The award-winning musical duo behind MediEvil, Primal and Brink speak to Platform about sound and music in games.
Music adds an unmistakable gravity to games. Soothing melodies, hushed ambient tones and rousing orchestral suites – without music many games lose their ability to completely immerse you in the interactive world.
Paul ‘Bob’ Arnold and Andrew Barnabas have been creating music and audio for games, film and TV for over 15 years, and previously worked as in-house audio directors at SCE Cambridge Studio (formerly Millennium Interactive). They’re best known for their work on the cult MediEvil series and Primal. Their latest work, Brink, was released last week, and its unexpectedly rapturous fusion of musical styles offers some idea of how their work has evolved.
In this special interview, Bob and Barn discuss the art of creating music specifically for interactive experiences, explain why composers had to focus with early computer music and ponder whether video game scores will ever be a regular fixture on radio.
The two of you have been working together as composers for over 10 years. What’s your working relationship like?
Bob: As much as we’d hate to admit it, it is like a professional marriage with all the bickering and in-fighting, who farts the loudest, who shouts the loudest. We’ve worked together for over 15 years now. Fortunately, we now have two separate studios so we can go off in a huff that much more successfully. We both read scenes differently as to where the musical focal point should be and we are quite different people and our backgrounds bring different ideas to the table, some harmonious with what’s there already, some not. We have different skill sets. Barn will, say, initially focus upon theme writing and instrumentation, whereas I’ll be thinking about the whole musical picture, arrangement and orchestration. Then we’ll swap, argue, refer to the other’s work as having questionable parentage and go from there.
But somehow, we manage to pull it together and begrudgingly agree on a musical direction. If the client likes it, well that’s another story.
And how did you get involved with making music for games to begin with?
Barn: I began scoring games in 1990 as an offshoot of writing music for the underground ‘Amiga Demo Scene’. It was suggested by a guy I met at the Share and Enjoy copy party in July 1990 to think about writing music for games, he worked for Codemasters at the time. Never worked with them funnily enough.
So, summer holidays, 17 years old, I grabbed a copy of Zzap! 64 and rang up all the game developers who advertised. Managed to persuade three companies to let me demonstrate my work at the European Computer Trade Show in Earls Court that September. Trade shows are no place to demo music, fortunately my timing was good and I was invited to play tracks at the Sales Curve office in Battersea. October 15, 1990, I played them 10 Amiga modules, they all went quiet when one loaded up. I thought that was it, but much to my surprise they asked to license that track for the Amiga shooter SWIV. I was, as they say, on the map.
Bob: I responded to an advert for a sound engineer / junior sound designer at a games company in Cambridge that was posted on the student notice board at York University where I was studying an MSc in Music Technology in February 1996. Around a year later, Barn was away for a week, I had no sound design to do so volunteered my services and ending up writing my first track for MediEvil, which subsequently became ‘Gallowmere Waltz’. I was already very familiar with the studio and had watched music being written. The rest is history…
What are some of your musical influences and how have they affected your work?
Barn: Funk and film scores. Recently learning to play the electronic drums (bought a kit a few months ago) and am learning 80s Chaka Khan albums to play along with. Disco and jazz funk fusions from the Bob James, Earth Wind & Fire and Parliament era to more contemporary instrumental works by the likes of Spyro Gyra, David Benoit and Chick Corea. Film wise, James Horner’s Star Trek II, Jerry Goldsmith’s Total Recall and Basic Instinct, Daft Punk’s Tron Legacy and John William’s Superman.
Bob: 80s cheesy rock, such as Whitesnake, Dare and Dan Reed Network. These days more along the lines of film scores: Danny Elfman, John Powell, Trent Reznor and contemporary rock, like Evanessence and Nickelback.
How does creating music for games differ to that of film or television?
Both: Simple, interactivity. On TV or film you always know that at 28 minutes and 11 seconds she slaps him in the face. In the gaming world she may never slap him in the face or he may slap her. It’s impossible to score every possible eventuality so you cheat, try to come up with the most common scenarios and use clever implementation to smooth over the cracks of the rest.
We’ve just finished a couple of tracks for a very-well-know-racing-game but instead of one single high octane racing track, which has been the norm, we now have a six minute track that’s comprised of 25 segments of differing intensities that’ll be triggered and (mostly looped) over pertinent changes throughout the race creating – in theory – a much more coherent experience where the music more closely matches the energy level of the race.
Music evokes all kinds of emotion, helps strengthen themes and often gives the player vital non-visual clues. Do you find yourselves fulfilling atmospheric as well as design needs with your music?
Bob: Absolutely. In fact during our earlier days sound and music could help bridge the hardware visual limitations, since we audio folk have been using digital audio which can comprise of anything for 18 years. A low polygon gaming character can be brought to life through sound and music, so a great deal of our work was in providing atmosphere, and designers loved it.
There are projects, horror especially, where distinctions between music and sound design are rapidly becoming blurred. Jason Graves’ great work on the scores for Dead Space has more in common with music from 50s Noir than contemporary sci-fi. On its own, the string section of an orchestra performing a textural cluster but using the bows’ upside down on the strings is a stark and harsh sound, which is not something to be consumed musically but it works brilliantly in providing atmosphere in-game.
Following on from this, a big part of music and sound in games is giving identity to settings, people and objects. Can you explain how this has evolved, perhaps in reference to your C-12 score where you wrote songs for zones, instead of ‘one song per level’?
Barn: To create a cohesive experience for the player, it’s all about the implementation. From the limited requirement of title track and end credits music of the early 80s on 8-bit platforms to where we are now, the evolution of gaming hardware has allowed for greater expression and subtlety. For many years, music was simply aural icing on a visual cake, where the icing bore no resemblance to the action on screen. It was wallpaper music, written to set the mood and place. This isn’t how it works in ‘traditional’ sound to picture mediums of film and TV, where music serves the picture, ebbs and flows along an audio narrative, and music, dialogue or sound design take it in turns to take audio dominance.
So, 10 years ago we worked on our final PlayStation 1 title, C-12: Final Resistance. I was interested in pushing at least the musical variety throughout a single level. Long before middleware solutions (off the shelf software for plugging into games that now does this) were around, I worked with the audio programmer and we setup musical zones throughout the map of each level and tagged them with words such as ‘exploration’, ‘suspense’, ‘horror’, etc. I wrote numerous 30-60 second long looping musical cues that would fit those particular terms. Once the player entered or left a zone, a different set of musical cues would be triggered from the palette of cues entitled ‘exploration’ (or randomly it could wait up to a minute before triggering a cue), just to help imbue the player with the correct feeling and mood for the area. Once the fights kicked off, it triggered battle music which was again picked from a selection of battle cues.
It was the most ‘interactive’ score we’d done at that time. By today’s standards this is a crude approach but it helped us pave the way for the interactive scores we have written since.