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I had the opportunity to attend this great talk at BAFTA in London this week. Gareth Coker is the composer for the critically-acclaimed game Ori and the Blind Forest. In the talk, he discussed how he used music to reflect and drive the narrative of the game. Below are the notes and ideas I learned from the evening’s talk. You can watch the full video above.
Recording The Score
The whole score for the game is 140 minutes long and they’d only booked 12 hours of recording time with the orchestra because of the budget. It’s pretty expensive hiring not just the musicians but the room, conductor and audio engineer too. A good pace for an orchestra to record is about 6 to 8 minutes of music per hour. For the game, they managed to record 11 and a half minutes of music a minute! A tip Gareth gave is that the people in the orchestra will pick up on your good vibes, so the nicer you are to them, the nicer they’ll be to you. I don’t know how nice you have to be to get them to record 11 minutes of music an hour, though! A great conductor goes a long way to making sure the orchestra is happy as they’ll engage the players while the composer figures out what to do next.
If you’re a composer, getting hold of the game to play during the build process is ideal. The earlier you can get in, the better as you’ll really have a feel for the game and understand what the developer’s vision. Sometimes there might be a lot of NDAs so it’s impossible for the studio to let any copies out of their control. If you can’t get early copies of the game, going to the studio to play it is the next best option. Failing that, get as much video of the game and progress as possible. Communicate with the developers as much as possible too.
Implementing The Music
Cutscenes were used to modulate keys and change the direction of the music. This was deemed the easiest and smoothest way to change the feel of the music as trying to change keys adaptively would be incredibly difficult. Sometimes Gareth would ask the team to put in a 15-second cutscene just so he could do what he wanted to do with his score. This is called horizontal music. They didn’t want to do verticle music/interactivity just for the sake of putting it in.
The sound FX in the game were so punchy and strong that the music itself didn’t need to be too powerful. The soundscape could easily have got overcrowded with too much going on. Gareth instead decided to use the sound FX in place of percussion instruments so that there was a nice balance in the game.
Music In VR
In VR, sound FX are all around you rather than just stereo. This means you have to think about the larger sound field and realise there are a lot more options of where they’re going to come from. When it comes to music, you might have to make it less busy to compensate for that huge sound field. Then you have the question of will you mix your music in stereo like usual, in normal 5.1, directional surround or have it be situational and come from an area in the game world itself? There’s a lot to think about with music in VR. For more information on that topic, check out the composer Winifred Phillips and her thoughts about the role of music in VR.
It’s normal to pitch (unless you’re a superstar) and it’s normal to lose pitches. Don’t let that get you down though because at the end of it you’ll still have an awesome piece of music that you love that can be used for something else. Maybe you can add it to your library music collection or maybe use it for another pitch you got last minute. The main thing is not to scrimp on your pitch. You should make it sound as authentic as possible to what the end result will be. If you’re trying to find people to actually pitch to, head to PAX, GDC, Develop, Rezzed, anywhere the game devs are. Make yourself known and appear on the scene but don’t come across as needy and force yourself on people. Just make really cool new friends, enjoy yourself and carry on making music.
- Actively listening to at least 1 hour of music a week. And that means really listening, not just background music. Try and pick out all the instruments that are playing, figure out the time signature, understand what the underlying chords are doing, and then try and recreate the sound yourself so you can train your ears and your skills as a composer. Try to write and create something every single day.
- The first piece of music in a game has to get the player in the zone. It’s up to the composer to make sure the player doesn’t want to turn off the music.
- Delegate work if you can and don’t try to do everything yourself. That’s just your ego getting in the way of practicality.
- Developers should encourage artists to fail. They’ll get a much better result in the end.
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