The relationship between games and music has evolved considerably over the last thirty years. In the eighties, game sounds were all computer generated, leading to minimalistic scores filled with bleeps and blips. The highly specialised nature of the process kept most mainstream musicians out of the field – although it’s now an era being enthusiastically explored by current ‘chiptune’ artists.
In the 90s, we had the first genertaion of consoles with CD drives, allowing developers to use full music tracks. This led to an era of rampant licensing, in which seemingly every game, from Grand Theft Auto to the FIFA titles, was jammed with hit songs. This was during gaming’s self-conscious phase; when it was desperate to buy in credibility from other media, uncertain that it could become cool alone. Then came music simulation titles like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, in which sound became a gameplay element, and bands found a new way to distrubute their latest tracks – the likes of Mötley Crüe, Coldplay and Metallica all premiered singles on these hugely successful games.
Now, a deeper kinship is forming. A new generation of musically gifted game designers has emerged, and audio is becoming part of the construction toolkit. I’ve just written a feature on the subject for The Guardian, and while researching it, I got some questions to several of the most interesting and talented game musicians working in the contemporary industry – including Disaterspeace, who penned the beautiful soundtrack to Fez.
Here’s what he had to say on music and game design…
Can you tell us a little about your musical influences, both when you were growing up, and when you studied music?
Over the last couple of years I’ve really gotten into Debussy and Ravel, and listening to lots of piano. There’s an album called Solo Piano by Gonzales that has been in my regular rotation for some time, and I just discovered this German pianist Nils Frahm whom I’m really digging.
One of the oddities of writing lots of music is that you can’t listen to other stuff while you’re writing, or at least I can’t. I get less face-time with music than I used to, and it’s a shame. But I do my best to make time for listening. Going further back, bands like Yes and King Crimson, composers like Steve Reich and Stravinsky have always been inspirations to me. Back in high school I was super big into Tool and Rage Against the Machine.
Have you always been a gamer as well as a musician?
Ever since I was a kid I’ve played games. Growing up, I was super into sports and driving games … games like Tecmo Super Bowl on the NES, NHL 94 on Genesis and Top Gear on the SNES. But as I got older, I got into other kinds of games too. Some of my other all time favorites are Super Mario RPG, Chrono Cross, Destruction Derby, and a lot of the Splinter Cell and Hitman games. I also have a thing for the Elder Scrolls, and usually dig the games Rockstar puts out.
Was it any of those titles that inspired you to start writing music for games?
Back in 2005 or 2006 I happened to be sharing some music I was writing on a forum that was unrelated to games or music, and from that I got a referral to write some General MIDI tunes for a couple of cell phone games. It was another year or two before I started picking up consistent projects though. I used college loan money to go to the Game Developer’s Conference, and got one of my first projects through someone I met there, and also did some game audio internships while I was in school.
So you were always kind of an indie games musician, then?
I think I had been writing chiptunes for a few years, and slowly became aware of the independent movement in games, and started frequenting sites like TIGSource. This was back in 2007 or so. I saw a really neat looking game that was in development for a competition called Rescue: The Beagles, and asked the developer if he needed help with testing and/or music. At some point, my work with chiptunes, small independent games, and larger projects through internships and the like, all sort of converged into a single thing.
And with Fez, were you involved very early on? How did that come about?
I met Renaud Bedard, the Fez Programmer, at a show I played in Montreal, and he asked me to write some songs for the game. I suggested I write all of it! I wrote the first track in the fall of 2010, and spent about 13, maybe 14 months on it. I was working on Shoot Many Robots full-time last year at Demiurge Studios, and I’d come home and write Fez tracks at night and on weekends. I’ve had access to the game from the very start, which was super beneficial in getting the music to behave properly and to experiment with things.
Did you work with Phil Fish in terms of making your audio operate as part of the game design? Did you influence each other at all?
We actually haven’t had to work too close, for the most part. I was given free reign to work on and add music to the game at my own discretion, and there have been very few times over the last year or two that we’ve had to work through musical disagreements. For the most part, we’ve shared a similar musical vision for the game, and that’s really made things work out great, I think.
It seems that in the modern games industry, the barriers between game designers and musicians are coming down, and that the soundtrack is being treated much more as a part of the interactive experience – do you think this is the case?
Yes. I think developers are realising more and more the potential of having musical people deeply involved, or even better, the developers already happen to be musicians. Especially in the indie space, there are lots of super talented folks who can wear lots of hats, and do them all pretty effectively. Alec Holowka is an excellent example – see Aquaria, which he programmed, wrote music for, and helped design.
How do you think audio will evolve in the future to become even more a part of gameplay?
I get the sense that we will see a lot more thought being given to audio and how it functions in the context of games. You’re starting to see games whose design is greatly informed or even lead by musicians, resulting in output that is quite unlike things that we have seen before.
Guitar Hero provided a useful way for bands to get their music to fans – but do you think collaborating on music soundtracks could be the obvious next step? Do you see a future in which lots of musicians seek to work on game audio and full game scores as a form of expression?
Absolutely. There have already been some very successful examples of this – Red Dead Redemption and Botanicula come to mind – Rockstar is really leading the charge… As more games adopt this and more games utilise audio in interesting ways, I think the opportunities will become more apparent to musicians as well.