Video game composers score interactive experiences

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      Watching The Exorcist with the sound off isn’t frightening in the least. The soundtrack, compiled by the film’s director, William Friedkin, and including sections from Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, is what makes the head-spinning so scary.

      Just as music enhances movies and TV shows, it contributes to the experience of playing a video game. Creating music for games comes with interesting challenges. Games don’t unfold in a set amount of time, for one. And because a gamer could conceivably get stuck on a puzzle for hours, the music can’t just stop. Vancouver composer Jeff Tymoschuk, who scores video games as well as movies and TV shows, told the Georgia Straight by phone that game music often needs to be composed so that it can repeat endlessly, if necessary. Because of the interactive nature of games, musical elements sometimes need to be “mixed and matched as it goes, or caked on top of each other”.

      Troels Folmann, who composed the music for three Tomb Raider games, uses a “micro-scoring process, where almost the entire score is made up of five-second fragments that the game engine puts together”, Tymoschuk noted.

      Tymoschuk got his start in video games composing music for Electronic Arts’ James Bond 007: Nightfire, and has scored three titles for Vancouver’s Hothead Games—the two Penny Arcade Adventures games and the recently released DeathSpank. He said that developers are expecting more and more from game scores. Music, according to Tymoschuk, must be more than wallpaper and can aid storytelling. “It really helps get the idea across.”

      Michael McCann agrees. The award-winning composer is working on the score for Eidos’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which will be released in early 2011. By phone from his Montreal studio, he told the Straight that while a video game’s music “has to adapt and change” based on how players progress, it also has to communicate what’s happening in the story.

      The music, he said, not only has to reflect mood and tone, it has to alert players to what’s going on in the game. “If you have three guys approaching from behind,” he explained, “the music can tell you that’s happening.”

      McCann, who’s also known as Behavior, worked on Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Double Agent for Ubisoft and has credits in film (It’s All Gone Pete Tong) and television (ReGenesis).

      David Anfossi, producer of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, told the Straight at E3 in June that McCann’s score provides “part of the immersion” that people will experience while playing the game.

      McCann said that not enough games have unique soundtracks. Noir games typically use noir music, he said, and horror games sound like horror films. Tymoschuk agrees: “An action game doesn’t have to have an epic orchestral score; a driving game doesn’t have to have rock.”

      The 20th-century-classical approach taken by Garry Schyman with BioShock, on the other hand, “gave it a unique flavour and made for a haunting and beautiful experience”, according to Tymoschuk. Both he and McCann cited Jesper Kyd’s scores for the Assassin’s Creed games as good examples of musical choices that were surprising but effective.

      “I think many game composers are definitely talented enough to push the envelope, but need to be given the creative freedom to take chances,” McCann said.



      Adam DiTroia

      Aug 10, 2010 at 1:49pm

      Great article. And I whole heartily agree with both Jeff and Michael!