Creating music for virtual reality titles is not as complicated as developers might think, according to the team behind the tech demos for Sony’s PlayStation VR.
During Game Music Connect conference, Alastair Lindsay and Joe Thwaites of SCE London Studio discussed how they tackled music for Street Luge, The Deep and London Heist, experimental titles developed for PlayStation’s virtual reality headset, formerly known as Project Morpheus.
Lindsay observed that there are several misconceptions when it comes to using music in virtual reality, but his team’s experience has taught them a few valuable lessons.
Traditional game and film music techniques are still relevant in VR
The role of music is the same across all entertainment mediums: to emphasise moments and convey emotion.
SCE London Studio found that moments of The Deep – a demo in which players are submerged in a diving cage – were significantly improved through the use of music. For example, a soft cue was added for the arrive of a family of manta rays, emphasising the beauty of this moment.
The team also took care to ensure that this music does not play until gamers are facing the manta rays. This means they do not miss out on that moment, nor does the music confuse them if there’s nothing happening where the player is facing.
It is important where the music cues start and stop
In many scenarios, music is most effective when it “doesn’t draw attention to itself”, the duo said. The time when music is most likely to draw that attention is the beginning and end.
Working on PlayStation VR demo Street Luge, SCE London Studio found that having the music start at the beginning of the game distracted players from what they were doing. The team’s solution builds up a percussive soundtrack as gamers progress down the mountain.
Using binaural sound to control the direction the music seems to approach from, Street Luge introduces elements of the track as sounds heard from car stereos. As players roll near the car, the rhythm grows louder and as they pass, it stays with them, adding to that percussive layer.
SCE London also experimented with having a sound play as players reach the bottom of the mountain, but it was difficult to time it with crossing the finish line and proved to be too distracting.
Music can really throw you out of the virtual world
Giving Street Luge as an example again, Lindsay and Thwaites said that having music played at the beginning of the demo disrupted the gamers’ immersion in the experience, reminding them that it is a game.
This is not just down to the use of music, but also the quality.
“The one-to-one connection players have with their in-game avatar goes beyond immersion and creates the feeling of presence,” said Thwaites. “If the music draws attention to itself, players’ brains will take a reality check and that compromises immersion.
“Good music can draw you into a world, while bad music can push you out.”
2D music can work as effectively as binaurally placed music
Virtual reality poses an interesting question for developers when it comes to music, Lindsay told attendees.
“Virtual reality implies simulation, but if it’s a simulation of the real world, where would the music come from?” he asked rhetorically, observing that none of us hear a soundtrack to our day-to-day lives.
Possible solutions are to have music sources within the world, such as radios, but this isn’t always feasible. Fortunately, whether your world is realistic or more abstract, the quality of your overall game should help matters.
“The player will suspend their disbelief providing the audio and visual elements are consistent,” Lindsay said. “So the function of music is open to the designer.”
As a result, SCE London uses what the duo referred to as “2D music” - that is, traditional music that plays at the same volume regardless of where the player is looking or how they are moving. By way of example, they showed a clip of London Heist in which gamers are gunning down enemy motorists during a high-speed getaway. The music was similar to that of an action film, building up the experience without pulling players away from it.
You can use fewer minutes of music, but utilise more interactive techniques
SCE London Studio’s PlayStation VR demos are quite short, but the music composed for these are even more minimalist. Instead of composing lengthy scores for their experiences, the team has experimented with how that music is triggered and heard.
Examples include the manta ray entrance music that only sounds when the players are looking in the right direction, as well as the percussive Street Luge soundtrack that builds as they hurtle further down the mountain.
Thwaites predicts that procedural and generative music will be big in virtual reality as the technology evolves.