This is a love song. A love song to video game music. A love song to video game music that spends a lot of time pointing out that video game music would do well to iron its shirt, shower every day, and would it kill it to maybe shave every once in a while?
This piece is directed toward those who make, compose for, and/or enjoy a cinematic game experience common to most triple-A and an increasing number of indie titles. It touches on elements common to all video games in many places, but the purpose is not to play the nagging Jewish mother to two-man developers about how they should be more like their big brother who graduated summa cum laude and landed a big contract with Activision and will probably cure cancer someday.
The purpose is to help producers communicate with their composers, help composers hone their craft, and help the end consumer become more educated about the potential value of game music.
Why Take a Cinematic Approach to Game Music?
Too long has video game music been relegated to a dusty corner of gamers’ minds. Sure, we all have fond memories of chip-tunes and our favorite melodies, but video game music has typically been viewed as a background soundtrack, not something that plays directly into the visual elements. Just look at all the games that allow you to import or stream your own music while you play.
This is a shame. Music can have a tremendous impact on the mood, feel, and emotion of any visual elements a game can try to convey. A shift in the music can take the exact same visual scene in two completely different directions. (I’ve always liked this example to show how a different score can change things up:)
Video games come in many forms and serve many purposes as far as the type of entertainment—Ninja Gaiden in hard mode clearly scratches a different itch than FarmVille—but I think it is safe to say that the majority of triple-A and otherwise popular games are trying to take a more cinematic, story-focused approach. What was the last FPS you played that didn’t have a story component, regardless of how preposterous the premise? The visual techniques reflect this—effects that emulate real camera patterns like light bloom, lens flare, focal shift and even film grit are all very common in the modern game.
Video games are unique to this A/V field in a number of ways—one of the most obvious being that the pacing and even the order of events can be dictated by the player. Writing for this sort of uncertainty definitely present problems that any video game developer needs to consider. However, as games become more scripted, planned, and emotionally impactful, game composers would do well to study the centuries of experience other mediums can provide them. Re-inventing the wheel is not something we want to do here.
The focus on cinematic visuals and storytelling becomes increasingly obvious as we look into just how much straight-up non-interactive cinematic storytelling can be found in games. Oh sure, there might be a “press X to not die” moment sprinkled here or there, but when you strip out the real gameplay you are often left with a long sequence of cut-scenes that rivals the length of major movies.
For instance, The Batman: Arkham City cutscene playlist on YouTube is just north of 2 hours and 30 minutes long, longer than the majority of motion pictures. Gears of War 3 is 1:43 in duration. Xenoblade Chronicles? North of five hours, beating even the extended edition of Return of the King in length. Even completely disregarding player-driven gameplay, there are entire movies contained inside today’s games.
Unfortunately, video game developers and the players themselves don’t often see this connection. Corners are cut, sacrifices made, flat-out wrong practices are repeated time and again, and the gaming media looks upon it and proclaims it good. Games have made great strides lately with a more cinematic approach to storytelling, but it’s sad to see a crucial piece of that puzzle so often neglected. The Final Fantasy series, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect have managed to start to understand lighting, blocking, cinematography, and the like, and utilized them to great effect—but what about the music?