Music is essential to building a good video game. No matter what kind of game you are making (whether it is a first person shooter or a point and click adventure game), music is essential to supporting what’s going on during gameplay and should hit the correct emotional tones of whatever is going on in the game.
In story-driven games, I’m often asked to come up with a main theme and character themes before I do the in-game music. Recently on an unannounced project, I had to create a main theme or character themes that I could use in varying emotional contexts later for the in-game themes. In other words, I’m not writing five random, unrelated loops that are just put into the game. As I compose a piece, I sometimes need to make sure that the piece’s melody can be used in varying emotional contexts for in-game music later. After I write the main theme and character themes, I might use the melodies from those as the basis for creating specific in-game themes. In the point and click adventure game (Die to Survive), I connected the main theme’s melody to one of the in-game themes, the House Theme. I used some of the melody from the Main Theme in the middle of the House Theme. If the game has a memorable main theme that the player can remember, there’s no reason that it can’t be reused later in another context.
Music, regardless of genre should convey the correct emotions for situations within the game. Clients should always clarify what overall mood and feel that they are looking for in a track. For instance, when a player is in a winter themed level, what should the player be feeling? Are they on a dark barren ice planet? Or is the winter level cute, festive, and maybe has candy canes? If I’m asked to do a theme for a winter level, I need more information and context before I write the piece. Before I do any track, I ask: What should the emotion, mood, and feel of the track be? I always need this question answered before I do a track.
For in-game theme, should the music be more in-the-background to support gameplay? Or, should each theme be more of a standalone piece that could be listened to outside of the context of the game? This is an important question to answer. Whether or not level themes are more in the background or more like standalone pieces that could be listened to outside of the game depends on many things: How long the players might spend in the level, the type of game it is, the genre of music, etc.
Some in-game music is more in the background than others. Every game I’ve worked on is different. On some games, I was asked to write a more atmospheric, supportive piece for a level theme. In the game RPG MO, I was asked to create looped themes that players could listen to for long periods of time because they spend lots of time (often hours) in the various worlds within the game. I also had to make the pieces around 3 minutes long, not too fast, and not repetitive sounding. In the game, Chess Conquest, I made a more of a standalone main theme with a catchy melody. But, I made the in-game themes with an in-game background to them.
These in-game themes make sense within the context of the game play. For other types of games, sometimes the music should be less atmospheric and more of a standalone piece. In Peter’s Quest, I did a series of chiptune pieces. These weren’t atmospheric or in the background at all – each of them can be listened to outside of the game on a standalone basis. In the Rainsdowne Players: Opening Night, I also created a standalone fast fight theme and a background piece. Compared to the background level themes that I did in Chess Conquest and RPG MO, these were less calm and atmospheric. The melody is more thematic – not simply a supportive piece that plays in the background.
Every game has a unique identity. Every client has a different vision about how music should work in the game. There should be more emotionally charged, story-driven games out there. Music plays a big role in what players are feeling while they play a game. A music track can make the difference between whether or not a player should be sensing danger or not. Music shouldn’t be simple loops that get thrown in as an afterthought. It should always be connected to the game.