This is the eighth installment in guest blogger Frank Klepacki’s series on music production. Today Frank continues to examine the unique character of video game scoring. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.
I like to start off with establishing main themes for the primary characters or factions the player will identify with. The intent is that I will revisit those themes/melodies throughout the game’s soundtrack in the different situations the player encounters as that character/faction. If there are cinematic scenes that pop up in between gameplay, these themes can be used in those as well. They form a good foundation to build on.
Next, I focus on situational cues. It’s safe to assume you will have exploration themes and combat themes, but the intensity and context will dictate how you approach them. For example, you need to know the mood of the level – should it feel safe? Creepy? Desolate? And when you enter combat should the mood be just a little tense or inflame the player for an all-out epic battle? Now think about the transition – are the scores that start the level and that take the player into battle too jarring back to back? Should there be a lead-in or a transitional cue to bridge them? I may write variations on the theme for what happens when the player dies, wins or runs to a different area and hides. This is where working with an audio programmer is essential.
The design team’s audio programmer is the key to a successful implementation of your score. He will set up the infrastructure of how your music is triggered, when, for how long and for what scenarios. Having communication with him directly is also very important so that you can have a clearer idea of how your score will come together with the gameplay. Depending on the situation in the game, your cue may need to play once through, play on a loop, continue to become more intense the longer it lasts, etc.
With film and TV, you get the scene, you score to it, you get it approved, orchestrated, and send in the final mix to be integrated with the picture. With games, you can see there are a lot more steps to consider in order to have a score that is successfully integrated with the “experience.” As a player in a video game, you are part of what you are seeing and hearing, and are responsible for the game’s progression. And as a result, a lot more is happening behind the scenes with the code to move along every aspect of the game, the music included.
Another thing to consider is that the game may not need to have non-stop music. There can be sections where it goes silent so the player can appreciate the ambience of the game’s world a bit. Or silence might be used for dramatic effect. Maybe the player pauses the game, goes to the kitchen for 15 minutes, and then returns, in which case, after a certain amount of time in pause mode, the music could fade out until resumed, and then fade back in.
Some games have even cleverly implemented multi-track scores, where the music is separated in track layers that can all play at the same time. Layers are brought in and taken out as the player progresses through the game and enters combative situations of different intensities. If designed correctly, such multi-tracking can make for a seamless music experience, and once again completely differentiates your approach to video game scoring from that of other media.
If you score films, you have to watch the movie in order to know how to score it. If you have an interest in scoring games, consider that you also should play the games in order to know how to best score them as well.
In Frank’s next installment he’ll discuss the rise of electronic dance music – look for that post next week!
– Frank Klepacki
Frank Klepacki is an award-winning composer for video games and television for such titles as Command & Conquer, Star Wars: Empire at War, and MMA sports programs such as Ultimate Fighting Championship and Inside MMA. He resides as audio director for Petroglyph, in addition to being a recording artist, touring performer, and producer. For more info, visit www.frankklepacki.com