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When Worlds Collide: Sound And Music In Film And Games
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When Worlds Collide: Sound And Music In Film And Games

February 4, 2003 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

We who make our living from game audio tend to have a strained, dysfunctional, co-dependent relationship with our counterparts who work in the film audio world. On one hand, we resent how sexy and alluring film is, and how games come off as the ugly spinsters of entertainment media. We love to throw around statistics about the gross revenues of our respective industries, as if these numbers somehow add credibility to our endeavors. On the other hand, many of us secretly (or even not so secretly) wish to make the jump to the big screen and be a part of that world, with all the glamour and recognition it promises. And we know that for the most part, the folks involved with film audio aren't thinking about us at all.

While the relationship between those who create audio for games and films is not necessarily healthy, it is becoming increasingly relevant as the two industries become more alike and work more closely together -- and most importantly, as the audiences for the two media begin to merge. My team and I at Stormfront Studios recently completed work on the audio for EA's Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers. The experience gave me some valuable insight into how the worlds of games and films are colliding, and it got me thinking about the current state of the art in terms of audio for each medium (and, based on reviews and popularity, I think it's fair to say that Two Towers qualifies as a good example of the highest level of quality in both worlds).

I've been making game audio professionally for ten years, and I've shipped over two-dozen titles. I've worked on crossover, licensed products before, albeit from television, such as Viacom New Media's Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Harbinger and Sony's ESPN Baseball Tonight. But working on The Two Towers put game audio into a new perspective for me. The "Fellowship" film had just set new standards in the genre for quality, earning an Academy Award nomination for sound, and winning the Academy Award for music. My team's mandate was to recreate the epic experience of the film, sonically, in an interactive action game running on a $200 console. No pressure, right?

We had access to the movie's audio assets, but as brilliant as they are, we quickly found that they did not make for great game audio. As a result, we spent more than four months intensively editing and processing the music, we developed a sophisticated custom adaptive-music system to install the music, and found that we could provide a similar experience in the game that the film score provided.

Unfortunately, we found it impossible to use most of the film's sound effects. Despite their amazing quality, we found it more effective to create our own. Consequently, almost every sound you hear in the game was created specifically for it, based on our attempt to recreate the overall effect of the film's sound. It was this process of trying to recreate the film experience without using the original assets that inspired this article.

Audience Expectations

It is unproductive to think of games as "interactive movies," although many people tend to think of games in those terms. Let's be clear: games and films are different media. The techniques, processes, and skills involved in the creation of each are unique and not interchangeable. The metrics by which each is judged are also different, meaning that many of the properties that make for a good film would lead to a lousy game, and vice versa. These are important points to keep in mind, because while they are true, there are a lot of ways in which we simply must start thinking about the places where the industries intersect.

The original audio assets from the film didn't work in the context of a real-time interactive game.

Most important is the audience: there is now enormous overlap between the audience that goes to films and the audience that plays games. This is key for the audio team to understand: the audience does not wonder whether the music was custom composed for a scene or is being modified adaptively at runtime, they just want the music to sound cool, fit the action and provide emotional drive. Gamers don't care how much sound RAM there is to work with, that playback voices are limited, or that disc throughput limits the number of streams of ambient sound. They just want the sounds to punch out of the speakers, rattle the subwoofer, bring the game world to life just the way sounds bring the world of a film to life.

A new trend I've noticed is the subtle way in which movies are adopting the aesthetic sense of games. Certainly, there is a genre of movies actually based on games (Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, etc.), and there have been movies that are blatantly about games (The Last Starfighter, Tron), but other mainstream movies are starting to demonstrate an awareness of a gameplay feel, too. For instance, look at Ocean's 11 from 2001 -- this is a remake of a classic "rat-pack" movie of the 1960s. The original was all style and cool in a way that only that group could pull off. The remake incorporates action and technology in a way that seems, at times, to be very much informed by the world of video games. There's a scene, for instance, in which the intrepid heroes need to drop themselves down a shaft into the vault of the casino below. The shaft is protected by a series of "lasers" (visible beams of light, anyway) that will trigger an alarm if their beams are broken. The support team needs to defeat the power to the lasers so the two thieves can rappel down the shaft -- which they do, just as the power comes back on and the security system is restored. Sound familiar? In how many games has that scenario been presented?

Look a little deeper: there is no real fictional reason that this shaft would need to be protected at all; there is very heavy security at the top and bottom. And if you're going to protect it, why not just use a motion sensor like those available in any decent car alarm? Why can we see the beams of light? The dry cleaner I go to uses an "electric eye" to sense when someone walks through the door, but I can't see the light as a solid beam across the doorway. The answer, of course, is that it makes for a better scene to have the security system visible, and a great moment of tension to have to disable it and make the move before it recovers. It's an aesthetic that feels very familiar to a game player, and would have made no sense to an audience of 1960: it's very much like a puzzle in an action game, in which a series of events in one location changes the state of another location such that progress can be made, all while the clock is ticking. I'm not suggesting that this technique was borrowed from any specific game, or even that the technique was invented in games. Rather, I'm suggesting that perhaps the paths of development for films and games are becoming more closely aligned and are beginning to intersect.

In terms of audio, it's harder to pinpoint this similar influence, but it cannot be far off. Certainly there are hints already: the soundtracks to The Matrix and M:I-2, for instance, popping back and forth between dramatic orchestral cues and driving techno music, as has been the habit of some fighting games for years. Or in the world of television, the little sounds that play during sports casts when the screen overlays come up; don't they sound remarkably like the 'interface' sounds in virtually every game made in the last five years?

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