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  • Creating Music For Video Games: The Plan

    - Ricardo Cuello

  • Variety

    One of the most important differences between a video game and other entertainment / dramatic media, for example a movie, is that the "scenes" are not fixed; there is no script (unless naturally, it is a cinematic). The players are the ones who choose when and how much to advance. As it is practically impossible to predict what each player will do, the music must continue playing even if the player stands 30 minutes watching a wall because he liked the texture.

    Repetition bores. And in music that becomes evident VERY fast. If we repeat the same 8 measures for 30 minutes, the player will silence the music and start listening his own playlist. This is when you have to make a decision: what kind of music system is going to be used. This is a very important decision that has to be made early in the project because it greatly affects the way of composing the musical pieces.

    In principle, there are 2 systems to use: the linear system and the dynamic system.

    Linear system: what is commonly known as Loop, or looped music. When the piece ends it is repeated from the beginning. This procedure was widely used in the oldest games (mostly for a technical issue). You can get tired very quickly if the loop is poorly composed and if it is very short. Generally, a loop should last no less than 3 minutes to be tolerable for a greater amount of time. The trick with the loop is the balance in the variety of material: it has to be enough so that it does not bore but not so much that it passes to be foreground. (In addition to having cohesion with the rest of the things) Easy job.

    Dynamic system: there are several types, but let's say they are those that compose or assemble music in real time, or under an established parameter. With a series of pre-composed musical fragments that can be rearranged in different ways, these systems provide more variety at the expense of losing control of the composition.

    With these systems you can lose some unity too. Depending on the randomness of the system, the fragments can be joined in unexpected ways and create very crazy compositions. These types of systems are those normally used by modern games.

    It goes without saying that these systems can be combined to form very interesting hybrids. And they can also work adaptively, that is, they react, evolve and change with the actions in the game systems.


    Don't forget something very important: Music has a function (I am not referring to tonal functions or anything like that), it has a job that it must fulfill, it is to serve, and therefore music plays a role of reinforcement of experience; and not a main role where, normally, it is the musical material that has to be developed to maintain interest.

    Does this mean that music cannot play a leading role in a game? No, of course it can be done, if not rhythmic games wouldn't exist (See any Guitar HeroCrypt of the NecroDancerDance Dance RevolutionMetronomicon, etc). I'm referring to the common denominator.

    Of course there are games where the line begins to blur, hybrids begin to appear (I can think of Patapon). In addition you can always experiment, and it is a good practice to look for titles and graduating as on an imaginary scale: how many steps in the foreground is the audio? How engaged is the music in this game?

    So I can't do a more complex development of musical material? Again, of course it can be done, but the question that should immediately arise would be: The thing I'm doing, add something to the experience, to the whole, to the immersion?

    Something has to be clarified, there are many times when artists, composers and designers go outside these networks of relationships on purpose, but this is usually done to generate contrast or to emphasize an important point in the narrative, in the actions or in the mechanics.

    The problem is when it brings absolutely nothing to the experience and those weird monsters begin to form where nothing has to do with anything (and I don't mean just audio, this can happen with art, with mechanics, etc.) Has it ever happened to you of playing a game and suddenly noticing that something doesn't fit? Art has nothing to do with the story being told, or music has nothing to do with the setting.

    Imagine you are going to fight Nemesis in Resident Evil 3, final transformation; and instead of the great music it has, the Super Mario Sunshine Menu theme start to sound. Really cool, right?

    Since we are talking about Resident Evil, for a real reference, let's take the first title of the franchise as an example, but one of the later editions: the Resident Evil Director's CutDualShock, where you can clearly see how the music does not fit with what the game proposes. The music has less force than in the original soundtrack. Culminating with the track The Mansion Basement. Nothing more to say, hear it for yourself.

    To close, let's agree that nothing is prohibited here, considering these things, music can take many forms, and that is one of the most beautiful things in music for video games. What I want to say is that, as a composer for this medium, they are questions that one must ask when facing any project, this gives a more critical look, and with a systematic prior planning, these steps help to discard what it doesn't work before and advance in the good stuff faster.

    I think that all these elements help immersion and elevate that set of rules that the player must follow, a simple game, in something else, a unit, a fiction that helps us express something, to create art.


    Link to the Spanish version of the article:

    Reference bibliography:

    A Composer's Guide to Game Music.
    Winifred Phillips.
    Composing Music For Games: The art, technology and Business of Video Game Scoring:
    Chance Thomas.
    Game Sound. An Introduction to the History, Theory, and Practice of Video Game Music and Sound Design.
    Karen Collins.


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