In this article I’ll explore three common video game music cliches. My goal in writing this article is not to deride the games or their scores as I use as examples, but to point out some of the common weaknesses in video game scores and make suggestions as to avoid them. Hopefully the more knowledge we have as a community about scoring games, the better our scores will become. Please note that I have committed these sins on more than one occasion, and am in no way blameless for perpetuating cliches in video game music. Creating an effective game score is challenging.
Composers don’t typically begin a project with the goal of writing a piece of music that sounds cliche, or repetitive. But because of many different factors (including budget, schedule, or implementation) a score may not turn out the way the composer or developer had initially intended. The developer is generally responsible for defining these elements, and any of these factors may put the composer in an awkward position of not being happy with the final outcome of the score.
Many of the cliches below are related just as much to how the music is implemented as to the actual score itself. The composer may or may not have control of how his/her music is implemented. And sadly, many players don’t hear a difference between a good score that is just badly implemented, or bad music.
Cliche #1: Repetition
Without good implementation, a sublime score can be ruined. As an example, we’ll take a look at Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch released in 2011 for PS3 by Studio Ghibli and Level-5. Ni No Kuni is a JRPG (Japanese role playing game) in the style of Final Fantasy or Star Ocean. The animation is beautiful, and the gameplay is engaging, and the musical score by Joe Hisashi and Rei Kondoh is exquisite.
The structure for a JRPG typically consists of an explore state, transitioning to a battle state when a creature is encountered. The battle music will play until the battle concludes, followed by win or lose music. Then the game returns to the exploration state and it’s corresponding explore music.
The battle music in this case begins with a strong five note motif. The player is presented with many battles in a row, so they hear that five note motif so many times that it feels very repetitive. After the battle music finished, the player is returned to the lush beautiful exploration music which has continued to play muted until we return from battle. The music ensemble also changes between the exploration music and the battle, increasing the disconnect and lack of continuity for the player. This emphasizes the five note motif even more.
Composers need to review how their final music is reflected in the game after it’s implemented so that they have full understanding of how the player is going to hear their music. In this case, there would have been several easy solutions to eliminate the repetition. One inexpensive solution would be to randomize the start point of the battle music to begin at section entrances throughout the piece. Another more expensive solution would be to enter the music without such a prominent motif. Final Fantasy XIII is a good example of a JRPG that doesn’t hit you over the head every time you enter into a battle sequence.
As a side note, I’m a huge Hayao Miyazaki and Joe Hisashi fan, which is what originally led me to Ni No Kuni. This game was produced in collaboration with Studio Ghibli. I have enormous admiration for the animation and music from their previous works. Ni No Kuni was the first game where I felt like I was in one of their movies like Totoro or Spirited Away. The animation and music score itself are beautiful on their own – although the implementation ultimately fails in my experience of the game.
Lastly, the example below from Uncharted 2 (composed by Greg Edmonson) uses a much different approach to the repetitive gameplay scenarios by using multiple start points in the same cue to avoid repetition in the music.
Cliche #2: Drums = Combat
Many of today’s video games have an element of combat. Composers frequently use drums to emphasize these battle states. This has been overused to the point that the player is typically informed more from the music that he’s engaged in combat, than what the player is seeing on the screen. The music in this situation acts more like a diegetic element; almost as if an alarm has gone off within the world informing the player that he should get ready for combat.
As an example we’ll take a look at the video game Dishonored released on Xbox 360 in 2012 and composed by Daniel Licht. In this scene, the player hears the music of the combat long before he sees any combatants. The music is informing the player more about the upcoming emotion he SHOULD be feeling rather than it supporting what’s on the screen. In a way, the music may ruin the surprise and intensity for the player.
There is also a danger of mimicking too much of what we see on the screen with music, which is the film scoring cliche known as Mickey-Mousing. This film scoring technique is frequently used with cartoons and humor. As soon as players start identifying a particular musical technique with an action or state with a game, music fails to provide the emotional context or underpinning for a scene. It becomes a very conscious alert element to the player instead.
Over the past 10-15 years, drums and percussion have been the go-to element for composers to use when composing for combat sequences. Because of their overuse, the challenge for all composers who have to write for these scenes is to come up with new more inventive and unique ways to approach battle. Composers should look to other tools in their arsenal for creative ways to create battle tension including alternative melodic and harmonic approaches, meter and tempo changes, or alternative orchestration.
There are some excellent things about Daniel Licht’s score that are worth pointing out, including his outstanding use of silence in between musical phrases before and after the combat sequence. This technique is an excellent example of a more subtle, western approach to video game scoring for suspense sequences.
Cliche #3: Lack of Subtlety in Scores
In many games, there are very few emotional states. Game music states are turned on and off based on those game states. For example a stealth shooter may have three emotional states during gameplay: stealth, detected, and combat. Composers typically write cues which are broadly simplified for each of these states. Then, when the game is played these music cues turn on/off based on the player actions. The trouble with this scenario is that composers don’t account for emotional subtlety within each musical states.
Typically, those music states are static once they are started whereas the complexity during that state may evolve over time. As an example, in a battle state there is an actually a much more complex story being played out about who’s winning and losing, how difficult the opponent(s) may be, how many opponents there are, how close to death the player is, and more. The drama and story of the battle state is much deeper than just turning the battle cue on/off. It’s like using a sledgehammer for whether you have a drive a stake into the ground, and the same sledgehammer to hammer a nail into a wall for a picture frame.
Rarely in video games to composers score for the subtlety of the emotional story that is being told in that moment. Games just trigger the battle music, and when it’s over the game moves on to the next music cue. The story isn’t just whether the battle is on or off, but rather the narrative that is in the battle itself. The music in our next generation of games should reflect that.
In addition, music typically has only one function at a time in video games whether it’s location, or defining an emotional state. When composers and audio directors speak about adaptive scores it’s to seamlessly link these cues together as opposed to adapting each individual cue to the story. In this scenario, the music cue has to carry the weight of multiple functions at the same time, e.g. describing the location, AND how well the player is doing in battle. This increases the complexity that the composer has to deal with, and the amount of music they need to write. As always, these have budget and production implications.
There ARE games that are breaking these cliches out there, including the topic of subtlety in combat music. There is an excellent Game Developer Conference presentation from 2013 about the innovative combat music from Assassin’s Creed III which you can watch through the GDC Vault.
One of the biggest challenges that composers face when scoring video games is that there is so much content to write, that just covering the narrative aspects of the game can be difficult within budget and production constraints. Composers need to begin to communicating with their audio directors and developers to convince them that better music means better games.
Better implementation of a score can improve the player’s experience of the game. Writing more creatively gives games more individuality and uniqueness. Moment to moment adaptive scores are more effective that just turning on or off a cue. In turn, the budgets need to reflect the concerns of composers to create better music for games, and ultimately make better games.
It is our responsibility as composers to educate producers and developers about these cliches in video game music, or else they may continue to dictate these very cliches to us every time.