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.
GamingNexus: There's been a lot of talk in the industry about gaming creating emotions. Does music have a role play in creating emotion in games or is it strictly the writing/plot in the game?
Kemal Amarasingham: I think when done correctly and it’s kept in mind from the beginning during the design of the game that sound has a huge impact on emotion. Since it’s not something that we can see, audio has the ability to really creep into the backdoor of our emotions and play with them in a way that is unique. Sometimes we really can’t tell why certain sounds and music do this, but it works in a way that can really support and twist the way we feel about the plot in a game.
GamingNexus: Outside of your own work, what's your favorite use of music in a game? Who are the other composers who are really driving the industry right now?
I’ve recently been playing Okami and really been enjoying the music that was done for that. I’m a fan of music that brings something unique to a game (or any medium) as it’s a really great way to explore new emotions within entertainment. I’d say the people who are doing that, as well as trying out new ways to incorporate sound and music into the gameplay itself are the people who are really driving the industry in a good direction right now. There are some great audio directors in the industry that work at various developers and publishers who are the ones that are making this happen more an more.
GamingNexus: You’ve been working on Mage Knight Apocalypse for quite some time, why has the effort taken so long?
Kemal Amarasingham: Games now are extremely huge and the amount of content needed is staggering. We worked on Mage Knight for about a year, with a team of from 3 – 8 during various stages. When you take on the implementation of the audio as well the time needed to complete the work becomes much longer, but as many of my game industry audio friends say, that’s about 50% of what makes a game sound good.
GamingNexus: dSonic also does voice-over work for games, do you have a set group of people do you work with or do you look for new people for each game? What’s your opinion on using celebrity voices in games?
Kemal Amarasingham: We have actors that we’ve used for a long time and are always auditioning new people as time goes on to find the talented people out there. We tend to find that the people who can do many different character voices are the most use to us.
As for using celebrity voice in games, I think it can be great if it really adds something to the gameplay. For example, I think using a voice like Arnold (you know who I’m talking about) is really fun because of his unique sound and attitude and it feels great to hear those lines in a game and take on that persona. I’d like to see games explore the different character voices that celebrities can do so that it really serves the game, rather than just have them read in their normal voice….I think this would be great to have someone come in and do 10 different characters voices in a game and really get involved to bring it to life.
GamingNexus: What’s the hardest sound effect you’ve ever had to come up with? Are there certain types of games that are harder to come up with sounds for?
Kemal Amarasingham: I think the hardest sounds effects to make are the shortest ones, like button sounds for a medieval game or effective weapon swooshes that sound unique for every weapon in the game and give the gamer a sense of the weight of them. It’s easy to make these sound ok and passable, but to make them sound really cool and give the game a unique aural personality takes some doing since they tend to be repeated throughout the game and do so in rapid succession.
The hardest types of games to make sound good I think are the ones that only have a few sounds in them. Since there are only a few sounds, then they better be good, and not get on peoples nerves otherwise you’re in trouble. Difficult to do well!
GamingNexus: Of your body of work so far what are you most proud of?
Kemal Amarasingham: We’ve actually had a groundbreaking year with many projects including Oblivion, Might andMagic, etc. But two projects, Namco’s Mage Knight being one of them and the other, which you might have read about in the news, was that we worked alongside Creative Labs to create an adaptive audio MOD for Unreal Tournament. That MOD works in conjunction with their X-Fi sound card to enhance the audio and allow it to “adapt” to what is happening on screen. For example, it alters each weapon sound so you’re not hearing the same repetitive sounds again and again, and as your strength gets low, the music and audio effects adjust to that to signal “low strength.”
Putting out an Adaptive Audio patch was a huge milestone for us and we hope that it starts to become more noticed as a viable audio strategy – one that can really impact games and catch audio up to the amazing graphics. Our goal is to make audio just as much a priority for gamers as the graphics and gameplay. Gamers shouldn’t have to settle.
Thanks to Kemal for taking the time to answer our questions and to Stephanie for hooking us up with the interview opportunity.