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Computer Game Designers Electronic Arts (part 3)

Writing music for computer games is quite different to the normal style of writing for picture. When writing for film or video, the composer always knows how long a cue will be, what will happen during that cue, and what will happen next...


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Non-Linear Music

Writing music for computer games is quite different to the normal style of writing for picture. When writing for film or video, the composer always knows how long a cue will be, what will happen during that cue, and what will happen next. The only uncertainty in his or her mind is whether the director is going to re-edit the picture and the music is going to have to be chopped around to match. Whatever happens, when the work is finished, the music will always be played straight through from beginning to end and will sound the same every time. Not so with computer games. The player decides what will happen, when it will happen, and how long it will continue before something else commences. To write music to suit an action sequence when you don't know how long it will continue is a new skill that composers will have to learn. One of Electronic Arts' current projects involves four discrete worlds with very well defined characters. The objects and environments interact at very complex levels so to creating matching sound worlds, the sound designer and composer have to display all the normal sound and music for picture skills, and make everything available for the player to experience in an interactive way. Music, for instance, will have to underpin dialogue when necessary, but follow suit immediately when the game moves into an action, chase or combat sequence. In film and video, everything follows feet and frames, or SMPTE timecode, but in games these things just don't exist.

The staple of the games music composer is the loop. The music may be required to reflect a number of different game states. There could be ambiences, character themes, action, chase and combat themes, and then a resolution to whatever happens in a particular scene, whether it be a success or a failure for the player. Music has to be written to reflect all the aspects the scene and be available on the disk to be played as necessary, according to whatever happens in the course of the game, and one segment should flow into another fairly seamlessly, even though the time of the transition cannot be predicted in advance. There are many very able film composers, but once you leave the security of a fixed time frame then it becomes a very different musical world. A composer who wants to turn to games will have to learn to fool the listener and create 'adaptive' music that appears to change in response to the player's actions. Of course, the set of possible responses is predefined, but hopefully the composer will be able to provide sufficient complexity for the player to perceive that the music is being created on the spot to match the moods and actions of the characters.

Electronic Arts have an in-house team of composers and sound designers who are confident not only with the technical requirements but also with the 'free form' characteristics of game play. The team was established, not solely as a resource on tap for music and effects, but to provide assistance for outside composers and musicians to be able to tailor their skills to the strange new requirements of the games medium. There has been in the past some degree of posturing between the record industry, the music publishing industry and the games industry, but to continue to believe that traditional music is at odds with games music would be a short sighted point of view. Electronic Arts describe their interest as building bridges between the different segments of the music industry and aim to work with as many people as possible from other fields to bring a sense of value and integrity to the product, to produce something which will take games to a higher level of creativity.

By David Mellor Thursday January 1, 2004

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