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How Hard Is It To Create Music For Addictive Video Games? We Asked The Guy Who Makes It

You might not always pay attention to the music backing your video games while you’re actively slashing away at gladiators or trying to make colored orbs disappear, but those infectious melodies will strike you at some point, perhaps while you’re standing in line at the supermarket, when you suddenly find yourself humming the Zelda theme. Creating the perfect music to go with a video game is not a simple science. In fact, it’s an art unto itself, and there are just a few musicians out there who can really break it down, bringing urgency to the action, serenity to the dreamscapes, and dire disappointment when you see that “Game Over” screen. Michael Sweet is one of these musicians.

Few have covered more ground than Sweet. He’s prolific on the Internet, having composed for numerous Cartoon Network, MTV, Pogo, and Sesame Workshop games, to name only a few of his exploits. He currently holds a faculty position at Berklee College of Music, developing a video game curriculum in the film scoring department, which is very cool. He also has the unique distinction of being the guy who designed the Xbox Startup Sound, which is even cooler. (To me, anyway.)

Mr. Sweet was kind enough to answer some questions about his process, the challenges of composing for games, and of course, the 360 soundbank:

How closely do you like to work with your game designer when composing?
Working closely with the game designer usually means two things: better music, and a happier client. Part of your job as a composer is to get inside the head of the person that is going to sign your check. If you’re not able to understand and fulfill their vision for the project, then they’re not going to hire you for the next gig. I try to work very closely with the game designers, but it’s getting more difficult with all the remote work I do lately. It’s much easier when you’re living in the same city, and you can grab a beer and talk about the game, instead of coordinating when the next Skype check-in is going to be. Personally, I would rather work on only one project at a time in order to really focus. If I spread myself too thin on multiple projects, it’s hard to give everything my full attention.

And how do you translate that direction into a score?
There are several ways to translate client comments into musical direction. At the start of a project I usually create an audio style guide with selections from different genres and styles of music to find out what is right for the project. Everything goes here, I try and put up as many types of music as I can to see what might work and get the designers to start talking music. We discuss these directions to establish style, tempo, instrumentation, etc. That way I’m not spinning my wheels when I start writing. I once had a client tell me he hated saxophone, and didn’t want to hear any saxophone on his tracks. We found that information our after they asked us to do jazz demos. We didn’t get the gig. Note to composers out there: make sure to ask your client whether they like saxophone before putting on your demos!

Does your approach change when composing orchestral vs. more traditional video game scores?
My approach is probably pretty static. I tend to like textures, rhythms, and harmonic sequences as opposed to writing really strong melodic passages. That being said, even within orchestral music you have vast differences in what you can do. For instance you might be doing a John Adams/Philip Glass orchestral piece for one project, and on the next project you might be doing Aleatoric music like Ligeti. Even in film scores there are huge differences between a melody that John Barry (Out of Africa, Dances with Wolves) would write to an approach Jerry Goldsmith (Alien, Basic Instinct) would take. The best composers are malleable, and able to change based on the project’s needs.

As a sound designer, how do you respond to the challenge of a player guiding his own experience?
Interactive music has really helped drive experiences in games. Games are getting better at creating seamless experiences instead of pausing to wait for loading screens that don’t have music, or when the music changes it feels like we’re changing stations on a radio. We’ve come a long way to create better music and sound design for games. I think this is our goal still, because it’s difficult to achieve. We want the player to feel like he’s in the game world, and if we hear the music jump, it’s like seeing a deja vu in The Matrix. We realize that it’s not real, taking us out of the experience. Uncharted 2 does this really well, but there are many games out there that aren’t able to spend this amount of time creating a seamless world. I don’t want to hear the “physics” of the audio when I’m playing the game—I want to be so into the game that I don’t even notice the score. Then when I’m done playing I say, ‘wow, that was awesome!’ So in the end, seamless is what I’m trying to reach, although there are any impediments in the design of the game, from technical to story that might interfere with this goal.

What were your objectives when designing the Xbox 360 Soundbank, and how did you source/create the iconic startup sound?
When I was originally working with the team to create sounds for the original Xbox360, Microsoft had lots of branding goals. For them, they wanted to open up the audience from hard core gamers to get the whole house playing. This meant that the sound direction was not going to be like the holodeck experience like the first Xbox, but more inviting. Everything was different, the color was white instead of black, the shape wasn’t square, it was concave like it was taking a breath. We used the idea of a breath in the sound at the end of the logo, along with harmonic texture. We wanted it to sound like it was coming to life. Video game music and mnemonics are iterative, which means that we take an idea in several directions, and then gradually hone in on one of them to make it perfect.

And finally, on a thing-I-played-recently note, have you played the Sword & Sworcery EP?
You bet! I really enjoyed their approach and inventiveness in the music. I’m really into promoting adaptive music on any level whether it’s super sophisticated like Portal 2, to other games like Vessel and Sword & Sorcery. Interactive music can really put the player into the experience and make it feel even more seamless, like a living world.

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