Play On: The Composers Behind Today’s Game Music

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“If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.”
-William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

That game music and popular music are two separate beats, banged out on two separate drums, sounds, at first, like one of those obvious truths that are impossible to ignore. Like the fact that Liberace was gay. Popular music is what you listen to when you have a choice. Game music is what you turn down so that you can listen to your popular music instead, right? But to anyone with an appreciation of the myriad musical techniques and influences at work in even the most pedestrian pop jingle, the line begins to blur.

Music is music, whether constructed for the benefit of a game developer, a toothpaste manufacturer or a record label. The techniques, the mathematics and aesthetics of the thing – the songs, if you will – remain the same. And no matter who you are, no matter what music you’re making, it’s all hard work. It’s all effort.

The myth of the musician who taught himself to play guitar, in a garage, without ever learning a single phrase of notation, is mostly that: a myth. The legend of the open-shirted, flared-cuff-wearing rock god, spotting a blonde bombshell across the crowded bar and composing a power ballad in her name, right there on the spot, is just that: a legend. And the clich

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“My dad was a drummer and my mom played piano and clarinet,” says Jason Graves, composer for Lineage II, Blazing Angels and Star Trek: Legacy. “That’s how I got started in music, first with piano lessons and eventually drums. Growing up, I thought I’d have to get a ‘real’ job eventually. So far, that hasn’t happened! I’m still writing music for a living, and am happy to be doing it. I’ve worked on more than 40 games; before that, I was composing for television and film in Los Angeles. I must say it’s a lot more satisfying working on games. You have a lot more creative freedom.”

But creative freedom to do what, exactly? Music may be the food of love, to quote Shakespeare, but what does love have to do with games?

A musician composing a song to feed his love or out of some creative impulse born of a heroin high may have only himself to please, but a game is a complex interweaving of many disparate elements, all of which must work together as a whole. The music is but one part, and must play nice with the others. To what muse, then, does the game musician owe his allegiance? Whose appetite does it feed?

“Before sitting down to write music,” says Tom Salta, “the first thing I do is figure out what the client is looking for. If they provide me with detailed documents and music references, it’s very important that I sit down for a day or two and fully digest everything.”

Ian Dorsch agrees: “If the client dislikes the end result, you’ve wasted your time and theirs.”

“I prefer projects where the client understands clearly what they want,” says Salta. “It removes all the guesswork so I can focus on making music rather than experimenting. That’s not to say I don’t like bringing new ideas to the table, but I like it when the client has a clear vision of what they want as well as being open minded to new ideas that I can bring to the table.”

“It’s always great to have a collaborative effort with the score,” says Jason Graves, “so the producer knows what he wants but also is very interested in your ideas and also flexible to changes and input from the composer.”

Knowing what the producer wants is one thing, but giving it to him is another. In a game lasting several hours, with varying musical needs and styles, how does one fill that blank page? What’s the key? According to the composers, this is where a background in music helps out; specifically, drawing on works for other collaborative media. Namely, movies.

“[I] try to figure out the main theme,” says Jason Graves. “That’s the heart and soul of the score. Once the theme is worked out, everything else kind of falls into place. The main theme will dictate the tension, drama and energy that the rest of the score will have.”

“The main theme melody [for Red Steel] (which I call the Katana theme),” says Tom Salta, “shows up throughout the game in various guises, sometimes very discretely, but it’s there. I love hiding melodies and themes, sometimes almost subliminally, in music. It helps the score gel and sometimes people don’t even realize why. Even though the musical styles are so diverse, the entire score has a distinct personality.”

Which raises the question of how successful the back and forth really is between producers and musicians. After all, on the one hand you’ve got a highly-motivated, gifted individual who’s been studying and playing music since childhood. On the other: a game producer who probably doesn’t even read music or know the difference between Classical and Neoclassical.

“Let me first say that I love feedback from so-called ‘non-musicians,'” says Salta. “It’s always real and pure. People always say to me after a compliment (or criticism), ‘Well, I’m no expert.’ And I always say, music isn’t for ‘experts,’ music is for everyone. It’s the only true universal language. I always love to hear how ‘real people’ react to my music … without the distraction of musical training.”

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.”

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.'”

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.”

As the writer Anais Nin once said, “Music melts all the separate parts of our bodies together.” A saying all the more true when considering the role of music in games. Music enhances our game experiences, broadens their impact and makes your heart pound even faster when it’s time to kill those stupid, stupid zombies. But the people who make the music are rarely the starry-eyed, ostentatious dreamers we often imagine them to be.

While there may be someone, somewhere finding musical inspiration in the bottom of a bottle, or the bosom of a comely, young lass, the real professionals are the ones who can juggle the weight of an exhaustive library of musical influences, soothe the nerves of fretful game producers, tap the vein of a game’s inner meaning and still deliver a powerful score before the game goes to press. These are the true musical geniuses, and while the work they produce may not ever hit the Top 40, it does add a great deal to the games we play; enriching the experiences and enhancing our enjoyment of them. A surfeit of that would not be a bad thing at all.

Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He has written and produced for television, theatre and film, has been writing on the web since it was invented and claims to have played every console ever made.

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