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Soundtracks on CD-ROM: Stirring Music That Accompanies the Interactive

By Peter Suciu

Technology has made computer games more interactive and more engaging an experience with enhanced gameplay through improved sound and graphics. The video and interface is more realistic, the sound effects have more depth and the music has a richer and more refined feel to it. Game soundtracks have been coming along for some time, and for a while the musical score was being included as an extra on the CD-ROM. Along the way, however, the size of the programs kept getting bigger and bigger, and the extra musical tracks have been dropped. But at the same time others have begun to take notice of the hard work and powerful scores that have been going into these games -- NARAS, the organization behind the Grammy Awards, has even expanded its soundtrack-related categories to include music for interactive content.

Chance Thomas is a composer who recently scored Quest for Glory V for Sierra Online and was active in lobbying for the NARAS category. He explains that the process for creating music for the interactive medium is actually very different than what goes into film scoring. "In interactive gaming, where drama is an ever evolving enigma, composers like me are scrambling for the solution. Click track? Forget about it," he says. "Time code? Meaningless. Storyboard? Nearly irrelevant. Game composers have to throw away the old tools from the old schools of scoring. They need to think in terms of an 'if, then' approach to soundtracks. It's a brave new world of hierarchical composition, modular music, and algorithmic underscores out there!"

Game composers agree that the musical direction can be affected by the theme of the game. A turn-based strategy game, like Sid Meier's Civilization, won't require the same musical background score that would need to go along with a high-speed racing simulation like Need for Speed III. Nor would first-person shooters like Unreal or Quake have the same musical treatment that would be used for a puzzle/quest/adventure game like Riven, the sequel to Myst, or Quest for Glory V. "Music is the language of emotion," states Thomas. "And it is a catalyst of emotion. I tell people that the importance of music in a game is defined by the degree of emotional response that they want out of the game player. Music does play a similar role in games as it does in films. We may go about the nuts and bolts differently, but ultimately we're listening to the same muse."

Peter McConnell, who worked on LucasArts' title Grim Fandango believes that scoring for the PC is a different type of work altogether. "As in film, music is essentially a post-production process. You have to see what you're scoring before you can write the music. However, there are two things that make interactive scoring different. One is the ever-changing nature of any software product until (and sometimes during!) its final testing. It wouldn't be feasible to wait until the game is done to produce the music, since it's never done until it's too late. Another is the sheer bulk of music that has to be written. Including some 40 minutes of non-interactive movies, Grim Fandango has over 3 hours of music in it! That's three or four feature film's worth!"

Creating music for an epic game with several different "powers" or ethnic groups represented adds additional elements to the score. Stephen Rippy of Ensemble Studios knows this quite well. He is working on the music for the upcoming Ensemble/Microsoft title Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings. "Although the 'in-game' music is a hybrid of many styles and sounds, there are points in the 'pre-game' where each civilization has a unique musical fanfare. I tried to make each one authentic to its culture, and hopefully they add one more layer of distinctiveness to the civilizations. As far as scenarios go, in Age II they are set up to revolve around major characters of the time period. Each character will have a theme that will at least be rooted in its culture. Beyond that... we'll have to wait and see!"

Age of Empires II is the much anticipated sequel of last year's smash hit and covers the period from the fall of the Roman Empire to the European Renaissance, and offered a challenge since that period of time isn't fondly remembered for its music. "The theme of a game has a definite effect on the music in that you want it to reflect what's on the screen. Working on Age II has been interesting in that regard. The game's time frame has been moved up to a point at which we have a much better idea of what the music sounded like, historically. We know better what instruments were used, we have a good idea of how they were played, and it's desirable to represent that in the soundtrack. The trick is to take that information from each of the game's 13 cultures and mix all of it together into something that translates well to a modern Western ear. Conversely, the music has a strong impact on the way the game feels. Early on, the music had a European Renaissance sound to it that worked in some ways, and was certainly more authentic than what's in now, but was jarring to a player who was using an Asian or Middle Eastern culture. The solution was to pull elements from each culture -- instruments, modes, etc. -- and mix them with more contemporary ideas (the hip-hop drum loop, for example). The result is a soundtrack that, to my mind, sounds like the game."

The process is somewhat different for each composer but McConnell elaborates on his experience in setting a mood in Grim Fandango. "The project leader, Tim Schafer, had a very specific idea of how he wanted the music to support the story aesthetically. Besides its connection to the Mexican Day of the Dead, the game borrows visually and thematically from many sources, including modern and classical Hollywood "noir" films, European science fiction and fantasy films, and even some of the screenplay work of David Mamet. There is so much cultural syncretism in Grim Fandango that, paradoxically, it becomes a world unique into itself. It was therefore important that the music bring out the variety of this world, and not reduce the game to a mere parody of Central American folk tradition and religion."

"For this reason," he explains, "we decided to combine at least three distinct elements in the score. First is jazz, mostly from the swing era, to play up the '30s-'50s period look and the underworld elements in the game: the gangsters and hustlers, racetracks and casinos. Next is the big Hollywood 'classic noir' orchestral sound, as heard in such movies as The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Many of these were scored by Max Steiner (Falcon was Adolph Deutsch), and I listened to and studied copies of his scores from these films, particularly of The Big Sleep and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Finally, of course, are a number of Latin styles including mariachi, tango, and Peruvian folk music. Finding a musician who really played this music was a big help in bringing it to life."

Since a game is interactive and players may take several courses of action, the composers have to deal with things that traditional film composers usually don't have to tackle. Guy Whitmore, composer and director of audio for Monolith Productions, who worked on Shogo: Mobile Armor Divison, agrees. "Since games are non-linear (for the most part), deciding how music is going to function is big step; i.e. is it location-based, action-based, are themes tied to certain characters, etc.? Game music is becoming more and more interactive, and can react to the ebb and flow of the game. Each game may use interactive music in very different ways."

The fact that games don't follow the same path certainly comes into "play" when the music is being created. "Does the music lead a player along into making certain choices," questions Thomas, "or does the music simply react to what the gamer is doing? Both, and neither. It depends. Take an adventure or role-playing game. The player is exploring, adventuring and acting out his own script on the game stage, usually inventing it as he goes. The ideal score for this would be like an old-time piano player, looking over the gamer's shoulder and offering accompaniment which perfectly underscored the gamer's actions. On the other hand, a level-based combat game may lead the player from one degree of intensity to the next, or tempt the player into exploring some creepy terrain by offering a musical foreshadowing of eerie things to come."

The music in some games, especially those where players can make several decisions as opposed to direct forces on a map, really can heighten the mood and help set the tone of the game. "Music can subtly foreshadow events, create tension, and dictate emotion and momentum," explains Whitmore. "In this way, music can undoubtedly effect the choices a player makes. On the flip side of that is music that reacts to player decisions. All of this can only be done with an interactive score."
Of course the process for creating this ever-changing musical direction is different from films and does require a different type of composer. "This is what I like most about writing music for games," offers McConnell. "Instead of linear structure -- e.g. verse-chorus-bridge, allegro-andante-scherzo -- you have a kind of network structure. It's like a map of possibilities rather than a single plan of action to be followed the same way each time."

While films, and certainly big Hollywood blockbusters, have their share of explosions and other sound effects that draw attention from the music, with games the sound effects often compete much more with the score. "We have compared notes on this question from time to time with sound designers at the Skywalker Ranch," emphasis McConnell. "I think that the question is not so much one of more or less, as it is different degrees of subtlety. In a game we often have a lower resolution of audio, a smaller dynamic sound range in the playback system, and a number of technological limitations on the number of sounds we can play at once. In addition, you don't always know what's going to sound with what, so it's hard to tailor different elements in the soundscape to each other."

"There's a similar mood-setting relationship between sound effects and music in a game as there is in film," explains Thomas. "But in games, sound effects can also take on the additional role of providing game-play clues. For example in Navy SEALs, the player needs to hear the rustling of bushes behind him, tipping him off to an enemy that needs to be neutralized. In a movie theater, it's actually better if you don't turn around and attack the person behind you!"

Peter Suciu is a producer for Fox News Online, and is also a freelance writer. He contributes to over a dozen publications including Bikini, Request and GameWeek, the trade publication for the Interactive Entertainment Industry. He lives in New York with his wife and fellow writer, Enid Burns, and two cats in a crowded apartment with two computers and DVD player.

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