Behind The Sounds: Game Music’s Orchestral Revolution

By David Valjalo on January 11th, 2013 at 3:00 pm.

Like a human q-tip David Valjalo embarks on a fantastical voyage into the realm of videogame music. Rounding up three of the most high-profile composers working today, let’s call them The Three J’s: Jason Graves (Dead Space, Tomb Raider), Jesper Kyd (Freedom Fighters, Assassin’s Creed) and Jack Wall (Splinter Cell, Black Ops 2), he gets the inside story on a revolution in game music budgets, practices and thinking that has changed our game soundscapes forever.

Games have changed. Keyboards and mice have maintained largely the same dimensions, but the worlds within our desktop screens have evolved massively since they started out in that ancient time before tweets, emails, inverted look and alt-fire. Not least, the sounds blasting out of our speakers have changed, too. We’ve gone from catchy little MIDI numbers (The Secret Of Monkey Island’s opening tunes turned my teenage den into a sort of geek dancehall) to full-blown orchestral scores to rival – and indistinguishable from that of – a Hollywood movie. Jason Graves, who recently scored Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider reboot, believes the rapid evolution in game soundtrack quality is partly down to the developers themselves:

“The biggest reason [game] music has become more cinematic and, dare I say it, better written, is that game producers and music-audio directors of games are fine-tuning their ears more than they were ten years ago,” he says. “I mean, you can have a live orchestra play C-scale and it sounds incredible, beautiful, but just because it’s a live orchestra doesn’t mean anyone can write for it. There’s a gap that is being filled between audio directors and producers accepting any sort of orchestral score. You know [before it was like] ‘we can get a guy who hasn’t composed for live orchestra before and it’s going to sound great’, where I think they have more discerning tastes now. It needs to be put together by an experienced composer. That change has been in the last three years.”

The evolution of game scores has also been a result of developments in the tech behind the tunes, Graves explains: “What a lot of it comes down to is the music implementation that a developer is using. With Tomb Raider, as with most big titles, the more time you have to compose the music, the more tools you have for implementation. The interactive aspect has really come into its own in the last three years with the third-party music audio packages developers use.”

Jesper Kyd, who cut his teeth on Commodore 64 and Amiga hobbyist projects before moving onto franchises like Hitman, Assassin’s Creed and Borderlands, is a rare breed of composer who’s managed to survive the shifting sands of the industry, graduating into the modern orchestral era from his 8-bit origins. “I was always very much into the technology of the game industry,” he explained. “When I started making music it was on the Commodore 64 and it’s evolved all the way to where we are today with orchestras, choirs. I’ve been there all the way, I’ve seen music systems come and go. I’ve worked with all the interactive music systems and have a good understanding of all that stuff.

“Always in the back of my mind, even on the Amiga, has been: ‘What’s the ultimate in videogame music? Well, it’s when it makes the transition to CD-based music so we can use live performances.’ So I always made sure to keep writing live music as well because I knew that was where it was going to go. I think one of the biggest shifts was when Sega came out with the Mega CD. There were PC games using the disc to stream music as well at that point, but the Mega CD was the moment I really thought OK, now we’re suddenly using regular, CD-based music in games.”

Kyd agrees the shift in developers’ mindsets has been a recent one. “The industry has really embraced the fact that we have to improve game music. Game music has steadily been improving, but not too long ago it certainly didn’t have the respect it does today. Probably – I don’t want to say with good reason – but there was probably something to it. I think maybe the connection between the team and the composer was not looked upon as being as important as it is now. There was a time in the 90s where it seemed like you could put some rock music on a game and it would be a game score. It just didn’t have that full-on connection with the world. There’s now much more work being done to tie the composer and the game together so the score fits the project perfectly.”

Jack Wall, who’s conducted over 50 orchestras in a career that kicked off right at the dawn of CD-based, live recorded music in games back in 1996, shares Kyd’s sense that respect for his craft in the game industry is something quite new. “You have to understand when I first got into it, I’d tell people I was composing music for games and they looked at me cross-eyed, like, ‘you make those bleeps and bloops – those kinds of sounds?’ So from my perspective it’s improved a great deal now. The fact that I was recording at Abbey Road for Black Ops 2… everyone’s really passionate about making sure the music is an important part of the game now, and I love that, I love that my clients take it seriously and expect a lot from me.”

Though developers are now more attuned to a good cello solo, the new-found respect for – and value placed on – composers hasn’t been an across the board movement.

“It all comes down to the audio or music director,” says Graves. “How long they’ve been doing it, their relationship previously with other composers, their experience with music. I find the bigger games obviously have more tenured, experienced audio directors who are a lot more comfortable working with composers early and experimenting. With Tomb Raider they had no preconceptions about the music. It was literally ‘we want cool, iconic, memorable and thematic music – what can you do to fulfil that goal for us?’ Usually the less experienced audio directors have a plan in place – probably because they have to – in order to justify what they’re doing moving forward, why they’re picking a certain composer, they’re answerable to more people. They have a list of what they want. Sometimes there’s freedom but oftentimes it’s ‘this is what we want, how quickly can you give it to us?’”

As the allotted budgets for game soundtracks have risen, and the technology and practices have developed to film production levels of quality and control, the creative opportunities for composers have exploded, says Graves. “You’re limited only by your imagination, as long as you’ve got the RAM budget for the music and the disc space allowed. It’s just a matter of how you want to work it. Tomb Raider’s a great example. It all takes place on an island, so we ended up using different instruments for different geographic situations. If Lara’s combating the environment, the island, climbing the terrain, fighting a storm, we use certain sounds, and we’ve got the likes of tiger drums for certain enemies, different themes for different characters you’re interacting with. But the overall structure for me, we always fall back to ‘what’s Lara feeling right now?’ In the early part of the game she’s uncertain, later she’s more sure of herself, so the music reflects that arc.”

The creative freedom afforded game composers is now attracting names from film and TV to the industry, says Graves. “[You're seeing more] film composers getting into games and they’re not doing it for the money, they get lead there because of the creative freedom and because the game producers are listening to film scores and saying wow, we want our scores to sound like that, that professional polish is what we’re looking for.”

“The Hans Zimmer camp, certainly other composers like Danny Elfman, they’re all doing games now,” says Wall. “It raises the bar for people like me. It’s nice to be in that company, I’m a fan of all those guys.”

Before a film or TV music talent flocks to game soundtrack work, however, it may be worth paying heed to the lessons of Kyd’s own experience. He broke from tradition and made the leap from games into film and TV at the turn of the millennium, finding the disciplines to be very different indeed. “I had to reinvent my music-style from scratch [when I moved into film and TV]. Film and TV is so incredibly different. You have to make sure everything works with what happens on screen every second. That’s really a big difference – in games players control the experience, the music has to be a little more open-ended. There’s also a little more room in game music for the score to really represent the world. Things like exploring a game world – that’s my favourite thing about videogames: here’s the world, go and have fun in it. That’s direction games have been going for a while and I think they’ll continue in that direction. It’s very open-ended, it can be very quiet as you’re exploring this world, there’s room for music to come out and set the mood whereas in a movie there’s usually either dialogue, action or sound effects. I think music in videogames is something that can really set the tone and get under the skin of a player.”

With Kyd’s passion for the open-world genre as both a player and composer, it’s unsurprising to find him a little less excited by the more restrictive nature of other titles on the market: “I’m one of those gamers that just like games to be games, I’m not that thrilled about this other direction that seems to be taking the gameplay out of games so they can be more cinematic. I want as much control and gameplay [as possible]. I like to just be thrown into a huge world and see what happens. It’s a very strange and mysterious thing. I love scoring that sort of experience, there’s a lot of opportunity to be surprising.”

Scoring a game is a huge undertaking, whether it’s linear or not, and hearing the way each composer works offers a fascinating insight. With a project like Tomb Raider, Graves’ approach was less freeform as he worked his arrangements around the context of the action and characters on-screen. “It could be just exploration – come across a bunker, there’s two bad guys, they have some dialogue, you shoot one, have combat with the other and move on. We’d break that down into eight or ten micro-events. I’d give complete pieces [of music] that represented each part of the stage – some would be one-shot stingers, others would be quiet little loops, or a 30-second loop. It’s almost micro-composition, it’s very interactive, the music’s constantly changing. You might not even hear a full loop because you’ve moved to the next event before that one’s even over. It’s all sequenced though, if you listened to it on its own, it’d sound like it was from a film. It’s moving, it’s evolving. It’s a point-by-point, trigger-by-trigger, small event by small event kind of thing for Tomb Raider.”

Graves also uses his score to help tell, and punctuate, the actual story of the game. “The first half of the score, for combat music, is very unsure. Like with Dead Space. You never really know where the downbeat is coming from, lots of dissonance. No strong melody or harmony. The second half of the game is a much more straight-forward 4-4 or 7-8, 3-4 or even 5-4, it’s confident, you know where the beat is, you’ve got your feet, the theme plays a lot bigger, she’s gained her confidence. She’s made a decision to go from reacting to what happens to her to being proactive, trying to save her friends, essentially, which is what it comes down to, and the music reflects that.”

Wall’s process, perhaps unsurprisingly for a composer who’s typically worked on more linear action and narrative driven titles like the Splinter Cell and Mass Effect series, mirrors the way a film composer works more closely. “I’ll sit down with a video capture of a level and we’ll spot it like we’re spotting a film, looking at the video. That’s how I understand the rises and falls of the story. If you were watching a film, you’re looking at the whole film to get a sense of where the acts, the moments are. If I can understand the whole story I can start to craft themes that are appropriate in certain places. It’s like scoring a film. [The studios I've worked with] all have writers that are really serious about the script, the story and the campaign. It’s always about helping them tell their story.”

In a game like Black Ops, a title so committed to making things go “boom”, you would expect it poses a difficult proposition for a composer trying to get their chords and choirs heard. “The way I deal with all that is, whenever I do a level, when I look at that video capture, I have all the sound, the voice-overs and such, I’m always listening to that. I check my work against the sound design, the effects, the explosions, the gunfire – I check it. What I’ve noticed doing that is if there’s about 40 machineguns going at a time, the more staccato you make the music at that point, the work gets lost. So I’ll just create these long, soaring gestures over the top to create a better sense of drama.” But sometimes, as Wall explains, silence can be golden. “There’s a huge part in Panama [in the game], where there’s just so much going on – sirens, loudspeaker announcements, tons of gunfire – it was just kind of a dark atmosphere, early evening, and it just had a really cool feeling without any soundtrack. And the people at Treyarch were like ‘we need music here!’ But it works, it just allows the sound design to do its work, you know? It’s not about silence, it’s about the space between the notes.”

Both Kyd and Graves agree that the way a score comes out can often hinge on how early in the process they’re brought onboard. “It really depends on the game,” says Graves. “Each game is really different, I’ve noticed, going on my 11th or 12th year in games, the last two or three years – starting with the first Dead Space – I started getting involved earlier in the process. They didn’t even have a green light but they brought me on for that vertical slice, same way with Dead Space 2 and Tomb Raider. But it’s not always the case. I just did a DLC pack for another game and had like ten days to do an hour’s worth of music. That was the opposite, I got videos of gameplay and there was hardly any time to discuss anything. There wasn’t time to get in and massage stuff, to experiment, it was about going with my gut and that’s why they hired me. They’re the two extremes – there’s Tomb Raider where I’m spending three months purely on the themes for each character and then this where it’s seven days for an entire score, cutscenes, the lot.”

“It usually doesn’t happen right at the last minute, but it has happened before,” says Kyd. “It becomes a more functional score because you don’t have the same amount of time to experiment. You go for safer choices to make that deadline. The earlier the better. With Assassin’s Creed I was involved from the beginning, there was nothing for them to show other than concept art and I started from that moment.”

The trend to bring composers onboard as early as possible reflects the general goodwill toward to the role that has come to fruition in the last few years. But with game soundtracks reaching unprecedented heights of budgetary resources and attention, where next for the future of this profession?

“You’re going to see the quality increasing, it’s going to become more and more prominent,” says Graves. “The quality will increase [to the point where] it’s either a super-low budget game or a super-high budget game and there’s not a lot in between.”

Kyd agrees with the idea of a future landscape divided against itself: “I see it going in two directions. One is the indie and social scene, where you have composers pushing the limit of what interactive music can be. The other side is huge triple-A titles where you go out and record with orchestras. I seeing it splitting off and going in those two, extreme directions.”

The great respect for the composer’s craft, the revolutions in thinking and hardware, may have benefited those already in the industry – and those who’ve ridden it’s many waves – then, but this new world of extremes would presumably make for a difficult barrier to entry for the composers of tomorrow. But there’s always hope, says Kyd: “The most important thing is to be a good composer, to be able to write good melodies, put good songs together. That’s the most important thing. Everything else can be learned. Anything else, with enough passion and time, you can learn. I think passion is even more important than going to school [for music]. I don’t have a degree or anything.”

“What’s wonderful is – the way the record business reinvented itself – games are doing that,” says Graves, chiming in with his own optimistic take. “You’ve got all these indie game developers. If I was right out of grad school, those are the guys I’d be aligning myself with. Even if it was a free score, they needed five minutes of music, anything to get my foot in the door. Even for 500 bucks it’d be great – you align yourself with a developer, they get picked up by a bigger publisher for their next title and then they’ve got a bigger budget.”

Wall has his own positive angle, too, offering a succinct summary of why the orchestral revolution actually means the future is now brighter than ever: “I would say now, because everything’s become much more specialised, it’s almost easier, my job just becomes: make some great music. It’s just really knowing how to deliver good music.”

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99 Comments »

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    Lambchops says:

    Great article. Good to see the “staring eyes” tag is present and correct too!

    Any chance with a follow up talking to those with smaller budgets? Maybe people doing chiptune stuff (like SoulEye’s soundtrack to VVVVVV), working on games in smaller studios (Jared Emerson Johnson’s work for Telltale or Tomas Dvorak for Amanita spring to mind) or those who worked on classic gaming soundtracks (Peter McConnel’s work for Lucas Arts).

    • David Valjalo says:

      Great idea and thanks for the suggestions. You never know, watch this space.

    • Randomer says:

      Indeed, love the article and would like to see more in this vein. These days I find that I have far more time to listen to VG music than I have to play games themselves – I usually get Humble Bundles just for the tunes. So more VG music related content would be a boon!

    • rb2610 says:

      The musics from Super Meat Boy and Bastion might be good ones to look at.

  2. Hoaxfish says:

    Not really sure I like “orchestral Hollywood” music as much as something more adventurous like Hotline Miami or Grim Fandango.

    • Jason Moyer says:

      There are tons of great game soundtracks, just none of them were made by these guys. Minecraft might have my favorite soundtrack of all time, and at least the last time I played it there was music maybe once every 4 hours. If you want to go AAA, there are the BioShock soundtracks where the guy at least ripped off Penderecki instead of Holst and Strauss-via-Williams.

      • Kestilla says:

        You have some pretty boxed in tastes if you think these guys haven’t made anything of worth.

        Or you’ve not heard any of it, or very little of it. Minecraft is in a different league than most of what these guys do, hence the title Game Music’s _Orchestral_ Revolution, not Indie Development’s Creative Innovations.

        Borderlands 2, for instance, has so many different styles in its soundtrack it’s just immense. You can’t box it in and say it’s no good when it’s hard to judge the entire thing based on a track or two.

        • Jason Moyer says:

          One of the many many advantages that videogames have had over films for years has been the diversity of audio work. It’s unfair to say that what these guys do is bad, I guess, it’s just completely uninteresting to me in the same way that most film soundtracks are. Hire a massive orchestra, ripoff John Williams-ripping-off-everybody and then move on to the next bland soundtrack. Give me the soundtrack to Quake or Super Mario Brothers any day over anything in the Hitman series.

          • Deadly Sinner says:

            Most of Jesper Kyd’s Hitman work can hardly be called orchestral, unless you’ve only played Hitman 2, and the stuff that is isn’t really similar to John Williams. Same with Kane and Lynch and Assassin’s Creed (to a lesser extent.) The little of Black Ops 2 I played was straight up techno. Not sure about the other guys, but Kyd switches up his style for every game. I’m not sure how you could call him one-note or bland.

          • David Valjalo says:

            As ‘Sinner says, I think Kyd does something quite different with each score. Assassin’s Creed at times feels like a meld between his more electronic, earlier roots and the live music that’s so in fashion now. I’m told his work on Darksiders 2 is quite different – anyone had ears on that one?

    • RuySan says:

      This. Mostly orchestral scores are kind of faceless and just meld in my head. Give me the soundtracks of Hotline Miami, Bastion or Superbrothers (or even Turrican 2 or Chaos Engine) any day.

      • Feferuco says:

        Pretty much. Very little games with orchestral soundtrack captured my attention. I guess God of War and Uncharted games did a good job, but it might just be that I’ve listened to the main theme so many times I had a chance to actually give it a listen.

        Most other games I can’t remember any songs from them, they make a soundtrack to blend in. While when it comes to some indie games, as well as older games, the soundtrack took the front seat. I was exposed to Dead Space for 15 hours and Sword and Sworcery for 5 hours, yet S&S made a much stronger impression on me.

        Out of the recent AAA titles, I think the only ones that made an impression on me were Portal 2 and Red Dead Redemption, oddly both games that have some aspect of procedural generation to the soundtrack.

    • MikoSquiz says:

      Everything’s orchestral now, by default. Space shooter? Symphony orchestra. Cyberpunk RPG? Symphony orchestra. Medieval adventure game? Symphony orchestra. Farming sim? Symphony orchestra (well, maybe not that one). I have a hard time remembering which music goes to which game, if I can even remember a tune. You get the occasional Skyrim main theme or the like, but really, the memorable stuff almost always has “hey, it’s not a symphony orchetra” on its side.

      The first things that come to my mind as standing out positively from relatively recently besides Hotline Miami and Bastion are Terraria and Mass Effect’s bleepy bloopy side – I’m sure Mass Effect had plenty of string sections stuck in for the big dramatic moments, but I honestly don’t remember them at all. In one ear and out the other.

      What orchestral music in a game says is “we just hit ‘enter’ through those options on the game design spreadsheet”, now. It’s the safe, default, let’s-just-throw-money-at-it choice.

      • Kestilla says:

        Music appreciation is at an all time low. Come on, this is magnificent.

        • Mman says:

          You kind of proved their point; that sounds good in itself, but it does little to distinguish itself from countless other orchestral themes out there; there’s no real style to it that says “this is Lost Planet” to me like games with distinctive soundtracks (including some orchestral ones) manage.

          Mentioning “music appreciation” is also odd when the poster you’re replying to praised multiple recent soundtracks.

        • Hoaxfish says:

          Magnificent, sublime, and terribly inoffensive… like the Oscars film-awards.

          It’s a nice fit for an AAA game industry that often finds itself with wanna-be film directors running things.

        • MikoSquiz says:

          It’s nice enough, but nothing about it suggests it wasn’t bought in. There’s hundreds of hours of the stuff out there neatly sorted by category and tagged by style and mood. It’s kind of like hiring a top flight designer to create a new font for your game that looks the same as Helvetica.

    • GameCat says:

      I agree. Most orchestrated scores for movies and games are rather boring. Especialy when it’s a string orchestra only.

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      Mungrul says:

      I have to say, I’m also rather bored by how generic orchestral music has become in games. I’m in agreement with the aforementioned opinions regarding Hotline Miami & Minecraft, and I’d further like to add the music of Bionic Commando Re-armed, a wonderful, pulsing retro-dance demake of the original chiptunes that reflects the rhythm of the game itself almost perfectly. The music itself is a tangible character.

      On a related note, there’s also obviously a skill in not necessarily composing the tunes for a game, but rather gathering a series of pre-made tunes that fit the game like a glove, such as in Driver San Francisco.

      But still, this piece is an interesting glimpse inside the heads of these guys, and it’s good to see they understand that games are a different, unique discipline.

    • str4 says:

      I miss being able to hum along with my VGM.

      VERY few have soundtracks that stand out, let alone are memorable.

      Hotline Miami and FTL are two I enjoy a lot.

      Terraria had good intentions, but the songwriting just wasn’t there.

      I agree though. Most orchestral VGM all just sounds the same. It’s more focused on ambiance and mood than memorable melodies you can hum to yourself days later. It’s all so boring. If this is the games music revolution, something is going terribly terribly wrong.

      Though I do think there is room for an orchestral soundtrack to stand out. Look at John Williams. Oh, the Melodies!

      • Jason Moyer says:

        The thing most orchestral VGM composers could learn from Williams, while they’re imitating his style, is the appropriation of themes from romantic era music. John Williams didn’t write the Jaws theme or the Empire theme but when you hear those pieces you immediately associate them with specific moments in movies. The only thing, in all honesty, that I can specifically remember from any of these guys is Kyd’s use of “Ave Maria” in the Hitman games.

      • Hoaxfish says:

        I would say I do enjoy a certain twanging screeching:

        I’m not sure if it counts as “Orchestral” but Man With A Harmonica by Ennio Morricone, Once Upon a Time in the West is probably one of my favourite bits of music, along with some of the stuff from Moon, Sunshine, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Daft Punk in Tron Legacy.

    • Gnoupi says:

      For reference (and personal enjoyment): http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL3D98436D9ABD8DBB

      • P.Funk says:

        Yup. Somehow, whenever you need to point out a great standard in gaming it seems to fall in between 1996 and 1999. XD

        I find the reliance on orchestral style music to be a bit brash and rather dull. Daft Punk threaded the needle on that one with the Tron: Legacy soundtrack brilliantly by having it live in both worlds, influence from both, and it worked.

        I think yet again though the digestibility of these sound tracks becomes a function of the producers and at the end of the day its exactly like that movie, Get Shorty. Producers don’t know anything, they just have the money or access to it.

        Indie is where its at. The only orchestral score I’m really interested in right now is the one thats going to go with Planetary Annihilation, because thats a game that will use it in a context that makes sense, and its going to be such glorious nostalgia for Total Annihilation’s orchestral soundtrack from 1997.

    • Daedalus207 says:

      My brother used to play French horn in a very mildly famous youth orchestra in the Midwest US. His conductor (Robert Ian Winstin) was friends with John Williams and was often able to get movie soundtrack scores for the orchestra to play.

      Mr. Winstin was fond of saying that soundtracks where some of the hardest music to write. A soundtrack needs to be good, but at the same time, it’s purpose is to support the action on-screen. On the first watching or playing of a movie or game, the audience should never notice a well-written soundtrack – that is, they should not be consciously aware of the effect the music is having on their emotions and their perception of what’s happening on-screen.

      To use John Williams’ Star Wars soundtracks as an example, the music from those movies that far and away most people know and recognize are from the opening text scroll and the end credits, the times when a soundtrack composer is “allowed” to have his music overshadow what’s onscreen. Very few people could tell you what “Han Solo and the Princess” from “Empire Strikes Back” sounds like – because the soundtrack at this point is carefully written to underscore the onscreen action without drawing attention to itself.

      When I hear people complain about a soundtrack being “forgettable,” I have to wonder if that doesn’t mean that the composer has done his or her job quite successfully.

      • Stochastic says:

        Interesting. Like some of the other commenters, I too yearn for hummable, mentally “sticky” melodies, but as you suggest, there’s also a place for forgettable—but no less impactful–scores.

      • Hoaxfish says:

        It makes me wonder just how much would be the same if they piped in ambient sounds of the scene instead.

      • Donjo says:

        Yeah, but you’re talking about film soundtrack music. Game music can be used in a totally different way to film music- as something that guides your attention, something that builds as you understand the puzzle or route, kill enough enemies, fly too close to the ground… something that informs you about the environment, something that sticks in your brain because of the complex web of associations. It’s interactive, sometimes as much a part of the experience as the visual elements. You’ve described the use of music in film accurately for SOME kinds of films, not all. Music in games is even more divergent.

      • Mman says:

        I’ve heard this “good music is music you don’t notice” thing before and-at least as anything semi-universal-it seems like bullshit to me. Maybe in some genres and styles it’s the best approach, but just from my own experiences I can say it definitely doesn’t apply to everything (it’s certainly not works where I never noticed the soundtrack that I taut as having a good one) . Hell, I’d say it applies even less to games as there’s an inherent synaesthesia to the best music uses in games, and that requires a degree of awareness to have it’s full effect.

        Edit: Even going with that though I’d say it highlights the issues many game soundtracks (and generic orchestral ones in particular) have; compared to movies, generally games pretty much inherently have far more downtime where the soundtrack is free to be at the forefront, and they still frequently fail to establish anything remotely unique or harmonised with gameplay during those times.

      • Arglebargle says:

        While I think John Williams creativity in composing declined long ago, his technical skill in accenting movie events with his scores is quite good. Games that think of themselves as ‘cinematic’ probably garner similiar approaches. Though quite often, the person in charge of the decision making on music may know next to nothing about it. I am sure that ‘Make it sound like Star Wars’ (or its ilk) is heard more often than people would like.

        And from what I’ve been informed, John Williams was told to make the Star Wars music sound like Holst’s The Planets. Which he absolutely did.

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        particlese says:

        On the first watching or playing of a movie or game, the audience should never notice a well-written soundtrack – that is, they should not be consciously aware of the effect the music is having on their emotions and their perception of what’s happening on-screen.

        Totally on board with this notion, though I’d add a little more emphasis on the importance of memorable themes for long-term enjoyment of soundtracks.

        For my example, I put forth the Harry Potter movies. I just finished going through them one-a-night, and, having seen them before, I paid much more attention to their non-narrative aspects — particularly the music. In general (with exceptions), I felt all the composers involved did a great job creating music to fit the moment and manipulate the emotions, but I definitely didn’t notice most of it the first time around. Except that punk ripoff medley during the height of the teen angst. It wrinkled my nose the first time around, but on this listen, I noticed how well it ripped off several different songs while standing as a short, single song of its own. But, of course, all the bits stuck in my head are the themes from Mr. Williams. Crazy stuff to try to play unabridged, but immensely satisfying!

        Now, in terms of games, the best example of this I can come up with is the original Fable (I haven’t seen/played the others). I watched my roomate play it years ago and have only occasionally listened to its soundtrack since, but as I recall, the music was just part of the game and fit it really well, yet its themes come to mind fairly readily now.

        I would also love to gush about how Journey’s soundtrack is even more integral and subconciously memorable, but I had better stop with that.

        This article, at any rate, has made me significantly more excited about Tomb Raider, a bit more interested in Ass Creed, and likely to check out Codblops’ soundtracks on Youtube. Opinion, away!

      • MikoSquiz says:

        The most exquisitely neutral and unobtrusive soundtrack is silence. You don’t always need to have an orchestra making a noise in the background. Half-Life 2′s music was somewhat unremarkable but I thought it was just fantastic they way they’d just let the ambient surrounding noise do its thing until it was time to drop in a slab of techno to underline an exciting sequence.

      • Josh W says:

        I love noticing when a moment has incredible music, think of tron legacy, the matrix or crouching tiger hidden dragon. I can instantly imagine the music of those almost as strongly as I can see them.

        There is a place for atmospheric background music, but there’s also a place for the heightened reality of strong musical structure overlapping with strong visual and dynamic structure. The shots are balanced like this, the music gains this sort of beautiful crunchy progression, and the motion becomes solid and interlocking. Text is insufficient for this!

    • vivlo says:

      Didn’t already read the article, but from what i heard of those game’s soundtracks, i am actually relieved to not be the only one to think this way. My favorite videogame track that i think on this particular moment is that of the not-well-known English Country Tune, which game and soundtrack is Increpare’s and which soundtrack is, iirc, like half-randomly generated.

      Though i have fond memories of StarCraft : BroodWar…

    • Noise says:

      Agree completely. Orchestral soundtracks are generally completely forgettable. They all sound so similar. Of course it can be done in a really unique and distinct way, but most of them sound very generic.

      I don’t see generic orchestral soundtracks as a step forward from the older style game music which often had a lot more character and was always way more memorable.

  3. Brosepholis says:

    No mention of the Japanese composers. People like Mitsuda, Uematsu and Sakuraba were doing great stuff back when western game music was still beeps and boops. These people didn’t let the lack an orchestra hold them back; they just got on with it.

    • Premium User Badge

      golem09 says:

      And their king was Hiroki Kikuta.

    • CptPlanet says:

      Agreed.

    • Brosepholis says:

      Also ZUN. That guy is a genre unto himself. Probably bigger than the entire modern classical music scene.

    • Kaira- says:

      Yamaoka is also a great composer, who doesn’t rely on orchestrations.

      • GameCat says:

        Yamaoka is very good composer. He uses polyphony (2 or more different melodies playing at the same time, probably the hardest thing to compose) in some of his compositions.
        Listen closely to Overdose Delusion from SH2 soundtrack. It may be little repetitive, but he managed to record 2 to 4 guitars playing at the same time, which each of them plays different notes.
        It’s pretty impresive. Even mixing those tracks was hard as hell, I think.

        TL;DR: some nerdy rambling about music stuff.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Tom De Roeck says:

    also, dont forget that Jack Wall did the Mass Effect 2 & 3 soundtrack as well as Myst 4.

  5. db1331 says:

    I find that the older I get, the more I enjoy a good video game soundtrack. I used to scoff at the idea of getting a soundtrack in a collector’s edition (who cares about that?), but now I get excited whenever I get a good soundtrack. I know this is blasphemy on this board, but Wind Waker is still my favorite OST of all time. OF ALL TIME.

  6. Subv3rse says:

    I’d have to add Paul Ruskay (Homeworld soundtrack), Jeremy Soule (Elder Scrolls, Guild Wars 2 et al), and Scott Lloyd Shelly for the Terraria soundtrack.

    • Pony Canyon says:

      Hijack – this thread is now for listing soundtracks/game composers that we think are underrated:

      Terence Lee (Dustforce soundtrack)

    • Rao Dao Zao says:

      Why has nobody mentioned Alexandor Brandon et al of the Unreal and Deus Ex soundtracks? Touch o’ class right there.

      • Glen Moyes says:

        Yes. Robert Allen’s music in Jazz Jackrabbit, and later Alexander Brandon’s work on Unreal, Deus Ex, and JJ2 really made me as a person creatively. Sadly Robert Allen isn’t composing professionally anymore it seems, but Alex still is. He recently contributed a few songs to Dust: An Elysian Tail, and has his own album out.

    • Jason Moyer says:

      I’m hit or miss with Jeremy Soule, but his themes are almost always memorable. I’m pretty sure if someone played a random Icewind Dale piece I’d immediately recognize which game it came from.

    • Premium User Badge

      Tom De Roeck says:

      Jasper Byrne (Lone Survivor, Hotline Miami)

    • Subv3rse says:

      Forgot to add Chris Mann of I-War 2; and it’s not that I was looking to say “best composer” per se, but that each of these had orchestral elements to them, including Terraria in as much as it’s 8-bit orchestral inspired / blended.

      But echoing a number of comments on the threads, many game composers aren’t given nearly enough credit, and trying to find half of them or their work (outside of the game) can prove difficult.

    • Hoaxfish says:

      Jim Guthrie with Sword and Sworcery, yes, even the track that sounds like screaming pixel babies.

  7. richard says:

    Is Kyd (on the right) the giver of free (and undeserved) pixelated pizzas, beer, CDs? The likeness is scary
    http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/images/12/jul/hlm.jpg

    Also OT, I followed the Staring Eyes tags all the way back to 2011, then saw Dan Wheldon’s Staring Eyes, then got a little sad.

  8. datom says:

    I’m not trying to be a snob, but I really don’t understand the love these guys get from exactly the sort of people that wouldn’t even think about buying Shostakovich or even something as semi-popular as Phillip Glass, which is just worlds apart in terms of quality.

    I bought Endless Space recently, which apparently had an amazing soundtrack, but within two minutes, I’d turned it down and put on actual Holst, not some plinky plonk knockoff. I’m certainly no orchestral music expert, but it doesn’t take much looking to find an incredible array of twentieth century orchestral masterpieces, and none of them are in computer games.

    Now, the Super Meat Boy soundtrack, or DinoRun HD soundtrack, there’s stuff I can understand the love for, but the orchestral stuff is pretty pants compared to the real thing.

    • Tokamak says:

      but the orchestral stuff is pretty pants compared to the real thing

      That’s exactly how I feel about 99% of all these homogenized workhorse orchestral game soundtracks – it’s compounded by the fact that they often try to imitate film music, which itself is an imitation of great classical scores. I think it’s more true for strategy games like Endless Space where the music is pretty static (as in, not as very dynamic/interactive relative to the context of your actions) and thus functionally they can be replaced without much detriment to the experience with your own playlists. An imitation of an imitation with a fraction of the craftsmanship, artistry, and even less soul is a really sad state to see the gaming music genre devolve into, in my opinion.

      The sad part for me is the many of my favorite game music composers of the past have been forced into doing such boring music because of the whole design by committee attitude taken by most of today’s AAA game development. Game music actually got me interested in music beyond just casual enjoyment, and it just sort of breaks my heart to see it end up in such a way.

      • Premium User Badge

        svendelmaus says:

        but the orchestral stuff is pretty pants compared to the real thing

        That’s exactly how I feel about 99% of all these homogenized workhorse orchestral game soundtracks – it’s compounded by the fact that they often try to imitate film music, which itself is an imitation of great classical scores.

        But — when pointing at The Planets by Holst, and saying “Most game scores aren’t as good as this”, aren’t you forgetting that most classical music written at the same time as Holst was also not as good as this suite? I mean, it’s like people claiming that comedy nowadays is terrible, because they remember the bits of the Goons or Monty Python that were good, rather than the bits that didn’t really come off, let alone how terrible some of the other stuff contemporary to each of those examples was.

        I suspect that soundtracks are the equivalent to the processional/devotional/etc. music that composers were expected to turn out for their patrons — most people wouldn’t be able to hum everything that Haydn wrote as Kapellmeister to various courts, for example.

        I’ve got a feeling that film and game composition might be more culturally important, in the long run, than current “high culture” composition, if only because of the number of ears exposed to each, and because the volume that is produced will give the more chances for the happy accident that transforms “good” to “genius” to strike.

    • MikoSquiz says:

      Nobuo Uematsu’s always given me that feeling. There’s lots of those light prog-metal geeks out there composing New Agey orchestral flarf with occasional drums and guitars, and most of them just sit there on whatever the current equivalent of mp3.com is selling a couple CDs a month, because they don’t have obsessive fans, because their work isn’t featured in hugely popular video games.

      I mean, it’s all fair enough work, it’s never easy writing for a full orchestra (or even just the strings and flutes) and carrying it off convincingly, but the crazy fandom this stuff inspires in people whose particular geeky wheelhouse it happens to be in.. really, the first comparison that comes to mind is the rabid love for the Twilight films. (Making a movie is never easy, etc)

  9. Treebard says:

    At some point in the last couple months, the Idle Thumbs guys got to talking about these kinds of soundtracks (I think it was in reference to Halo’s hymn-like theme, maybe?), and pretty much discussed how it’s the fastest way to make your soundtrack forgettable, as it sounds exactly like everything else. Yawn.

    Personally, I agree, and feel that the simpler tools of older game music put more of a focus on the core melodies, which is why people keep coming back to those.

    HOWEVER

    This was a rad idea for an article, and I’d like to see more. Not enough focus on game music in general UNLESS it’s about one particular game. Talking to multiple professionals about trends is a great idea!

  10. misterT0AST says:

    Well, to be fair the main menu theme from Hitman 2 has been stuck in my head for many years. Also, does anyone particularly like/dislike Kingdom of Amalur’soundtrack? I haven’t heard ANY comments on it and it was composed by freaking Grant Kirkhope. Not ALL of the people who did good things at Rare are now dead or disappeared or have hopelessly lost at once all their talent… Have they?

  11. Zarunil says:

    I cannot avoid seeing this.

  12. IRiver says:

    Great read, thanks David Valjalo!

    But let me ask you a question RPS: Why do you so rarely cover the musical/sound parts of video games? It’ such a huge part in games when it comes to immersion.

  13. Lanfranc says:

    “Yo all other games, I’m really happy for you, and I’mma let you finish but Christopher Tin’s Baba Yaga for Civilization IV was one of the best pieces of game music of all time… one of the best pieces of game music of all time!”

    • aergistal says:

      It’s Baba Yetu, not Baba Yaga. The later is a crooked old lady in slavic folklore, while the first refers to god, the song lyrics being the swahili version of lord’s prayer.

      And this is the one occasion when the proper spelling could save your afterlife :)

      • Lanfranc says:

        Hah! Yeah, that is rather important, isn’t it? I probably got it mixed up with Mussorgsky’s Baba Yaga.

  14. Lekker says:

    Thank you for the article David. However, I feel the need to say:

    “Amon Tobin.”

    • Stan Lee Cube Rick says:

      Fuck yeah. I also love the awesomely creepy soundtrack NIN did for Quake.

  15. King in Winter says:

    I remember Jesper Kyd; Hardwired, Global Trash and so on. For the longest time I thought he was using a handle like most of the scene as it sounded so silly. Turns out he didn’t…

  16. ClassicVGMusic says:

    Great feature – thanks David. Also timely as I’m encouraging people once again to vote for classical video game scores for this year’s Classic FM Hall of Fame. We had two video game entries into the 2012 Hall of Fame (Skyrim, Final Fantasy VII) – would be great to see a consolidation of that and more PC orientated tracks in there this year, PARTICULARLY Baba Yetu if people are willing to vote for it!

    Voting page is http://halloffame.classicfm.com – there’s lots of video game scores in the voting database this year. Also facebook.com/classicvgmusic if you’re interested!

    • datom says:

      I apologise if this seems snarky, but are you a fan of ‘classical’ music, and do you genuinely believe that Baba Yetu and the theme from Skyrim are in the top 100 pieces of music ever written? Because it’s not very difficult to list 100 pieces of music that are better than that, IMO, if you limited yourself to composers whose surname began with an A or B.

      If not, you’re no better than those than spam-vote Twilight for greatest film ever, or vote for that dreadful HP Quidditch game as best computer game ever because you like the books,

      • ClassicVGMusic says:

        A wee bit snarky maybe? :)

        That’s a fair point, so to give some support – yes, I’m a fan of classical music, and yes I’ve been listening to the Hall of Fame for many years. And yes, I genuinely feel that there are several brilliant, classically orchestrated pieces of music from video games, which is why last year I set up http://www.facebook.com/classicvgmusic.

        In that first year a lot of people felt equally strongly enough to vote in two pieces of video game music into the Hall of Fame – a huge first for this genre of music.

        It’s an open vote and obviously musical taste is subjective – if this isn’t to your taste that is absolutely fine. But a lot of people do genuinely love this music and feel as emotionally moved by it, if not more so, than many “traditional” classical pieces. And let me add, the current No 1 piece, Rach’s Piano Concerto 2, which has been stuck in that position for several years, is a brilliant piece of music, undeniably. Opera I’m not such a fan of.

        But since that vote there’s been a huge surge of popularity in the genre in the UK – Final Fantasy Distant Worlds sold the Royal Albert Hall out in two hours, and there are already two major video game concerts lined up for Spring this year (LSO at the Barbican, RPO at Hammersmith Apollo). Not only that, as a direct result of last year’s vote Classic FM made UK radio history by dedicating two, two hours shows exclusively to orchestral video game scores. Secret of Mana suite on the radio – that was a real thing.

        So while I’m absolutely sure there will be many people who disagree with me, and I have no issue with that whatsoever, I’m sure there are many people who do, hence the post on what was a fortuitously timed feature.

        Hopefully that elevates me out of the “Twilight is the best film ever” mob!

        • datom says:

          I apologise. You have every right to your opinion. I regret my post which reads like a jackass. I suppose I’m a frustrated fan of twentieth century compositions that no-one buys.

          I also have an irrational dislike for Baba Yetu, which I think is straying dangerously close to the Lion King. FF music, on the other hand, is good.

          On the Opera front, can I recommend Adams’s Nixon in China? That was my way in. It struck a chord that allowed me to go Bach (he’d sit) to the classics.

          • ClassicVGMusic says:

            No apology needed! If nothing else, what I’m trying to do is promoting debate. Thanks for the opera tip!

  17. x3m157 says:

    No Martin O’Donnel interview? I am dissapoint.
    Great article though!

  18. Jason Moyer says:

    Awesome soundtrack composer not mentioned: Eric Brosius

    • cjlr says:

      The tracks from System Shock never fail to get my heart rate up. Partly because they’re cool, but partly, it must be said, from memories of playing that game late at night…

    • GameCat says:

      System Shock 2 OST is probably second best electronic music after Vangelis Blade Runner soundtrack.

      • sinister agent says:

        System Shock 2′s music is the weirdest thing. If you described the genre/general sound of it, it would be a terrible fit, and on the face of it, it is. But it just works, and adds so much to the game.

      • GameCat says:

        Why weird? This is almost perfect:

        • sinister agent says:

          A slow, tense, terrifying survival horror game about parasitic bioweapons taking people over and forcing them to kill their friends? Hmm… drum and bass!

          It just doesn’t sound right on paper at all, like a late 90s equivalent of shoving some generic dubstep into Amnesia. But it works in the game, somehow.

  19. BlueSkies says:

    The original Unreal Tournament had this amazing, pulsing, adrenaline pumping electronic soundtrack.

    Subsequent Unreal Tournaments have had forgettable, beige sounding orchestral mush.

    I think trackers are overdue a ressurgence!

    • Rao Dao Zao says:

      Amen to that, I say!

      If Windows’ General MIDI library just had half-decent samples in it these days (or, hell, proper soft-synths), truly dynamic music would have taken off years ago.

    • Glen Moyes says:

      Eh. I just switched back to doing music composition again (old hobby, used to use Impulse Tracker and later Buzz Tracker), and after doing a lot of research on DAWs, Buzz-clones, modern/commercial trackers, all I can say is that no, I don’t think there’s going to be a resurgence of trackers. Trackers really are obsolete now. (FYI I decided to start composing again using Ableton Live, which has everything I liked about composing with Buzz, in particular the sequence editor, but with a very nice “live recording” twist).

      I do have the same sentiment as a lot of people here: game music today is a lot more “meh” and is trying hard to stay in the background it seems. I think this is intentional. The general wisdom (if you agree with it or not) is that a soundtrack should not get in your face, it should be support; you shouldn’t even know it’s there. I’m pretty sure that wisdom has been borrowed from film scoring to games, and in film it is true in parts.

      I’m pretty sure that when you watch any film with John William’s music in it, the themes come in when there’s an establishing shot or there’s not much else going on screen. The rest of the soundtrack is that beige orchestral mush (very good mush though, but it’s still what we would consider to be unmemorable, it’s just that there’s so many great melodies that can be used as leitmotifs).

      In games that kind of controlling that is really really hard, so hard that no game to my knowledge does it. It’s just looping songs until events are triggered. Even though you don’t have the kind of control in games that allows you to have themes come in at the right time and have that supporting soundtrack at other times, I do think it’s better to err on the side of having the music that is up front. Most of a game is repetitive action such as shooting things or exploring the world, actions that don’t take the same part of your brain that listening to music does, parts that if they were in a movie actually WOULD have the main theme playing, or some other in-your-face song like the lobby scene from The Matrix.

      If dialog comes into the game, then just duck the audio, or an interesting solution that won’t involve too much programming would be to have two music tracks playing at the same time, the underscore track (that just has the bass, pads, other supporting bits), and another track that has the melody and other parts that would be distracting if there’s dialog. Then when dialog comes in just fade out the melody track.

  20. shamblemonkee says:

    How did Jeremy Soule not get a mention?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeremy_Soule#Discography

  21. sinister agent says:

    Ugh, 90s MIDI tunes were horrid. I was spoiled by growing up with the amiga’s sound hardware. Spoiled, I tell thee.

    Jesper Kyd’s work on Hitman 2 was magnificent in parts. This one is called “Hitman makes a decision”, and if you ever have a decision to make, try playing this as you do it. You will immediately feel unstoppably decisive. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZzK_mI3WvA

    The Unreal Tournament soundtrack was fantastic, too, with a handful of people involved. That whole techno-influenced theme has fallen under in the last decade or so, which I think is a real shame.

    • KenTWOu says:

      Still think that Hitman:Contracts is the most memorable score that Jesper Kyd has written.

    • RvLeshrac says:

      The best game music came from an MT-32. Always.

  22. Gassalasca says:

    Neverhood!

    Still the best game soundtrack ever.

    • Feferuco says:

      Don’t forget Skullmonkeys. Here’s a little bonus room…

  23. Solidstate89 says:

    I did a Ctrl+F for “Total Annihilation” and got zero results – for shame on all of you!

    shamblemonkee gets bonus points for mentioning Jeremy Soule though. All of my favorite soundtracks in videogames all happen to be from Jeremy Soule. To the point where if I begin looking for a game’s OST before I even know who the composer is, it invariable ends up being Jeremy Soule.

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  25. chargen says:

    Superior to the article’s three guys:

    Thomas Dvorak’s soundtracks for Samorost2 and Machinarium

    Lifeformed’s soundtrack for Dustforce

    Various Artists’ soundrack for Hotline Miami

    All of Jeremy Soule and Mark Morgan’s work.

    • David Valjalo says:

      Great choices. A lot of love for the Hotline Miami tunes from comments so far. Also cool to see nostalgic love for the likes of System Shock 2 and Ruskay’s work. If the composers above are right then the “middle-less” future of the industry, with a split between super-high and super-low budget games, could mean such experimental scores are a rarity.

  26. SupberUber says:

    To throw Jesper Kyd into the “Hollywood composer wannabe” group is quite ignorant and telling.

  27. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Hmm. I hope these guys are quite incorrect when they’re talking about that division. It seems rather silly to have orchestral music for all big budget titles. It doesn’t necessarily work and underappreciates the variety, the potential of music.

  28. cuiagaha says:

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  29. Lucifa says:

    Really glad I’m not the only one that finds these soundtracks generic and immediately forgettable. That goes for film as well. Also disagree with the notion that a good soundtrack is one you don’t notice. I think ambience and silence goes a lot further at instilling tension and emotion then bog-standard orchestral swells do.

  30. Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

    …(Dead Space, Tomb Raider),
    (Freedom Fighters, Assassin’s Creed) …
    …(Splinter Cell, Black Ops 2)

    Welp, if anyone can remember a single piece from any of the games listed here, you’ve much better memory than I do.
    This was so irritating to read, with quotes like:
    “I mean, you can have a live orchestra play C-scale and it sounds incredible, beautiful,”
    “the game producers are listening to film scores and saying wow, we want our scores to sound like that, that professional polish is what we’re looking for.”

    …because it’s probably correct and plenty of people making games DO think this way.

  31. Excelle says:

    If you enjoyed reading this – can I suggest you seek out the Top Score podcast (http://minnesota.publicradio.org/radio/programs/top-score/)? I stumbled across it a while ago and it is quite excellent, with interviews with all the top composers (except my personal favourite – Jeremy Soule!).

  32. Post-Internet Syndrome says:

    I somewhat agree with the various critics above that feel this trend of orchestral music in games is spouting a lot of generic blahah. I do think the orchestra has a place in game music, but it shouldn’t be the default go-to just because you have a big budget. I find Jesper Kyd’s combinations of real instruments and electronic sounds to be a nice blend, in particular the soundtrack for Hitman Contracts, and some of the stuff in the first two assassin’s creed games.

    And yes, as was pointed out above, imitating film music (that itself is heavily based on the classical music of the early-mid 20th century) is mildly silly, since it is made for a completely different environment.

    As a side note, my main encounter with Jack Wall was Myst IV. An underappreciated gem, that.