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Finding the holy grail of video game music

The composer Richard Jacques and the academic James Newman on chip tunes, orchestral soundtracks and

On 18 May, the Barbican is hosting an event to discuss music in video games, from the early "chip music" to modern orchestral soundscapes. I spoke to two of its participants, the games researcher James Newman of Bath Spa university and the composer Richard Jacques.

How important is music to a computer game?

James Newman: You're talking to someone who, in the 1980s, played games just for their music. Dire games! Just because I was following the careers of their composers. I have some mixtapes of chip music from the Commodore 64.

Setting aside that, when we talk about the development of consoles, we tend to think about them in terms of how the graphics have got better, and whether games are running in 720 or 1080p.

What we've forgotten are how things like surround sound tracks have created immersion within games. We've moved away from chip tunes to cinematic, orchestrated soundtracks with the same emotional resonance as film soundtracks; the technology has enabled that, and the industry has therefore attracted different types of musicians.

And how is the music in games different from film and TV?

Richard Jacques: The main difference is that games are interactive, so they are non-linear. If I'm writing for TV and film, I have the picture in front of me -- there's a beginning, middle and end; whereas in a game, we have no idea what the player is going to do and how long it's going to take them to do it.

The scoring process differs as we have to create various scenarios and musical settings to cover every eventuality. There are a number of ways we do that: we use lots of layering techniques, changing the intensity of a piece of music; we have lots of transition sequences between pieces of music. The mood has to follow the action: that's the holy grail of games scoring.

JN: The form is the real issue. The problem with a game is that it's made up of different sequences, some of which are predictable -- cut scenes and introductions, opening and closing credits -- and others that aren't, where building cues is much more difficult.

You don't have any control of the pacing of the narrative. [It's about] writing looping sequences that mark time until the player gets to the big battle, which triggers a crescendo.

Which games have memorable soundtracks -- and why?

RJ: Mario has a recognisable signature sound; so does Halo -- you know it as soon as you hear the monks chanting. I think a lot of it is about exposure. The music shouldn't bombast the player too much. It's an integral feature but a supporting one.

JN: The reason games like Mario and Zelda do that [have recognisable music] is that they've been part of gaming, or even popular culture, for such a long time. And they're whistleable. And there's audio design, too: take the codec in Metal Gear Solid. Every so often, you'll hear someone's phone ringing on the train and it'll be that.

Richard, what was your route into game music writing?

RJ: My father's a composer and my mum's a piano teacher. I had a traditional classical education -- Wells Cathedral School and the Royal Academy of Music. I'm a trombonist, pianist and percussionist by training.

I've been writing music since I was very young and then I started as an in-house composer with a large Japanese publisher. In 2001, I did a large orchestral recording at Abbey Road -- the first game soundtrack recorded there -- for a game called Head Hunter. I've had my own company since then.

I've worked on Mass Effect and the latest James Bond,Bloodstone -- invariably, they're orchestral scores, which is commonplace now but when I joined the industry it hadn't really been done.

Where do you start with a score like that?

RJ: It varies by project but we might even start off working from a game-design document. There are often some visuals to see. Often, we'd have some footage, perhaps in black and white, with no textures.

For narrative-driven games, we'd often get a copy of the script, so that gives us an idea of where the cut scenes are.

What's the biggest challenge?

RJ: The interactivity. And often the amount of music -- in the Bond game, we had two hours and 45 minutes, much more than in a feature film.

Then again, the technology has evolved so much since I joined the industry in 1994. Back in those days, we were limited to chip music, creating pretty horrible Midi soundtracks. Now, I can sit in my studio and mock up how the music will play in the game without even handing it over to programmers.

Do you play games?

RJ: Yes, I've been a gamer since I was 11. Then, it was chip-based music, not very high quality. I remember playing Dragon's Lair in a petrol station, I think! But when I joined the industry, I knew it would only be a matter of time before I could work with orchestras.

What's your benchmark for good game music?

RJ: It has to be of the highest quality in composition, orchestration and production, but also it has to be scored sympathetically to what's happening on-screen. I think some people just want to write good music without taking care of what's happening in the game.

JN: As someone interested in electronic music, there is a lot of Commodore 64-era music where it's impossible to understand how you can get a three-channel, crummy, in-built chip to make the lyrical music Rob Hubbard or Martin Galway managed to squeeze out of it.

The technical limits of early 1980s home computers gave rise to some really inventive, creative music: [take] Monty on the Run. The C64 still has a huge fanbase, with projects like the High-Voltage SID Collection, which aims to curate every soundtrack from that era -- tens of thousands of rips of Commodore music.

Do you have a favourite piece of game music?

JN: Rob Hubbard's Delta, which drew on a range of influences. Its reference points were as diverse as Pink Floyd and Philip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi. I guess my favourite was Kentilla, also by Rob Hubbard: a graphical text-adventure with interactive music. You walked into a room and a new piece of music would play. That turned out to be too ambitious for the 1980s.

I'm looking at the cover -- a man in a headband fighting some snakes.

JN: Yeah. It was an age where the boxes were very exciting. The only screenshot of it I remember is a Microsoft Paint-style house.

James, are you nostalgic for that era?

JN: Yes. Each new piece of music was founded on a new discovery: how to create pitch-bend, for example. How to create the illusion of more than three voices playing. Each piece pushed back the boundaries. Sampled drums, for example, were unlike anything you'd heard before. We've lost that sense that each game is a step into something new.

Do you have a pet hate about bad game music?

RJ: I don't like music that's doing something for the composer's benefit rather than for the game. I say that partly as a composer and partly as a gamer.

JN: Apart from the usual "timpani rolls and cymbal clashes to mark excitement", I lament the loss of chip tunes and in-built sound chips. Orchestral soundtracks bring a more filmic, romantic, lavish, larger-scale experience but I miss the days of the SID-chip tune. You could clearly identify it as computer-game music.

What's the idea behind the event at the Barbican?

RJ: We'll be talking about composing music for games and how it's different from film and TV, and showing examples of how interactive music is created and works within a video game.

JN: We'll talk about how game music has changed and we'll be breaking away from the idea that things necessarily get better. We're well used to technology improving games but have we lost something instinctively game-like? We both gain and lose from the way consoles have developed.

Ear Candy is on at the Barbican on 18 May at 7pm. Tickets here.