How to Start with Game Music – Interactivity

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When you think about it, music for games is not that different from music for film. You still try to match your music to things happening on the screen. You create themes or leitmotifs if the director wants you to. If you already know how to compose film music, you have an advantage, yay!

If you do not know how to compose film music, there are great books available that teach this art and craft. You should read them even if your focus is solely on music for games. But there are some things that game music composer should know that are not present in case of film music.

In this article, I will try to:

  • Answer how music for games is different from film music.
  • What software you should actually learn to improve your skills as a composer of music for games.
  • What you should expect when working on music for games.

Let’s start.

Interactivity, the Main Aspect of Game Music

Game music is different from film music in one particular way: music for games often incorporates some level of interactivity – it has to adapt to what is happening in the game, react to the actions of the player – this interactivity is achieved through composing many different “pieces” of music and making them work together in an interactive way through computer code and software known as middleware.

If you want to make music for games, you should learn about adaptive (interactive) music, especially two types of adaptivity: vertical and horizontal.

Generally, music for games can be categorized into:

  1. Interactive music.
  2. Non-interactive music.

Non-interactive music is exactly the same thing as music for film – you have a cutscene, a pre-programmed animation with recorded dialogs, events, things happening, and you need to create music for this scene. So this is exactly the same thing you do for scenes in films.

But interactive music is different, because it has to adapt to things the player does. 

For example, developers do not know for how long the player will wander a specific area in the game. He may walk around for 10 seconds, or stick around for 10 minutes. As a composer, you do not know this either, so you need to make sure your music will loop and play for as long as it is needed. And we’re talking about seamless loop. This influences the composition process, because you need to design the way for your music to actually loop. Such loopable music is one example of adaptivity. 

FMOD selection of a loopable audio piece – the game will use this selection and some computer code to loop this part of audio file. We create adaptive music through both graphical tools and programming languages.

Another example is a more direct adaptivity. Let’s say the player decided to finally leave the area and move to the next one, in which he will be presented with beautiful creations of the art department. The game director tells you he wants some beautiful emotional music to embrace this particular moment of the game – so you need to compose an emotional piece that will extend the previous loopable music, fitting it perfectly and being played at the very moment the player enters a new area. This change of music from a loop into another part is managed by computer code and so called “trigger zones”, run by the game engine. 

The image below shows such trigger zones.

Basically, they are areas in the game that are visible during the creation process, but are invisible in the finished game itself. Once the player enters this trigger zones, the game engine uses computer code to trigger some kind of action, like a change in music.

As a game music composer, you need to be aware that inside the game’s level there is an invisible box that will trigger a particular piece of computer code that will trigger new part of music you composed. And the transition between two different pieces should be seamless, as well.

Another type of adaptive music is layered music that loops. The player walks around and a couple of layers of music plays in the background, such as calming pads. But then enemies attack the player, and the game triggers another layer, dynamic drums, that play over the pads for as long as the player fights the enemies. So you compose music as a single piece, but one that will sound good when exploded into various layers. This can be pictured as two different stems in your DAW – as long as the game is peaceful, only one stem can be heard, the second one is muted. Once enemies attack, a second stem is unmuted and both stems play at the same time.

So that’s generally what you should expect – adaptive music. And the best way to learn how to create adaptive music for games is to actually know how to work with audio middleware and game engines. While you may be a great music composer, and you can have great communication skills, actually knowing how things work would give you a huge advantage when going into music for games.

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Don’t miss the next chapter to learn about some of the most important tools and resources a game composer encounters on his/her path.

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Wojciech Usarzewicz

Wojciech Usarzewicz

Wojciech Usarzewicz is a music composer from Poland. He enjoys studying cinematic scores. He composed music for TailQuest: Defense, an indie tower defense game coming soon on Steam. He published a completely free course, Interactive Game Music for Beginners in which he teaches how to work with FMOD and adaptive game music.

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