Winding the music (X)box: Dynamic video game scores then and now

 Laced With Wax Winding the music (X)box: Dynamic video game scores then and now

Video game podcaster Jeremy LaMont explores the beginnings of dynamic game music and how it manifests in modern soundtracks.

By Jeremy LaMont

In the same way that video games offer an experience that changes dynamically, a game’s audio—made up of music, sound effects and dialogue—can similarly be non-linear. In terms of music, there are sophisticated techniques that can mean that the work of the composers is experienced in a unique way for each play session. You may have heard of some of the rules-based techniques, including ‘generative’, ‘dynamic’ or ‘procedural’ music.

Early on in the history of video games, some game developers recognised the potential for dynamic musical scores. In a few games, such as 1984’s Lazy Jones (Commodore 64, MSX), clever programming and composition tricks such as ‘nested looping’ (a loop within a loop) were used to great effect, blending multiple tunes into one continuous and cohesive-sounding whole.

Although dynamic music is an impressive technical and aesthetic feat, dynamic scores were few and far between. Other early titles like 1981’s Castle Wolfenstein (Apple II) and Galaga (Arcade) to some degree leaned on in-game sound effects as music of a kind, in order to set the mood of the game.

The iMUSE-ing secret of Monkey Island

Dynamic music took a big step forward in 1990 with the development of the iMUSE (interactive Music Streaming Engine) by LucasArts’ in-house composer, Michael Land, who sought a more robust audio system while working on The Secret of Monkey Island.

Enlisting the aid of colleague Peter McConnell (who would continue on to create soundtracks for many LucasArts titles including Grim Fandango and Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II), the two created and patented iMUSE as the first dedicated dynamic music engine.

Using iMUSE, a game could transition between musical selections or add cues appropriate to on-screen action or player choices. Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge (PC) used iMUSE to great effect, adding transitional cues and music crossfading to produce a seamless and appropriately punctuated musical experience.

iMUSE was successfully implemented in many of LucasArts' subsequent games—not only adventure games. One of the system's most dramatic uses can be seen in the 1993 space combat simulator, Star Wars: X-Wing (PC), in which the appearance of friendly and enemy ships are appropriately ushered into the action, John Williams-style, with the appropriate leitmotif (a musical theme that is assigned to a particular fiction character, place or thing e.g. Darth Vader’s or Gollum’s theme). This early reconnaissance mission highlights the impact of large warships, such as Star Destroyers, appearing on the scene.

High Rez-olution

Following iMUSE, and perhaps as a natural progression of advancement in game technology, dynamic music systems started appearing across every genre, and now are found in most video games today. Music systems have become more subtle and complex, progressing out of the realm of programming event-triggered synthesized MIDI into the realm of overlapping stereo ‘stems’, either sampled-based and/or featuring real instruments, and more interactive cues.

Modern examples abound, and aren't limited to narrative or action games. It's not uncommon for a game to be entirely based on the idea of dynamic music (such as the acclaimed Rez) or, indeed, allow the player to create his or her own music (here’s Daft Punk’s Get Lucky arranged in Mario Paint). Developer Q Entertainment, founded by Tetsuya Mizuguchi (the man responsible for Space Channel 5 and Rez), is pretty much devoted to the idea of player-driven music creation:

A very literal and direct application of dynamic music might be Guitar Hero (2005) or Rock Band (2007), where player actions alter the actual instruments heard in licensed tracks (often for the worse!) but the ultimate effect is that the player feels like he or she is directly responsible for the quality of the performance of the music.

Flower arranging

A side effect of more dynamic music is that there is less room for deliberately orchestrated, straightforwardly linear music. Compare, for example, a gameplay version of Vincent Diamante’s score for 2009’s Flower:

...with the linearly arranged version for the official soundtrack album:

Both are beautiful, and it’s possible (because of deliberate design) that players of Flower are more likely to emotionally connect with the arrangement that has is being played just for them, on the fly. It's pretty much a given these days that games will strive for at least that level of musical interactivity.

2017’s STRAFE features a quiet theme or ambient sound which loops at the start of each level before the hyper-violent action really begins (see if you can fool the dynamic music system in STRAFE by avoiding firing your gun for as long as possible!)

In Laced With Wax’s recent interview with PlayStation’s Principal Composer, Jim Fowler, he commented:

“I’d like to see more composers—as well as audio leads at developers—really pushing the limits of what we can do with a piece of music to support the player’s experience and still have it be a piece of music. Ideally, the player won’t hear the joins so that it’s like a piece of bespoke underscore that’s made on the fly.
“Each player’s an individual so, ideally, you won’t experience that moment where you walk into a cave and know you’re about to be attacked by skeletons because the ‘about to be attacked by skeletons’ music is playing, on cue. We can get increasingly granular with the [interactive uses of layers of music AKA ‘stems’]. We can use midi to control things and we can have samples on the fly now that memory’s a bit better.
“It’s complicated and it takes more time but I would loved to see something really pushing the creative boundaries, thinking of the gameplay as the performance of the music.”

At some point, composers and producers have to make some tricky decisions about how to take music that was composer for a dynamic system and carefully arrange it into a static, listenable soundtrack album. An interesting problem to tackle, when one considers the amount of effort that has gone into doing the reverse!

Do you have any favorite dynamic video game soundtracks? Let us know!

Jeremy LaMont is producer and host of the twice-monthly Video Game Grooves podcast, dedicated to video game soundtrack releases on vinyl. Because he's crazy, you can also listen to him twice weekly on the GameBytes Show podcast, which he also produces and co-hosts. Twitter: @vg_grooves; @gamebytesshow; @Jeremy_LaMont
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