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 Inon Zur

Los Angeles–based composer Inon Zur

“You’re really not limited by any boundaries except those that you set yourself,” says Los Angeles–based Inon Zur, an award-winning composer whose game credits include The Lord of the Rings: War in the North, Dragon Age, and Fallout: New Vegas. “One of the things I love most about composing music for games is the challenge of creating something new and uncovering new ways to convey a story.”

For example, Zur says his work on the Fallout series demanded a great deal of originality because the music was not constrained to a particular style. “The producers were open-minded, which was great because that allowed me to let my imagination fly and compose music that was really out of the box.” For the project, Zur was able to incorporate rare instruments with a classical orchestra and electronic effects. “Just like you would with other media, you have to capture the emotions of the story, but you have greater freedom to do so.”

Greater creative freedom is possible in the gaming world because, generally speaking, there are fewer gatekeepers. “When I score for a videogame, there’s usually a creative director and maybe three other guys who are in decision-making roles," says Salchow, "whereas when you do a commercial, there are about 15 people you’ve got to please. So even though I may only be writing 30 seconds of music, the project can be a more chaotic process overall.”

Speaking of the story: Unlike film composers who have a script in hand and a good understanding of how the story unfolds and ultimately ends, the trick for game composers is figuring out how to create music for a story that is, in large part, unwritten.

“With games, the developers can only show you what they’ve developed so far, so most of the time, you don’t have the full scope of the story when you begin a project,” says Salchow. This is because developers test their games as they are in development to obtain—and react to—the feedback they receive, which dictates the direction of the game. Salchow says this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for composers, since music for games is delivered in modules that aren’t synced to frames specifically, and sometimes a piece of music that is written for a situation that gets changed or cut can wind up working in another place in the game.

The Appeal

In fact, what proves appealing to composers and can edge out their desire to compose for other media is the creative freedom offered in composing for videogames.

“I had worked in L.A. for about three years as a composer when I realized it just wasn’t my cup of tea," says Graves. "All I was doing was copying the temp tracks, and it just left a lot to be desired.” After moving back home to North Carolina in 2001 and taking on some corporate music and ad agency work, Graves was given an opportunity to work on music for the King Arthur videogame. “What slapped me in the face was that the 45 minutes’ worth of music I had to do in three weeks was all approved. It was the antitheses of spending hours and hours creating music for a 30-second commercial and being in the fourth round of revisions.”






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