Every month, we discuss the unique process of making music for video games. This month, we dive into the musical universe of Emmy award-winner and 3-times BAFTA nominated composer Inon Zur, who’s behind games such as the Fallout series and The Elder Scrolls: Blades
How early in a game’s development process do you usually start working on the score?
In many cases I start to work on the scores during the very early stages of the game’s development. For example, on Fallout 4 I started working on the game’s score in 2012. Usually I’m working on games 3-4 years prior to their release. I believe this is a really smart way to create and develop the music as the game is being developed, so the game’s creators, writers, artists and I are being fed and inspired by each other throughout the process.
What type of material do you request from a studio before starting to write the score?
Everything! Everything they can give me. I always want to immerse myself as much as possible in the game, the story, how it looks aesthetically and how it sounds as far as sound effects. But more important than anything else, what are the emotions we want to create throughout the game? I always start with the 3 Ws: What, Where and When. What kind of game is it? Where does this game take place? When does the game take place in terms of time period or era? In this way I can understand the story behind the game and start thinking in terms of creative tools and how to create a score that will be the most supportive and engaging for the player throughout the whole game and story.
Do you work closely with the sound designer(s) of the game, to ensure there’s cohesion between the score and the sound effects?
Yes, I believe that a close collaboration between the composer and sound designers is a must. It is essential to the whole soundscape of the game. Together we can decide where the music will take over and where it stays in the background for the most impactful and meaningful experience. Sometimes there are even more specific collaborations. For example, if I’m writing music for an area in the game where there’s, say, an engine noise running, I will tune the music to the tone of the engine’s sound. If machines are emitting sounds around the note of ‘E’ then I will write a score based on the note of ‘E’, so there is cohesion between the score and sound effects. On other occasions, if there is a scene with a lot of action and shooting, we know that music with lots of heavy drums or fast percussion could be mixed up with the shots, so I will write a smaller and more continuous legato melody that will work around and not compete with the gunfire. So these kinds of collaborations are really essential for creating a cohesive and satisfying soundtrack for the game.
What are the typical challenges of writing for games as opposed to more linear narrative forms?
More than anything else you have to capture an atmosphere that is not going to change at every turn with the picture but rather plays from the point of view of the player and follows their emotional journey. So you can write a pure musical piece that follows the player’s experience, supporting their story, and creating an emotional musicscape that will be with them no matter what happens to them. This is the biggest difference to film and TV where you are locked to the picture and you have to write for all the sudden changes.
Does your approach differ when writing for multiplayer vs a single player game?
In essence no, because regardless of the story, the game’s technology and style of the game, music will always try to capture the emotions behind the scenes that the game is portraying. Having said that, a composer needs to take into consideration where there are multiple players interacting and needing to communicate with each other. Then we sometimes consider playing the music in a different way to accommodate the communication between players.
How has the role of the composer evolved in games over the past years in your experience?
I believe that over the years the importance of music for games has grown tremendously. Twenty years ago I think that people did not pay attention so much to music for games. It was perceived as a part of the sound elements in the game but since games have become so story-driven and cinematic the influence of the movie and TV world has led game creators to understand that music is a major contributor to the gaming experience. This is why we see a lot of resources for today’s music in games and as a consequence of the industry’s continued growth we also now see many concerts of game music and a lot of successful game soundtrack albums released, which you couldn’t really imagine in previous decades.
How free are you to experiment when you take on a mandate from a studio?
At this stage of my career I’ve been given quite a lot of freedom in many cases. I would say that this freedom of creativity is being given in order to explore different possibilities. The musical style for a game is not something that is just decided from the get-go. Sometimes it takes months even to create and find the right style for a game. I remember working on one game where it took us 4-5 months during which time we went through many different styles, electronic, orchestral, musical sound design, before we found what worked and really helped the game. Sometimes it really takes time to develop the right music for the project and we need to explore, to experience the music in-game and take the time to do it in order to create something that is completely unique signature-wise for the game.
Do you feel like game soundtracks get the same recognition as film scores?
I think that films overall still have a wider mainstream appeal than games. Most people around the world are familiar with films and a lot of people do play games but movies are still more accessible to people and it’s generally a more recognized art form compared to games. However, those who play games definitely hold music for games in the highest regard. Also, from a musical point of view, we can see a very strong growth of acknowledgment and support for music for games all over the world, with concerts, radio, soundtracks, and I think this trend will just keep on growing over the years.