PopMark Media’s Confessions of a Small Working Studio:
Music and Videogames—A Composer’s Paradise?

Mar 13, 2012 4:50 PM, By Lisa Horan

photo of Jason Graves

Jason Graves conducts an orchestra at Skywalker Sound.

If you grew up in the 1980s, then you can appreciate the mesmerizing power of Atari, Intellivision, and Sega. We may get it, but today’s generation looks at these games and equates them with the Flintstones, scratching their heads in pure bewilderment at how we could ever have been entertained by such rudimentary graphics and low-tech bleeps, crashes, and whirs. You really can’t blame them, because the videogames they have at their fingertips exhibit a wholly different level of sophistication. In many ways, they are much like mini-movies that contain complex graphics, authentic sounds, and custom musical compositions.

This month, I spoke with three of the nation’s top videogame composers: Jason Graves, Inon Zur, and Boris Salchow. Truth be told, when I prepared for my interviews, I didn’t expect my sources would have much to say about the differences between composing for games and other media. As it turns out, though, they did. And for them, the differences are precisely why they’ve carved a niche for themselves in the medium.

A Totally Different Game
If you’re a gamer, then you know just what an important part music plays in modern videogames. Just about every game created for the major systems contains a musical theme that sets the tone for the game, much like a soundtrack sets the tone for a film. But there is one big difference: “In the majority of films, it’s the dialog that drives the story, with the music playing a supporting role, but in videogames, the sound is front and center,” says Jason Graves, whose videogame credits as a composer include Prey 2, Command & Conquer: Tiberium Twilight, and Dead Space, to name just a few. “In games, there is dialog only about 10-percent of the time, so the music and sound effects are really drawing the player in and creating the setting—whether it’s happy, scary, exhilarating, or calm.”

photo of Boris Salchow

Boris Salchow at Abbey Road Studios in London

The interactive aspect of videogames also makes them quite different from scoring for films and TV programs. “When writing game music, you have to consider how the player is going to interact with the game throughout its duration," explains Boris Salchow, a German-born composer who now makes his home in Los Angeles, and whose credits include Resistance 3, Ratchet & Clank, and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas 2. "The challenge is, you never know how long a player will be in one place, so as a composer, you have to make judgment calls and deliver chunks of music that are loopable and can be layered to accommodate the different options the player has.”

Because of these multiple options that are available to players, a composer must create multiple musical elements. For instance, whereas a chase scene in a movie will be written to perfectly fit as a 2- or 3-minute scene, in a game, a chase scene may last for anywhere from a minute to 20 minutes and beyond, depending on the player’s choices. So, the music has to be written to accommodate the varying levels of intensity experienced by the player.

Of course, that translates into big-time volume. In fact, oftentimes game composers are expected to deliver several hours’ worth of music for a project over a period of weeks or months. However, along with the required volume comes more room for creativity and flexibility, and more often than not, fewer higher-ups to impress.

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