A hero named Black, an ice-cold mercenary and hired gun, wakes up to discover he has lost memory. Under the guidance of his anonymous captor, ‘Red’, Black embarks on a form of treatment, facilitated by a unique technology – a headset that allows the user to relive their memories and experience them again in the present. This is how the creators describe the Get Even game, that will be out on June 23rd. As the sound in the game is tied to gameplay, and makes a great part of it, in charge of the soundtrack was Olivier Deriviere, known for music for Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry, and Remember Me. The Farm51 team of Get Even’s devs went even further to create an immersive experience, and used the Auro-3D plugin of the Audiokinetic WWise engine. This audio format delivers a full three-dimensional sound spread capable of reproducing natural acoustic space. Their director of Creative Entertainment Division of game Iwan De Kuijper explained more on the technology, while the producer for Get Even Lionel Lovisa shared more details on the game’s production, and Olivier Deriviere told more about his vision of Get Even soundtrack.
We spoke to Mikolai Stroinski, an award-winning Polish game composer based in Los Angeles, about his music for Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter as well as Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, The Witcher 3 expansions Wild Hunt and Blood & Wine. Mikolai describes working on the most famous of Polish development franchises in The Witcher as “a dream come true.”
“Each time I’ve experienced an amazing game, film or TV show, I felt a desire to illustrate it with my music and therefore be a part of it,” said Mikolai. “However, in case of The Witcher it was more than that. When I read the Sapkowski’s books in the mid ‘90s I loved them, but was aware that one needed to know Polish language to appreciate it and therefore felt bad about those who didn’t. Now not only am I able to share the world of Geralt but also my music attached to it. What a joy!!!”
Poland has itself grown into a hub for gamedev in Europe over the past decade. He’s also at the forefront of a growing Polish game music composer scene, including Kamil Orman-Janowski and Arkadiusz Reikowski. Mikolai attributes this rise to the use of personal computers from Spectrum, Atari and Commodore in Polish apartments in the ’80s.
Rob Zahn is a composer that has worked on a variety of genres including horror, fantasy, science fiction and more. Rob says that more than enjoying it, this makes him into a better composer.
“Regardless of whether you like it or not, it’s absolutely essential to know how to handle different styles of music if you want to get hired on a consistent basis,” noted Rob. “Having said that, I don’t think it’s an especially healthy habit to get too comfortable with labels like ‘horror’ or ‘fantasy’ because they’re much too broad and imply the overuse of tropes that can quickly make your stuff sound extremely tired and generic. But yeah, obviously variety is spicy, or something!”
One of the various musical experiences Rob has had is with the band Dead Wake. “I kind of grew up on rock and metal and there was a time when I didn’t listen to very much other than Dream Theater and Opeth and guys like that…but after a while I sort of abandoned it for various reasons,” said Rob. “I’ve gotten to stretch out a bit with Dead Wake as a bassist, vocalist, lyricist and arranger. Metal is definitely not a style I’m often asked to write in for gigs – hopefully that’ll change though! We recently finished tracking our debut album ‘Ghost Stories’ with Kevin Antreassian of The Dillinger Escape Plan and are looking forward to releasing it within the next few months.”
Rich Aitken is a composer, producer and sound mixer who has worked on a variety of TV, movie and video game projects over the years. Rich is and in many ways has always been more focused on being a mixer and producer than being a composer of music.
“I’ve had a long career mixing records, TV scores, film scores and game scores,” detailed Rich. “I’ve written for all those media too but games often require a lot of music so there is more opportunity to write more! I’ve been mixing since 1990. The composition part reflects that I was a songwriter on EMI for many years so maybe that’s where the writing part still pokes its head up. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy writing and composing but production is where I contribute the most. I mean, I get to work with wonderful composers like Joris de Man or Andrew Barnabas and Paul Arnold. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I was exclusively a composer…. there are such incredibly creative people out there and I’m stunned at the talents I see in the composition world. I like to work with those people.”
Kamil Orman-Janowski is a composer who has provided music to games such as Warplane Legends, Beyond Space and Isleron: The Rending. Probably his most famous works at this point, however, have been to Path of Exile and its various expansions.
“My vision of music for Path of Exile is still evolving, but there are some major sources of inspiration,” said Kamil. “I try to find proper balance between music from games such as Diablo 1-2 and movies or TV shows with similar setting. I’m always looking for something dark, ethereal, deep, sometimes weird and strange but at the same time epic and noble, so it’s mostly fusion of symphony orchestra, guitars, ethnic and many experimental instruments.”
Jeff Broadbent is a composer who has worked on multiple game soundtracks, including Planetside 2, Monster Hunter Online and the very recent Champions of Anteria. Growing up, he was encouraged to study music by his parents, and loving the music of games like Final Fantasy, Street Fighter II, Myst, and Panzer Dragoon pushed him towards composition in the interactive entertainment sphere.
“I’ve had a love of music my whole life, starting piano lessons at an early age, soon thereafter learning to play alto saxophone and later studying composition at BYU and UCLA,” Jeff detailed. “I became specifically interested in composing when I was in high school, taking jazz piano and improvisation lessons. The theory of jazz music and creativity of improvising are what really sparked my interest in composing, as improvising and composing are closely related.
Arkadiusz Reikowski is a composer who’s made music for horror games such as Kholat and Layers of Fear, in addition to their own unique material like Inner Silence. They cite Akira Yamaoka, the famous Japanese composer of the Silent Hill series, as a major inspiration along with other Japanese composers.
Rob King has been doing sound work in the video gaming industry since the early ’90s. While he’s probably best known for his work on the Might & Magic and EverQuest series, he’s also done work on Prototype 2, Jade Empire, and the Fable series.
Rob’s work extends out from music composition to general sound production, having won the Grand-Prize for the 2004 Yamaha International Music Production Contest and winning of the 2004 Los Angeles Music Awards for “Best Engineer”. He has also worked various film and TV projects, including The Legend of Korra. Rob has also made music with various bands, winning “Modern Rock Album of the Year” for his work on the CD Addictions & Scars by his band Red Delicious.
As a composer, it’s no surprise Jesper Kyd loves music. Even from a young age, when Kyd started playing classic guitar and piano, his passion for melodies and harmonies was evident.
As he grew, so did his musical expertise. He started messing with music in an electronic medium when he got his first computer, a Commodore 64, at age 13. At 15, he got his first keyboard, a Roland D-20, and began composing music with that as well. “I’ve always loved experimenting with electronics and creating unique sounds,” he says.
Once More, With Feeling
Some of Kyd’s favorite bands and influences include The Knife and Royksopp, as well as classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Ottorino Respighi. For him, music is all about the feeling. “Music can take you far away and make you feel something different,” he notes. “I’m drawn to the emotion of music.”
This fundamental trait of music is what makes it so enjoyable to work with and is a component of the music-making process for Kyd — allowing him to find inspiration in whatever the focus of his latest project is. “There is always a lot of inspiration when working on games, film, and TV as your music needs to fit into a certain world so that world should always be able to inspire ideas.”
Regardless of the platform or genre, music has the same purpose in a game. “Music is there to set the mood and deepen the experience, to add atmosphere and immerse you in the world,” Kyd says. “Music can also make you play a game longer. For example, if some music comes on that you feel like listening to, then you might stay in the game world longer and that might be all it took for you to find something new and now you end up playing the game for another hour or more.”
The process is also the same no matter the game. Kyd will generally work alongside the creative director, audio director, or game director, discussing what the music needs to do along with the wider game story and its characters. At times, he will be directly involved with how the music is applied in the game, and other times everything has already been sorted before he’s even brought in. He loves being involved as much as possible in the process though. A score can take anywhere from three to nine months to put together, depending on how early he is brought in to the process and how much music is required — and it’s not unusual for him to write around three hours of music on a single project.
Reflections and Pushing Forward
There’s no such thing as a crowning accomplishment for Kyd and each project brings more knowledge and new ways of thinking to the table. “I’m always trying to push my music forward so there is not really a project where I can say ‘that’s the one.’ I think there is always room to improve and that is something I feel when listening to my music. I develop my music all the time and so when I go back to listen to a score after I have grown in other areas of music making, I feel I can go back to that style and add something new.”
Even though he won’t call it a crowning achievement, his scores on the first four Assassin’s Creed games were certainly a milestone, and it makes him happy to know the Assassin’s Creed community still enjoys the “Ezio’s Family” theme and connects to it, noting it was intended to go beyond gameplay. He is also proud to have established the sound of Assassin’s Creed, saying “It seems there now are very high expectations from the music in the Assassin’s Creed series, and I feel good about having planted that seed.”
In keeping with his theme of pushing forward, Kyd has recently made the jump to social games. He was approached by Plarium, who were looking to create interesting and unique music for their games. “Plarium gave me full creative reign and that’s (one thing) I look for when working on a project. I liked their ideas and they were very open to mine, so we connected on a creative level and started working together.”
Whatever projects may come in the future, for Kyd, “It’s always about working in a fun environment with creative people who share the same kind of enthusiasm and passion.”
Scoring orchestral music for games, slamming some Taiko drums under a trailer video, picking up a banjo, writing music for slot machines: it’s all in a day’s work for composer Peter Inouye. We had an opportunity to talk to him about his love for composing, working in the videogames industry, and what slot machines have to do with any of all that.
Being a Part of it
When Peter first started studying composition, his original goal was to write for film. “My first love of music started with John Williams, and progressed through every soundtrack he has done. Eventually though, I started thinking about video games, and all of my favorite tunes from the games of my past. When I started seeing the caliber of the music start to step up from FM synth and general midi to full orchestral scores, I knew the industry was starting to focus more on audio.” As soon as the technology allowed for music to be an integral part of the player experience, evolving with the events happening on the screen, he hopped to it, knowing he “had to be a part of it.”
Getting into game audio proved difficult, but was made possible by attending networking events such as GDC (Game Developer Conference) and other meetup groups. “It really helped to find other fledgling game studios and developers that were willing to take chances on new composers.” Peter also found game jams and hack-a-thons to prove useful, since they “force you to be very team-oriented.” Plus, he made a lot of great connections that he still keeps in touch with to this day.
Like most people, Peter has his heroes, those people that help push you in the right direction simply by inspiring you. One of those heroes is Koji Kondo, a Japanese video game composer with an amazing track record. “His original Zelda theme still blows me away to this day. It’s so memorable, and he was so adept at getting as much sound out of the hardware, despite the limitations. Even his modern orchestral work for games like Super Mario Galaxy and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword continues to inspire me.” Peter still looks to Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess frequently as a reference whenever he needs to compose for what he considers the “light orchestral fantasy” genre.
Irish Pennywhistle, Banjo, and Taiko Drums
That doesn’t mean he limits himself to traditional orchestral music, no sir. His tastes range far and wide when it comes to musical styles. As he says himself, his influences are probably “too many to mention.” “I have always had a deep love for Irish and Scottish Celtic music. I started playing a little bit of renaissance recorder for a while, which paved the way to playing Irish pennywhistle in college. That led to a deep appreciation for early American ‘old-time’ music, and I still play clawhammer 5-string banjo whenever I can get time.” It should come as no surprise then that he very much would like to incorporate some banjo music into his soundtracks soon.
Playing in various groups, ranging from concert bands to orchestral ensembles, has contributed in defining his own music. ”Everything I’ve played or listened to influences my style in some way. Playing trumpet in concert bands all through grade school made me love brass in general, so I tend to overuse brass sometimes. Playing in an orchestra made me really see all of the different sounds a string instrument can make, and really examine what was written to get that exact sound.” If there’s one more experience he craves, it’s playing in a Taiko group, since he loves putting Taiko rhythms in his soundtracks. “Heck, I even did a flamenco-style trailer recently, and threw Taiko drums underneath. That’s just how I roll.”
Although a love for music and composing is key, there are particular things to consider when writing for games. “Your music is not the reason the player is there.” Much like writing for film, the music is there to “immerse the player, and possibly communicate some subtext that is not explained directly through the game.” While a memorable theme is very important, the music is still there to support the rest of the game. “Sometimes, I think I have this amazing piece written, with complex melodies, countermelodies, and rhythmic accompaniment, but it’s actually too distracting in-game until I remove everything but the accompaniment.”
As far as the development process itself, Peter wishes he would be brought on to big games in the beginning. “It would let you be more of a part of the design process.” Asking questions like “what if every time this thing happens, this audio plays?” can help the audio director integrate it into the whole “brand” of the game. “But it depends on your relationship to the director, too.” The possible downside of being involved that early, though, is that the game concept can “keep pivoting, and your lush orchestral music no longer fits the new steampunk visual theme.” Much like in film, there’s benefit to someone coming to you with an almost complete game, “with a list of assets they need, knowing exactly what they want.” As long as the producer isn’t overly attached to the temporary tracks they used, it can be very efficient. That kind of scenario can also put you in a tough spot, though, since you have to fully embody the essence of a game in a short amount of time. “After all, you’ve only been working on it for a few weeks, while everyone else has lived and breathed that game for the last year or two.”
Scratching the Surface
Whatever the situation, it doesn’t diminish Peter’s enthusiasm when working on game music. “I’m actually very excited and optimistic for the future of music in games. We’re just starting to scratch the surface with the new ways of creating interactive music scores.” File size limitations will slowly vanish, letting us have more tracks of music in games. “And processor power increases will allow us to have more tracks of audio playing simultaneously, letting us mix individual instruments on the fly.” This makes him think “this will let us have huge immersive music beds, with lots of variation, and without ever getting too repetitive.”
One of his more recent projects, Minion Master, taught him something outside of sound design. “I think the biggest lesson the devs [from Bitflip Games] and I learned is that no matter how good the game is, or how many people try the game and love it, there’s still no guarantee of success.” He points out that even with advertising budgets, releasing an indie game “into the wild” isn’t actually much different than app-store roulette: “you release a game and hope it takes off.” Peter’s biggest concern is for indie developers that spend years on a game, and never recoup their costs. “I’d hate to see the indie devs start to build games more like mobile companies–where you spend only two months on a game, kick it out, and move on to something else. It could cause us to lose the deep and complex games.”
Rewarding the Player
At last year’s Game Developer Conference in San Francisco, Peter talked about designing music and sounds for slot machines. This might sound a bit detached from videogames, but the philosophy is quite similar. “It’s really more just the idea of remembering that your music and sounds are part of the reward.” With every slot machine having a theme, it’s what makes players sit down and start dropping money in. “So your sounds should fit into that theme, and really mean something to the player when they hear them. You want the player to hear certain sounds and get excited that something big might hit.” When something big does hit, “something big should happen to confirm that for them.” He also notes that it seems to make players happy when that audio draws attention from other people too.
The reason he got into sound design for slot machines is simple: “just like the advances in audio for video games, slot machines are quickly evolving as well.” According to Peter, they’re becoming more like video games, “being able to have more and higher quality sounds, and matching them to the animations on the screen.” Whenever he tells people that he creates music and sounds for slots, they instantly think of the annoying standard sounds they used to make when the reels spin. “I’ll admit that I had the same thoughts when I got my first gig with Bally Technologies, but slots have evolved way beyond that.”
Other than writing for slot machines, Peter has also being doing something else entirely. He recently completed the game Change Happens for a proprietary Android tablet for kids called the VINCI Tab. “It’s a game for young children starring Jim Henson’s characters from Sid the Science Kid.” It’s been an interesting experience for him, challenging him to do more than he usually does. “I’m normally just the audio guy. On this game, I’ve done most of the concept, design, script, some artwork, and edited music from the show, all while managing contract programmers, artists, and animators.” Though seemingly happy about this experience, he seems more than happy to be “going back to just being the audio guy.” Check out his portfolio on his website: peterinouye.wordpress.com.