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A few thoughts about interactive music

Add Comment! By Jeffrey Rosen on January 22nd, 2009

This post is by Mikko Tarmia who is working on the music for Overgrowth. You can listen to some of the Overgrowth music on the Overgrowth ModDB Page.

I want to share some of my thoughts about music in games. Games are now a huge consumer of people's time -- some of us spend more time playing games than doing anything else (even sleeping). Technology is still an obstacle for getting the most out of games, but I think audiowise we already have all the technology that is needed for creating "high-end" soundtracks. It's not a matter of computing power anymore, it's the budget - both developers' and consumers' wallet - which decides how good the music will sound through gamers' speaker systems. In my opinion we have been on par with movie industry for years. Growing budgets in the game business have opened a door for using live orchestras (if one can afford it) and even some of the top movie composers have shown interest in interactive markets (Elfman, Greggson-Williams, Badalamenti to name a few).

Overgrowth on ModDB

To create a working and seamless interactive soundtrack one has to adapt an ability to see things in a non-linear way. Interactivity in music is a collaboration of audio creation and programming. There are multiple ways to control music to change with a player's actions during the game and some of them require more inventiveness from composers, but I believe the real innovations lies in the hands of audio programmers. In linear entertainment (movies and tv-shows) there has never been any option for it: all the innovations have been purely done with the use of music, and tricks are getting short. I'm not a good predictor of the future, but I can sense that the experiments in gaming will drastically change during the next decade. Hopefully this will also create a need for new kind of audio tools to create even more elastic game music as I believe there are still lots of things to improve in audio interaction.

I think the most successful in-game music is the kind you don't notice consciously. The function of in-game music is quite similar to underscore music used in movies - it's background music, a supporting moodsetter which shouldn't override any other element shown/heard in the picture (exceptions are there for applying various effects). Its purpose is to make the immersion whole, and I think neutrality in music (which is mostly done by careful use of melodies and instruments/sounds) is a key element for making this immersion durable. I'm sure you have all experienced almost unbearable frustration with games, trying to jump over an impossible gap or trying to kill an undefeatable boss for half a day, and the same background music with annoying melody is still playing there, tripling the frustration. Or you could try playing Radar Rat Race for few hours in a row with volume turned on (remember to keep your Valiums near!). :)

For Overgrowth, we are doing our best to meet the requirements set by the changes in plans for the game content. As the original Lugaru 2 concept is now being updated and will show its new fur in the form of Overgrowth, so also will the music made for L2 be improved. I'm also excited about the collaboration with Anton Riehl, who played the ethnic flute for the Overgrowth Main Theme. We will be hearing some more of his playing later.

It would be interesting to know about your experiences with game music. Name a few game soundtracks, both good and bad. Tell me why it ruined or saved the game and what was the reason for it. This was my input today, now I'm going to turn on my C64 and play some serious rat racing for a while. ;)