You’ve used the silver arrows...
...all your remaining phoenix downs, pulled the awkward looking axe/key thing, but your client just won’t approve the big boss battle theme!
In this entry, I will be talking about the art and techniques of composing boss battle themes for video games. What action, adventure, RPG, console, platform, or shoot’em up is complete without an epic boss battle or three? Well, those without an epic, awesome sounding music track to accompany the most dramatic part of a game, of course! While boss battles come in all flavours, shapes, and sizes for the various genres of games, they all have very common adjectives to describe them. Big. Epic. Awesome. Climactic. Spine-tingling. Memorable. How do we take these ideas and beef up the sound to accommodate? How much is too much, and how does one get started?
Iconic Boss Battles
Your game likely already draws inspiration from the giants of its past, in the art, design, and even sound. That’s no shame! We’re in this business because we play video games, love them, and want people to love (or at least buy!) ours. While you should already have on hand sources of inspiration that drives your game to the next level, there are some common tools used across the genres to make the boss battles shine. The trick is to try and emulate some of the epic games of your genre without nodding too much to sound derivative.
The first thing you should look at during your boss battle is its estimated length of gameplay. (FFVI’s end battle theme needed to be over 15 minutes long, due to the sheer length of the fight itself!) That allows the composer to decide whether to start slow and intimidating, then grow to fast and chaotic, or for faster battles, start fast and stay fast to mimick the gameplay. Multiple tiers of a battle need the consideration of adding dynamics and instruments, and/or key shifting and increasing the tempo. The key emotion we are likely trying to reinforce is adrenaline, fuelled from the action of the moment. This means a fast drum kit and percussion, with heavy accents on the main beats. One trick I like to employ for songs like this is to ensure that the drums are actually playing slightly before the main beat of the tempo. This gives the song an overall driving feeling, like you’re trying to catch up to action propelling you forward. Make sure this isn’t too exaggerated as it will just sound off, but definitely experiment with it.
There are choice instruments for epic moments that have been drilled into our heads by Hollywood and other game composers. My personal favourite is the sound of a giant pipe organ. Not only does it physically look like something no one should create or play on, but what comes out sounds as if from beyond our world. There’s a reason people are humbled into church each week to listen to it, but it also makes for a killer boss track! If your game tracks have been using a fair amount of electric instruments so far, save some heavy metal riffs for your boss track. Bass drums, timpani, and orchestral stingers are all great choices here, as are brass swells.
Bells and Whistles
If your game has an overarching villain, feel free to play the Wagner’s leitmotif card and give the villain a recurring theme. During the final confronation, there's a great opportunity to dial that theme up to 11. If not, one thing you can bring back is the intro music or the main menu music or an important track to the game. Try transposing that melody in a minor key; subtle but effective!
Parting thoughts… as you open the last chamber
Given all the varied styles of games and their boss music, it’s best to take a large sample base and listen, listen, listen. Hear the commonalities and keep in a pile the types that may work for your game’s audio design. Remember to be creative and original in your scores, to only draw inspiration from sources. As always, there’s no cookie cutter answer for crafting a great boss battle theme, but every adventures starts with a single step… and sometimes pressing the start button.
Harry Mack is an audio designer with more than 10 years industry experience, composing video game music and sound effects for over thirty titles. Examples of his latest work and samples are available at www.harrymack.com.