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The sound of music: Composers reveal how to collaborate for inspiring results

I’ve always been obsessed by soundtracks. I tend to discover films and games though their music rather than your typical trailers and demos – Bastion, Dead Cells, I’m looking at you. It took me a shamefully long time to realise I was not the only one with this obsession though. Seeing the Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses concert, with all 3,723 seats of the venue taken, finally convinced me that, yes, I was definitely not the only one.

So needless to say I’ve been wanting to write a feature about music in games for a long time. Here we’ll focus on how devs can work better with composers (also see composers’ tips for devs at the bottom of the page) and how that role has evolved. But the responses to this feature have been so overwhelming that this will also kick off a brand new regular format in MCV, where each month we’ll focus on one of the talented composers I’ve talked to.

THE TIME IS RIGHT

Working with a composer on your game’s music brings an awful lot of questions. The first one usually is: when do you actually start working on the music? Well, composers’ typical answer is: as soon as possible. But the reality is that it varies greatly from project to project.

“Usually I’m brought in when there is a playable build, visual aesthetics, some maps, a few levels, and a cogent vision for gameplay,” game and film composer Penka Kouneva (The Mummy VR, Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands, Transformers) tells MCV. “The most important factor for me is that the game developers have a clear vision of what their game is, and a feeling for the overall experience. These elements are the springboards for my collaboration with them.”

Olivier Derivière (Get Even, 11-11 Memories Retold, Vampyr) stresses that “you want to be involved at the very beginning of the project to not only understand what the core of the game will be but also to make sure the team understands that music is more than just music.” He continues: “For most of the games that I’ve been doing, the sooner the better, and the deeper the involvement the better the results.”

Winifred Phillips (God of War, LittleBigPlanet, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation) highlights the wide differences between projects: “For a really large-scale project like LittleBigPlanet 3, I’m brought into the development team early on, and my collaboration with the sound designers and audio directors lasts for years.

“For other projects, such as Total War Battles: Kingdom, I’m hired more towards the end of development when everything about the game is nearly complete, and those kinds of projects can take a year or less. For projects developed by indie teams, I might have a few months, or even a few weeks.”

Even within triple-A, the moment the composer is brought in can vastly differ depending on the title.

Inon Zur (Fallout, Dragon Age, Prince of Persia) started working on Fallout 4’s score in 2012, he tells us – a game that entered full production in 2013.

“Usually I’m working on games three to four years prior to their release,” he details. “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.”

Meanwhile, Jack Wall (Call of Duty, Mass Effect) says he usually works on Black Ops’ score in a fragmented way across a year.

“[Treyarch] has three years to build the game and the last year of those three, they are ready for music to do its thing. We don’t write music for the full year, but it starts with concepts then usually something substantial for Zombies or main themes.

“After we get those things done, we can take a break until E3 where I’ll write music for a level they are showing. Then around June, it’s a sprint to record in August where I’ll write the bulk of the full score during that time frame.”

So needless to say that flexibility is a key aspect of being a game composer as the way they work, both around and with the dev team, changes vastly depending on the project.

However, while you do want to involve composers as early on as possible in your project, there is such a thing as ‘too early’. Most of the composers we talked to said they require concept art, story treatments, character descriptions, screenshots, gameplay videos, and the ability to play early builds in order to start writing the music, so make sure you have all of those. All of them stressed how important communication is. And some of them had additional preferences that devs should consider when hiring a composer.

Deconstructeam’s The Red Strings Club, scored by Paula Ruiz, who wanted to “avoid cyberpunk music tropes and try to make something unique” while working on the title

“Art-wise, early scenery mockups and colour palettes are the things that help the most, and everything else comes from speaking with the rest of the team about the character’s personalities, feelings and motivations, and what kind of emotions we are trying to convey in each scene,” explains Paula Ruiz (Gods Will Be Watching, The Red Strings Club). “That usually leads to early sketches of music that we end up playing over early builds so we can decide if it really works, or if there’s something else we should be trying.”

Penka Kouneva adds: “Also just as important is to get a sense of the musical expectations of my collaborators, so I ask for ‘style guides’ – mp3s and YouTube links. These are models and inspirations from past game and film scores.”

Elvira Björkman (Angry Birds 2, Aragami, Apex Construct) tells us that for her “videos and screenshots don’t convey the feeling of actually playing the game very well.” She adds: “Since I have technical knowledge working with engines such as Unity and Unreal on top of also knowing my fair share of C#-scripting, I usually ask to be the one to implement the music too.

“That way I can plan ahead on how the music will act interactively and exactly where it should trigger even before I write a single note. I really enjoy writing with my DAW [Digital Audio Workstation] on one screen and the game on the other!”

Björkman’s answer highlights a very important evolution here: as the industry’s matured, devs can now find composers who not only like but also understand the medium they’re working on. And this is something that has evolved drastically in recent years, with composers being more and more involved in the development process of games, to various degrees.

TEAM SPIRIT

Elitsa Alexandrova (Assassin’s Creed Rogue, Assassin’s Creed Origins – Curse of the Pharaohs, Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars) tells MCV that composers are not simply here to make music anymore: “Over the past few years composers have started to think not only about the quality of their music, but how to implement it in the game in a smarter way, so as to better support the action.”

To achieve that, “a close collaboration between the composer and sound designers is a must,” Inon Zur says. “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.”

Meanwhile, Raffertie (Arca’s Path VR) likes to play with the boundaries between music and sound design.

“I’m interested in the idea of sound design as music (or visa versa) and [Arca’s Path’s] score has had lots of sound design elements right from the early sketches,” he explains. “I like the idea of the score playing in a middle ground between music and sound effect and part of the charm of scoring an imaginary world is that you have total creative license to say this is how these chords sound in this world.”

In some cases, especially for indie productions, the composer is also the sound engineer, as is the case for Paula Ruiz and Elvira Björkman for instance, with the latter adding: “It’s not only the sound designers I work closely with, but also artists, game and level designers, narrative writers, creative directors and so on, to make sure I don’t miss a beat. We’re all part of that whole after all, audio isn’t an isolated part.”

And that’s very much a sentiment Olivier Derivière agrees with: “It’s teamwork. It’s a sort of a mutual involvement, from me to express my concerns, if there are any, and from them as well. I want [the devs] to express their concerns for the music.”

Of course, you can’t always have that direct collaboration and feedback when you work in triple-A, Alyssa Menes (Just Cause 4, Doomwheel) points out: “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.”

Regardless of how close the composer is to the dev team, their role has still greatly evolved over the years, Gareth Coker (Ori and The Blind Forest, Ark Survival Evolved, Minecraft) agrees.

“I get the sense that there is an even greater willingness to get a composer on board as early as possible. No longer is it regarded as a post-production process. Game music is not ‘just’ background music, even in a game that is a strategy game like Civilization or Stellaris, the music can really add a huge amount of immersion to the game.”

He continues: “I think all departments have the capability of influencing each other. Music is a huge part of a game, the very nature of its existence in any form of media means a composer is going to be part of a design team, it’s just that it isn’t our job title! The Inception horns are a big part of that film’s feel. Psycho’s iconic shower music is the key to that famous scene. Additionally, I think these things can happen subconsciously. If the design team has access to music from an early stage, they are probably going to put it in their early builds and use it to design around.”

He gives an interesting example of how a composer can impact design: “Our approach for cutscenes in Ori, both from Blind Forest and Will of the Wisps, depends on a massive back and forth between music, sound, animation and art departments. I can always ask for more or less time based on what I feel is best for the pacing of the music and the pacing for the game. The animation then will adjust to the music, and the back and forth continues until the scene is tightened up.

“Often, when adding music to scenes, whether they are interactive or non-interactive, we can find out a lot about the pacing. In the case of Ori, adding music also ends up being the first editing pass too because we can clearly feel what moments drag and what don’t.”

Another great example of the impact of music is outlined by Olivier Derivière: “[Developers] need composers who understand how a game is made but also what is a game. One example is Tetris Effect. People are like: ‘Oh it’s a music game, like Guitar Hero’ because they feel that music is totally part of the experience. But what’s so funny is that although they say this, the core gameplay is a very basic Tetris game. And that’s exactly what I’m talking about. It’s when you see a gameplay mechanic, what you can do with music can transform the experience to something completely different and that’s something that is very underrated, misunderstood, by a lot of people. When [developers] understand what you’re doing, that you want to extend their vision, want to enhance the experience, they start feeling ‘Wow’ and you can help them do this,” he enthuses.

That also means that a lot of composers have a technical knowledge that goes beyond what was expected of their roles a few decades ago, as Elvira Björkman points out: “You can’t just compose and send a file anymore, but need to know your way around middleware, engines and I think soon also a bit of coding too. I can also only speak from experience, but I also think we get more involved with the development as a whole.

“Music and sound both have this magical power to make anything from level design to animations or just clarity issues to suddenly click and make sense. When me and Nicklas Hjertberg, my partner at Two Feathers, worked with Aragami, someone told us that ‘they now had to match the quality of the game with the quality of the music’, which was one of the best compliments we as composers can get! It needs to be a part of the development, both for the music to get better, but also to get the game better.”

IMPROVISE, ADAPT, OVERCOME

The nature of games means there are various lurking challenges that developers should be aware of prior to starting a collaboration with a composer so they understand why the score takes time.

“Since the action of a game is dependent on the player’s choices, events play out in unpredictable ways. The music can’t be composed in a traditional, linear fashion. Instead, it needs to be able to adapt to changing circumstances,” Winifred Phillips says.

Paula Ruiz adds some details: “The usual challenge is mostly that a scene duration depends on the player’s ability, how they progress through the scene, or how quickly or slowly they read the dialogues. Dynamic music is usually the go-to method to fix some of these problems, but that also depends on what tools you’re using or the game’s engine. Sometimes you just have to try anything you can come up with: from incredibly long tracks that seem like they never loop or a series of small songs, or maybe just composing something so good that players don’t even care about it!”

Alyssa Menes agrees that you do have to “structure your music differently,” adding: “The music needs to be able to switch on the fly to accommodate for sudden changes, 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 musical shifts make sense no matter what part of the cue you depart from.”

On top of that, “the music always needs to work together with sound, organically dovetailing with frequencies and diegetic sound” and “the arrangement needs to be distinctive and malleable so that layers from it can work on their own,” Penka Kouneva continues.

If that wasn’t enough, multiplayer adds layers upon layers of challenges, as Inon Zur points out: ‘“A composer needs to take into consideration where there are multiple players interacting and need to communicate with each other. Then we sometimes consider playing the music in a different way to accommodate the communication between players.”

Gareth Coker goes into more details: “The expectations of what music should do and how it should serve the game in a multiplayer title are very tricky.

“In the case of an MMO, you’re catering to hundreds, thousands, possibly millions of people all with different tastes and you’re dealing with unscripted action. Many will play with the music off. Many will want music to help them get immersed in the game or enhance the feel of being in combat. Many will listen to their own music! I feel like my job with a multiplayer title is to worry less about the ‘moment-to-moment’ and make sure that the major events are really captured in a way that provides a memory for the player.”

OUR OWN COMMUNITY

The specificities and evolution of the composer’s role means the overall recognition of games music has also evolved for the better, especially compared to its older sibling, film.

“Back when I started as a game composer, there was certainly a difference in the respect afforded to film and television as compared to the way in which game music was regarded,” Winifred Phillips reckons. “Considering that game music began in the ‘bleeps-and-bloops’ era, it’s understandable that people might have a misguided impression of what game music is. But now, things have been rapidly changing for the better. Game music now enjoys a loyal and enthusiastic fanbase.”

All the composers we talked to agreed that game music is now getting better recognition, and most of them think it even goes beyond film now.

“I personally think game soundtracks get greater recognition and have a more passionate fanbase than anything else,” Penka Kouneva says. “Game soundtrack fans are legendary. They create remixes, fan albums and so on. Video game music is the most interesting, innovative, emotionally rewarding and creatively fulfilling music of our times.”

Jack Wall adds: “I’m starting to feel like film scores are less important than they used to be. I think that TV is No.1 and games are No.2, followed by a distant No.3 with film scores. I do love film music. It’s just that the market is shifting with binge watching of TV and the game market continues to reach more people and generate more business.”

For Raffertie, it’s all about what you consider as recognition: “It depends whether you mean recognised and known, or recognised and respected as art. The Super Mario Bros theme music is a good example of the former, being ubiquitous for a certain age group, but perhaps not recognised for it’s virtuosity outside of the gaming community. The nature of reactive music in games is that it’s often not tied to a particular narrative point but rather it signals that things are going well, or badly, or there is danger, you’ve survived, or it may be there simply to create an atmosphere or mood. Perhaps this makes that music less memorable than it would be if it were tied to a particular plot point in a film.”

Elvira Björkman points out that the “the established cultural heritage is different” between films and games. “Just like film music, game music has history of how it sounds and we as gamers might expect certain things or are tired of hearing certain elements already. It’s important to have that knowledge and appreciation for the form to be able to present something refreshing.”

Gareth Coker adds that the games industry is still very young compared to the film industry: “I regard it as a generational thing. Eventually we’ll live in a world where pretty much everyone will have played a game at some point, and the comparison won’t even need to be made. I don’t even worry about getting the same kind of recognition as films, we are our own community and I think it’s more important to be able to stand alone and not be compared with anything.

“The most important thing is that composers working in games keep pushing what they are capable of doing, whether it’s that new melody that no-one’s heard before, that new instrument that is placed at the forefront of the mix, or a new way of implementing the music dynamically. There’s such a huge amount of variety in what is being created in game music today, if composers keep doing what they are doing, the legacy will naturally take care of itself over time.”

Inon Zur agrees that “over the years the importance of music for games has grown tremendously,” with Raffertie adding that he sees some “fascinating opportunities that VR will provide to allow the score to be something the player can interact with in a VR world.”

Zur continues: “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.”

And Olivier Derivière sees that continuing for a long time, with games being the final frontier for music: “I think what video games are offering to players and to the audience is much wider in terms of universe, worlds, stories, characters… Much more interesting to me than anything else, except maybe literature, nowadays. Because it feels like there is a lot of freedom into what we’re doing in games. It’s very interesting to explore and push the boundaries as much as you want. The end point is the player experience. It’s not about the music itself. It’s not about the visuals. It’s about how we convey refreshing new experiences for players. It’s a very unique time for video games and I hope it will last as long as possible as freedom is a word that is almost only possible in games.”

About Marie Dealessandri

Marie Dealessandri is MCV’s senior staff writer, having joined the publication during its days as a weekly magazine. After testing the waters of the film industry in France and being a radio host and reporter in Canada, she settled for the games industry in London in 2015. She can be found (very) occasionally tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate, Hollow Knight and the Dead Cells soundtrack.

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