I walked into a GDC panel discussion called "The Musical Recipe of Emotion" with some trepidation. Video game music often strikes me as derivative, paint-by-numbers composition. Fanfare with horns equals victory; tremolo strings equal fear; slow tempo in minor key equals sadness. Etc.
So I was pleasantly surprised - thrilled, actually - to hear four gifted composers discuss their process for scoring games and their strategies for avoiding an 'emotion template' approach to composition.
Tom Salta (GRAW, Red Steel) hosted a fascinating discussion with Laura Karpman (Untold Legends, Everquest), Marty O'Donnell (Halo series),Salta outlined the paradox that every composer faces. Music is a language we understand. It conveys meaning through melody, textures, arrangement, and harmony, and we translate certain combinations of those elements in specific ways (e.g. screeching strings equal 'danger'). How can a composer use this common language without sinking into formula or cliche? (Pyramid Producion - Bioshock 2, Iron Man 2), and Chance Thomas (Avatar game, Lord of the Rings Online), focused on creating music that deliberately evokes emotion.
Salta tries to mix or morph familiar musical tropes in ways that alter or enrich their meaning. Juxtaposing a flavor of music with a situation that would seem contradictory can have a powerful effect, and he cited Quentin Tarantino's penchant for doing this in his films as inspirational. Salta played a sequence he composed for H.A.W.X in which he rearranged a familiar fanfare to suggest a more ambiguous Pyrrhic victory. "The notes are the words we understand, but the feeling they convey is delivered through an unorthodox arrangement that counters what the words seem to say."
Laura Karpman candidly noted that she sometimes feels responsible for elevating pedestrian, and sometimes just plain awful, visual material into something that feels genuine and expressive. She showed a sequence of shots from the TV miniseries Taken featuring actors who were obviously extras, painfully lacking even rudimentary acting skills. Without her score supporting them, the scene was laughably bad; but with music added - strings playing appogglaturas; bold brass ala Boris Gudunov; woodwind filigrees and a slowly building bass - the scene succeeded. Not quite a silk purse, but close enough to be respectable.
This thread wound its way through each of the presentations. The material these composers support with their music is often paper thin, and they frequently lack a real sense of the whole project. Cue sheets that ask for "fear", "triumph", or other general emotions arrive with little context, and the composer rarely has a chance to play the game in advance or even see whole portions of it. Top-line composers like Marty McDonnell may be invited into the design process from the early stages, but this is hardly typical. McDonnell designs all the audio in the Halo games, not just the music, so his creative presence at the drawing board is natural. Few composers for games play that role.
I'm drawn to artists willing to lift the hood and show you their process, and these composers did just that. Chance Thomas took us through his compositional ideas for scoring a chaotic dogfight in Avatar. 16th against 8th triplets establish a rhythm with minor tonalities, major flourishes, key changes, and passing chords conveying a sense of off-balance speed and unpredictable action.
Paul Lipson explained his approach to conveying "tremolo-free fear" via banging, uneven rhythms, stacked staccato horns, high sustained stings and harmonics, layered textures, and antiphonal melodies - with a tiny hint of woodwinds to suggest a glimmer of hope from the hero's POV.
O'Donnell discussed his surprisingly effective (and subversive, in my view) fusion of dark, brooding film noir-esque music for Halo: ODST. Simple jazz harmonies and slow tempos were intended to evoke a "This is not the Halo I'm used to" response from players. Interestingly, he even suggests a bit of sexual tension via blues piano riffs in the locker room-style scene among the soldiers early in the game. O'Donnell isn't sure if players are aware of this subtle bit of musical commentary, and that's perfectly fine with him.
Finally, Karpman suggested that artists who score games think more in terms of composers than emotions. She encouraged her peers to expand their awareness beyond "film music." Benjamin Britten, Rachmaninoff, Strauss - they all have huge range. "Learn from them. Then differentiate. Re-orchestrate." We all have similar frames of references, she noted. Expanding that frame is "hugely important" because it expands our vocabulary and makes us more versatile composers.