score “opens up” and traditional orchestral instruments are introduced. This progression continues (for the most part... will mention a cool 'detour' below) throughout the entirety of the game until we're led to one of the most beautifully and well placed climaxes I've ever encountered in a game. It's fully satisfying and a culmination of all the most important themes we’ve heard throughout the game played by live orchestra.

 

I'd also like to talk about some of the very cool and unique implementation techniques they used in Journey. In one specific area of the game we encounter an opportunity to go from point A to B on the ground or “floating” through the clouds (with the help of some cloth jellyfish friends). The ground level is dark/claustrophobic and consequently sounds a bit more electronic with the sound design dominating our audio world. However, as we rise in elevation the mechanical sounds fade away giving life to beautiful, light, organic music with whispering aleatoric strings subtly swelling in to reinforce our euphoric floating feeling.

Last but not least, in Journey you have the opportunity to play alone or with a single other person. The game is much more enjoyable with a friend than by yourself and to reinforce this Austin delegated the viola and harp to only play in cues where you have a partner. That means you could cross a giant cloth bridge with a friend and it would sound quite different than if you were going it solo. This also means that a lot of different cues in the game have 2 versions (beyond all the other implementation rules) to choose from. While it most certainly was a hassle to compose and implement correctly, the end result is a much more rewarding musical experience. Appropriately enhancing the joy of playing through Journey with a friend.

*I'd be remised if I didn't mention the great sound design in Journey as well. The communication between the sound/music teams was superb and it came through clearly via a beautifully designed audio experience.

**Jenova Chen (Co-Founder & Creative Director of T.G.C) explained that he frequently listened to Austin’s WIP music as inspiration for creating the game.

Rayman Origins

The next game I’d like to analyze is Rayman Origins featuring music from Billy Martin. Rayman Origins is quite different than Journey in that it is a traditional side-scrolling platformer with defined levels of progression. As the gamer you very well know where you’re at and what level you’ll be progressing to; all the while expecting a inclining gradation in the difficulty as you move forward. As the Composer you can use this semi-linear progression to your advantage, just as Mr. Martin did.

Throughout the game we have multiple “Worlds” that are comprised of various levels of increasing difficulty. Each world has it’s own artistic/musical “palette” defined by unique instrumentation and re-arranged thematic material appropriate for any new experiences the player will encounter. As you begin the first level a bass line & foundational groove is introduced, sometimes performed on or augmented by the jaw harp. As you progress through the level by defeating enemies & overcoming obstacles our foundational groove loop is enhanced by additional acoustic guitar and electric guitar “wah-wah” layers.

However, as we collect “Golden Lums” our current background music is immediately exchanged for a new uplifting Hawaiian themed tune with ukulele and up-pitched vocals akin to the “The Chipmunks.” After this specifically timed musical segment we transition back into our original background music (with all of the appropriate music layers intact), keeping up the momentum and pushing us forward.

As we progress throughout the different World’s levels, our musical background adjusts appropriately. Sometimes our foundational groove is played by pizzicato strings and other times our main melody bounces around from instrument to instrument. While it is true that the overall progression of our music increases in intensity as we move forward through the various levels, they’ve made certain to pay attention to the “mini-moments” you can find in each level. Entering a cave will trigger different instrumentation than a bright sunny desert area. Rayman Origins music system is sensitive to these changes and develops Billy’s musical ideas in a satisfying manner.

Just when you’re getting used to things though, a completely new level springs forth challenging you in unique ways. Likewise, Billy’s music adapts and in one instance writes for us an Epic arrangement of his musical ideas featuring Strings, Horns, & even Kazoos blaring… very appropriate and hilariously thrilling when riding on the back of a mosquito.


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*An Additional Quote from the Composer, Billy Martin.

"One of the features of the music of Rayman Origins is that much of the percussion is comprised of things that would normally be sound effects. So, for the Food World, we used clinking glasses and silverware, champagne bottles popping, etc. For the Steampunk levels we used metal clanks, hits, and machinery sounds. This was a unifying device that also gave each level, and the whole game, a very distinctive sound."

Although the score to Journey and Rayman Origins are quite different from each other in tone, instrumentation, and their game’s content; they both strike a fine balance between interactivity and emotional “evocativeness” that traditionally stems from organic progression in linear composition. The effectiveness of these game scores are a testament to the fact that both composers (and their respective audio teams) are masters of utilizing the compositional and implementation specific tools available to them.

I hope analyzing these great examples has helped give you insight into how you could develop your own musical ideas in your next game project. Thanks for reading and keep your eyes open for Part 2!

Continue reading in Part 2 of this article -->

About the author: Kole Hicks is an Author, Instructor, and most prominently an Audio Designer with a focus in Games. He's had the pleasure of scoring mobile hits like 'Bag it!', has provided audio for Indie PC titles like 'Kenshi' and 'Jeklynn Heights', and was nominated for a 2012 GANG award for an article written exclusively for Shockwave-Sound.com titled, "Mixing as Part of the Composing Process. Emotionally Evocative Music & Visceral Sound Effects... Kole Audio Solutions.
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