Writing Music for Games - A Journey Into the Unknown

Austin Wintory and the Skopje Radio Symphonic Orchestra performing Journey Soundtrack

Austin Wintory and the Skopje Radio Symphonic Orchestra performing Journey Soundtrack

Recently I've been wanting to somehow get my foot in the door of games audio, and what better way to do this than to transfer my acoustic songwriting skills over into a game. Sounds easy right? You just sit down and start...Umm!...Exactly! There are no easy ways to just transfer those skills, it's a minefield of mistakes waiting to happen if you aren't prepared. In this post, I'm going to walk you through some of the challenges I faced while attempting to write my first ever piece of games audio. Now, down to business. What does and doesn't make a good game soundtrack?. I'll tell you where I went wrong, and give some tips on what can be done to turn those mediocre projects into the next Journey soundtrack.

What I Did Wrong

My first mistake was assuming I could just write a great song akin to something I would here in my new favourite game 'Journey'. First of all, that is such a bad attitude to take into any project let alone creating something fresh that you intend to use as a means to entice game devs. Game devs are some of the pickiest people out there, so if you want to impress anyone it should be them. To all those that read that, I apologise, but you know you are good if they like your stuff. These people critically analyse everything within their favourite games from gameplay to how the audio syncs with the visuals. That is something I have now come to pay more attention to when composing for games. 

In the beginning I  started with a concept and nothing else, just the element fire to guide me through the whole tune. This was one of the fundamental mistakes in the creation of my first scratch track and something I think I needed to get out of my system. I felt defeated and frankly terrible at writing music after my first attempt, but I, like a bad driver, was going about it the wrong way. This can be the cause of many creative mind blanks and can halt work that could otherwise be flowing out of you if done properly. My fixit for this error was to take an existing track, that was similar to what I was going for, and tear it down to its bones to see how it was made. To check out the teardown for 'I Was Born For This' click here

Making It Shine

The creative process for the game became easier in part, because I was now being guided by my own research. I had analysed the process others had gone through to create a strong professional track and attempted to implement those same techniques. Since I didn't have a symphony orchestra to play my composition and had no sheet music to prepare me, I reverted to the process of playing scales into a midi controller. This was far more convenient for me and meant I could expand on my ideas by hearing them instantly. The process I used obviously has some flaws, but I was boosted by the extra knowledge I'd gathered in my track teardown and the reflection after my first attempt.

Below are 2 of the most important elements I found when creating my sound...  

#1. Melody

The game industry is one of the most competitive and successful parts of the media landscape. Making creative choices often comes with a formula, in which the creator must follow in order to create something memorable, I chose to create a melody within my track that is something I can sing or hum along to. Like Mario, Zelda, Harry Potter etc, I wanted a one note harmony that the ears on the end would never get out of their head. In a paper written in current biology they assert that melody is a way humans first begin to learn language as babies. This primal trait that we pick up automatically is the reason why we consider a song's melody to be the most standout section in the work. 

#2. Dynamics

This seems like an obvious one, but a lot of people don't really understand it. Including me. When I say dynamics I don't mean compression, I mean timing within your arrangement to bring an instrument in at just the right moment in order to create lift or drop. It serves the song, and it was something that I learnt, then firmly face palmed myself with a quick ahah!. I noticed as I would bring a flute into the mix at a certain point it would give the entire arrangement a different feel if it were placed somewhere else. I found this particularly effective with smaller sections that could almost be used as an intro to a new dynamic. In terms of creating a lift I find that adding an instrument with a melody then accompanying it with a similar toned partner would be very effective in creating a form of textural dynamics.