Behind The Sounds: Game Music’s Orchestral Revolution

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Games have changed. Keyboards and mice have maintained largely the same dimensions, but the worlds within our desktop screens have evolved massively since they started out in that ancient time before tweets, emails, inverted look and alt-fire. Not least, the sounds blasting out of our speakers have changed, too. We’ve gone from catchy little MIDI numbers (The Secret Of Monkey Island’s opening tunes turned my teenage den into a sort of geek dancehall) to full-blown orchestral scores to rival – and indistinguishable from that of – a Hollywood movie. Jason Graves, who recently scored Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider reboot, believes the rapid evolution in game soundtrack quality is partly down to the developers themselves:

“The biggest reason [game] music has become more cinematic and, dare I say it, better written, is that game producers and music-audio directors of games are fine-tuning their ears more than they were ten years ago,” he says. “I mean, you can have a live orchestra play C-scale and it sounds incredible, beautiful, but just because it’s a live orchestra doesn’t mean anyone can write for it. There’s a gap that is being filled between audio directors and producers accepting any sort of orchestral score. You know [before it was like] ‘we can get a guy who hasn’t composed for live orchestra before and it’s going to sound great’, where I think they have more discerning tastes now. It needs to be put together by an experienced composer. That change has been in the last three years.”

The evolution of game scores has also been a result of developments in the tech behind the tunes, Graves explains: “What a lot of it comes down to is the music implementation that a developer is using. With Tomb Raider, as with most big titles, the more time you have to compose the music, the more tools you have for implementation. The interactive aspect has really come into its own in the last three years with the third-party music audio packages developers use.”

Jesper Kyd, who cut his teeth on Commodore 64 and Amiga hobbyist projects before moving onto franchises like Hitman, Assassin’s Creed and Borderlands, is a rare breed of composer who’s managed to survive the shifting sands of the industry, graduating into the modern orchestral era from his 8-bit origins. “I was always very much into the technology of the game industry,” he explained. “When I started making music it was on the Commodore 64 and it’s evolved all the way to where we are today with orchestras, choirs. I’ve been there all the way, I’ve seen music systems come and go. I’ve worked with all the interactive music systems and have a good understanding of all that stuff.

“Always in the back of my mind, even on the Amiga, has been: ‘What’s the ultimate in videogame music? Well, it’s when it makes the transition to CD-based music so we can use live performances.’ So I always made sure to keep writing live music as well because I knew that was where it was going to go. I think one of the biggest shifts was when Sega came out with the Mega CD. There were PC games using the disc to stream music as well at that point, but the Mega CD was the moment I really thought OK, now we’re suddenly using regular, CD-based music in games.”

Kyd agrees the shift in developers’ mindsets has been a recent one. “The industry has really embraced the fact that we have to improve game music. Game music has steadily been improving, but not too long ago it certainly didn’t have the respect it does today. Probably – I don’t want to say with good reason – but there was probably something to it. I think maybe the connection between the team and the composer was not looked upon as being as important as it is now. There was a time in the 90s where it seemed like you could put some rock music on a game and it would be a game score. It just didn’t have that full-on connection with the world. There’s now much more work being done to tie the composer and the game together so the score fits the project perfectly.”

Jack Wall, who’s conducted over 50 orchestras in a career that kicked off right at the dawn of CD-based, live recorded music in games back in 1996, shares Kyd’s sense that respect for his craft in the game industry is something quite new. “You have to understand when I first got into it, I’d tell people I was composing music for games and they looked at me cross-eyed, like, ‘you make those bleeps and bloops – those kinds of sounds?’ So from my perspective it’s improved a great deal now. The fact that I was recording at Abbey Road for Black Ops 2… everyone’s really passionate about making sure the music is an important part of the game now, and I love that, I love that my clients take it seriously and expect a lot from me.”

Though developers are now more attuned to a good cello solo, the new-found respect for – and value placed on – composers hasn’t been an across the board movement.

“It all comes down to the audio or music director,” says Graves. “How long they’ve been doing it, their relationship previously with other composers, their experience with music. I find the bigger games obviously have more tenured, experienced audio directors who are a lot more comfortable working with composers early and experimenting. With Tomb Raider they had no preconceptions about the music. It was literally ‘we want cool, iconic, memorable and thematic music – what can you do to fulfil that goal for us?’ Usually the less experienced audio directors have a plan in place – probably because they have to – in order to justify what they’re doing moving forward, why they’re picking a certain composer, they’re answerable to more people. They have a list of what they want. Sometimes there’s freedom but oftentimes it’s ‘this is what we want, how quickly can you give it to us?’”

As the allotted budgets for game soundtracks have risen, and the technology and practices have developed to film production levels of quality and control, the creative opportunities for composers have exploded, says Graves. “You’re limited only by your imagination, as long as you’ve got the RAM budget for the music and the disc space allowed. It’s just a matter of how you want to work it. Tomb Raider’s a great example. It all takes place on an island, so we ended up using different instruments for different geographic situations. If Lara’s combating the environment, the island, climbing the terrain, fighting a storm, we use certain sounds, and we’ve got the likes of tiger drums for certain enemies, different themes for different characters you’re interacting with. But the overall structure for me, we always fall back to ‘what’s Lara feeling right now?’ In the early part of the game she’s uncertain, later she’s more sure of herself, so the music reflects that arc.”

The creative freedom afforded game composers is now attracting names from film and TV to the industry, says Graves. “[You're seeing more] film composers getting into games and they’re not doing it for the money, they get lead there because of the creative freedom and because the game producers are listening to film scores and saying wow, we want our scores to sound like that, that professional polish is what we’re looking for.”

“The Hans Zimmer camp, certainly other composers like Danny Elfman, they’re all doing games now,” says Wall. “It raises the bar for people like me. It’s nice to be in that company, I’m a fan of all those guys.”

Before a film or TV music talent flocks to game soundtrack work, however, it may be worth paying heed to the lessons of Kyd’s own experience. He broke from tradition and made the leap from games into film and TV at the turn of the millennium, finding the disciplines to be very different indeed. “I had to reinvent my music-style from scratch [when I moved into film and TV]. Film and TV is so incredibly different. You have to make sure everything works with what happens on screen every second. That’s really a big difference – in games players control the experience, the music has to be a little more open-ended. There’s also a little more room in game music for the score to really represent the world. Things like exploring a game world – that’s my favourite thing about videogames: here’s the world, go and have fun in it. That’s direction games have been going for a while and I think they’ll continue in that direction. It’s very open-ended, it can be very quiet as you’re exploring this world, there’s room for music to come out and set the mood whereas in a movie there’s usually either dialogue, action or sound effects. I think music in videogames is something that can really set the tone and get under the skin of a player.”

With Kyd’s passion for the open-world genre as both a player and composer, it’s unsurprising to find him a little less excited by the more restrictive nature of other titles on the market: “I’m one of those gamers that just like games to be games, I’m not that thrilled about this other direction that seems to be taking the gameplay out of games so they can be more cinematic. I want as much control and gameplay [as possible]. I like to just be thrown into a huge world and see what happens. It’s a very strange and mysterious thing. I love scoring that sort of experience, there’s a lot of opportunity to be surprising.”

Scoring a game is a huge undertaking, whether it’s linear or not, and hearing the way each composer works offers a fascinating insight. With a project like Tomb Raider, Graves’ approach was less freeform as he worked his arrangements around the context of the action and characters on-screen. “It could be just exploration – come across a bunker, there’s two bad guys, they have some dialogue, you shoot one, have combat with the other and move on. We’d break that down into eight or ten micro-events. I’d give complete pieces [of music] that represented each part of the stage – some would be one-shot stingers, others would be quiet little loops, or a 30-second loop. It’s almost micro-composition, it’s very interactive, the music’s constantly changing. You might not even hear a full loop because you’ve moved to the next event before that one’s even over. It’s all sequenced though, if you listened to it on its own, it’d sound like it was from a film. It’s moving, it’s evolving. It’s a point-by-point, trigger-by-trigger, small event by small event kind of thing for Tomb Raider.”

Graves also uses his score to help tell, and punctuate, the actual story of the game. “The first half of the score, for combat music, is very unsure. Like with Dead Space. You never really know where the downbeat is coming from, lots of dissonance. No strong melody or harmony. The second half of the game is a much more straight-forward 4-4 or 7-8, 3-4 or even 5-4, it’s confident, you know where the beat is, you’ve got your feet, the theme plays a lot bigger, she’s gained her confidence. She’s made a decision to go from reacting to what happens to her to being proactive, trying to save her friends, essentially, which is what it comes down to, and the music reflects that.”

Wall’s process, perhaps unsurprisingly for a composer who’s typically worked on more linear action and narrative driven titles like the Splinter Cell and Mass Effect series, mirrors the way a film composer works more closely. “I’ll sit down with a video capture of a level and we’ll spot it like we’re spotting a film, looking at the video. That’s how I understand the rises and falls of the story. If you were watching a film, you’re looking at the whole film to get a sense of where the acts, the moments are. If I can understand the whole story I can start to craft themes that are appropriate in certain places. It’s like scoring a film. [The studios I've worked with] all have writers that are really serious about the script, the story and the campaign. It’s always about helping them tell their story.”

In a game like Black Ops, a title so committed to making things go “boom”, you would expect it poses a difficult proposition for a composer trying to get their chords and choirs heard. “The way I deal with all that is, whenever I do a level, when I look at that video capture, I have all the sound, the voice-overs and such, I’m always listening to that. I check my work against the sound design, the effects, the explosions, the gunfire – I check it. What I’ve noticed doing that is if there’s about 40 machineguns going at a time, the more staccato you make the music at that point, the work gets lost. So I’ll just create these long, soaring gestures over the top to create a better sense of drama.” But sometimes, as Wall explains, silence can be golden. “There’s a huge part in Panama [in the game], where there’s just so much going on – sirens, loudspeaker announcements, tons of gunfire – it was just kind of a dark atmosphere, early evening, and it just had a really cool feeling without any soundtrack. And the people at Treyarch were like ‘we need music here!’ But it works, it just allows the sound design to do its work, you know? It’s not about silence, it’s about the space between the notes.”

Both Kyd and Graves agree that the way a score comes out can often hinge on how early in the process they’re brought onboard. “It really depends on the game,” says Graves. “Each game is really different, I’ve noticed, going on my 11th or 12th year in games, the last two or three years – starting with the first Dead Space – I started getting involved earlier in the process. They didn’t even have a green light but they brought me on for that vertical slice, same way with Dead Space 2 and Tomb Raider. But it’s not always the case. I just did a DLC pack for another game and had like ten days to do an hour’s worth of music. That was the opposite, I got videos of gameplay and there was hardly any time to discuss anything. There wasn’t time to get in and massage stuff, to experiment, it was about going with my gut and that’s why they hired me. They’re the two extremes – there’s Tomb Raider where I’m spending three months purely on the themes for each character and then this where it’s seven days for an entire score, cutscenes, the lot.”

“It usually doesn’t happen right at the last minute, but it has happened before,” says Kyd. “It becomes a more functional score because you don’t have the same amount of time to experiment. You go for safer choices to make that deadline. The earlier the better. With Assassin’s Creed I was involved from the beginning, there was nothing for them to show other than concept art and I started from that moment.”

The trend to bring composers onboard as early as possible reflects the general goodwill toward to the role that has come to fruition in the last few years. But with game soundtracks reaching unprecedented heights of budgetary resources and attention, where next for the future of this profession?

“You’re going to see the quality increasing, it’s going to become more and more prominent,” says Graves. “The quality will increase [to the point where] it’s either a super-low budget game or a super-high budget game and there’s not a lot in between.”

Kyd agrees with the idea of a future landscape divided against itself: “I see it going in two directions. One is the indie and social scene, where you have composers pushing the limit of what interactive music can be. The other side is huge triple-A titles where you go out and record with orchestras. I seeing it splitting off and going in those two, extreme directions.”

The great respect for the composer’s craft, the revolutions in thinking and hardware, may have benefited those already in the industry – and those who’ve ridden it’s many waves – then, but this new world of extremes would presumably make for a difficult barrier to entry for the composers of tomorrow. But there’s always hope, says Kyd: “The most important thing is to be a good composer, to be able to write good melodies, put good songs together. That’s the most important thing. Everything else can be learned. Anything else, with enough passion and time, you can learn. I think passion is even more important than going to school [for music]. I don’t have a degree or anything.”

“What’s wonderful is – the way the record business reinvented itself – games are doing that,” says Graves, chiming in with his own optimistic take. “You’ve got all these indie game developers. If I was right out of grad school, those are the guys I’d be aligning myself with. Even if it was a free score, they needed five minutes of music, anything to get my foot in the door. Even for 500 bucks it’d be great – you align yourself with a developer, they get picked up by a bigger publisher for their next title and then they’ve got a bigger budget.”

Wall has his own positive angle, too, offering a succinct summary of why the orchestral revolution actually means the future is now brighter than ever: “I would say now, because everything’s become much more specialised, it’s almost easier, my job just becomes: make some great music. It’s just really knowing how to deliver good music.”

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