Being aware of the multitude of contextual, technical and creative issues that factor into the creation of video game music, and also bearing in mind why video game music exists in the first place and the functions it was originally created for, I think live performances of video game music are significant, for a number of reasons.
One of the reasons I think it’s significant is because it helps to bring a sense of legitimacy to the art form. Play! – A Video Game Symphony and Video Games Live are bringing video game music to concert halls all over the world. Not only does this imply that the music is of significant quality and appeal to be played by international orchestras but, perhaps more importantly, that there is an audience for video game music inside the concert hall.
Obviously hearing video game music in a concert hall is a vastly different context and experience from listening to it in its original context or even listening to the soundtrack in isolation. And in some ways they are worlds apart. If you compare the main demographic and environment for playing video games (a TV and a games console, for example) with that of the concert hall, it wouldn’t be an understatement to say that they are very different.
The very fact that the music is being played live, completely devoid from the reason it exists in the first place (the video game) changes the context completely; now it is not being judged on how well it fits the game, but purely on its merits as a piece of music and on the performance of it. It is quite important to mention, however, that the majority of people that go to see video game music being performed live are well aware of the music’s original context; indeed, it is because of this very reason that they are going to see a live performance of it in the first place.
Here is a video of a Video Games Live! Performance, containing orchestration of classic 8bit video game music:
Here they have used visuals from the games and timed certain cues to tie in with what’s happening on screen for a more dynamic listening experience. It also shows that a concert hall performance of video game music is a bit tongue-in-cheek and is maybe not as ‘serious’ as a standard classical music concert, which I think perfectly represents what video games are all about, they are after all, a form of popular entertainment and not ‘high-art’.
So it goes without saying that a live performance of some video game music is contextually going to be very different from someone that is aware of the source material (and from what it was taken from) to someone who doesn’t. For the latter, one can only amuse that they would approach the performance as they would of any other live performance of music they were not familiar with.
But it’s for the people that are familiar with the original games and music that these live performances become something remarkable. While it is happening more than it ever has, live performances of video game music, in the concert hall, are still somewhat of a rare and special occasion. To hear music so embedded in your consciousness (as video game music becomes due to the shear about of time people spend with these games) brought to life by an orchestra must be a wonderful experience. I’ve never been to an orchestral performance of video game music myself, but have seen videos and heard recordings, so I can get some sense of what it’s like.
While for the most part the original music is kept as is, for some pieces that were electronic originally, like much of the music from video game’s early history, will be adapted and arranged for the orchestra. But the arrangement will only usually go as far as transposing it for the orchestra, it will not have changed in a significant way, unlike in video game remixes, which I look at in another post.
While the concert hall is the main venue and outlet for big performances of video game music, there are also many small instances where video game music is being performed live. YouTube has literally thousands of videos of musicians performing video game music for ensembles and instruments that the original music was not originally written for.
Here is a performance of Morrowind’s main theme (and while there is no physical audience in the video, I would argue that it is still a performance. Of which 316,000 people have seen):
Obviously this is in a different context from the previous video, as we only have one performer in, presumably, their house, as opposed to an entire orchestra in a concert hall. But even so, the amount of views attests that people are interested, even in smaller performances of video game music, as well as they are for the full-on orchestral experience.
I think that any performance of video game music is significant, be it by a full orchestra or by a single musician. I think the fact that they are performing it at all is the most important thing. That people have taken the time to learn to play video game music and want to perform it, as well as having a ready audience for it, is significant to the genre of video game music. While in most types of music performances are taken for granted, video game music is an exception to this rule and I think any performances of it should be celebrated.
Another reason why live performances are significant is the fact that the original composers writing the music never considered or expected that there would ever be live performances of it. This raises the question of the suitability of this music in a performance setting. Which seems to be largely redundant, as such a vast amount of video game music is being performed live that it wouldn’t seem to be an issue.
Here I’m talking quite specifically about when a video game’s soundtrack has been released as a self-contained, stand-alone product. While nothing has changed in regard to the music – being exactly the same as it was in the game, what has changed is the context in which we can perceive it and perhaps, judge it.
I’ll be using the abbreviation OST henceforth, which stands for: Original Soundtrack.
The cover for the Halo Wars OST:
From my continued exploration into video game music, as well as gathering my own conclusions, I’ve come to see a distinct separation of video game music heard inside the context of the game it was written for, and when one might hear it in another context, such as a live performance or listening to the soundtrack in isolation (which is essentially what the OST allows you to do). There is a clear distinction of what makes fitting, contextually relevant music inside a video game, to how an audience views and judges the same music in another context, such as when the soundtrack is released as an OST, either as a physical CD or a digital download.
OST releases for video games are becoming quite popular now days, with most of big game releases (and even smaller games) being available on popular music distribution services like iTunes, Amazon and Bandcamp. Also, the bigger game releases frequently have ‘special editions’ that come budded with the game’s soundtrack on CD or even in some cases on vinyl, such as this edition of Bioshock 2.
The OST for the Xbox Arcade Indie Game, Super Meat Boy, available to download on Bandcamp:
I think these kind of releases and the extra exposure that they gave to video game music is important. While it does not change the way composers write music for video games, nor does it change how effective that music is for the context of the game, it shows that video game music as an art form in itself is being appreciated as its own entity and piece of work. As an important part of a larger whole.
There seems to be an ongoing debate among video game music journalists about the context in which we should judge an OST: do we judge and review the OST based on how well it fits the context of the game or, as the OST has been released as a stand-alone product, do we judge it on this release alone and not if it makes fitting music inside the game?
Original Sound Version debates this issue:
“One of the most heated subjects of debate among the writers here at Original Sound Version is whether or not it is essential for one to experience a soundtrack in its original context in order to properly review, enjoy, appreciate, or analyze it critically.”
Gideon Dabi at Original Sound Version thinks that we cannot ignore the original context, saying: “How, then, can we possibly ignore the very basis of these scores? By definition, they are designed to accompany, enrich, and flesh out the drama in the games and films we love. Listening to an original score for a game without seeing/playing it is like ignoring the lyrics to a song.”
While Wes Chung leans on the other side of the fence: “I have the utmost respect for composers; I wouldn’t be writing for this site if I didn’t. Some are virtually heroes to me, or at least the fan in me, who isn’t having a good time right now. But something needs to be said regarding authorial (or compositional) intention: it is not the end of the story. As I said above, once you hear a piece of music, it’s yours. Do with it what you will. Allow the composer to influence that, certainly, and any other context from which it came (for example, a particularly annoying boss fight), but you are not obliged to leave it there.”
Personally, I firmly believe that first and foremost we must judge the effectiveness of video game music in the context it was originally written for. But if games companies or composers want to release an OST of the score as a separate product then it must be able to work and stand-alone as a separate piece of work and product also. But I think it goes without saying that hearing the music in the context of the game is a vastly different experience to hearing the sound track in isolation.
I would also like to touch upon commenting on the music I wrote for my game Pink Hair Girl vs Plants ‘n Stuff. I would definitely prefer the music to firstly be judged and viewed in the context of the game, and as a piece of music secondary to the function it performs in-game. Or, in other words, I would much rather people played the game and heard it in context rather than just listening to the music on it’s own. If they had played the game first I would then have no problem with people hearing/enjoying that music out of context.
It’s also worth mentioning that the majority of people who buy/listen to video game scores are mainly gamers and other people that work in or have interest in gaming and video game music. The average (if there is such a thing these days) music buying public are not likely to be interested in or exposed to this music unless they have played the game it was originally written for. So it goes without saying that people familiar with the source material (the game) can approach the OST in a different context to someone who has no knowledge of the game or how that music fits within it.
But, even being removed from the game, the OST release can still tell us lots about the game it was taken from, as I’ve proved with my enquiry into the Soundtrack of Bioshock and my subsequent playing of the game. This highlights just how important the game’s music is in setting the context of the game and listening carefully can reveal even more about the game.
OST are also enjoyed because of the nostalgia value they can provide for gamers. Many of the games people played as a child or when they were younger are no longer commercially available, having long been replaced with more advanced games consoles/computers and technology. But the soundtracks for those old games will be (in most cases) readily available and will succeed in reacquainting the listener with their memories of playing the game when they were a child.
It might be hard for some one who has never played or been interested in video games to understand the importance of the nostalgia value that the music, particularly, has for many people. Using me as an example, I’ll try to convey the nostalgia video games music can have.
I got my first games console, a Super Nintendo, when I was around nine or ten years old. Being fascinated by it at such a young age I invariable played it a lot. While I may of not consciously recognized it at the time, the music for these games that I was playing had a profound impact on me. I was also at an age where I had not begun to buy or listen to music myself yet, so the majority of the music I was ‘actively’ listening to at that age came from the video games I was playing.
So it became that video game music was some of the first music that became forever embedded in my mind. To this day I can remember the themes and melodies from these games. They still, to a somewhat lesser extent, retain the fascination I had with them when I was a child. So while I don’t play the majority of those games anymore, listening to their soundtracks almost means that I don’t have to; listening to the music alone is enough to make me recall playing the games and the times spent playing them with friends and family as a child.
I’ve been extremely fortunate that another artist I admire has agreed to an interview with me. ‘MV’ answered my questions via email:
-I would like to start off by asking you about the remixes you have done over at OCR. I think they’re all outstanding and really imaginative arrangements of some well know video game pieces. Can I ask what your motivations were in remixing video game music?
Thank you. I’ve been sort of obsessed with video game music pretty much since I got my Nintendo NES in 1986. I had it offered to me for Christmas with both the (in)famous Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt cartridge as well as “Zelda II: The Adventure of Link”. This particular game took me months to complete as a kid and was the first landmark for me as far as my passion for game music goes. I listen to all sorts of game music regularly and fiddling around with video game music covers is how I got started in sequencing/tracking. It then seemed natural for me to remix some of the tracks I love, even though I have to admit that sometimes I find the source tracks so genuinely perfect already that I don’t even try to take them somewhere else 🙂
My favorite MV remix, a smooth trip-hop interpretation of Cammy’s theme from Super Street Fighter 2:
-To what extent do you think fan arrangements and remixing are important to the promotion and preservation of video game music as a genre of music in it’s own right?
They are even a pretty decent spotlight for video games alone. Back in the 80s and early 90s anyone out there could whistle the Super Mario Bros or Zelda theme but considering it a passion would have people roll their eyes. Nowadays a lot of video games have Hollywood-like scores, tons of people use video game tunes and jingles as their cell phone ringtones, and so many people play games that a lot of people can grow attached to their soundtracks. Arrangements/remixes have a lot more exposure now because people dedicated enough to the games they like will eventually look for them, all the performers on Youtube get millions of views as well which would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Even renowned composers submit remixes and listen to them, and we all had
the great surprise to hear people from OCReMiX get featured in Super Street Fighter II HD Remix. Video game arrangements are here to stay and grow continually!
-I also like the chiptune work you’ve done over at 8 bit collective, being particularly fond of ‘Wonder Girl in Creature Land’. How do you approach writing chiptunes and what advice could you give in approaching the genre from a musical or production standpoint? (I’m about to write some chiptunes for a game I’m making and any advice would be much appreciated. I use a traditional DAW rather than a tracker)
Thanks again, writing game-ish chiptunes really is about two big factors: melody and nostalgia. I had trouble writing them before because I started making computer-assisted music as an ambient musician, relying much more on pad textures and mood rather than melody and sweet harmonies. After a lot of practice trying to reproduce rich and bouncy melodies while having a coherent background (oh and those hundreds of one-hour competition tunes also helped so much) I eventually got the hang of it, and I take great great pleasure in writing them. Production isn’t as vital in such tracks, in fact you want the dirty sound without interpolation for a Nes track, or the cheesy light reverb for a SNES tune, the gritty FM sound for Genesis, etc.. I admit that nearly all of my chiptunes are produced in a tracker, because I work in it at lightspeed and you can set yourself a limited setup for the type of soundchip you’re aiming at. There are some great sample collections and VSTi for DAWs nowadays though!
-Looking at your credits, you’ve worked on quite a large variety of different game and media projects. How did you originally find your way into working in the games industry and is there any advice you could give for someone looking to get work as a composer in this area?
Back in 2005 I had decided that I was decent enough to try my hand at the job. I started contacting a lot of indie companies but unfortunately nothing came. Ironically, I got contacted later on by people I had worked with on some free, fun game projects that eventually had gotten jobs in game studios. That is how I started working on several flash, cell phone and GameBoy Advance games. Business worked well but unfortunately in 2008 I had a streak of bad events in my life and I ruined a relationship with a game studio with which I could have worked on many Nintendo DS games as well as a Wii title. That has to be my biggest regret, since I’ve been struggling to find constant audio jobs since.
-Are there any specific lessons you learnt while working on a project that you could share?
Starting a freelance career in that domain is full of lessons. You have to be able to work on any style of music, sometimes in the worst audio environments ever (MusyX for GameBoy Advance was quite the nightmare), with pressing deadlines, and often without any build of the game, just a few screenshots. It sometimes takes the glamour out of the job, but as a freelancer the money wasn’t bad, and the experience that comes with all those crazy gigs is invaluable. Motivation, discipline and flexibility are the main assets you’ll need.
-Could you talk me through your piece ‘Doubting Sunset’? What was the context it was to be used in and how did you set about creating the piece so that it fulfilled that context?
“Doubting Sunset” was composed for the website of a PlayStation 3/XBOX 360 video game project developed by an aspiring team of talented developers, unfortunately the project has been on hold since then. I hope it picks up again because it was an interesting game concept set in Feudal Japan with samurai goodness. I have a lot of concept tracks for it lying on my hard drive. This particular track was meant to evoke the open space feel, and the mysterious beauty of a sunset in Japanese fields 🙂
-What skills do you think composers should have to succeed in the games industry?
Undoubtedly you have to be extremely versatile, I had to produce anything, from compositions to covers, from classic happy stuff to ambient, techno, funk, country, rock, orchestral, anything. If you can only produce one style of music and are not aware of the limitations and mechanics of how music can be implemented in games, you will have a hard time discovering about all the facets that the job has.
-Have you got any tips for working with developers to ensure a good working relationship and a good end product?
Honesty, diplomacy and professionalism. Those people can be great pals to you but in the end they will want a satisfying end result for the price they pay you. If you cannot work on a certain day, tell them, if you have a few WIPs that you’re unsure about, have them listen. Negotiate a good price for you, because video game music has a price, and you shouldn’t be underpaid for it; as long as you please them and show that you are reliable, then more contracts will come from them, and you’ll eventually be able to earn more as you build a relationship of trust with them.
Find out more about Xavier and hear his work at:
His website: http://www.xavierdang.com/en/index.html
His OCR remixes can be found here: http://ocremix.org/artist/4547/mv/remixes
His work at 8bit Collective can be found here: http://8bc.org/members/mv/
The next step was for me to create some different kind of enemies to make the game more interesting and challenging for the player. I already had the first basic enemy, that just flew down vertically, so I wanted the next enemy to shoot while they traveled down the screen.
In Game Maker I copied the ‘object’ of the first enemy, so all the basic code was still in place. Then I changed the sprite for this new enemy to this (sprite taken from Bogleech):
I also had to make a new sprite for the enemy’s ‘bullet’, which I got from a Game Maker resource folder. I set the speed that it would travel (when it was ‘fired’). Then in the object for the new enemy, I made a creation event, so that this enemy could shoot the new bullet I had just created. I also changed the amount of points the player was awarded for destroying this new enemy to 10, because it was slightly more challenging to destroy than the previous enemy.
Enemy number three was going to be even more challenging, as I wanted the bullets that they fired to follow the player. I created a new bullet for these enemies and set them to track the ‘object’ of the player sprite, Pink Hair Girl, so the ‘bullets’ followed wherever the player moved to. Then, like previously, I copied the enemy and gave this new one the new action so that when it shot the bullets would follow the player’s sprite. Because these enemies were harder again than the previous ones, I set it so that when the player destroyed one they were awarded 20 points.
Enemy number three (sprite also from Bogleech):
I wanted enemy number four to be different, and even harder to destroy than the enemies I had so far. So I made them appear from the same direction as the player was flying in (in essence, they appeared behind the player) and gave them a fast travel speed so that it would be hard for the player to avoid and to destroy them. Because of this I gave them a score of 40 when the player successfully destroyed one.
Enemy four was the same sprite as enemy number one, which I recolored in Game Maker’s Sprite Editor:
Now that all the enemies were created I needed to make something that would control when they appeared in the game. For this I made an ‘object’, the object wouldn’t be visable in-game but would allow me to control and manipulate other ‘objects’ – the enemies. Basically this object created the enemies in-game and it ran on multiple ‘alarms’ to trigger the creation of different enemies. Rather than try to explain any more how that works, it would be easier to show you what it looks like in Game Maker:
Basically, the first alarm triggers the creation of the first enemies, and it also sets all the other alarms to start running. After a certain amount of alarm ‘ticks’ Alarm 2 goes off and begins the spawning of enemy number two. This process is similar for all the other enemies. Because the alarms are always ticking, the longer the player plays the game the more enemies are spawned, making the game get progressively harder over time (and thus the game has no definite end to it)
The timing for the enemies is as follows:
0:00 – 0:15 = Enemy number 1 only
0:16 – 0:32 = Starts to trigger enemy number 2 (Enemies number 1 and 2 on screen)
0:33 – 1:05=Starts to trigger enemy number 3 (Enemies number 1, 2 and 3 on screen)
1:06 – Starts to trigger enemy number 4 (Enemies number 1, 2, 3 and 4 on screen, all of the enemies)
Using these alarms, also made it easier for when I came to write the music for the game, so I can sync it up when the different enemies started to appear in-game.
With all these new enemies implemented into the game I tested it. It worked pretty well. It got progressively harder as time went on. At the moment there was no definite end to the game, it would only end when the player had lost all their lives. The main objective was to see how many points you could score before that happened.
Here’s a screen shot of how the game looks at this stage. With the the first enemy I made for the game, as well as two of the new enemies that I made:
Now that I was happy with the main portion of the game being made I created a Game Information page, which had the basic premise of the game, the controls and credits (which players can bring up by pressing F1). Which looks like this:
Now, the next task is to start making the music and SFX. I will also try and make some kind of menu or title screen, that will have it’s own music.
“Cinematics are merely mini, in game movies. They are used as part of opening sequences, transitions between game levels, advances in the storyline and a multitude of other functions that require moving pictures. From a scoring point of view, it is exactly like composing for a film, that is, a linear presentation that flows from start to finish in a pre0scripted fashion. The music will serve the same purpose: creating a mood, setting the pace, highlighting pot shifts, and adding tension and excitement to all of the appropriate spots.” – Aaron Marks, the Complete Guide to Game Audio.
Frequently a lot of film composers are asked to compose for games that rely a lot on Cinematics to tell their story. “Gaming giant Capcom has enlisted the talent of noted sci-fi composer Bear McCreary to create the score for their highly anticipated third-person shooter game Dark Void.” – Trendhunter.com
Cinematics are different from most of the other types of game music I’ve looked at because they are not unique to video games per se. All though of course the context of a video game cinematic is different from a film or animation, the same principles apply when composing for them. But they deserve serious consideration from composers because Cinematics are increasingly being used more and more in today’s big blockbuster games.
“The game ended up with 30 Cinematics running about 50 minutes.” – C.J. Cowan, cinematics director for Bungie Studios, on Halo 3. (AWN.com)
So you can see that video games these days, as well as requiring scoring for the actual game-play, menus, credits, title sequence etc, can also require a small films worth of narrative scoring to. Therefore it’s extremely important that video game composers are adept at scoring to the moving image.
(I should mention that in-game Cinematics are only usually in higher end, big budget titles. Smaller games, such as for the iPhone or flash games will not have Cinematics)
I recently saw the Dragon Age 2 trailer, which I thought was a good example of cinematic scoring in context:
The Cinematic is obviously a big budget affair, regarding the animation and production values, and the scoring for it matches that, being similar to what we might find scored for a trailer for a big-budget Hollywood film.
But differently from film scoring, game Cinematics are still part of a game, and they make up a small part of a larger whole. Because of this, as well as the context of the Cinematic being observed (the context of narrative scoring), the rest of the games soundtrack will still have to be taken into account so that it fits with the rest of the game’s music. This is important to take into account because a game cinematic can potentially occur at any time during game-play, and if the transition from the in-game music’ to the cinematic music is awkward, or not smooth, it will have a detrimental and will be glaringly obvious to the player and take them out of the ‘moment’.
Originally, In my CEP proposal, I said that I wanted to take some video game music out of its original context by arranging some pieces, in a new style and context. But, in light of the fact that I’m now making a game and producing original music and SFX for it I have abandoned that plan, to focus on that.
Instead of arranging any music myself I will explore some that has already been done by artists, to see what can be gained or observed by taking video game music out of its original context and ‘forcing a context onto it.’ By this I mean, if someone has taken some music from an old video game and remixed and arranged it into a dance track they have placed a whole new context onto the music, whilst still retaining the context of being video game music.
I will look at the importance of fan remixing and arrangement on the ‘culture’ of video game music and why in a lot of cases the original music’s’ composers condone and support the venture.
So I’m still basically doing what I indented to do, I just won’t be arranging the music myself anymore.
One of the most important contextual elements of video games is that they are games, and players can win and loose.
These cues both mark an important in-game event – the player succeeding or failing, which is the main context of these cues. A victory could mean the player has completed the game, finished an important objective, defeated another player etc. A defeat may mean that the player’s character has died, they have failed to complete an objective etc. So, contextually, the most important aspect for the music to convey is either a sense of triumph and victory (win) or a sense of defeat and failure (loose).
Like all the other types of Game Music I’ve looked at, the music written for these cues should and almost always does, fit in with the theme and tone of the rest of the game’s soundtrack in regard to instrumentation and style etc. Typically win themes will be in a major key as an effective way to create a feeling of elation. They will usually be up-beat and will usually build up into a crescendo. Loose themes will be the opposite: usually in a minor key, slow and solemn as they try to convey a feeling of defeat.
These types of cues are not very long in length and can be anywhere from a few seconds in length to about a minute.
-Here is the victory theme from Donkey Kong Country 2. It’s very short, quite fast and in a major key. The context when the player hears it: when they successfully complete one of the bonus stages in the game.
-Here is the theme when you die in the game (swamp level version):
Much slower tempo than the victory theme. It’s in a minor key and its a much somber sounding piece (or short phrase of music).
Now an example from another game, Mass Effect
-This is a good example of a victory theme that builds up into a crescendo, empathizing the player’s feeling of accomplishment on completing the game. The context when the player hears it: upon completing the game.
Here is the music when you die: in Mass Effect:
-A very ominous synth motif in a minor key, clearly emphasizing that something (the player) has gone wrong. The context where the player hears it: when the player’s character dies in Mass Effect.
I hope these examples demonstrate and give the context for winning and loosing cues in video games. Their primary purpose is to underline and reinforce a player’s feeling of accomplishment (winning) or their disappointment/frustration with their defeat (loosing). And it’s important to know these cues and what they mean in-game, all though by and large, musically they are not very difficult to get right.
In conclusion, I don’t think composers have a lot of freedom when it comes to writing these very specific cues. Nor do I think there is a large amount of room for them to be creative in how they approach these cues – a winning cue almost has to be approached with a triumphant fanfare of some sort in a major key. In fact, I think these winning and loosing cues may be one of the most restricted areas of writing video games music. It’s not that they are challenging to write for; it’s that the composer doesn’t have a great amount of artistic license when approaching this particular context inside a video game.