Originally published in GamesTM issue 174 in May 2016. Read the original article here.

From 8-bit bleeps to orchestral bombast, video game composition is fast answering Hollywood’s call

It may seem strange to think of videogames as anything other than an entertainment juggernaut, but when we talk about music, the industry is still very much in its infancy compared to its peers. Though increasingly spoiled with lush orchestration and complex sound design, the audio experience once typically associated with blockbusters is a comparatively new trend for games and one that shows no signs of stopping. Intricate sound design and music permeate every facet of the gaming experience and today a composer’s role in games extends far beyond providing mere musical accompaniment.

Their work forges a vital emotional connection with stories and experiences that often continue to resonate long after the game is over. Take, for example, composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s stirring score for The Last Of Us. “That’s a great example of a great score that deepens your relationship with the characters and the storyline,” muses Duncan Smith who, as senior music supervisor at Sony’s London-based Creative Services Group, is responsible for overseeing many of the decisions pertaining to audio on a range of internal projects, including the likes of DriveClub and Little Big Planet 3.

“A game like The Last Of Us has upped the level of storytelling and dialogue and character development, so you get more emotionally involved with it. It’s up there with the best Hollywood movie or art-house movie in terms of connecting you with it and I think the music needs to run in parallel with that. If the bar is going to be raised with everything else then the music needs to be as good as everything else to deepen it.”

As head of music at Sony Entertainment Europe, Alastair Lindsay oversees the process of sourcing composers who will do just that. Liaising with development teams on budgets, managing composer schedules, and the overall process of implementing the score within the game itself, his role sees him working with Smith and the rest of the team to source the musical talent that’s best suited for the job. “Nowadays there’s no excuse for badly implemented audio,” Lindsay says. “It’s just your imagination and your ability to think at the beginning about how it’s all going to work. You shouldn’t have annoying repetitive cues here and there. There are a lot of clever things you can do to maximise the potential out of a small amount of assets, so you just have to think a
bit harder.”

“We’re lucky that we’ve worked with some great composers in the past on lots of different projects who are people whose strengths are in different styles of music that we could go and call on again,” Smith adds. “But, personally, we want the best composer for the job, so we won’t ever just go back to someone because we’ve used them fifty times in the past… It’s important that we reach out and try out new composers, especially if it’s a style of music that maybe we haven’t worked with before. Then it’s important to go to people who do that music, who live and breathe it.”

The stage at which a music supervisor may be engaged during development varies from project to project. This can be dictated by the size of a game, whether it is developed internally or by external studios, or how important the game’s development team perceives music to be. “There’s no point having a multi-million pound budget for a game and then, because you’ve saved money on music or not allocated enough or not valued it enough, you end up with music that can cheapen the whole experience,” Smith states. “That kind of undermines the rest of the money and time and effort that’s been put in to the game, by having some ill-thought out or cheap-sounding music. It’s when it’s not done properly that you realise how important music is. It’s always good if you have a producer who understands the power of music and how important it can be to get it right and to assign enough money and time to get it done right.”

Away from Sony, in the case of composer Inon Zur, the task of scoring Fallout 4 for Bethesda was underpinned by years of prior experience working on the likes of Fallout 3 and its turn-based precursor, Fallout Tactics. The latter was developed long before Bethesda acquired the rights to the series and Zur’s familiarity with the franchise provided a springboard for him to hone a distinctive sound that players would come to associate with the franchise. “I’d already planted the seeds for Fallout 3 in Fallout Tactics,” Zur recalls. “If you listen to the soundtrack it doesn’t have any thematic ideas, it’s more like sound design stuff. But unlike Fallout 1 and 2, I started to bring on board more of an organic sound design, which became the signature of the Fallout soundtracks and this was basically what differed Fallout Tactics from its predecessors.”

Zur developed Fallout 3’s soundtrack over the course of just three months, creating no more than three iterations of the game’s main theme before settling on the final piece. For Fallout 4, he was able to experiment further, beginning work on the game in 2013, almost two years before its release. During this time, Zur worked closely with audio director Mark Lampert and producer Todd Howard on crafting a sound that would serve as a tonal palette for the game as a whole.

“Bethesda allowed me to do a total free composition and the descriptions that I received were nothing even close to a storyboard,” Zur adds. “I didn’t know anything about the story. I was given emotional descriptions and this was the only guide that I had. Maybe some locations and then emotional aspects, and that’s it. So the composition, so to speak, is part of the colouring tool inside the game. It’s not playing against the picture. It doesn’t play with the picture. It is there, basically, as a separate layer that is doing its own thing with the game.” The open-ended nature of a game such as Fallout 4 adds to the complexity of the scoring process given the non-linear way in which a player may interact with the world. As a result, the game employs a complex series of systems that dictate the way in which music might be heard, depending on the player’s actions within the game world and the actions they are engaging in.

“Instead of trying to address and predict what the player is about to do, or will do and then respond to it, you’re basically creating your own story within the score,” Zur explains. “This way, you address more of the emotional aspects of the player, rather than the actual reality of what’s going on in the game. So all you have to know is that at this point in the story this and this is happening, so the music should play this way according to the emotional state.”

In contrast to Zur’s work with Bethesda, the creative process behind composer Jason Graves’ work on Far Cry Primal took place over a short, intensive period. With credits including the Dead Space franchise, Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider reboot and extensive work with Sony on the likes of The Order and Until Dawn, Graves’ creative pedigree made him a strong fit for the team at Ubisoft Montreal. His involvement began in March 2015, by which point the game had expanded beyond what the creative team had envisaged.

“Most big titles really do, fortunately nowadays, bring composers in a lot earlier,” Graves explains. “But what’s nice is they had so many things already in place and with this kind of score the music and the instruments are so non-traditional that I feel I honestly would have just drowned in uncertainty if I’d been brought in two years before the game came out. I didn’t have a lot of time to second-guess myself.”

Over the course of six months, Graves took inspiration from the game’s unique Stone Age setting, crafting a score that employed organic sounds from the time period. “Looking at the gameplay, I just didn’t feel like it needed big sweeping melodies or even little tiny motifs of music to hook you here and there,” he recalls. “The game wasn’t really in shape yet, so in order to sort of tread water, I decided that I would focus more on the three tribes in the game. I’d already limited myself to basically drums, flutes, stones, bones, ceramic. There’s no metal. There’s nothing modern in the score except for the recording instruments, so I wanted to kind of parse it down even more and give each tribe its own sound and its own voice. I ended up doing about 20–25 minutes of music a week and sending these cues out. There was nothing but embarrassingly glowing feedback from Ubisoft.”

Perhaps one of the biggest draws for any composer is the scope for experimentation afforded by games, which sets them apart from the likes of film and television where various levels of seniority may wade in on the work in question. This still happens in games, but Zur explains that this is often far less invasive. “The whole political involvement inside even a very large scope game is not nearly as robust as TV or movies,” he states, reflecting on his work in Hollywood. “I remember that at some point there were seven producers from different companies sat here behind my back while I’m composing and everybody wanted to wade in. In computer games it’s just not the case. It’s usually the main producer, director and audio director and that’s it.”

For the team at Sony’s Creative Services Group, decisions on how best to implement music within a game will generally fall to a small group of people, with the composer developing pieces that will then be reviewed and fed back on internally. “Too many cooks can definitely spoil the broth,” Smith concurs. “There’s usually an education process involved, but as a music supervisor if it can be myself and the producer of the game or the audio director, whoever has the authority and keep it down to two, maybe three people. What you don’t want is the whole art team being invited in to a room to listen to music that’s come in over the last week and have everyone feeling as though they ought to have an opinion, because it’s such a subjective thing.”

With game music increasingly growing in stature, changing attitudes in the music industry have better positioned audio teams to recruit musical talent. The resurgent popularity of vinyl has played a part in this, giving game soundtracks lives of their own beyond the games themselves, whilst simultaneously promoting composers’ work to an audience that may have otherwise overlooked it altogether. Meanwhile, record labels can benefit from cross-selling, with the inclusion of their artists’ pre-existing work in the likes of Gran Turismo and DriveClub, which in turn raises the profile of their artists.

“When I started here, one of my challenges was educating the music industry as to the importance of video games and the value that we can add to their music by having their music featured in a game,” Smith explains. “The people that I deal with today are far more respectful towards the games industry and are aware of the importance of getting music in there in terms of discovery for new bands or for old bands and as a revenue stream, but more importantly as a way of connecting with people.”

For Lindsay, the increased awareness of music’s importance in games, both from a consumer and an industry perspective, has been crucial in paving the way to push boundaries and create work that continues to enhance the experience for players. It seems to be finally getting the support it deserves. “I don’t see any sort of technical limitations,” he states. “We kind of feel like we’re there and we have the skills, so that’s more of an interesting challenge to build upon those. It’s become a cheapened commodity and really bringing that back in focus, you get a lot of value out of some good music. But it’s a two-way thing, making sure there’s enough time to get the right music and to work with the right people so you get the best soundtrack, rather than just leaving it until the end. Getting people to appreciate that and be respectful and value what we’re trying to do for video games is important.”