Every month, we discuss the unique process of making music for video games. This month, we dive into the musical universe of Alyssa Menes, who’s behind the soundtracks of Just Cause 4, Doomwheel and many more indie titles
How early in a game’s development process do you usually start working on the score?
This can vary from project to project. Most of the time, I am brought on board fairly early in development. Often this produces the best result musically. I can work closely with the developers and really be able to create a living, breathing soundscape that helps define the game’s world, rather than slapping some half-hearted music on top of it.
Do you work closely with the sound designer(s) of the game, to ensure there’s cohesion between the score and the sound effects?
For many projects I’ve worked on, I’ve done both the music and the sound effects. For a project like Just Cause 4, myself and the other composers had to work around the sound effects and avoid using instrumental sounds that emphasised the same frequency range as a lot of the gunshots, to ensure that the music and the gunshots existed together and both were heard clearly.
What are the typical challenges of writing for games as opposed to more linear narrative forms?
You have to structure your music differently. Often times, music has to loop. You also never know where the player is going to go and what they’re going to do in your game, so your music needs to be able to seamlessly adapt to the player’s actions. For example, the player could be spending a few minutes exploring a peaceful area, only to move to another area, be spotted by enemies, and then be plunged into combat. The music needs to be able to switch on the fly to accommodate for that sudden change. But thanks to musical middleware technology, things like that are fairly easy to implement. But you have to structure your music so it all fits together cohesively, and that such musical shifts make sense no matter what part of the cue you depart from.
Does your approach differ between writing for a big triple-A title vs indie games?
Absolutely. With indie games, I work with the developer directly. In triple-A, there are so many people down the pipeline, from the publisher, to the development studio. The music for Just Cause 4 was outsourced to YouTooCanWoo, a studio in Brooklyn. And then I was subcontracted through that studio. So I worked for the lead composer (Zach Abramson) who worked for the music studio, who worked for Avalanche, etc, etc.
The main difference between indie game music and triple-A music is that you need to write so much more music for a big triple-A game.
How has the role of the composer evolved in games over the past years in your experience?
I can’t speak directly from experience, because I’ve only been working on games for about five years or so. But in the past, way back in the 80s and 90s, composers had to work a lot more intimately with the game’s hardware in order to make sound. Nowadays, some composers work with audio middleware to fully realise their music and how it dynamically shifts in the game, which is the closest thing I can equate to working with the hardware back in the 80s and 90s. But when I worked on Just Cause 4, myself and the composers at YouTooCanWoo strictly just made the music, and the team members at Avalanche’s audio department were the ones working on integrating the music with the game. So I would say that nowadays, composers can simply just make the music, and someone else on the team implements it within the game, at least in the realm of triple-A gaming. Indie gaming still often has composers both creating and working with audio middleware in order to help integrate the music into the game.
“Composers can help you tell the story behind your game, because the music has to work with the visuals and dialogue in order to tell a story. You need all of it.”
What was the most inspiring game world you worked on, which aspects did you most want to bring into your score and how did you reflect that?
Definitely Just Cause 4. I wasn’t the lead composer, but the idea behind the score was to combine heavy electronic sounds, layers of pounding drums, lots of low brass and strings, and a lot of South American instruments in order to create a unique soundscape for the game. We got really creative with sampling old synthesizers, experimented a lot with unique modulation effects to create interesting sonic textures (we called it “ear candy” at the studio), and we even recorded dozens of live instrumentalists (including percussionists playing buckets, a flute player, a guitar group, and a horn player). The overall soundscape has these really massive, driving moments that get the blood pumping during battle, but it also has a lot of quiet, meditative moments as well. We must have used hundreds of instrumental sounds!
Do you have any tips on how developers can best help composers to make music for their game?
Listen to your composers. Value and trust their input. Don’t micromanage them or tell them how to write their music. Focus on developing your game and trust your composer to be able to help bring your game’s world to life. Also, find a composer who understands narrative. They can really help you tell the story behind your game, because the music has to work with the visuals and dialogue in order to tell a story. You need all of it.