In 1996, while making music for the Fox Family Channel, Inon Zur received a phone call from the man who would later become his agent. This man, Bob Rice, represented composers for video games. He asked Zur whether he had any interest in the medium. Zur told him he didn’t know anything about video games, and that he wasn’t interested. But Rice was persistent. He pestered Zur. He asked him personal questions—what kind of music do you like? And what kind of music do you make? And what would you like to make? Zur saw how he could fend Rice off—he answered, truthfully, that he wanted more. The manic guitar shredding of Power Rangers Lost Galaxy and Big Bad Beetleborgs was fun, yet basic. Zur wanted to command orchestras. But what could video games possibly offer?
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
Then Rice told Zur something he did not know. He said that modern games need orchestras, and that in the future this need would grow. He furnished Zur with examples of recent Star Trek games. Zur was impressed. He thought, “Wow, if that’s the case, then let me try it.”
Zur’s first game would be a Star Trek title—Klingon Academy, a space flight simulator about an ambitious young Klingon attending war college (with Christopher Plummer starring as the malevolent General Chang!) The game is not well remembered. Still, the soundtrack should be—Zur was the first composer in video game history to command the Seattle Symphony, a hundred-year-old American institution and full symphony orchestra. (Importantly, he also commissioned a bellowing Klingon choir: “men—very very harsh,” he says.)
Now, Zur scores the most prominent franchise of games about nuclear apocalypse—Bethesda’s Fallout. The protagonists of these games emerge from vaults—town-sized bunkers burrowed underground. They discover that the bombs have cremated our green world. Humans survive in thin grey cities. Mutants roam the bitter brown wastes.
For the first of these games, Zur sensed the story was dark and foreboding. He chose low brass and ominous percussion as lead instruments. Then the sequel incorporated—to many fans’ chagrin—a more personal story about a father and his family. Zur leant heavier into a climbing piano line to bring out this emotional connection. He experimented with non-traditional instruments he called ‘artefacts’—like banging on garden furniture—”to evoke the scarcity the survivors found themselves within.”
In the most recent title, set against the long blue wall of West Virginia’s Appalachians, Zur blended guitars and solo strings, hiding motifs and nods to past themes and musical signatures—particularly the three ascending notes that have become the franchise’s signature.
Zur, who continues to compose for film, represents a new group of composers for blockbuster games, comfortable across mediums. Where films were once the most coveted medium, now talented composers view video games on an equal footing.
“It’s not so much that film composers are flocking over to compose for video games. It’s more that there’s a small but potentially growing class of more generalized ‘composers for media’ who love working on a variety of film, TV and games,” says Danny Kelleher, Founder and CEO of Laced Records, which specializes in digital and vinyl soundtrack releases for games. “It feels like video game music is finally receiving the praise and mainstream recognition it deserves, and this is helping to attract more composers to the medium.”
These composers draw heavily on Hollywood’s orchestral language, but they have to reinvent it too. They must transform the passive music of film into the active music of video games.
The most iconic piece of video game music is also one of the simplest: Koji Kondo’s 1985 Super Mario Bros. theme, the swinging staccato boops a player hears as they guide Mario on his iconic journey rightwards through the Mushroom Kingdom.
Kondo’s is the most famous example of ‘chip music’, so named because it was written directly to the chip. The finest examples of this sound would emerge from Japan: usually 8-bit or 16-bit, meaning that the computer it was designed for could transfer only this number of bits of data at a time, chip music is characterized by primitive limitations—the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), for instance, was able to play only three notes simultaneously.
Not only was chip music foundational to other genres, like grime, the nostalgia it generates has become big business. Its simple melodies restore listeners to the vanished beauty of simpler times—childhood; a time when we could leave our homes. “Nostalgia plays a huge part when it comes to selling soundtracks and games,” says Kelleher. “For example, we ideally want there to be a large number of people who fondly remember playing Tekken or Resident Evil 2; or who were forging their gaming and musical tastes in the late ’90s and want to revisit those memories and feelings.”
Jesper Kyd remembers this era fondly. When he was 13, Kyd received a Commodore 64 for Christmas, the first home computer with an analogue music chip inside. His friends would bring over games. Some of these games had magical scores. He was amazed that “a little bit of plastic” could create such rudimentarily beautiful music. He began to make his own. “I was like, man I got three channels,” he says. “All right, I need a baseline. I need another channel for the chords, and then the last channel for the melody. You better have a good melody, or you got nothing.” Inspired by the harsh yet fiendishly melodic chip music of Rob Hubbard, he started to improve, incorporating synthesisers, samplers and drum machines. Later, he got a Sega Saturn, “with six channels of FM audio in CD quality” he recalls. “We were able to make some incredible quality music.”
Now, says Kyd, who has composed for Hitman, Assassin’s Creed, and Borderlands, you can do anything. Before, there were memory and processing restrictions for audio, and generally, sound and music lost out to graphics, animation and AI. These limitations have largely been surmounted. In this sense, the rubric ‘video game music’ is misleading. “The first and perhaps most important observation one can make about contemporary video game music is that there is no longer any such thing as video game music,” writes Rod Munday in Music, Sound and Multimedia: From the Live to the Virtual. “Since the mid-1990s, the improved memory capacity and increased processor speeds of game consoles have freed video-game composers from the technological constraints which gave the work of their predecessors such an identifiable aesthetic.”
There is no single type of video game music. Listen to video game soundtracks today and you’ll hear hip-hop and hard rock; k-pop and Chicago house. Today’s video-game music, explains Munday, is more accurately described as music that composers have written for, or adapted to, video games.
Game music works like film music. Music is fundamental to both, necessary yet unnoticed, like a pulse. Both exploit the same transformation that occurs when a composer lays music over an image—the image is heightened; it becomes significant. Probably the most famous explanation of music’s importance to film comes from the American composer Aaron Copland. Music tells us what to feel about neutral images. The tone of the score communicates the mood of a scene; it can tell us the thoughts of a character in ways more intelligible than the expression of their face. Leitmotifs follow characters around like devil horns or angels wings—they tell us who is good and who is bad. Music builds dramatic tension, and its release generates catharsis. Music creates convincing atmospheres of time and place: ancient cities get lyres, lutes, horns; future cities droning wubbing synths. Watch a video of The Shining reimagined as a romantic comedy to see how powerful music’s effect is.
Video game composers know that players will respond to games as they do to cinema. “The thing about film scores and scores for linear media that we have to understand is that they came first,” says Winifred Phillips, who has composed for Assassin’s Creed, God of War, Total War and LittleBigPlanet, and is the author of A Composer’s Guide to Game Music. “It informs the listener, the player, or the movie watcher in terms of what they expect music to do, and how they expect it to function within the experience.”
Just as many games ape Hollywood narratives, references, and idioms, they similarly ape Hollywood scores. (In his 2000 book, Trigger Happy, author Steven Poole points out that games with simple narratives tend to use playlists of existing songs, while games with complex narratives use composed scores.)
“[The video game industry] follows very closely what’s going on in Hollywood,” says Zur. “When it comes to scoring, these two industries are going shoulder to shoulder and checking each other out all the time. There is a lot of connection between what people like and what the styles they are drawn to.” This means that many game scores are classical-like, and have a similar orchestral language—neo-romantic, epic, they sound like John Williams or Howard Shore.
But while these scores may sound similar, the actual compositional process for games is significantly different. It is far more complex.
Unlike film composers, who often come in late and must make music similar to prescribed “temp tracks”, a stand in score that directors use to show composers what kind of music they should aim for, video game composers begin writing music before there is any sign of a finished game.
At the outset the composer is inundated with concepts from the developers—rough gameplay videos if they’re available, story, relationships, appearance, pace, characters, motivations, intensity, concept art, color pallets, mood boards. For Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, composers The Flight went digging in the crates for instruments from the time (there are no recordings from ancient Sparta). They used lyres, panpipes, dulcimers, aulos (a kind of Ancient Greek reed instrument), and ektara, a one-stringed guitar, along with more modern Greek instruments like the baszucki.
Then they begin to send through samples to the developers. This can take months. Game scoring, in comparison to film, is a long process that produces a ton more music.
But the fundamental difference between film and game music derives from the fundamental difference between films and games—games are active, films passive. The player chooses his way through a nonlinear world. Where a film’s music is locked to a specific image, the music for a game is generated by the player. One player might finish a fight in thirty seconds; another might cower behind a box for hours. This makes composing for a game less a straight line than a spider’s web.
“In games, rather than telling a linear narrative story, the music underscores nuanced emotional environments,” says Sarah Schachner, who composed the scores for the Call of Duty series. “Writing music for specific situations that can last for indeterminate amounts of time, or need to segue into another musical piece at any given time, is a unique challenge. You know the energy level of the situation, the visual look of the environment, and player objectives, but there’s typically no dialogue or on-screen events to ‘hit’ during gameplay.”
The ability to write music that works for interactive situations without a locked visual to direct and dictate the music requires “a certain looseness and personal creative clarity that feels different from scoring to picture,” she says.
You can picture a video game soundtrack like the map of the world you see in an adventure game. Under the hood, each area splits into little islands of music or “biomes”, in The Flight’s words. Each has its own musical rules. On Alien: Isolation’s Sevastopol ship, for instance, the medical bay must evoke a different mood to the ship’s dock. In Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Athenians, Peollopeneese and pirates announce themselves with their own motifs.
This fragmentation is exceptionally complex, explains Phillips—a maze of triggers. “We compose music for games as essentially a modular construct composed in pieces,” she says. “These pieces are assembled by the game’s audio engine, according to whatever the model is that the music system is going to use in order to make the music reactive to the actions of the player.”
What this means is that much game music is in constant flux. It is combinatorial—imagine a constantly reshuffling Rubik’s cubes, forming into different patterns. On Borderlands 3, Kyd explains, each action in the game was supported by a music cue—from location based triggers, like entering a swamp or space ship, to getting in fights or exploring. “Each of these cues are then divided into sections,” he says. “A pop song normally has a verse, chorus, bridge etc. I take a similar approach here, except each verse or chorus is always different. So I don’t repeat anything, I just keep going into new verses and chorus. So a three minute cue is three minutes of constantly new music.”
Each verse or chorus will be cut together into its own loop section. A three minute cue might have 6-10 different sections that all need to be able loop and connect with each other randomly. “All sections are then recorded into 7 layers (such as melody, percussion, bass, harmony, chords, big beat, small beat etc) so you can in real-time remix each section by removing layers based on the intensity of the game’s state and atmosphere,” he says. It doesn’t take a mathematician to work out that with that many variables, every player will hear a slightly altered tune. This jumbled approach to composition is unique to video game scoring.
This constant recombination matters because players may spend hundreds of hours playing a game and listening to its score, yet they cannot get bored. To avoid “repetition fatigue” in their compositions, composers have several different tools at their disposal. They might play that electric guitar riff on a cathedral organ. They might alter the song’s rhythm, turning major modes into minor. Or they might fragment it entirely, sneaking barely recognizable parts of the melody into new places.
Players cannot sense the links between different sections of music, either, particularly in wide-open exploration games. This often makes prominent melodies a big no-no. “Conventional music relies on building up tension and then releasing it—that’s true of classical symphonies as well as drum and bass and house music,” says John Matthias, a musician, composer and physicist. “So what you have to do is to produce music that doesn’t build attention, or the brain ends up getting bored.” (He makes the comparison to Erik Satie’s famous furniture music; music to be heard but not noticed).
This is why some of the most accomplished video game music—like C418’s Minecraft soundtrack—is ambient. It must sound infinite; it must distort our sense of time and appear, in Brian Eno’s words “as part of the ambience of the environment just as the color of the light and the sounds of the rain were part of that ambience.” Unlike films, game scores have two purposes; they must compel us to keep playing as well as involve us emotionally. Video game music is carefully designed to be both ephemeral and stimulating—to subconsciously encourage prolonged and intense focus.
In Fallout 4, says Zur, you can hear that there isn’t a dictated feel of rhythm and structure. “The music just flows from theme to theme but you cannot really point to a specific tempo and meter,” he says. “This way the cue can repeat many times but the player doesn’t really know where it starts and where it ends. It comes to serve the purpose of covering lots of gameplay with one single tune that never feels too repetitive.”
In ‘Out There In Appalachia’ from Fallout 76 he tried a different method. “This time there is a pulse, but the melody seems like it is almost detached from it. This way, the player has some kind of rhythm to accompany him or her, but, again, there is no specific feel of structure that this rhythm dictates.”
As the market for games expands, more of the best composers are being drawn towards its challenges. But it’s still not as lucrative as film, for now. “Film and TV have more long term lucrative potential because of royalties and back end,” says Schachner. “It is possible to be paid large upfront fees in the game industry, but the lack of back end does put a limit on income potential. Films are usually paid as a package deal, TV shows are paid per episode, and video games pay per minute of music.”
Sales of these scores as albums are still growing as a business. They do not yet compare to film. Several factors are at play here, explains Kelleher. Though the video games market keeps expanding, this is in ways that don’t necessarily increase hunger for soundtrack releases (esports, mobile, VR, battle royale, et cetera.)
“Film soundtracks still seem to be more mainstream in many ways and dominate the music album charts globally to this day,” he says. “Stuff like A Star Is Born and The Greatest Showman are good examples. These could be found at the top of the official album charts for months on end. Game soundtrack haven’t quite hit that level, but they are getting closer day by day.” Laced’s best-selling soundtrack is DOOM by Mick Gordon, which has sold 35,000 units on CD and vinyl.
Beyond boosts in audio richness promised by the release PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X generation, the change that may further distinguish game scores from film is VR. “The physiological effect that virtual reality has on players can drastically change how they experience everything, including sound,” says Phillips. “The directional aspect— the binaural aspect—of audio formatting for VR really changes the way in which music can involve players.” This change means that composers will have to think a bit harder about things like the distinction between ‘diegetic’ (music that comes from within the game world) and ‘non-diegetic’ (music that floats over the top of the experience) soundtracks.
It is likely, as games continue to pull in more cash than films, that the number of generalists composing for film and games will increase. But the transition for film composers over to video games is not a simple one. “I think that if you started as a composer for television and film and want to make the transition into games without really understanding the differences between them, you’re going to be in for a pretty hard time,” says Phillips. “It is far more technically demanding. It’s a whole other discipline. You have to forget what you’ve learned and start over to compose music that’s going to be effective in the world of games.”
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
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