Video Game Music Today as Art, Cinematic Component, and Cultural PhenomenonI wrote this paper as my final paper for CTIN309: Intro to Interactive at USC. I really do think it’s one of the best papers I’ve written during my time here, and I’ve decided to polish it up a bit and post it here. I’ve also put in Youtube links in this version so you can listen to some of the pieces I talk about as you read.
Think of any triple-A blockbuster title – say, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Halo: Reach, Starcraft II, for example – and chances are, music played a huge role in your perception of the game. From the bold opening fanfare in Starcraft II to the subtle, ominous, and nostalgic undertones of the Halo: Reach score, video game music has its way of being a significant part of our experience in major titles today. And this has really been the case with most major blockbuster titles in the past decade, from Michael Giacchino’s brass anthems in the Medal of Honor series and Garry Schyman’s Stravinsky-esque manipulation of strings in Bioshock to Martin O’Donnell’s iconic Gregorian chants in the Halo franchise and Harry Gregson-Williams’s bold mix of electronic and orchestral elements in Metal Gear Solid.
As Jack Wall, the composer for titles such as Myst III, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect and one of the co-founders of Video Games Live, says, “Music is an unseen character in video games… You don’t see it, but there is definitely an effect.” It sets a mood and feeling for the story to be told in a game, and “depending on the way the music for a game is written, what is felt by the audience can be dramatically different. They aren’t quite sure why they’re feeling what they’re feeling, but in actuality, it’s because of the music.” (Wall 2010) Music in video games can create anticipation and strike fear into a player; it can foretell upcoming events and recall past ones; it can create emotion where there would otherwise be none; and it can accentuate emotions portrayed onscreen or play against them and in general give a whole new dimension to what a player is experiencing at a given moment.
“Baba Yetu,” by Christopher Tin, the intro song from Civilization IV (Firaxis/2K). “Baba Yetu” translates to “Our Father” in English, and the song is a beautiful Swahili chant.
Would the bathysphere ride down to the underwater city of Rapture be as eerie and enigmatic without Schyman’s driving strings in the background? Would the intro to Civilization IV be as emotionally provocative and inspirational without Christopher Tin’s tribal vocals and ethnic beats? Would our times in the land of the Nords be as epic, our time spent exploring its lands be so dynamic, without Jeremy Soule’s warrior chants and flowing woodwinds in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim? Imagine a scene where Agent 47 of the Hitman series is walking through a forest with pistol in hand, and there is a dark, apocalyptic choir chant playing in the background. Would we react to this scene the same way if, instead of an apocalyptic choir chant, there was a bright woodwind melody in the background? Music has a firm grip on the way we react emotionally to what we see, and it adds to a game’s visuals and gameplay to make something that is more than just the sum of its parts.
In this aspect, video game scores play a similar role to their sister medium, film scores. And for the longest time, video games languished in the shadow of their sisters, and with rightful reason – while film scores have been fully polyphonic and orchestral since their creation, video game music started from far humbler origins. Music in video games was digital, 8-bit for the longest time, consisting quite literally of mere beeps and boops for years. This initially kept many composers, such as Wall, from dipping into the video game industry. “I was not a fan of 8 bit,” Wall says. “I wanted quality sound and real audio, and it simply wasn’t possible back then. I wanted to put out good work, instead of simply churning stuff out.” (Wall 2010) Schyman also reflects similar sentiments. Regarding the video game music scene in the early 90s, he says, “…it was not a very interesting place for composers at that time; it was mostly low budgeted projects that only permitted MIDI scores triggering in-game synth engines.” (Greening 2010)
However, video game music has come a long way since then. Following the advent of the compact disc in 1994, video game music has been advancing in leaps and bounds. “It’s pretty amazing,” Wall says regarding just how far the video game music scene has come along. “And it’s getting better and better.” The quality of video game music matches and sometimes even surpasses the quality of many film scores today, with big budget scores being recorded with full orchestra and choir and even entire orchestras, such as the Northwest Sinfonia, dedicating themselves to recording scores for games.
Main theme from Myst III: Exile (Presto Studios/Ubisoft) score by Jack Wall. The words are in the fictional D’ni language, and the piece is very emotional and epic yet haunting at the same time.
Upon his return to the video game scoring scene in 2004 with Pandemic’s Destroy All Humans, Schyman was very impressed by just how much video game music had blossomed: “I was literally blown away by what was possible in games… Scoring video games is a great place for a composer right now. They want strong orchestral music that is iconic and interesting. Though not extravagant they can provide the budget to achieve really big sounding scores. Next to big film scores (especially as television music is fairly ambient these days and rarely provides an orchestra to record with), games are the most creative outlet for orchestral composers at the moment.” (Greening 2010) In comparison to his thoughts on video game music in the early 90s, this is quite the change – it serves to show just how far video game music has progressed, especially in terms of esteem from the composer community. Now that video games have developed enough to the point to serve composers’ needs and allow them to be as expressive as they want to be, composers are flocking to the medium.
The amount of freedom, flexibility, and sheer time granted to composers by video game music in comparison to its sister genre and rival, film music, may also be one of the major draws to the field. With most film scores, composers work on a highly structured schedule beginning at a very late stage in the production process – often times, the majority of the filming and production has already been completed when a composer is brought into score a film. Film composers are generally granted anywhere between four to eight weeks to score a film, including prep time and various other miscellaneous time expenses. They need to write an average of two minutes per day to make progress, and, at times, can find themselves needing to write upto ten minutes a day. (Karlin and Wright 2004)
This is not the case with video game scores. Video game composers are often brought onboard early in the development process and, as a result, are given a rather large timespan within which to complete their work, anywhere between several months to over a year. This is well exemplified by remarks from John Debney, the composer behind films such as Passion of the Christ and Iron Man 2 and the 2007 video game Lair:
“… In Hollywood right now, we’re in an environment of tremendous cost cutting… Postproduction schedules are very much accelerated… the composer has to be very adept at making changes, very quickly…
For the one video game I’ve done so far, Lair, it was a totally different process. The composer is hired, starts to work, and then there are large tracts of time where the video game is gestating… It’s a much longer period of time from start to finish, more like a year, or even two years… In the film world it’s the exact opposite–how quickly can you get it done? The whole process has been, in the film world, scrunched down.” (Cherry 2008)
The luxury of this amount of time can, however, have downsides. “It’s nice that the production cycle is long,” Wall says, “but it can be too long. It’s easy to lose focus.” (Wall 2010) And often times, due to this lengthy production cycle and the fact that the composer is brought onboard relatively early in the development process, a game can end up being completely different than or of a different quality than what a composer originally signed up for. “I was talking to the audio director, Emily [Ridgway], when I first signed up to do Bioshock,” Schyman says, “and I asked her, ‘Is this game any good?’ and she goes, ‘I think it’s complete shit.’ So now I’m thinking, ‘Great, I’m just wasting my time.’ But then, months later, I ask her, ‘Is your verdict still..?’ She goes, ‘No, it’s gonna be great.’” (Schyman 2010)
“Welcome to Rapture” from the Bioshock (Irrational Games/2K) score by Garry Schyman. At this point, essentially the “musical signature” of Bioshock.
As somewhat of a side effect, a video game composer is also granted far more creative liberties than a film composer. With film composers, it is very much a matter of doing specifically what pleases the director or producer and very little else. With video game scores, composers are given far greater leeway to experiment with different melodies, themes, styles, and ideas. Instead of being told to portray a certain scene in a certain way as would be the case with film scores, with video game scores, often times the composer goes through a design document detailing the aesthetic goals, plot, locations, and style of a game, and is relatively free to work as he pleases from what he learns in that document with guidance from the audio director of the game, rewriting and reworking material as necessary.
“One of the most difficult and greatest challenges,” Schyman says, “and the most fun thing, is really figuring out the theme – the approach to a new score. For instance, Bioshock was a challenge, and I actually wrote a number of themes that were unsuccessful, that Emily rejected… it really took a while, it was sort of an evolution over a period of weeks where I kept experimenting with things. She was always like, ‘that might be cool, let’s try something else,’ which was her way of saying, ‘That sucks.’ [laughter]” (Schyman 2010)
All of this work, however, does pay off very well. Composers are paid for each minute of music written, at a typical rate of $1000-$2000 per minute. This means that for an average game containing approximately sixty minutes of music, a composer can expect to make $60000 to $120000, with more in-demand composers able to demand more. (Pham 2008) (Brightman 2009) This is not taking into account royalty fees that can accrue for composers with enough clout.
Given the unique freedoms and challenges afforded by video game composing, as well as its rising popularity and support as an artform, there are more and more new composers looking to get their start with the medium. However, there is an interesting trend to note: while in the past, composers used video games to build their portfolios and work their way into the movie business – for example, Michael Giacchino, the composer for Star Trek, Ratatouille, and Up, got his start working on the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series – the exact opposite, where film composers write music for video games, seems to be becoming more and more commonplace.
A sort of “Making Of” for the main theme from the Medal of Honor: Frontline (EALA/EA) score by Michael Giacchino. This video’s really one of the hidden gems of Youtube.
Although there have been instances of film composers writing music for video games in the past – a notable example being Danny Elfman’s work on the main theme for Lionhead’s 2004 production Fable – the practice is getting more and more common in recent times. There’s the aforementioned example of John Debney working on Lair; then there’s Steve Jablonsky, the composer behind Transformers, who wrote the music for Epic’s Gears of War 3. Ramin Djawadi, the composer for Iron Man 1 and Clash of the Titans, is also the composer behind EA’s recent reboot of the Medal of Honor franchise.
This new trend was most notably brought into the limelight recently when Hans Zimmer wrote the music for Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. A long-time veteran and big name in the film scoring scene with a long list of credits including major Hollywood blockbusters such as The Dark Knight, Inception, and Pirates of the Caribbean, Zimmer’s entry into the video game music scene with Modern Warfare 2 was received with much fanfare. Swayed partly by his friend Harry Gregson-Williams’ work on the score for the first Modern Warfare, Zimmer decided to take a dip into video games, and he was very pleased with and interested by the opportunity:
“I think the technology has gotten good enough that things can move a little better. You have to realize I like doing big movies that appear on a big screen. So the visuals and the audio have to be of a certain quality before I start to get excited about the thing. The leaps and bounds that the technology has taken in the last couple years’ games and anything computer-generated, it’s getting there in such a big way, and I think on this game it really is there. I was constantly amazed about what these guys could do and what they would pull off.” (Snider 2009)
Clearly, as technology progresses, games are getting closer and closer to achieving realism and become better able to emulate and recreate the cinematic qualities of film. Film composers such as Zimmer are becoming more involved with video games because of this, because they are becoming more and more convinced of the legitimacy of video games as an art form.
“[USA Today] It sounds like you feel there is legitimacy in this art form?
[Zimmer] Absolutely, that we can’t even question anymore. When movies first came out, maybe they were in black and white and there wasn’t any sound and people were saying the theater is still the place to be. But now movies and theater have found their own place in the world. They are each legitimate art forms. And now this new thing, it’s interesting. We still call it a game. The word has a slightly sort of downmarket quality, that word. It is a trivial word. But remember as a musician, we play all our lives, so the idea of playing something and being involved in something is actually quite powerful to a musician. The participation is the thing.” (Snider 2009)
Title theme from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Infinity Ward/Activision), written by Hans Zimmer. Definitely feels like Zimmer, what with the driving strings and all.
And film composers aren’t the only ones paying attention to the increased quality of video games and video game music – schools are, too. All across the country, courses are popping up at institutes of higher education to fulfill the new demand for education in this emerging field. Berklee College of Music in Boston has courses on the subject as well as a minor. The University of Southern California’s Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program has a course called Composing Music for Games, of which Schyman is the instructor. New York University’s Scoring for Film and Multimedia program has a course on the topic as well, as do the Yale School of Music and New England Conservatory (Kahn 2010). This is partly because, despite being a highly specialized niche profession, video game scoring is an unusually interdisciplinary field that brings together many fields of academia and the arts.
Beyond the obvious musical skill and talent needed to come up with, write down, and conduct new material, being a video game composer requires a surprising amount of technical skill. Proficiency with a variety of digital audio workstation (DAW) software, such as Pro Tools or Logic, is an absolute must. In order to produce MIDI mockups, experience with orchestral sample libraries like the Vienna Symphonic Library is also crucial. For the composers that like to orchestrate their own works instead of leaving it to a separate orchestrator, familiarity with Sibelius or Finale is certainly necessary. Added to this, any sort of previous audio, video, or game production work is a definite plus.
Also, a successful composer must have a good amount of social skills. When asked what one thing he wished he’d known before he entered the industry, Schyman answered, “The social aspects of it, how critical it is to make friends, to make connections… I really wish I’d known a little bit more about how critical it is to make connections to other people, thought about it in ways that might’ve given me more opportunities… and I don’t think people realize how valuable that is.” Wall corroborates this suggestion, saying, “You have to be good and network.”
Anyone who rises to the challenge of becoming a video game composer and succeeds is now more likely than ever to find themselves in good company, with a talented network of colleagues, a booming industry, and a large fanbase. Indeed, the following behind video game music has never been bigger – as it is right now, it seems that video game music is progressing into something more than just a scene; it is becoming a culture.
There are countless websites dedicated to video game music, such as Galbadia Hotel and OCRemix, where fans of video game music discuss the latest soundtrack releases, eagerly anticipate the next, and speculate on who the composer for a given upcoming release will be. Fans clamor online for links to sheet music for their favorite video game pieces so that they can play it by themselves, with friends, or in a school ensemble – Rampancy.net, a Halo fansite, has an entire section dedicated to sheet music for pieces from the Halo franchise, lovingly transcribed by musically talented fans; official releases of score and parts for video game music are rare, and the few that are available are somewhat difficult to find.
Video recording of pieces from Halo being performed at Video Games Live in London (2007).
There are now also entire concert series dedicated to video game music, such as Play! Symphony. The most notable of these is Video Games Live, started in 2005 by Wall and composer Tommy Tallarico, who wrote the music behind Advent Rising. Since then, the VGL team has put on shows all around the globe, from Washington, DC to Seoul, South Korea, featuring music from popular video games, such as Metal Gear Solid and Starcraft II, played by some of the most prestigious orchestras in the world, such as the National Symphony Orchestra. The fans love it, of course, and surprisingly, often times the players do as well, not being used to getting such loud, excited, enthusiastic responses from their audience.
Needless to say, as technology keeps getting better, games will keep getting better, as will the medium’s ability to deliver messages and create emotion – music will play a crucial role in this. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a song is worth a million. Games look to portray life in their own way; life isn’t complete without music. And neither is a game.
Brightman, James. “Industry Careers: Game Music Composer.” Industry Gamers. 20 November 2009.
Cherry, Steven. “Video-Game Music: Better Than Film Scores?.” IEEE Spectrum, April 2008
Greening, Chris. “Interview with Garry Schyman.” Square Enix Music Online. February 2010
Kahn, Joseph. “Why Berklee is Teaching Its Students to Compose for Video Games.” The Boston Globe, 19 January 2010.
Karlin, Fred and Rayburn Wright. 2004. On the Track: A Guide to Contemporary Film Scoring. Great Britain. Routledge
Pham, Alex. “Big-time movie, TV composers explore video games as a fresh musical frontier.” Seattle Times, 29 December 2008
Schyman, Garry. 2010. Interview by author. Los Angeles, CA, October 1st
Snider, Mike. “Interview: ‘Modern Warfare 2′ composer Hans Zimmer.” USA Today, 3 November 2009.
Wall, Jack. 2010. Interview by author. Sherman Oaks, CA, December 2nd