The Puzzle of Gaming Music

An Inside Look at How Video Game Music Is Composed


November 2, 2015 Culture By
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Every month, over 20 million people per hear the music of Dren McDonald. And of those millions, next to no one knows his name. McDonald works in the game industry as an audio director, composer and sound designer and his work has been featured on over 40 games including Transformers: Age of Extinction The Official Game, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Commander, Dangerous Dave Deluxe, Skulls of the Shogun, Elevate and Ravenwood Fair. His work on The String Arcade won a Game Audio Network Guild award in 2015.

McDonald was originally involved in the music industry in a traditional sense, recording CDs and touring. He played, in his words, “Kurt Weill-Klezmer-inspired music.” As the music business started to change — with the recording industry losing both influence and capital, in part due to new technologies to stream, rather than buy, music — McDonald realized that making CDs and touring wasn’t the way to make a living. So he switched gears and started composing for video games. McDonald immediately loved the inclusiveness of the gaming industry. “Right away, it was a much more open industry than the music industry,” noted McDonald.

Composing for a video game requires a different way of thinking about music. Most music is linear: it is played, or listened to, from beginning to end. Video game music, on the other hand, is nonlinear: it has to be scored to the possibility of what can happen in a game. It is written in cells and segments that dovetail and repeat as gameplay transitions. A player can encounter any number of elements that will change gameplay, so composers need to write music that can easily transition from one theme to another (e.g. from calmer music during a journey to more intense music during a battle). “It’s a big puzzle,” said McDonald. “The biggest challenge is writing music with the consideration of where those transitions occur and knowing the big picture of how it will all fit together later.”

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In order to be successful as a video game composer, one needs to have a working knowledge of what makes each game tick. Composers must know the different types of games, how they are played, and the nuances and transitions of every scene in order to have a more open dialogue with video game developers, who often reference other games when describing the music they want for a scene. Video game composers also have to be flexible. Some gaming companies don’t have substantial recording budgets, and often composers must play their own instruments or make digital sounds convincing with a virtual instrument library.

Collaboration in video game music is also essential. A game developer’s input can spark fresh ideas in a musician, and vice versa. McDonald referenced the music in Star Wars, and the interaction between George Lucas and composer John Williams as a prime example: “Lucas originally wanted Williams to create a score that was, essentially, a re-orchestration of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Williams had other ideas and pushed for a score with different themes.”

McDonald has his own favorites when it comes to gaming music and called Peter McConnell’s score for Grimm Fandango “fantastic.” He finds McConnell’s compositions transcend genres — they’re enjoyable to listen to even out of the context of the video game. The soundtrack to Bioshock, by prolific film, TV and video game composer Garry Schyman is also a favorite of McDonald’s. And, he added, his list wouldn’t be complete without the legendary compositions of Koji Kondo, who composed music for the early Nintendo games (including titles in the Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda series). Of Kondo’s compositions, McDonald said, “He’s kind of a wonder. His themes somehow work on a chip and sound great played by an orchestra.”

Though video games are complex visual-centric puzzles, it’s the music and sounds that accompany gameplay that raise a player’s emotional involvement. A great score will make suspenseful moments scarier and incredible battles more memorable. “The best game music comes out of the collaboration between the game developer and the musician,” said McDonald, and that maxim is true both in process and in play.

McDonald’s Playlist

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