I can’t stress the importance of music in video games enough. I’ve been music composing in a video game company based in Vancouver. And like my other projects, one particular thing has always driven me: that music has the ability to make a mediocre game become great.
You can have tight, responsive gameplay, stunning visuals and an amazing story but without proper sounds and an ambient soundtrack to complement the mechanics, it all feels disjointed. Music gives rise to emotions. It heightens moments of tension and soothes the player when in need. Can you imagine Resident Evil 2 without the save room theme playing in the background? Or Halo without Martin O’Donnel’s extraordinary “Opening Suite”?
But therein lies the problem. You remember those pieces of music because they’re actually good. It’s anything but easy coming up with your own heart-pumping (or soul soothing) soundtracks to the game you’re working on. The process itself is both exciting and harrowing. It’s similar to composing music for a movie, as in the music changes according to the tone of the scene. You can’t have a fast-paced piece playing in the background while the player character is simply walking through the woods and taking in the beautiful vista.
The piece must be serene and peaceful. It must instill wonder and happy thoughts into the player’s mind. When faced with danger, the music must be upbeat and must convey a sense of urgency. The transition form peaceful to dangerous also matters greatly here. The leap has to be smooth. Otherwise, a jarring transition takes away from the experience. In other words, the musical pieces must be designed in a way that flows.
Before actually going into the professional studio, I recorded demos of the songs in my home studio while playing the video game (playing the game is extremely important as the game’s vibe influences your compositions). The arrangements had to be perfect and in tune with the atmosphere of the game.
Before going into production, I even had to work with the sound engineers to get everything right. A lot was riding on the preview piece being successful as the marketing department would use my songs on the radio as advertisement for the video game. It was nice to be able to perform my own songs live on the radio.
A poor reception could mean that I would go unpaid. That isn’t unusual as I’m not the only one in the industry after the same job. If your music doesn’t fit the bill, your hard work gets discarded and another, more qualified person is called in to replace you. And that’s not all.
Jobs like these aren’t permanent. You may be the right guy for this particular game, but that may not be true when the next game goes into development. Unemployment is an ever present shadow in this line of work, at least in the starting phases. Dark thoughts aside, it is still an exciting field of work. Moreover, you get to spend time on something that you love and that’s what truly matters in the end.