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October 25, 2020
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Composing Music for an Indie Video Game

by Carter Hill on 10/13/20 10:54:00 am

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.

 

One of the most important features in any video game, TV show, or movie is its soundtrack. Music is an identifier. For example, you would not expect music from any super Mario Game to appear in an Elder Scrolls game, and vice versa. Many fictional worlds have their musical scores to thank for a hefty part of their identity.

I’m Carter Hill, and for the past four years I have been part of an indie game studio whose main creation is a small-scale RPG.  The game, called Heroes’ Legacy, takes inspiration from major MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars, games that feature different musical scores for each zone.  While the game was in development for three years, it has been discontinued due to the development of a sequel.

As the main composer for this game, I have taken many factors into consideration when writing its soundtrack, from overarching melodies, varying instrumentation, and mood music.

Overarching Melodies

As the amount of music I had written for the game grew, I began to use melodies to symbolize different zones.

For example, one of the game’s main antagonists is a sorcerer who has unleashed a plague on surrounding lands. The music for the sorcerer’s lair was written first, utilizing a motif that employed semitones to portray the corruption and abnormality of the sorcerer’s plague.

As the game’s dynamic world grew and surrounding lands became affected, bits and pieces of the original motif were reused to symbolize the sorcerer’s tight grip on the land.

Varying Instrumentation

While the majority of the game’s music is composed using a classical orchestra, there are subsections of the world where an instrumentation change is needed.

One of the game’s main factions is a technological race called the Aesir, a precursor civilization that predates the forming of the world. In zones controlled by the faction, futuristic-sounding synthesizers are layered on top of the orchestra to give the areas a technological feel.

Mood Music

The jovial, light-hearted atmosphere present in the starting town is much different than that present during the final boss fight, and this holds true in virtually every game. To portray this, different chord progressions and keys are employed.

The starter town’s score is written in G major, giving the zone an air of light-heartedness. Contrastingly, the score for the sorcerer’s lair is written in C minor. When combined with diminished chords and heavy dissonances, the lair is given a foreboding, threatening atmosphere.

Conclusion

There are many factors that go into composing music for a video game, and none of them can be considered unimportant. In many cases, a composer relies on strategies like these to liven up their scores, just like game developers rely on soundtracks to liven up their games.

From dragon fights to tavern jigs, no part of a game world would be the same without its music.

Carter Hill is a freelance composer and writer.


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