So far during my career, I’ve had the pleasure of scoring two video games. In line with this month’s SCOREcast focus, I want to address the issue of spotting for video games, and how it differs from spotting films.
Among other things, the issue of interactivity throws up opportunities and challenges that are unique to video games. We’ll take a look at exactly what the opportunities and challenges are, and how they can help you successfully spot a game. We’ll also take a look at who turns up to a game spotting session, and how the musical decision making (at least in my experience) can be decentralized compared with a film.
Hit the jump, and let’s get into it …
While certain situations in video game scoring (like cinematics) seem call for a more-or-less identical approach to film scoring, most really don’t! So let’s take a look at what these are, and how to spot them effectively. But first… who is actually at the session?
In my experience, a video game spotting session will involve: the Game Designer (like a film director, except he also usually writes the story and dialogue, at least in part), the Audio Director (like a music supervisor, but he’s oversees the foley, sound design, etc.), the Sound Designer (the guy who actually makes all the non-musical sounds in the game), and the Composer (you!). Also present may be a producer or similar “suit”, who may be there to make sure the music will in line with the desired slant of the game on a commercial level (not too dark, not too family-oriented, that kind of thing).
The Big Picture
Before you jump in and start discussing where the music should go, and other specifics, the most important aspect of spotting a game is to get the overall tone right. Is it orchestral? Hybrid? Electronic? Punk?
Hopefully the audio director has chosen the right composer for the job — but that needn’t be so! I was once approached to score a game based solely on the hype that surrounded my first game soundtrack. It was an “X-treme” racing game that required a fast-paced neo-punk soundtrack. Me being mainly an orchestral composer, it was sort of like asking Madonna to do a death metal album. Of course, it never got as far as a spotting session, but in any case: the first thing to do at the spotting session is make sure everyone is on the same page genre-wise.
Beyond that, what is it all about? What’s the big picture? The game could be a shoot-em-up, but is it about honor? Survival, perhaps? Bloodlust? Black comedy even? What is the overall tone of this game?
I remember when I spotted the adventure game Dreamfall, we established that it was sort of an “Empire Strikes Back” situation, where it was a huge adventure on the surface, but by the end almost everything has gone wrong for our heroes, including the death of a much-loved character from the prequel, April Ryan. So there was an underlying tragic tone that had to permeate the score as a whole.
Another important thing to find out at the start is: who is in charge here? In my experience, the Audio Director had far more sway over the music than the Game Designer. In fact, I reported directly to him for the entire duration, having only sparse contact with the Game Designer. Granted, it all had to go through the Designer, but on several occasions the Audio Director disagreed with the Designer, and the music went through anyway. I often took direction from the Sound Designer too, because he was in charge of implementing the music into the game’s engine.
Now for some specific details regarding how to spot a game. The paradigm of interactivity requires a different spotting mindset to film making. Whereas music in a film is, in the end, invariably attached to a scene, music in a game can be attached to all sorts of things: locations, cinematic sequences, characters, player status, storyline… Let’s take a look at some of these:
Locations (And Loops)
Much of the time, you need music to set the tone for a location in a game. It is common for music to be written so that it loops back around, but it needn’t be so. Sometimes the music will rest for a while and then come back so as not to become tiresome. This is something to spot at the session, based on whether the player will be spending a lot of time at that location or not. If the music needs to loop, this is a technical issue which you will need to bear in mind at the composing and production stage.
In any case, locations may well have music “attached” to them in your game, so make sure you discuss all the locations in the game fully, and find out what tone is needed according to the Designer.
Cinematic sequences (or “cinematics”) are when a game turns into a film for a short while. You just sit and watch, without being able to control a character. When you spot the game, it is very likely that many cinematic sequences are either unfinished or not started yet, but the Designer will know where they go. Find out!
Technical issues I have encountered include things like: will the cinematic lead into a loop afterward, or will it come before a loop? I remember taking care that the lead-in and lead-out of my cinematic music sounded good cross-fading into the loops that might precede or succeed them. (The technique was usually to start on a single, longish note that was in key, or compatible with all the keys the loops were in.) These are things you will need to find out at the spotting session.
Some games have more than one playable character, and you may find the story calls for different music to be “attached” to a character. When I scored Dreamfall, there was a scene set in some swamplands where the same timeline was told from the perspective of three different characters in turn. This story-telling device is often used in movie making — I remember some of Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” was done that way.
In this case, it was decided that the music be “attached” not to the location, but the character you were playing. So the gamer would have different music each time they played through the same timeline. I had written themes for each characters, and the underscore was weaved with those themes.
When spotting a game, it’s good to look for opportunities where the music may change according to the player’s gaming status. For instance: in an action game the music may become frenzied when the player is low on health. Similarly, you may explore the possibility that the music will change depending on whether the player is “in combat” or not.
Lastly, and most importantly, the storyline itself will often dictate the music used at any given point in the game, irrespective location, character, etc. It’s easy to lose sight of this kind of thing when scoring a long game, which is why it’s important to try to nail these issues at the spotting session.
For example, Zoë (the main character in Dreamfall) is playable in the location of Casablanca at various points during the game. The music at the beginning of the game is light and playful, in accordance with the still-budding story. At the final chapter of the game however, the music is slow, brooding, dark and slightly tragic you walk her through Casablanca.
So in this case the music is not attached to location nor character, but the storyline itself.
In closing, spotting a game successfully really requires you to be a gamer. The mechanics of interactive storytelling really are very different from film making. So, if you’re truly serious about game scoring, that means you have to play games for at least 10 hours a day! Otherwise you just can’t call yourself a professional.
Jokes aside, it’s tough to make spotting decisions successfully without having at least some experience playing a really great, triple-A game. So why not pick one up and see what they did with the music? What would you have done differently? What did they do that you might not have thought of yourself? Call it work
For an example of well-spotted cinematics, exploration loops, player status-dependent music (combat), and even using music to solve an in-game puzzle, feel free to check out some video here.
COMMENTS are now open below, so let me know what your thoughts are on all of this. All of us at SCOREcast are anxious to hear!
LEON WILLETT is an award-winning composer of music for media and the concert hall. His orchestral score for DREAMFALL: THE LONGEST JOURNEY, an adventure game developed by Funcom for Aspyr, has garnered awards and nominations across the industry, including MTV (Best Game Soundtrack nomination), IGN (Best Original Score nomination), Gamespy (Music of the Year), Movie Music UK, as well as many others. For more detailed information about Leon and his various film, game, and concert works, check out his official website at www.leonwillett.com.