“Feel-Good Game Sound” for the Game Music Composer

How can we define “feel-good game sound”? That’s the question that sound designer Joonas Turner attempted to answer with his recent GDC Europe talk entitled, “Oh My! That Sound Made the Game Feel Better!”  Joonas’ talk was a part of the Independent Games Summit portion of GDC Europe, which took place in Cologne Germany on Monday August 3rd 2015.

While much of Joonas’ talk focused on issues that would chiefly concern sound designers, there were several interesting points for game composers to consider.  I’ll be exploring those ideas in this blog.

Joonas is a video game sound designer and voice actor working within the E-Studio professional recording studio in Helsinki, Finland.  His game credits include Angry Birds Transformers, Broforce, and Nuclear Throne.  After briefly introducing himself, Joonas launched into his talk about creating an aural environment that “feels good” and also makes the game “feel good” to the player. He starts by identifying an important consideration that should guide our efforts right from the start.

Consider design first

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Joonas Turner, sound designer at E-Studio.

In his talk, Joonas urges us to first consider the overall atmosphere of the game and the main focus of the player.  Ideally, the player should be able to concentrate on gameplay to the exclusion of any distractions.  The sound of a game should complement the gameplay and, if possible, deliver as much information to the player as possible.  If done perfectly, a player should be able to avoid consulting the graphical user interface in favor of the sonic cues that are delivering the same information.  In this way, the player gets to keep attention completely pinned on the playing field, staying on top of the action at hand.

Clearly, sound effects are designed to serve this purpose, and Joonas discusses a strategy for maximizing the utility of sound effects as conveyors of information… but can music also serve this purpose?  Can music deliver similar information to the player?  I think that music can do this in various ways, by using shifts in mood, or carefully-composed stingers, or other interactive techniques.  By way of these methods, music can let the player know when their health is deteriorating, or when they’re out of ammo.  Music can signal the appearance of new enemies or the successful completion of objectives.  In fact, I think that music can be as informative as sound design.

Music, sound design and voice-over: perfect together

As his GDC Europe talk proceeds, Joonas reminds us to think about how the music, sound design and voice-over will fit together within the overall frequency spectrum.  It’s important to make sure that these elements will complement each other, with frequency ranges that spread evenly across the spectrum, rather than piling up together at the low or high end.  With this in mind, Joonas suggests that the sound designer and composer should be brought together as early as possible to agree on a strategy for how these sonic elements will fit together in the game.

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(Here’s where Joonas brought up the first of two controversial ideas he presented during his talk.  While I’m not sure I agree with these ideas, I think the viewpoints he expresses are probably shared amongst other sound designers in the game industry, and therefore could use some more open discussion in the game audio community.)

While composers for video games always want to create the best and most awesome music for their projects, Joonas believes that this desire is not always conducive to a good final result.  He suggests that the soundtrack albums for video games are often more exciting and musically pleasing than the actual music from the game.  With this in mind, Joonas thinks that composers should save their best efforts for the soundtrack, while structuring the actual in-game music to be simpler and less aesthetically interesting.  In this way, the music can fit more comfortably into the overall aural design.

Your sonic brand

At this point in his presentation, Joonas urges the attendees to find aural styles that will be unique to their games.  He tells the audience to avoid using a tired sonic signature in every game, such as the famous brassy “bwah” tone that became pervasively popular after its use in the movie Inception.  If you are wondering what that sounds like, just hit the button below (courtesy of web developer Dave Pedu).

In 2012, Gregory Porter (an avid movie lover and creator of YouTube videos about the movies) created a fun video illustrating just how pervasive the infamous Inception “bwah” had actually become:

In my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I discuss the concept of creating a unique sonic identity for game in the chapter about the “Roles and Functions of Music in Games.”  In the book, I call this idea “sonic branding”(Chapter 6, page 112), wherein the composer writes such a distinctive musical motif or creates such a memorable musical atmosphere that the score becomes a part of the game’s brand.

Be Consistent

When recording music or sound design for a project, Joonas tells us that it’s important to remain consistent with our gear choices.  If a certain microphone has been used for a certain group of character voices, then that microphone should continue to be used for that purpose across the whole project.  Likewise, the same digital signal processing applications or hardware (compression, limiting, saturation, etc) should be used across the entire game, so that the aural texture remains consistent.  Carrying Joonas’ idea into the world of game music, we would find ourselves sticking with the same instrument and vocal microphones, and favoring the same reverb and signal processing settings throughout the musical score for a game.  This would ensure that the music maintained a unified texture and quality from the beginning of the game to the end.

Shorter is better

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In his talk, Joonas shares his personal experience with sound effects designed to indicate a successful action – a button press that causes something to happen.  Joonas tells us that for these sounds, shorter is definitely better.  The most successful sounds feature a quick, crisp entrance followed by a swift release. A short sound designed in this way will be satisfying to trigger, and won’t become tiresome after countless repetitions.

For the composer, the closest analogy to this sort of sound effect is the musical stinger designed to be triggered when the player performs a certain action.  In order to adhere to Joonas’ philosophy, we’d compose these stingers to have assertive entrances and quick resolves, so that they would be fun for the player even when repeated many times.

To clip or not to clip…

(This is the second of the two controversial ideas Joonas presented in his talk. Again, while I don’t necessarily agree with this, I think it’s an idea that hasn’t been expressed often and may need further discussion.)

VU-Meter

A volume unit (VU) meter registering some high audio levels.

The common wisdom amongst audio engineers is to avoid overloading the mix.  Such overloads can produce clipping and create distortion, which deteriorates the overall sound quality of the game.  However, Joonas suggests that for intense moments during gameplay, some clipping and distortion may actually enhance the sensation of anxiety and frenetic energy that such moments seek to elicit.  According to Joonas, this enhancement can actually be a desirable outcome, and the sound designer should therefore not be afraid of such overloads and clipping during intense moments in a game.

How would this idea relate to music?  Well, we’ve probably all heard examples of successful pop music that embraces sonic overload.  Lead vocalists sometimes scream into microphones to produce overloads, or a wailing guitar riff may be recorded with lots of overload artifacts.  As a deliberate effect placed carefully for the sake of drama, such brief moments of overload can add edginess to contemporary musical genres.  However, we’ve all likely heard other examples of overloads that seem more the product of high decibel levels rather than any deliberate processing. It’s important to differentiate a deliberate effect from an accidental one.  In music at least, we always want to control the final outcome of the mix, including the presence or absence of overload distortion.

Conclusion

Joonas wound up his talk by urging attendees to always give priority to the elements in the sound mix that are most important.  That would be a good guiding principle for music mixing as well.  Joonas is an interesting thinker in the area of game sound design.  He can be followed at his Twitter account, @KissaKolme.  Please feel free to comment below about anything you’ve read in this blog, and let me know how you feel about the ideas we’ve discussed.  I’d love to read your thoughts!

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Studio1_GreenWinifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose most recent project is the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution. Her credits include five of the most famous and popular franchises in video gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims. She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality video games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

Aleatoricism for the Game Music Composer

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I recently read a research paper about game music that I came across via Google Scholar (always an excellent resource if you’re looking for food for thought).  The paper was entitled “Game Scoring: Towards a Broader Theory,” written by Mack Enns of the University of Western Ontario towards his Master of Arts degree.  While the paper’s intention is to show how composing music for gaming is “distinct from other types of scoring,” the author repeatedly asserts that game music “remains always inherently ‘aleatoric.'”

This was the first I’d heard anyone put forward a theory such as this, and it’s definitely a bold statement.  Is all game music intrinsically aleatoric?  In my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I discuss aleatoricism as “music in which some elements are left to chance.” (Chapter 2, pg. 30).  This means that some components of the music are left to the metaphorical roll of the dice.  Mack Enns further applies this concept to games by asserting that all game music “involves both chance operations and a degree of improvisation… the “performer” of a game score is not a musical performer but a “ludal” one, that is, a “gamer”…”

So, according to this, the gamer is essentially performing the music.  Well, let’s think about that a moment.  The gamer does perform actions which trigger musical reactions, so one might imagine the gamer operating as a sort of “conductor” for the musical score, indirectly cueing the music to begin, or determining which musical segments will be triggered at any given time by virtue of gameplay choices. But a performer and a conductor aren’t really the same thing… so the idea of the improvising “gamer” as the chance element in a game music composition may not hold up in all games.  But does it hold up in some?

Just to take a look at what the improvising performer brings to aleatoric music, I’ll first give you an example from one of the more famous aleatoric compositions by John Cage, after which we’ll take a look at some top video game examples.  In John Cage’s “Living Room Music,” a group of performers are instructed to use household objects as rhythmic instruments, but no instruction is given regarding the best objects to choose, or the desired tonal quality to be produced by the objects.  That’s left entirely to chance.  Here are two performances of “Living Room Music.”  The first, performed by the MET Orchestra Percussionists, uses a combination of fingertips and glasses.

As a contrast, the second version, performed by Square Peg Round Hole, uses a collection of cardboard boxes (music begins at the 1 minute mark).

You can see that the choices of the performers have a dramatic impact on the sound of the resulting composition.  Does a gamer have a similar awesome impact on the musical content of a game by virtue of the choices made during gameplay?  That’s a harder idea to mentally digest, but Mack Enns proposes that if we also include the game’s sound effects as a part of the musical score, then we can more easily perceive the gamer as an aleatoric musical performer.  “Game scoring,” Enns writes, “includes a recognition, accommodation and, even, an orchestration of sound effects which ordinarily
might also be considered “extramusical” to the untrained ear.”

So, if we’re willing to accept the game’s sound effects as a part of its musical score, then the entire experience becomes an aleatoric performance… but that presupposes the idea that sound effects should be accepted as musical events.  If we don’t perceive the sound effects as musical, then are there still circumstances in which the gamer can be considered an aleatoric musical performer?  It seems to me that the role of the gamer as a musician would depend on the nature of the game being played… and there are certainly games in which the player fills the role of the performer in a composition governed by chance.  Let’s take a look at a few popular video game examples.

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Flow

In the game Flow, players become a small organism glowing in a watery universe.  In this game, the sound effects are musical.  When your organism eats a glowing mote in the water, a tone sounds. Progressing through the game, the tones create a musical latticework according to the player’s choices, essentially weaving the fabric of the game’s musical score as the gamer plays.  This seems like a good example of an aleatoric score in which the sound effects could rightly be considered musical, and the player can be identified as an aleatoric performer.

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Electroplankton

Electroplankton is the most overt example of a game that casts the player in the role of a musician.  The game consists of an assortment of minigames that allow the player to participate in music creation through many clever graphical interfaces and procedures.  For instance, in the “Beatnes” game, the player is introduced to the art of “Live Looping” by rhythmically tapping the screen to trigger sounds that thereafter loop repeatedly with the beat, allowing the player to create more complex repeating layers of sounds as the music progresses.

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Rez

Rez is a rail shooter in which the player navigates a virtual environment within a computer network, destroying viruses and firewalls in order to rescue an artificial intelligence named Eden.  There are no sound effects in Rez – every action of the player is punctuated with a musical tone or rhythmic effect that melds with the electronic soundtrack to create the overall musical score.  When players “shoot,” they’re essentially playing the music.

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Lumines

The gameplay of this popular puzzle game is less directly musical, but still has a very strong effect on the progress of the musical score.  Players of Lumines manipulate falling blocks (in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Tetris).  The music consists of looping segments, during which the overall composition seems to halt any forward progress and dwell on a short internal segment repeatedly until the player racks up enough points to trigger the music to move ahead.  Because the player’s actions influence the progress of the music rather than its content, it seems that this game casts the player in a role more similar to a conductor than a musician.

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Flower

In the Flower video game, the player collects flower petals, which emit bell-like tones as they fly up into the air.  These tones join with the game’s musical score with a delicate, “wind-chime” effect.  The player is able to sound these bells each time a new flower petal is collected, and these sounds serve to provide foreground interest for the music and a sense of shape and forward movement to the composition.

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So, after reading Mack Enn’s paper and considering his thesis, I think it’s certainly reasonable to identify certain games as having soundtracks structured in such a way as to allow the player to become an aleatoric musical performer.  I’m not sure I’d agree that all games are structured this way, and the idea of considering all sound effects as musical is a highly experimental concept.  Nevertheless, it’s interesting to consider!  Let me know what you think in the comments, and feel free to post any other “aleatoric” game scores you’d like to share!

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Studio1_GreenWinifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose most recent project is the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution. Her credits include five of the most famous and popular franchises in video gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims. She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality video games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.