Adaptive Music In Video Games

When you’re starting on a project it is important to design your game so that the player doesn’t have the exact same experience twice. Game designers will include as many different scenes and action combinations as possible to keep the players on their toes and to keep their interest in the game. A game that is too repetitive will often lose the interest of the player and one way to make your game world seem less repetitive is to use some clever music.

One of the most effective ways to keep things interesting is to use something called adaptive music as the underscore for your game. This could be as simple as having a light string section play when there are no enemies around and introducing a hard-hitting drum beat when enemies are nearby. The music is designed to blend in combinations and have parts fade in and out when an action is happening on-screen.

A Little Banjo, A Little Kazooie

One of my earliest memories of a game that used clever music design in a game was the N64 hit Banjo Kazooie. This game only had a few different melodies that played throughout the entire game and they were so simple that it was almost silly. (Okay, it was more than a little bit silly, but it was charming).

What made the music so interesting was the way the composer used adaptive music to change the blend of instruments that played the same melody depending on what level or part of the world you were exploring. The way that they cleverly added the sound of marching ants to the theme of Gruntilda’s Lair when you are approaching Mumbo Mountain; the arrangement change to a simple sleigh bells and celesta when approaching Freezeezy Peak; that one melody is used to showcase so many different types of scenery. This music has stuck with me since chlidhood!

A Gold Star

Think of the how the music changes when you pick up a star in Mario – the beat speeds up and the melody changes in an adaptive way because you picked it up. It’s the same scenario when you’re running out of time in a level. The music adapts to the on screen action to create a sense of stress for the player. How boring would Mario sound if the music stayed the same throughout all of those actions?  Adaptive music is so important and so common in game composition.

Games vs. Films

A lot of composers create music for both films and games because in many ways it is a similar process to create. I thought I would point out that a film is something that happens the same way every time so the music needs to flow with what is on screen through only one playthrough. In the game world a player may be grinding levels on the world map, or trying to solve puzzles in a dungeon. A player could be stuck in a place where the music will be playing for hours so it is important that the music adapt and not be too repetitive.

Please keep in mind that adaptive music is an art form and it takes time to learn. If you are a composer starting out I would recommend practicing this art as much as possible before doing a large project!

Wait, No, Don’t Leave!

There is nothing worse in a game than when you enter a location (ie. a house in an RPG) and you hear the same song start to play from the very beginning when you leave. There are many clever music programming tricks you can have to overcome this.

  1. Have the music outside the house continue playing while you’re inside
  2. Have different music play when you step out again
  3. Have the song start in the middle – somewhere that is more interesting than the beginning.

There are really no limits to what you can do with these techniques and it does’t just apply to music!

Keep it real and keep it interesting!


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2 thoughts on “Adaptive Music In Video Games

  1. Interesting. Game music is something that is often overlooked unless it is particularly annoying or out of place. But looking back, it is the music that has made some of my favorite games. Castlevania II, Megaman II and Metroid are just a few. It’s good to hear from someone who is part of that aspect of gaming.

    Hoping to hear more from you.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for making this post, enjoyed reading it!
    I love Banjo and Kazooie, and the audio plays a huge role in that.
    I agree that adaptive music within games is a very important tool to support or empathize what’s going on on screen. It can also be used to direct feelings (like with movies). I work with games almost on a daily basis and recently I started getting into adaptive music. As you say, it’s really something that you have to learn. I’m also really interested in interactive/adaptive sound effects and how it can affect the player’s experience:-)

    Liked by 2 people

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