Scoring to Picture!
Game Composing’s Final Frontier: 

Part 1: The Influence of Film Scores
“Are we there yet?”

Over the last two decades -since the advent of CD-ROMs- game composers have pursued orchestral instrumentation and filmic stylings, seeking the nuanced musicianship and epic nature of contemporary film scores. The ability to include recorded music in games also allowed a wider range of musical genres in game scores, with many development teams willing to experiment with musical aesthetics, perhaps more so than many contemporary film scores. In parallel, a stylistic resurgence of game music’s earliest roots, based on 80s arcade and classic chip-based music, has spawned its own music genre. Considering all this, writing game music has become a vastly rich and exceedingly vibrant environment in which to play!

The influence of film scores on game music continues now and will continue into the future (and there’s evidence of influence working in the other direction as well.) As game composers we draw from the same range of classical, romantic, and 20th century orchestral concert repertoire. In turn we’re also stylistically influenced by the great lineage of iconic film composers. We now record with many of the same A-list orchestras and musicians world-wide. Our orchestral recording techniques, hardware, software, and mixing are often on par with film. Many scores are mixed in surround. Our ancillary soundtrack recordings are compelling in and of themselves. Live concerts of game music are now a regular occurrence. Legions of game music fans are more dedicated than ever. And perhaps most notably, the caliber of raw composition skill among our ranks is simply staggering.

So what’s left? To be sure, our growth as composers never ends, but there’s one important lesson from film music that game composers have yet to truly apply to games: and that is scoring to picture!

Yes we score cinematic cut-scenes in great detail, because those are essentially short films embedded within the larger game narrative. Like film they’re linear, so the correlation to film is direct. But gameplay itself, the central aspect of this medium, is typically scored quite loosely to picture and gameplay. In essence, films are scored moment to moment, while games are scored minute to minute. Now, there have been many important advances in music design and implementation in recent years. The best games take great care with the spotting of music cues, and how the music is balanced with the rest of the audio. Adding/subtracting layers is common in order to parallel the games’ intensity/mood, and state based transitions are often employed to help music follow the narrative flow. We should be extremely proud of how far our discipline has come (and this year’s GDC audio track lineup continues to push on these boundaries.) But is that it, or is there more to learn from our older more experienced sibling, film music? Is there untapped potential for our scores to be even more integral to our games, the way film music is inextricably tied to film, moment to moment?

If you’ve seen, or been part of, a spotting session for a film, you know that while some moments are more important than others, the detail is often spelled out in terms of seconds (and even frames). Beyond that, film composers, in both overt and subtle ways, are scoring with an awareness of what’s on screen at each and every point along the way. Game composers, for reasons we’ll be exploring, haven’t had that luxury. More frequently than not, composers score gameplay blindfolded; seeing only screenshots or short game-captures, often never hearing their music in game until the game’s released!

You’ll notice I haven’t used the words interactive or adaptive music in this post (until now,) and that’s on purpose. I want to emphasize the creative goal, ‘scoring to picture,’ rather than the logistical techniques. Adaptive and interactive methods are simply tools; a means by which composers are able to score music to a dynamic narrative and nonlinear picture. Also, those terms tend to be over-interpreted as ’special’ concepts only for certain games and not others. The truth is that all game music is adaptive to one degree or another; including basic designs that feature 3 minute music loops that cross-fade between each other.

In our discipline, there’s often an unnecessary divide between those who compose, vs. those who design and integrate music. (Of course I’m speaking generally. There are many exceptions to this currently and historically.) Having a music team with various roles and functions is one thing, but in today’s environment composers have little influence on how their music will work against picture in games. Imagine if this were the case with film:

You, the film composer, receive a cue sheet with open ended cue names like; love scene – 3 minute loop, battle music – 5 minute loop in stems, castle ambience – 8 short phrases, etc. and music editors would take care of the rest. You never get to see moving picture, just screen images and verbal direction from the film director. Ask yourself; as a composer, would that be as creatively satisfying as scoring the film to picture? Could the result possibly be as good? Likewise in games, questions we should be asking include; Do I want to write themes and music to be used in games and end it there? Or do I want to take the next step, and participate in the design, presentation, and integration of my music within the game experience? Ultimately, do I want to score music to dynamic picture and gameplay?

The implications of these questions bring up notable challenges and even deeper questions, which is what the subsequent parts of this writing will unpack:

Part 2: Rethinking the Culture and Marketplace of Game Composing
“Do sound designers like games more than composers?”
(coming soon)

Part 3: Applying Film Scoring Concepts to Dynamic Game Scores
“How do I get there from here, …and from here, and from way over there?”
(coming soon)

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