Why in-game music sucks, why it matters, and the art and science that's making it betterChances are, you don’t pay much attention to what’s coming out of the speakers when you’re playing a game, unless it has something to do with gunfire, monster growls, or that bit in God of War where the camera pans off and you’re left to imagine what in Zeus’ name Kratos was doing with those servant girls.
This is primarily because, on the whole, the other stuff you’re hearing – the music, in other words – is, at worst, garbage, and, at best, uninspired. With the games industry increasingly directing its efforts towards the visual front, music seems to be fairly low on developers’ to-do lists. As such, you’re far more likely to hear Generic_Industrial_Dirge_001 than anything approaching an interesting score.
That said, Jeremy Soule, one of the most prolific composers of videogame music and the man behind the sublime Morrowind score, thinks this is changing.
‘It’s really turning around,’ he argues. ‘Music is extremely complex – it’s a science, it’s an art, it’s production, and it’s a means of actually promoting videogames. With Directsong [Soule’s online game music store], we’ve been raising awareness for videogame soundtracks. With Guild Wars, we have the second-most-successful online videogame in the world by some measurements, and Directsong was there from the start, and many of the game’s userbase are avid fans of the music.’
Michael Z. Land, creator of LucasArts’ legendary iMUSE system for crafting dynamic, reactive music in adventure games, agrees. ‘You know,’ he says, ‘with the work Tommy’s doing with G.A.M.E., music is becoming less and less underappreciated in the games industry. I think there’s been a lot of great work to bring the profile of games music up to a much more film-like level. And his videogames live shows, with an orchestra playing game music, definitely help. I’ve actually participated in it a couple of times, and it’s really fun. There are a lot of fans out there who follow game music, too. That community is getting more coherent and visible all the time.’
Indeed, the success of the G.A.M.E. and Play festivals are clear indicators that there is a community out there who genuinely take notice of what they’re hearing when huffing through the latest, normal-mapped smoky undead crypt; Soule has found himself with celebrity status when attending them. ‘I certainly see a lot of appreciation when I go to the Play concerts,’ he laughs. ‘I was just at one in San Jose and I literally wore out my hand signing autographs to people who were so enthusiastic about my music, and music in general.’
Videogame music can mean a lot to players – it has, after all, scored some of their favourite interactive experiences. But there’s probably another reason why Soule and Co. receive so much acclaim: making music work with games is far from easy. Working in any other medium, composers only have to worry about the integrity of their score as it’s played out over time. Games demand that their precious pieces suit exactly where a player is, what he’s doing, and how he’s doing it. And the more open-ended games are, the more unwieldy the process becomes.
If you need more evidence, look no further than LucasArts’ SCUMM engine-based adventure games. All but the earliest featured music – through the iMUSE system - would increase and decrease in urgency and intensity, depending on what a player was doing in any given scene. The ‘tracks’ blended seamlessly into each other, making each LucasArts game appear to tailor its score precisely to the individual player’s needs. Land explains how iMUSE first came into being.
‘Well,’ he recalls, ‘that came originally out of the work we’d done on the first Monkey Island, and there were a lot of ideas that came up for what we wanted to do with interactivity and music – like, you know, with swordfighting and stuff – that was very difficult to do with the early sound drivers, and so forth. For Monkey Island II, we resolved that we’d be able to do more interactivity, and right about that time, it came into vogue to sort of paint the game with music, wall-to-wall.’
Given the technological limitations of the time, not to mention the challenges involved in composing multiple pieces of music that had to blend into each other at any given moment, this wasn’t easy. ‘Interactivity is a very difficult challenge,’ he continues, ‘because there are so many possibilities. And, of course, music has a certain linear foundation to it, so reconciling those two is very difficult. The hardest part was debugging. You know, in theory, you create this engine, and then you put it in a game, and then all these cases come up, and all these issues come up, and that makes you have to tie it into knots just to get the job done. That’s where there are the most issues to work through.’
Ultimately, though, Land and Peter McConnell’s work paid off – LucasArts’ games were significantly more immersive thanks to the scores that seemed to follow the player wherever he went. Land couldn’t agree more. ‘I think that as much as possible,’ he says, ‘what we hoped it would do was contribute a kind of subconscious immersion. In other words, without really trying to draw attention to itself, we wanted to draw the player into the interactivity and feel as though they were interacting with the music; that the music was scoring their individual experience.’