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The True Potential of Videogame Music

by Mackenzie Denker on 11/24/13 02:36:00 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.



The True Potential of Videogame Music

           With each passing year, videogames have begun look more and more realistic.  As the visuals of games improved, developers looked to movies for inspiration; they aspired towards creating a more cinematic experience, which included among other things, mirroring the music of blockbuster movies.  Drawing some inspiration from movie scores is commendable, as movies have a much longer history and therefore have had more time to experiment with different composing techniques.  However, game composers often adapt the stereotypical movie score without utilizing the essential techniques that make movie scores so effective.  Furthermore, they often neglect the fact that games are different from movies in a fundamental way.  Games are by definition interactive, and so a linear score that works so well for most movies is often far less effective for games.  Videogame composers need to move away from blindly following movie and game score clichés and instead take the relevant and proven techniques movie scores have to offer.  But even more importantly, they need to make better use of the key strength of videogames: interactivity. 

            Before we continue to discuss the art of videogame music, I want to consider my background in the field.  I am currently pursuing a combined major in Music Composition and Technology and Computer Science at Northeastern University.  I readily admit that I have not yet had the opportunity to compose for videogames.  My goal is not to offend the many videogame composers who have spent their lives creating videogame music, but only to offer a fresh take on what I believe game music should be, based on my research, experience playing games, and desire to write music for videogames. 

            Now that you know a little more about me, I’ll jump into the first part of my argument: what not to do when incorporating music into a game.  Many movies and video games released in the last few years feature an orchestral score.  In some cases, this is the right choice, but there should be less fear of experimenting with alternative instrumentation.  All too often, developers decide on an orchestral score in order to make their game more cinematic, but this choice can actually end up creating discord within the different aspects of the game world.  While playing a game, you suspend your disbelief so that you can better enjoy the game.  According to music composer Andrew High, when a composer attempts to force a certain type of arrangement into a game where the setting and mood do not allow for such a score, then the player will either consciously or subconsciously realize something is off, and the immersion of the game will be ruined. 

          The Last of Us is a great example of a score that doesn’t rely on the typical orchestral arrangement. The main instrument is a South American instrument called a “ronroco,” which is a guitar-like instrument unlike anything seen in most movies or videogames.  While a modified orchestra is used at certain points, it contains no violins and uses unconventional percussion to realize the world of the game (Reese).  Composer Gustavo Santaolalla knew a traditional orchestra wouldn’t fit the atmosphere of The Last of Us so he wasn’t afraid to try something different.  As a result, the music deftly avoids disconcerting the player and instead serves to draw them even deeper into the experience. 

            Another way immersion can be ruined for a player is if the score draws too much attention to itself.  Of course some people have argued that a game score should stand out.  I agree that certain types of games allow for different approaches to scoring, but for games that aim to raise the bar in storytelling and presentation, the music should support the game, not dominate it.  The Last of Us also does this very well; music is barely played at all during fights, allowing the frightening sounds of the zombie-like creatures to be the main focus.  This adds to the tension so that when music does cut in, it fits well and doesn’t overpower the rest of the game.  To clarify, every note is thought out, and doesn’t distract the player from the story or the fight at hand. 

         Now that I’ve detailed what techniques composers should avoid, I’ll introduce a few that more videogame composers should make use of.  One method movie composers employ is writing around the voices of the actors for pieces that are accompanied by dialogue (High).  This means that the range of frequencies occupied by the voices are left untouched by any instrument, so as not to compete with what should be the main focus of the audience’s attention.  Andrew High attests that there are vey few games that master this technique, and I have to agree based my own experiences.  He points out the tendency of many game developers to simply adjust the volume of the music when dialogue cuts in, which can be very distracting.  He uses Uncharted 3, an otherwise excellent game, as an example.  If videogame composers were simply more aware of this issue, it wouldn’t be too difficult to work around it.   

          Another technique well realized by movie composers is matching the music to a specific scene.  Again, this comment is focused towards story-driven games, where some significant event is taking place on-screen.  The goal of the composer should be to capture the feeling the game developers are attempting to convey, not just playing something to fill the space.  In terms of movies, Andrew High believes the score is there to provide “an enhancement and complement to the visual cues on-screen.”  The same is true for games, except what occurs on-screen is often directly effected by the actions of the player.  I’ll talk about why this distinction is so important a little later in my paper.   The original Bioshock is a fantastic example of a game where the music is perfectly matched to the setting and scene.  With an original score written by Garry Schyman, and almost all music placed in the game by hand (GameTrailers), I cannot imagine the game without the music and vice versa.  The music captures the essence of every moment with such accuracy that I truly felt like I was part of the world that developer Irrational Games had created. 

          The last method I feel more game composers should be aware of is how to make use of silence.  All too often a key moment in the game actually becomes less effective as a result of wall-to-wall music.  High argues that a “score can often have far more impact if it is present only when it is needed.”  By carefully choosing when music is played, those moments that do incorporate music will have a greater effect on the player.  The contrast is what makes a scene much more emotional.  The absence of music can help demonstrate just how dire a situation is, and the little music that may be used within such a scene will serve to heighten the feeling the game is trying to convey.  

          For example, I would have preferred little to no music during the combat scenes of Bioshock Infinite.  Overall, I found the music in the game to be fantastic, but the combat music was overplayed.  It was cued whenever enemies were nearby, even if I was consciously moving away from the fight to gather supplies.  In these cases, it often served to distract me, taking me out of the experience instead of fulfilling its intended goal of making fights more intense.  The fights would have actually been more effective if they were completely free of music.  If you are unfamiliar with Bioshock Infinite, the basic plot of the game starts with the player arriving on this seeming utopian city that floats among the clouds.  Violence quickly breaks out, and the true nature of the city is revealed.  The game features music that fits that idea very well, but un-scored fight scenes would create a striking contrast with the otherwise beautiful and often awe-inspiring setting.    

            For all the similarities they share, creating videogame music is an entirely different art form from scoring a movie because videogames are not passive experiences.  The player has direct control over a character for the vast majority of the game, and can even affect the outcome of the game in some cases.  So if the visual representation of the game changes depending on the player’s actions, shouldn’t the sound do the same?  Here is where adaptive music comes into play.  That is, music that directly or indirectly changes in response to the player’s choices (Collins 139).  Adaptive music is a very complex concept but for the purposes of this paper, the given definition will suffice.

           The game Dead Space uses an interesting approach to demonstrate the potential of adaptive music.  By creating four different levels of music that built on each other, composer Don Veca was able to tie the intensity of the music to how close the player was to an enemy (Paul 77).  He did this by writing cues into the code, so that certain actions would result in different levels of music being played.  Imagine this relatively simple premise taken to an entirely new level: when the player runs, the music increases slightly in tempo, and when he tries to hide, it gets softer.  If the player gets hurt the music suddenly becomes slightly more dissonant.  The possibilities are endless, and we have barely scratched the surface at this point. 

         As I've just shown, adaptive music is an integral part of the future of videogames.  To thrive in this future, game composers need to learn how to write music that is fluid enough to quickly and easily transition between different scenarios. In addition, they need to learn the ins and outs of the latest music software as well as master basic programming skills.  This will allow them to implement tempo changes and various other adjustments that relate to different states of the game.  If game composers do not embrace these changes, then they will have to allow others more knowledgeable in the field to alter their music, and be powerless to create the music they originally envisioned. 




Collins, Karen. Game Sound: An Introduction to the History, Theory, and Practice of

Video Game Music and Sound Design. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008. Web. .


Composing Bioshock. GameTrailers, 2013. Web. 26 Oct 2013.


High, Andrew. "Is Game Music All It Can Be?." Gamasutra. UBM Tech, 7 Nov 2012.

            Web. 10 Nov 2013. .


Paul, Leonard. Music and Game: Perspectives on a Popular

Alliance.  Wiesbaden: Springer, 2013. 13-80. Web.


Reese, Emily. "Gustavo Santaolalla and The Last of Us on Top Score." 

Minnesota Public Radio. Minnesota Public Radio, 19 Sept 2013. Web. 12 Nov 2013.  


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