Music and sound in video games has come a long way since the simple eight bit music from the first generations of console games. Now most gamers are expect a full orchestral score and realistic sound. If you recall one of the biggest criticisms of Doom 3 was that the machine gun didn’t sound meaty enough. We recently had the chance to talk to dSonic about their approach to music in games, and here it is.
GamingNexus: Can you introduce yourself and tell us what your role is in the company? How long have you been with the company and how did you get into the game music industry?
Kemal Amarasingham I am founder and creative director, dSonic
GamingNexus: Can you give us a little history behind dSonic, how the company was founded and what services do you provide?
Kemal Amarasingham: My brother had been working as a composer/sound designer at Looking Glass Studios for 6 years – on titles such as System Shock 2 and the Thief series - it unfortunately went out of business in 2000. At that point I had been composing music and sound effects as a freelancer for everything from film to commercials to games for a good 10 years and so we started talking about working together. We both agreed that the game industry was the most interesting place to be as it represented a new frontier for music and sound, so we conceived of dSonic as an audio production company exclusively focused on the game industry. We can handle all aspects of sound content in a game – music, sound effects, dialogue and also the process of integrating those sounds into the game, the implementation.
GamingNexus: What is dSonic's approach to scoring music to a game? What do you need to start working on the score for a game? Do you take input from the developers in terms of what they would like to hear or do you pretty much have cart Blanche?
Kemal Amarasingham: Our approach depends a lot on the situation, but the primary motivator is having an idea of what we think works in a game. A lot of games are based on action so creating music that enhances that high-adrenalin, kill-the-bad-guys vibe – without letting up - is a big part of it.
In terms of working with the developers sometimes they have very specific ideas about what they want and in those cases we do our best to get in their heads – that can mean trying a number of things until we find the right musical expression for their ideas. Other times we are left to write something that we think works but either way, eventually when we get on the right course, there is usually so much to be done, we rely on our understanding of the game to come up with the material.
Finally as well as the creative content of music there is also the technical issue of how the music is being played back and what devices we can put to use there. When we are involved with implementing the music as well as creating it, we look for ways to avoid the continuous looping of music, which gets annoying no matter how good the piece is. In Mage Knight Apocalypse, for example, when you get into battle, we randomly trigger one of a collection of short pieces of music. The music ends before the battle usually does so it doesn’t get annoying and hopefully leaves you wanting to hear some more.
GamingNexus: Music and sound in games has come along way since the simple beeps of the early games, where do you see it going in the future?
Kemal Amarasingham: We really feel that there is a whole bag full of stuff that is waiting to be explored in the realm of music for games. The main thing is in finding ways to make the music more adaptive to the game play – that is specifically reacting to what is happening in the game in real time. There has been a lot of discussion of this over the years, but it is certainly not the standard practice for games to use adaptive music. Mostly games have different music for battle as opposed to non-violent world exploration, but even getting these 2 tracks to seamlessly, musically transition from one to the other is a challenge that requires the integration of creative and technical fields. Consequently we don’t hear it much currently….but, again, that also means there’s a lot of exciting new stuff to come.
GamingNexus: Composing music for a video game is a lot different than composing for a movie or television show, can you explain what the big differences are?
Kemal Amarasingham: The biggest difference is the incorporation of the game engine into the equation. Unlike a movie or TV score, which is linear, a games action and storyline is dictated by what player is doing at any given point, so we’re really creating music and a set of rules (the implementation) for the music to follow, so it in turn can support the gamer’s playing style.
To write game music you need to do everything a movie/TV composer does, but additionally you have to understand how the game software is going to play back your audio files. In many cases you’re likely to be creating a series of small chunks of music that get combined and played in some way by the software. So ideally, the process of composing the music includes testing the music in the game to see what happens in various different situations…then going back and rewriting those chunks so to iteratively improve the end result in the game
GamingNexus: What do you think the role of music is in a game? Is it more reacting to what the player is doing and providing a method of feedback or can it act as a game play mechanism to help guide the player or both?
Kemal Amarasingham: The great thing about creating game music is that it can be any of the above and in the future it will be even some concepts we’ve never thought in other mediums because of their linear nature.
When a game is designed, the team creating it can really decide how the music will act in the game and use the different methods you describe to the best advantage of the gameplay via the game engine. Every level can have a different playback mechanism that supports what is going on in that level, which in a good game will change over time.
I think in the future there could even be some element of user input as to how the music reacts and decisions that they make when playing could affect the music they hear later. The possibilities are really endless.
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