How to write music for video games

Game Music Connect founder and BAFTA award winning composer James Hannigan gives us his top tips on composing for video games…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 29 Apr 2014
  • min read
To the untrained ear the difference between composing music for film, TV and video games is slim.

But while all three fall under the umbrella of ‘visual media’, BAFTA award winning composer and co-founder of Game Music Connect James Hannigan believes music writers need to think differently about these mediums.

We asked James to outline the different challenges faced with composing music for video games…

Remember games and films are different

I think the logic is pretty simple. If games were the same as films, delivering the same experiences and with music functioning in the same way, then they would be films too.

That may sound obvious, but there are many who really don’t understand or care that much about the differences, which I think is a shame.

For instance, some will have you believe that a ‘battle scene’ in a game ought to be treated in exactly the same way as one in a film – despite the player’s direct involvement in it.

You need to think beyond conventional scoring techniques

The idea that games are interactive films in some way is a bit like describing film and TV as merely ‘filmed plays’ or ‘televised theatre’. They can have a lot in common at times, and games often have what you might call a filmic reality or a linear narrative, but the way in which music functions in them and how a game plays with time and adapts to the pace of the player makes it nearly impossible to score to picture in any conventional way. In games, it’s difficult to pre-compose music that has a planned trajectory. You can give a piece of music a vector or a sense of direction but how long it needs to be before it reaches its ‘destination’, for example, is often very hard to determine in advance.

Many early films were indeed stagey and theatrical (the camera rarely even moved!) and games like Privateer: The Darkening and Wing Commander IV, for example, with their live action sequences almost indistinguishable from film, were perhaps examples of the games industry similarly ‘mimicking’ earlier forms in a way that made sense at that time.

I suspect that developers wanted games to tell a story and have the emotional impact of films and, in the absence of a more appropriate model, essentially replicated the film experience and tried to place it in a gaming context.

Diegetic vs non-diegetic music

What sets games and films apart for me is largely to do with the way players adopt a role in the game world and influence the outcome of events. They are active participants in the game world’s story and that has all kinds of consequences for the music. What is defined as diegetic in film (the onscreen ‘reality’) and the non-diegetic (existing for the benefit of the audience alone, such as the film score) are two areas that are much less clearly defined in games than they are in film because players adopt the role of characters in them and exert an influence on what actually goes on. Players may not only be told a story, but very often create one as well, and that’s pretty significant.

Think about who the music is for

Intellectually, the moment we hear music in films, unless its diegetic (on a radio in a car or something of that nature), we are aware of it as something added for the sake of an audience and that this music is inaudible to characters in the film itself.

That’s fine within the conventions of the film viewing experience, but in the context of a game it can sometimes create confusion over who and what such music is for - and even from where it emanates - as we are sometimes led to believe we are both audience to and a participant in the game at the same time.

I imagine this is one reason a great deal of music in games has gravitated towards becoming sound-based and atmospheric, rather than existing for narrative support because, in many cases, music ‘added on top’ can sound strangely canned and disconnected from the game.

What extra dimensions can music offer

Whereas in film a great deal of music exists for narrative support (that’s to say, to help tell a story to a passive viewer) doing that in games when giving players control over a story (such as in a Sim, for example) can leave music a bit redundant.

So in games, why not have music tell the player something they don’t already know? An example of doing that could be, say, to have it indicate your character’s ‘health’ or emotional state during a battle, instead of merely stating that you’re participating in one or merely treat it as a spectacle. Or have music become increasingly ominous as you wander ‘off course’ or become lost in a creepy environment. Essentially, anything adding a dimension to the game that wouldn’t exist without it and providing information not supplied on a visual basis can be helpful.

As soon as you start thinking in these terms you start to see that, although music in games and films can be similar in style when isolated, what actually motivates music and what it exists to say in context can at times be very different. And that I think is – or ought to be – part of the ‘art’ of composing for games.

Game style impacts soundtrack

I’d be the first to admit that having a film-like score or music for narrative support works very well in some games - particularly those in the third person. For example, in a linear James Bond or Metal Gear Solid game, the player is often asked to assume the role of an established character and to some extent I imagine can be treated as an audience to that character’s exploits - as they are able to see them from the outside and have the advantage of a camera-like view. The same is true of a Mario game. You play Mario, you don’t play ‘you’ - and that’s pretty significant. A very filmic game such as Beyond: Two Souls, may also need an approach to music not unlike films. But a zoo simulation, for example, or a real-time strategy game putting you in complete command of a scenario and letting you shape the world around you can be so open-ended that it simply can’t be scored like a film.

Then there are games in the first person like Battlefield, which often treat you as an inhabitant of the game world and present a somewhat colder, more clinical reality as if experienced through your own ‘senses’. A game like that, although emotionally engaging, I guess is more about ‘being there’. For those games, I really wonder if music treating you like an audience and suggesting you are a spectator would really add that much to the experience. That applies even more to something like a flight simulator. Music adding drama to one of those would probably only detract from any sense of it being realistic. So, when applying music to games, I think it really helps if composers understand the nature of games and the reality they present, along with the role of the player within it.

Visit find out more. You can also get more information on Game Music Connect from the event's official website.