How does one compose music for video games?
How does one compose music for video games? © Getty  /  Gareth Cattermole

How does one compose music for video games?

Interaction and non-linear composition: the music of video games has its own unique qualities and rules of composition: come discover a new and creative musical art-form.

Since 1908, year of the first musical work composed with the sole intent of accompanying a motion picture (the original score for Le Duc de Guise by Camille Saint-Saëns), music has only strengthened its relationship with all visual art forms and media, including the relatively new digital art-forms such as video games. Cinematic music and video game music are often compared, and rightly so: both are genres that draw inspiration from a visual or a story in order to set an atmosphere. 

For the composer, it is the story above all else that counts, and video games have obviously drawn from the visual narration of their cinematic sibling. It is therefore of little surprise that many video game scores are written by composers associated primarily with the world of cinema. However, video game music has drawn increasing attention, due in part to its creative aspects but also to its unique conception.

Interaction, an essential function

A subtle but nevertheless important difference, video game music carries within it an essential function: interaction with the player and communicating ideas and information. Whereas cinematic music is conceived and composed in a mostly linear fashion, fixed to a pre-recorded image, video game music must remain flexible and subservient to the actions of the player. In a word? Immersion.

"The way in which we approach the medium is completely different in a video game since it is nothing like a film, it is much more illustrative [...] It is important to understand the rules of the game and how the player will understand these rules" explains Olivier Derivière, French media composer specialised in music for video games. The composer must invest himself fully in the game's logic and the overall product's final immersive design: "I try to put myself completely at the service of the game", he adds.

The music must evolve as the player progresses. At the most basic level, the music is an indicator of the level, announcing any changes in the players surroundings, the arrival of an important confrontation, a reward, or quite simply that time is running out (example at 2:12 in the video seen below):

Non-linear composition

How does one communicate in real-time with the player? How can we know what the player will do and where he will go? How does one indicate that the player is approaching a dangerous zone in the game when he is exploring comfortably? With musical interaction comes another fundamental element of video game music: controlled randomness. It is impossible to predict the actions of the thousands if not millions of players. Therefore, without forgetting the myriad of possible actions, the composer must create a music illustrating the game's various environments and levels whilst also offering the player a musical experience capable of interacting and reacting in real time with every possible choice in the game.

Composers often use what is commonly known as "layering", using small musical segments, interchangeable at any point so as to create a malleable musical accompaniment capable of adapting to the actions and movements of the player, bringing an additional narrative dimension.

The basic principal of "layering" is simple. A first layer is added to create a basic ambiance for exploration, a calm and often subtle music that is looped. A second and more agitated layer is added as an important event takes place (such as the discovery of the player by the enemy). Finally, a third and usually energetic layer is added when the player enters a phase of action (such as fighting the aformentioned enemy). These three layers appear and disappear seamlessly and unconsciously so as to create a fluid musical background, reacting and alongside the events of the game. This is but one of the many techniques used by video game composers...

This technique ressembles a modular and destructurised style of composition in its conception and its form. The composer Olav Lervik, professor of video game music composition at the Conservatoire Mozart in Paris, explains how this non-linear style of music composition is akin to various styles of contemporary classical music: 

"It is very interesting in terms of composition since new forms and styles of interactive composition become available to us, much like in contemporary music, such as the works based on aleatoric systems by Lutoslawski_. Imagine a system of trees and branches, a hierarchy of small and interchangeable musical works, with which we can then say "this is intensity no.1, this is no.2 etc" all the way up to 10, giving us several possible paths to follow, each of which more or less aleatoric."_

New technologies

A thorough understanding of recording and production software is also essential for any video game composer. Though it is often recorded live, this but one step towards the final product. "There are many technical elements to learn, and it is important to understand certain principles of music production and sound recording in order to master the essentials of this profession", explains Olav Lervik. 

Despite the success of video game music, and the rising number of concerts and festivals dedicated to this very genre, the budget during production allotted to music does not always allow for a live orchestral recording. Composers therefore turn to the use of virtual instruments, offering them access to instruments such as Steinways within the comfort of their studios: this is not a digitilised sound recording but rather a synthetic sound created to reproduce the sound of an instrument (Steinway have even officially approved the synthetic sound of their own piano). For Olivier Derivière, here lies the future of video game music:

"We can already write a score which will be performed in real time by the game: the music is not recorded [...] Video game music lost itself somewhat during the Playstation years [1990s] since the use of CD-ROMs brought with the ability to play back music with the quality of a CD [...] but this was entirely passive, it was just a recorded track. We therefore lost the "real-time" essence of video game music of games such as the Mario series in which the music reacts to the game's actions. Today we have finally returned to the earlier generations of video games and their use of interactive music, but with a far stronger processing power that allows us to have the sound of real instruments!", says Olivier Derivière.

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