When you work in an industry it’s easy to forget that not everyone is as knowledgeable as you are about your particular niche. Being a video game composer is no different.
I’ll never forget when I was at a conference introducing myself to someone as a game music composer, and that person actually said ‘I didn’t think games had music in them’. I was shocked!
After a few minutes of me talking and explaining what game music was, they eventually agreed with a kind of ‘… yeah, I suppose so’ response.
This wasn’t the first time something like this has happened either. I can recall more than once talking to gamers at conventions and when I started to talk about being a game composer, it turns out that person always ‘turns the volume down anyway’ on their phone.
For a long time I was upset by this, but then I realised that there are an infinite number of different gamers – some disregard the sound, some need to be totally immersed in it. Some play on mobile with the sound off, others on consoles with the sound most definitely on.
I realised it wasn’t a reflection on me, and my skills, but a reflection on them. I also realised that the type of games I like composing for probably wouldn’t be the type of games they like playing.
It’s A Lot Of Work To Be Invisible…
I’ve always thought that as in film, music and sound effects in games, when done right should be almost unnoticeable. That is not to say bland and unremarkable, but that everything just feels right. The audio and visuals are a seamless experience.
I was never that easy about this. I knew music needed to do it’s job, but at the same time I wasn’t entirely happy that it would somehow be best if no one actually sat up and took notice of my music!
Being invisible isn’t something anyone can just do either… It takes skill, expertise, experience and taste. If you’ve got those as a composer, you’re on your way.
In fact I wonder sometimes if ‘good audio’ is its own worst enemy – if us composers were all terrible at it, people would be noticing our music all the time (for the wrong reasons I admit). At least then they’d sit up and take notice though, right??!!
Limitations Forces Decision Making
As we know, when game music started, developers and composers had to use the computer chips that were in the game consoles in order to make music.
I can remember playing on my ZX Spectrum in the 80s and loving the soundtrack to Jet Set Willy. I think everyone has a fondness for games from their youth, and they all probably sound different to different people. To some Jet Set Willy wil be just plain silly. Not me.
Although the sonic range of of the music in these games was quite narrow, the limitations of the technology meant that composers had to be totally original and highly skilled at making a full soundtrack out of not very much.
The inventiveness caused by technical restrictions actually meant the type of music being made was different. The music was so different in fact that I think music from those days tarnished the general public’s perception of game music forever.
I’ve heard plenty of people talk about game music and still think it’s all beeps and blips and essentially sounding like Space Invaders, even today!
The Paradox Of Choice
In a way, these days, when I’m sitting down to write some music, I long for the days where you had very little choices to make. It forces you make decisions. In fact, there are no decisions to make – you just have to get on with it!
These days I could start a piece of music with any number of instruments from any number of time periods or cultures. With so much choice it’s actually amazing most composers manage to create anything at all.
If I think back to when I started, just getting a reasonable sounding drum beat or bass line was a HUGE breakthrough. Back then just the idea of having a whole world full of musical possibilities at my fingertips was frankly unbelievable.
With such believable real world instruments available to all composers it’s no wonder that in some cases game audio has become more polite and dare I say generic than years ago.
It’s entirely possible that you could be playing a game these days and the music in the background is not dissimilar to commercially available music released by new artists. In fact it could contain that exact music licensed in.
Compare this to the cutting edge composers on the early consoles. Back in the 80s, this certainly wasn’t the case. The music was harsh, different and you’d never hear it on the radio.
How To Fight Back
I’m not moaning about current music – far from it. But I do think that being aware of the problem of potentially not being noticed and bland is a fine balancing act to carry off.
I think part of the answer is to make sure your game’s music is doing it’s job of creating and augmenting your visuals. But at the same time it’s up to your composer to notice subtle attributes of your game and introduce references to those aspects through music or audio. It’s the blend of knowing what it takes to get the job done plus having a sympathetic ear for your game’s uniqueness which is where the magic happens.
To really get the player to enjoy, be immersed and actually BELEIVE I think occasionally, the edges of reality need to be pushed.
In the end then, what us composers really need to do is be invisible, and spectacular at the same time.
Now that is a goal worth trying to create.
I’d love to know how you know when game music and audio has been successful in your games – how do you judge that? Leave a comment or drop me an e-mail.
(Photo: Video Game Audio)