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Getting/Making Game Music that Fits - Classic Genre Series - Boss Music
by Harry Mack on 04/13/12 12:51:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

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.   

Tempo Tips

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.

Epic Lutes

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.


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Comments


Matt Waldron
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Harry,

Fantastic article and a pleasant read; I enjoyed and agree with pretty much everything you brought up here.

First off, I was glad to see you briefly touch on, and then leave behind, the notion that 'it all depends'. That is a concept when it comes to music that is almost universally true; but there is nothing tangible and meaningful to be learned from this one broad philosophical concept, and so at the very least identifying trends and things that traditionally have a certain effect is critical when learning to compose in support of a synchronized work and in an audio/visual medium. When learning composition I have always said 'just tell me the rules, and I'll break them if I feel strongly enough that they ought to be broken'. That approach yields far better results.

First specific thing that popped into my head as most universally applicable to a boss fight: bombastic percussion and brass swells. As I read on, I was glad to see you were thinking along very similar lines.

The trick of putting percussion beats just a tad ahead of (read 'before') the click is a great strategy and has the effect you described. I would add that you can do the same with quick violin or high woodwind runs, as long as they are part of the support more so than the main melodic content, and mixed appropriately. If one wanted to be even more adventurous, notes on the previously described runs can be played just a bit sharp to create a similar 'falling forward to catch up' effect. However, this one takes even more care to get the balance right--I find that generally pitch being slightly off in one direction is detected more readily than timing being slightly off in one direction.

Perhaps most importantly in this whole piece, you are absolutely right to suggest that the best starting place for composing to an audio/visual work is to find something that has worked and...rip it off, to put it bluntly. When I start writing a piece of music it almost always originates either in a particular sound that inspires a vibe and then a melody, or as a highly derivative work from a piece I feel expresses the emotion I want to convey. What happens when you start to rip something off is that you eventually come up with variations on it that you like even more and so wander further and further from the source material; soon enough you wind up with a piece that is your own with only the vaguest of references to the original material. Far more music is written in this manner than most realize--it is outright remarkable how many of our most revered classical melodies are derivative of folk music or similar sources (this includes The Rite of Spring and the famous theme from Beethoven's ninth). There is no shame in starting from the work of another; the situation will always mandate enough chances to create a separation when it comes to audio/visual collaborations. Maybe your boss is in an Egyptian context so you transpose a melody to harmonic minor (or the Egyptian scale if being more bold). Right there a great deal of the resemblance will be lost, and with a couple more simple changes it will be completely obscured.

Harry Mack
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Hey Matt, I'm glad you enjoyed it! I appreciate your thoughts on the topic. Thanks!


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