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Computer Game Designers Electronic Arts (part 3)


Non-Linear Music

Writing music for computer games is quite different to the normal style of
writing for picture. When writing for film or video, the composer always knows
how long a cue will be, what will happen during that cue, and what will happen
next. The only uncertainty in his or her mind is whether the director is going
to re-edit the picture and the music is going to have to be chopped around to
match. Whatever happens, when the work is finished, the music will always be
played straight through from beginning to end and will sound the same every
time. Not so with computer games. The player decides what will happen, when
it will happen, and how long it will continue before something else commences.
To write music to suit an action sequence when you don't know how long it will
continue is a new skill that composers will have to learn. One of Electronic
Arts' current projects involves four discrete worlds with very well defined
characters. The objects and environments interact at very complex levels so
to creating matching sound worlds, the sound designer and composer have to display
all the normal sound and music for picture skills, and make everything available
for the player to experience in an interactive way. Music, for instance, will
have to underpin dialogue when necessary, but follow suit immediately when the
game moves into an action, chase or combat sequence. In film and video, everything
follows feet and frames, or SMPTE timecode, but in games these things just don't

The staple of the games music composer is the loop. The music may be required
to reflect a number of different game states. There could be ambiences, character
themes, action, chase and combat themes, and then a resolution to whatever happens
in a particular scene, whether it be a success or a failure for the player.
Music has to be written to reflect all the aspects the scene and be available
on the disk to be played as necessary, according to whatever happens in the
course of the game, and one segment should flow into another fairly seamlessly,
even though the time of the transition cannot be predicted in advance. There
are many very able film composers, but once you leave the security of a fixed
time frame then it becomes a very different musical world. A composer who wants
to turn to games will have to learn to fool the listener and create 'adaptive'
music that appears to change in response to the player's actions. Of course,
the set of possible responses is predefined, but hopefully the composer will
be able to provide sufficient complexity for the player to perceive that the
music is being created on the spot to match the moods and actions of the characters.

Electronic Arts have an in-house team of composers and sound designers who
are confident not only with the technical requirements but also with the 'free
form' characteristics of game play. The team was established, not solely as
a resource on tap for music and effects, but to provide assistance for outside
composers and musicians to be able to tailor their skills to the strange new
requirements of the games medium. There has been in the past some degree of
posturing between the record industry, the music publishing industry and the
games industry, but to continue to believe that traditional music is at odds
with games music would be a short sighted point of view. Electronic Arts describe
their interest as building bridges between the different segments of the music
industry and aim to work with as many people as possible from other fields to
bring a sense of value and integrity to the product, to produce something which
will take games to a higher level of creativity.

David Mellor

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David Mellor