Composing for Games Playing with Music

Gaming people need music: an amazing opportunity for composers.
Gaming people need music: an amazing opportunity for composers. | CC 0/PEXELS

Computer games are part of youth culture and have become a mass phenomenon – and a new market for bringing music to people.

Game music shapes our experience of music and so our musical taste. Musical conventions are adapted from film and pop music to generate certain emotions, atmospheres and expressive characteristics through an already familiar musical language. We have for some time now no longer encountered computer game music only in games themselves but also in many other contexts. We find it early in advertisements, when, for example, the capacious boot of a small Japanese car is filled to the music of Alexey Pajitnov’s Tetris (1984). Streaming services such as Spotify now offer gaming playlists with music that either comes from games themselves or is particularly suitable for accompanying your own playing pleasure. Mobile games and TV series with a cross-marketing character like Pokémon cover wide, medially overarching areas of entertainment.

Video Games Live at GamesCom Cologne 2015, source: Youtube

Computer game music is also heard in concert halls and has been an integral part of, for instance, the WDR Radio house orchestra concert season for many years. Game concerts are an international phenomenon. The Dutch Metropole Ortest, for example, has performed the soundtrack of Monkey Island, the Danish National Symphony Orchestra sometimes plays programmes containing music from The Witcher 3, and in 2015 Symphonic Evolution of the Pokémon Company, part of the Japanese firm Nintendo, even succeeded in filling Madison Square Garden in New York. Beyond this, we have long been encountering game music in scene clubs and on livestream, such as when young artists at the Dresden Circuit Control Festival and the American MAGfest create on stage, with their Gameboys or old Atari computers, so called chiptune music (8 bit, bitpop music) whose extremely simple structures and unadorned electronic sounds form a counter-pole to opulent sampling constructs, including techno and electropop.

Flexibility as a feature

Game music follows its own rules in the compositional process, taking advantage of new creative possibilities and conceptual approaches. An essential point is flexibility, which has been very important to game developers from the outset for drawing gamers into the world of the game and holding them there. Accordingly, composers and programmers have developed methods with which the music can be adapted to the individual playing behaviour of the user. In a feature article by Bernd Graff in the Süddeutsche Zeitung from April 2017, Garry Schyman, the successful composer of soundtracks for blockbuster games like Bioshock, explained the function of music as an essential anchor for the emotional bonding of the player to the images: “Our compositions accentuate the story and extend it. The moods we create are part of the game experience.”

More and more, soundtracks are saying good-bye to, for example, story-based role playing and adventures, linearly designed and fixed musical accompaniments. These formats, given a playing time of thirty and more hours, can soon become monotonous and lead to users preferring to do completely without the music. So, instead, game developers rely on adaptive game scores, which allow the player to become a sort of “co-arranger of the composition” by influencing the course of the music through his playing decisions.

Just as in film, the auditive level in computer games has become increasingly complex over the past three influential years. In the case of prestigious games enjoying huge production budgets, more than one hundred simultaneously active audio tracks for sound design, dialogue and music are now no longer a rarity. A high level of quality awareness has also long prevailed in the recording of game music. Thus Gary Schyman recorded his opulent composition Bioshock (2007) with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the Abbey Road Studios. Such large orchestral scores are found more and more frequently in games and may well be an indication that the musical aesthetics of games is increasingly approaching that of film, though of course the respective musical clichés of the genres are adapted accordingly.

Modular composing

Apart from tonal aesthetics, however, there is still a decisive difference between compositions for film and for games: whereas the compositional system of the former is linear and fixed, that of latter is flexible and adaptable. Game music composers accordingly often work with modules whose sound, length, intensity and dramatic course depend on the given play situation. The modules should be coherent in the wider context of the possible developments of action, that is, all musical aspects (harmony, melody, rhythm, tempo, dynamics and articulation) should ideally always agree with each other in every game process and every decision of the player, so that the composition has a dramaturgically consistent overall concept.
A short introduction in game music, source: Youtube

For composers, this means keeping available as many variants as possible so that the player does not feel musically bored or disturbed. Besides features of narrative support and mood guidance, game music therefore possesses additional functions when it interacts with the player and helps him to understand better complex game mechanisms. It can thus anticipate, accompany, comment upon and influence play behaviour and the course of action.

Classic and consoles

To this end, game composers draw on musical patterns, formulas and models as we know them from film – for example, on modular systems that were already used in the era of silent film. Back then films used so-called “Kinotheken”, musical anthologies in which passages from operas, programme music and other sources were presented according to situations. Composing with modules also played an important role in the art music of the twentieth century. In key works such the Third Piano Sonata (1955–57) by Pierre Boulez and the Klavierstück XI (Piano Piece XI) (1957) by Karlheinz Stockhausen sections of the composition are arranged individually by the performer.

As a rule, however, the existing pragmatic possibilities determine the method of composition. In the gaming Stone Age of Atari und Commodore C64, a composer such as Jochen Hippel could draw on only 8bit and 16bit sounds, which have now given games such as The Last Ninja (1988) or Amberstar (1992) a retrohip nostalgic sonic garb. Chris Hülsbeck began composing under similarly archaic conditions, but succeeded in creating with the soundtracks of the Turrican series (beginning in 1990) a scene evergreen, which he has also placed in other contexts. For example, in August 2008, the WDR Radio Orchestra adapted his compositions for the concert Symphonic Shades - Hülsbeck in Concert, and the work on his Turrican Anthology continues to occupy him today. And something is also already happening in the next generation when, for instance, Filippo Beck Peccoz is composing the musical format of games such as The Last Ticker - City Of Colours (2015) and Das Tal (Valley) (in development).
Chris Hülsbeck: Symphonic Shades - The Great Giana Sisters, source: Youtube

German composers like Hülsbeck, however, remain the exception in a scene dominated by American, Japanese and Chinese companies. In Germany “game composer” has no clear professional profile, the relevant training is still in its infancy and is concentrated on game development as a whole at, for example, the Cologne Game Lab and the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences. A tradition of technical development is lacking; among the first ten places of the most popular games in Germany in the business year 2016 there was not, according to, a single Germany company. But the market is on the move. The game consoles of today have a capacity with which you could manage a moon landing. “It is clear”, says Bernd Graff in in his article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, “that a completely new and powerful music market is emerging. And that already now there are computer games which you can simply listen to, and that there will be even more in future.”