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
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!
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.
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.
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
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
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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
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!
reading in Part 2 of this article -->