The Beat Goes On

The Beat Goes On
Play On: The Composers Behind Today's Game Music

Russ Pitts | 16 Jan 2007 12:00
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Frank Klepacki, more to the point, offered this example of feedback he once received from a game producer: "Make it sound like The Rock soundtrack."

"My first order of business is to attempt to get as much information as I can, regarding the developer's musical expectations," says Dorsch. "It helps to get lots of examples of music they like, because in general these guys aren't musicians themselves, and language that means one thing to me as a musician means something entirely different to a non-musician."

Development
Remembering that an artist's most intense criticism usually comes from the artist himself, I wanted to know what the musicians themselves thought of their work, and which, of the projects they'd worked on, was their favorite.

"Red Steel was probably the most unique, challenging and fun game score I've ever worked on," says Tom Salta, citing his most recent title for the Nintendo Wii. "The main reason for that was the sheer variety of styles I had to create. It almost started becoming an ongoing joke.

"For example, in one area, they asked for a Japanese '70s love song playing on the radio, lyrics and all. In another section, some late '70s funk (ala Gap Band), in another '50s sci-fi infused killer circus music, then perhaps some super modern 'click-n'-pop' electronica, then bombastic movie trailer-like choral fight music, free jazz, Led Zeppelin inspired rock with Japanese melodies played on violin, and the list goes on."

Frank Klepacki says one of his favorites was, of course, the music he composed for the seminal RTS Command and Conquer, owing to its pivotal role in establishing game music as an art form in its own right, but his favorite for another reason was the music he made for Star Wars: Empire at War.

"I am an absolute die-hard Star Wars fan," says Klepacki. "You cannot imagine how much I jumped for joy when I got the opportunity to do [Empire at War]. I felt like I'd spent my entire life grooming myself for that moment. I was born on the day that Star Wars came out. It was released on my third birthday. Really, John Williams is the first grand musical exposure I have gotten. I don't remember any music before the giant Star Wars letters came on the screen. So when I got the call I was like, 'This is it. This is the peak of my career. I don't know where I'm going to go from here.'"

Recapitulation
Charting the course of music's importance in game design is as simple as following the credits of the four men to whom I spoke for this interview, who are continually at the forefront of the movement to make better music for games. Naturally, then, who they look up to is a good indicator of who to watch in the coming years.

I asked them who's "getting it" now, in terms of what makes music an important force in a game, rather than something that will prompt a player to turn the "Sound" slider all the way down.

"I think one of the best examples is Marty O'Donnell and the team at Bungie," says Ian Dorsch, who's currently working on a game called Badge of Blood, by independent developer Warpig Studios. "The system they've developed for adaptive soundtracks is just jaw-dropping in its elegance and flexibility, and their work has really set the standard for the entire industry."

Tom Salta, who's currently working on a "next-gen" title for Ubisoft, is a bit more sanguine on the subject. "The answer is more and more [developers] every day. Having worked on several Ubisoft titles, I know for a fact many of the development teams there really 'get it' ... so much so that they will invest a ton of money into recording a Hollywood orchestra playing the score, even when many people wouldn't know the difference unless you showed them."

Frank Klepacki's answer is typically brief and characteristically self aggrandizing: "Petroglyph," he says, referring to his own company. "Oh, and definitely the makers of Guitar Hero." He is currently working on a "secret RTS game ... for Sega."

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