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The Half-Life Approach to Music Design

by Kyle Johnson on 09/15/15 02:52:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
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The Half-Life series, like most Valve titles, is remarkable in many areas of design. Besides the inter-dimensional aliens, crazy fringe-science, and newly acquired regenerative Rambo-like abilities of its mute protagonist, Gordon Freeman, the games have all strived to be as grounded as possible. Chiefly the physical mechanics and general ‘feel’ of the world, powered by the Source engine. When the engine was built, initially for Half-Life 2, one of its primary design goals was to recreate accurate physical properties in the world and subsequently build a lot of the the core-gameplay around them. Truly innovative at the time, Source still feels great to play today and its physics engine has seldom been bettered.

The games in the Half-Life series have a particular approach to music design I’ve always found interesting due to its relative simplicity. Musical playback is intentionally infrequent throughout the games, not only to help assert the idea of realism that the series strives for, but to allow the rare appearance of music to enhance mood by ‘speaking’ to the player dynamically at specific moments. Many of the compositions are moody ambience tracks that are dark in tone in line with the theme of the story; a struggling resistance’s fight to reclaim the earth from an oppressive alien race. The dystopian setting has a soundtrack that is filled with gloomy dread and eerie gothic electronic compositions that rarely deviates to allow for music that briefly conveys hopes and victories to shine through. It enhances intended emotional resonance during key moments in the journey and is deftly capable of entirely changing the pace and style of gameplay from one moment to another.

'What Kind of Hospital is This?' (Half-Life 2: Episode One)
Take the above track from Half-Life 2: Episode One for example. After a confrontation with a gunship in an open space the level design becomes confined; a mini-labyrinth of corridors and small rooms that constrict player movement leaving nowhere to hide. Once here it’s clear a very large wave of enemies is imminent and some serious ass-kicking will have to be dealt out in order to survive. The game lets the player know the pace of the imminent scenario by simply fading up the track; an energetic percussive-led composition, that aims to increases player-alertness and strongly suggests an increase in pace and movement is required in order to survive. Not only is this a cool gameplay mechanic that provides the appropriate feedback for gameplay, it also has a of great deal of entertainment value and can make you feel like a complete bad-ass in the moment. Via this technique the music has created a brief but exciting and intense action scene out of nowhere and you have the starring role.

After the necessary running and gunning has finished, the music fades away returning the ‘reality’ of the space. The world is silent again; the hyper-real, upbeat moment of quick-thinking has now vanished completely and you’re back to exploring your way through the level. Nothing about the game world has actually changed during the last few moments besides the fading in and out of music (and the piles of dead alien soldiers). This kind of choice musical-triggering happens a lot throughout the series and it’s extremely effective at assisting all kinds of ideas and interesting moments outside of combat too. Sometimes it merely works to establish the tone of a new location, usually accompanied by an area that introduces a new visual aesthetic to the player. Sometimes it’s triggered in collaboration with an attention-grabbing visual of something important like a distant destination or the appearance of a character.

As efficient as this design technique is at playing the various roles, the value of silence is also never under appreciated in the games. The lack of a conventional soundtrack works just as well to serve the reality and sense of place as the musical cues do in aiming to enhance it. Even after prolonged sections of level that feature no score, the appearance of music feels really natural, as if designed to be experienced subliminally. It never breaks immersion or pulls player focus directly on to it. It is wholly unobtrusive and only ever acts an audible extension to the ‘feeling’ of the world.

'Half-Life 2' Main Menu (cycle)

The consideration of audio design and how significant it is begins before the actual game even starts. The main menu contains no music and instead relies solely on pieces of sound design to populate whatever instance of level is shown on screen. From environmental effects, gentle weather, and eerie soundscapes, to a small fire crackling, the hum of alien technology in the distance, or the lone squarks of bird (curiously the only animals ever seen in the games). During the main menu these components begin to create an indirect sonic sensibility that carefully codes player perception of the world they are about to enter; a quiet, dying planet, infused with a faint but domineering alien presence. The lack of music here helps sell the atmosphere in a way that any kind of composition never could, it speaks volumes about the world and begins the process of grounding the player within it instantly.

Valve Ident (2004)

It’s clear that Valve understand the power of smart audio design. The company ident at the start of every game is almost entirely recognisable by the music cue that accompanies it. Comprised of a small slice of one of the original Half-Life’s soundtrack, for almost two decades it has been the developers calling card. After all the years they have existed, this simple cue from their first game remains the way in which they choose to identify themselves at the start of every new game. Though the visual aspects of the ident have been slightly updated, the music itself has never changed. It clearly stands for something, and I for one never tire of hearing it. It’s just plain cool. 

'Triage at Dawn' (Half-Life 2)

I’ll wrap up this entry with one of my favourite pieces of music in the series, ‘Triage at Dawn’. It comes after a particularly distressing horror section of Half-Life 2; surviving a night alone in the abandoned mining town of Ravenholm (we don’t go there). Shortly after emerging into the morning light and meeting with friendly faces in a relatively safe place, a brief chance to relax is granted to the player. During this moment a contemplative and gentle composition begins to play and for the first time allows you to reflect on the hellish ordeal you’ve just been through. It also suggests to you how the characters now standing in front of you perhaps feel about you. They probably never expected to ever see you, especially given the route you’ve taken to reach them. Yet here you are. Alive. Triumphant in having done what no one else can do. A triage at dawn.

I find this sort of approach to music design and implementation fascinating. It’s something that only the interactivity of games can offer. It allows the world to feel realistic even when moments of ‘unreality’ via music punctuate it from time to time. Gordon Freeman isn’t wearing headphones. He isn’t hastily fading the volume in and out during a firefight. He’s not hastily shuffling through MP3s to find appropriate music to accommodate how he’s feeling about things in the moment. The music in Half-Life is the only thing in the game that isn’t physically part of the world yet it manages to enhance the reality of it and give weight to the things that are at stake within it.

- Kyle Johnson




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