What is a video game without music? Well, it’s still a video game, of course. However, unless it’s intentional to create a certain energy, a video game with no music feels to me like a Big Bang Theory with no laugh track. The thing is, just because a game has music, that doesn’t immediately make it good. There’s always the possibility that a soundtrack can be bad, and that can come from a lot of factors. Poor mixing, ill-fitting ‘vibe’ for the game, or maybe just being forgettable can all be aspects that lead to a not-so-great video game soundtrack. All that being said, what exactly makes a great video game soundtrack? What makes a great video game soundtrack different to a great album? Can a composer’s creative process have an effect on how their compositions for a video game turn out? How do you make a soundtrack that is distinctly memorable, one that stays with people long after they’ve played the game, but also manages to comfortably sit in the background of the interactive experience? From October 1st to 2nd 2022, the Australiasian Performing Right Association (APRA) will be holding an event as part of Melbourne International Games Week. The event in question is High Score: Composition and Sound Art for Games, and will be an in-person and live-streamed conference consisting of keynotes, panels, and feedback sessions with plenty of folks in the industry. Prior to the event, I’ve been given a chance to have a chat with eight different video game OST composers who are involved in High Score, and decided it would be the perfect opportunity to figure out what makes a great video game soundtrack. I mean, if you want the Krabby Patty secret recipe, where are you going to go? The Krusty Krab, of course! Same situation here but different.
Narayana Johnson (aka River Boy)
Musician, Composer (Cult of the Lamb)
What is your personal approach to composing music for a video game? On Cult of the Lamb, the process started with throwing a bunch of ideas at the wall, experimenting with different digital instruments and melodies and listening to a lot of music. Massive Monster would brief me on an area and I’d make lots of little musical sketches. When I’d make something I liked, I’d save the instruments away and they’d become part of the game’s sound palette. I experimented a lot, particularly with production techniques and when I found something interesting, I’d add the technique to the palette as well. How do you think video game composition differs from regular composition, if at all? My other experience is composing pop music so I’ll speak to that. I’ve personally felt a lot more freedom in game music. There’s less of a need to catch someone’s attention right away. The focus is on creating a mood or vibe that enhances a space or experience. In your opinion as a video game composer, what do you think are the main elements of a great OST?
A great OST adds a layer of emotion and energy to whatever’s happening to the player.
I grew up playing SNES and Gameboy games so I love memorable melodies and chord progressions like the tracks in Link’s Awakening or Donkey Kong Country. I also love something that sounds like itself, something that’s distinct and really feels like it comes from the world the game is set in.
Musician, Voice Actor, Composer (Bastion, Transistor, Pyre, Hades)
What is your personal approach to composing music for a video game? My main consideration when composing for a game is finding a sound that’s expressive of the game’s setting and tone. I tend to try and create a musical palette and a hybrid genre that give me a creative framework to use as a guide, and also help the world of the game feel unique. How do you think video game composition differs from regular composition, if at all? The non-linear nature of games, and the way that music (which is linear in nature) interacts with it, creates some unique challenges and opportunities. Music implementation in games is a key consideration, and how the player is able to affect what is happening musically has the potential to deepen immersion in a way not possible in film. In your opinion as a video game composer, what do you think are the main elements of a great OST? I’m always interested in an OST that enhances a game’s tone and setting, deepening my immersion in the world of the game. I like when a game’s soundtrack is something that feels like an extension of the game itself, something that’s fully integrated into the experience. I really appreciate when a soundtrack can have an assertive identity, musically, but doesn’t distract from the game.
Danna Yun (aka Pekoe)
Musician, Composer (Spiritwell, Postage Game)
What is your personal approach to composing music for a video game? I enjoy immersing myself into the game’s design process to understand the team’s influences, aspirations, and personalities that are being brewed into the project. One of the most satisfying things to me is witnessing a game’s development unfold holistically from asset additions to mechanic implementations to story updates. I think of game composition as another design pillar that serves to extract and solidify a game’s psychological and emotive intentions from the designers’ vision. For me, this means empathy, curiosity, and experimentation govern my personal approach to composing game music. How do you think video game composition differs from regular composition, if at all? I think it’s been said a lot that game music is impressive in its own right for being interactive and non-linear, but I also think game music invites multi-layered sharing and co-creation. There’s always additional sensory associations attached to a soundtrack from a game. These additional associations can be stories and visual designs co-created by the creatives in your team, as well as by the player’s own experiences with the game. All these external, non-musical factors complete the sound and vibe of your music if you were to listen to the soundtrack on its own. In other words, the whole lot forms the identity of a game soundtrack. You don’t decide what your music means; everyone who interacts with it, including the player, gets to create that shared meaning together. In your opinion as a video game composer, what do you think are the main elements of a great OST? Do you ever miss a game, so you decide to replay it, but it no longer feels as exciting because you already know everything about the game? Literally everything is the same, but the feeling isn’t. So, you put it down, sulk a little, and just conclude: “Damn, I wish I could play it for the first time again”.
I think a great OST acts as an effortless mnemonic device that captures and stores that specific feeling we long for. It can trigger your imagination to relive the feelings you felt when you first played a game.
Not a complete re-experience, but definitely the best avenue you have. You may not be able to fully immerse in the excitement, the activity, the unknown of the game’s world anymore, but the soundtrack will transport that wonder and energy to your world, and the emotions you felt in the past will meet you where you are now. As such, this is a long way of saying I don’t really have any opinions regarding what makes a great OST; regardless of compositional complexity and production quality, they all help attach memory evocations to a game and the rest is just a matter of personal taste!
Composer, Sound Designer (Sounds, Hidden to be Found)
What is your personal approach to composing music for a video game? I always start with which main instruments I want to use. It doesn’t matter if they’re exactly right, it only matters that they’re in the rough area of what I think suits the game. It helps guide the whole process for me if I can feel the textures out early, like they’ll tell me what they want to do and where they want to sit. Making music often feels like you’re discovering something rather than creating something so I think leaning into the feeling of discovery really helps. How do you think video game composition differs from regular composition, if at all? Oh, interactivity for sure. How the track can morph and shift due to player input leaves a lot of possibilities open for composition. It’s also interesting to note how many tracks are so much more effective when they’re put together with the rest of the project. We’re really closely aligned with film in this way. I think interactivity is our main point of difference to consider but ultimately I don’t think we’re so far away from any other style of composition (at least in the broad strokes). In your opinion as a video game composer, what do you think are the main elements of a great OST? I reckon the best OSTs are the ones where you can tell the composer had an absolute blast making it. Fun and engagement in the creation process are definitely key to a great soundtrack.
Composer, Sound Designer (Venba, MiniMaker, Eternight, Lost Your Marbles)
What is your personal approach to composing music for a video game? After having a discussion with the creative director about the vision/style of the music, I listen to a LOT of music references. Active and passive listening, so whether it be music while I’m cleaning, having coffee or just taking a walk, I’m constantly listening. Once the writing process starts, my first step is to improv on the piano. I am a classically trained pianist, improvising for me feels natural, I am quite quick at it and the majority of the track is done there. Then comes the laborious part of writing it down in MIDI and creating the individual tracks! How do you think video game composition differs from regular composition, if at all?
The simplest answer here is that video game music is unique in its possibility to be interactive. It is not a necessity per se, but definitely a perk.
I also think that the relationship between music and sound design is much more harmonious and there’s this possibility to mesh them together to create an audio experience of its own. The bond between music, sound design and interactivity truly makes video game music, or rather audio, a unique experience. In your opinion as a video game composer, what do you think are the main elements of a great OST? Personally, what I seek in a great soundtrack is to feel some sort of nostalgia. It doesn’t not have to be nostalgia for another game or OST, but the feeling itself, whether it be a time in life or an experience. I think a common theme amongst great video soundtracks has been their portrayal of nostalgia in various forms, and that’s something I wish to strive for as well.
Jacob Leaney (aka Monster Mansion)
Musician, Creative Director of Things For Humans (Video World)
What is your personal approach to composing music for a video game? I approach it in the same way as writing a pop song – I play around with different sounds until I find something inspiring, then begin playing around with melodies or chords. I might also start with a sampled beat from Splice! How do you think video game composition differs from regular composition, if at all? There’s less room to express yourself as an artist and a person with feelings; it’s about conveying the feeling or idea present in a character/environment/situation etc. In some ways, this allows for much more freedom creatively. For example, it’s been a great way for me to explore different genres and sounds. My retro-inspired ‘sound’ as an artist comes directly from my experimenting with retro synths when writing the soundtrack to Shape Arcade (Campervan Games). However, particularly when writing to a brief for another developer, you have to continue questioning whether what you’re doing hits the brief, which I’ve often found interrupts my creative flow! In your opinion as a video game composer, what do you think are the main elements of a great OST?
Having a memorable style of the soundtrack is hugely important.
Whatever vibe you’re going for, lean into it as much as you can. You want someone to hear any part of a soundtrack and know it’s from a particular composer or from a particular game. For example, the DOOM soundtrack leans so heavily into heavy rock/metal that it’s instantly recognisable!
Jeff Van Dyck
Three-time BAFTA-winning Composer, Sound Designer, Audio Director (Total War franchise, Unpacking, and much, much more)
What is your personal approach to composing music for a video game? The first thing I like to do is play the game and see how it ticks. Get its vibe, and work that in with any context or requests from the designers and directors. I find I quite quickly start to have ideas like “It would be nice if the music did this so the player felt that”. This is not just limited to the music either, as I’m thinking about the soundscape as well. It’s always interesting where sound design overlaps with music. It’s possible to blur the lines in a lot of cases. I then go into compose mode, watching a video of the game being played, hitting record and just record a whole whack of trash on the piano in my DAW (I use Reaper). Inevitably within the trash, I find moments of inspiration that become keeper bits. It could be an interesting chord change or catchy melody. I try not to think too much in that initial process. Once I have a few segments, I experiment and see if they work together. This process ends up creating the basic structure of the song. From here I start thinking about instrumentation and tonalities. In some cases, I have a preconception of what these will be, like in Unpacking. I knew it would be either chiptune synth or acoustic guitar. In other games, it’s been more trial and error and finding what sounds work. Quite often the sound makes you change the way a melody or chord pattern is played. It also quite often inspires new layers to add on top. While this “orchestration” process continues, I’m already starting to mix the song. I find in most cases, when I’m done composing the song, it’s also mostly mixed at this stage too. I might have one more go at the mix after listening to the rough mix in the car or on earbuds while going for a walk. The last step is the mastering, and if it’s going to be something released to the public like an OST, I’ll get it mastered professionally by someone else. If it’s for the game itself, I tend to master it myself so that I can make it work with the rest of the audio in the game. How do you think video game composition differs from regular composition, if at all? There are a few unique situations in game music that differ from a movie score. One thing is, in a movie, you know exactly when something is going to happen and can time the music perfectly with the visual, or the director’s desire. In a game, we have no idea how long the player will take to trigger a particular cue. So the music has to be able to be reactionary. So a song might be 67% through beat 2 of a bar, and a thing happens, and the music and music system have to be able to transition to the next cue without any warning and sound good. Sometimes an obvious and jarring transition is good, but sometimes we need it to remain musical and smooth. This is where interactive music middleware comes in (and is a big enough topic for an article on it’s own). So this changes the way we have to write the music. Quite often we have to compose songs that have no intro, they just start right in the middle of a mood. Then that mood has to hold there as long as it’s relevant. The temptation as a composer is to make the music evolve and be dynamic, but in a lot of cases, those dynamics are up to the player, as opposed to a movie director or composer. So we compose with layers in mind, and the music system fades these layers in and out as needed, dynamically. In your opinion as a video game composer, what do you think are the main elements of a great OST? I like an OST that sounds unique and high quality. There is a lot of game music that sounds the same. Probably cause they’re being asked to sound like something else (I have been in this position).
Like a good movie OST, a good game OST can have strong memorable themes, or immersive textures (strong melodies are not needed constantly). Personally, I’m impressed with game OSTs that have a high production/recording quality, with live players, or just great use of synths and technology.
Sometimes it’s a challenge for a composer to release a game OST due to the modular/truncated nature of how music works in a game. There are many cases where we’ve had to rework all of the music in a game to make it suitable for listening in a linear fashion. Basically transforming it from an interactive to a static playlist. This can make or break a game OST as well.
Orchestral Composer (Riftbound, The Companion)
What is your personal approach to composing music for a video game? My first step is always to get to know the developers, to find out what makes them tick, what their frames of reference are and why they’re making the game they’re making. Then we can talk about the music – not only how it should sound and feel, but how it’s going to work in-game – where it will go, when it will change, and how it might adapt to what’s happening on screen. After that I sit at my computer or mess around on the piano or just go for a long walk and try and actually come up with the music – that’s the tricky indescribable bit! How do you think video game composition differs from regular composition, if at all? With concert music you can basically do whatever you like; with film music you have the picture and story which will guide you to what needs to happen and exactly when.
But when you’re writing for a game you need to consider all the things that a player might be doing at the particular part of the game you’re writing music for – the music should encapsulate all those possibilities.
In your opinion as a video game composer, what do you think are the main elements of a great OST? I’ll always enjoy a catchy or expressive melody, but the great game soundtracks are the ones where the music does everything it needs to do to support and enhance the mood and feeling while playing the game but are also enjoyable to listen to on their own. The duality of writing music for games (or films, TV or theatre for that matter) is that what’s needed for the game might not be all that fun to listen to outside of it.
If you’d like to hear or see more from these composers, you can head over to APRA’s High Score: Composition and Sound Art for Games event, occurring as part of Melbourne International Games Week from October 1st to 2nd. For more info, head to the event’s website!
The post We Asked 8 Video Game Music Composers What Makes A Great OST appeared first on Kotaku Australia.
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