In September of 2017, Montréal’s Orchestre Métropolitain played, before an audience of more than 2,000 souls, the Symphonie du jeu vidéo de Montréal (the Montréal Videogame symphony), a multi-media concert presented in collaboration with Alliance numérique. The evening’s program was exclusively comprised of original music composed for videogames designed in Montréal. The event was highly symbolic for the music creators who are thriving, in a city that’s become an economic goldmine of videogame production. As a guide to this unsung trade, we’ve tapped the experience of a major player on the scene: Composer, studio owner and teacher Mathieu Lavoie.

Mathieu Lavoie, François-Xavier Dupras

Mathieu Lavoie and his Vibe Avenue business partner, François-Xavier Dupas. (Photo: Michaëlle Charrette)

First off, is it necessary to be a gamer in order to compose music for video games? Mathieu Lavoie giggles: “Some composers aren’t gamers at all, and got into it by fluke,” says Lavoie. “But most of the ones I know are at least a little gamer. However, when you’re successful in this trade, you become less and less of a gamer… Take me, for example: between my job at the Université de Québec à Montréal [UQAM], teaching composition for film and videogames, my role as the owner of the Vibe Avenue studio, and being a dad to a 19-month-old girl, let’s just say I don’t really have time to game…”

Lavoie is something of a local bigwig in videogame music. In fact, he’ll be sharing his art – and science – during the Sommet musique et technologie conference, presented by the Association des professionnels de l’édition musicale (APEM) at Montréal’s PHI Centre on March 14, 2018. One more thing keeping him away from gaming…

“When I don’t have time to play, I watch videos of people playing to better understand how music is used in games,” says Lavoie. “As a matter of fact, there are probably more people watching other people play videogames than there are people actually playing; the success of the Twitch platform is mind-boggling,” he says of the Amazon-owned, YouTube-like platform that attracts phenomenally huge audiences by specializing in presenting people playing video games, live or recorded.

The art of videogame music is quite different from that of film music,” says Lavoie. “First off, I think composing for videogames automatically makes you a film composer. Generally speaking, a video game has imposed scenes, called ‘cut scenes,’ that are similar to a movie scene, inasmuch as the music has to correspond with the action. They are moments during which the player no longer controls his actions, so that the game can tell its story, and that scene has to be adorned with music – just as in the movies.”

That’s the easy part of videogame composition, which Lavoie compares to a “big jigsaw puzzle.” That’s because when a player acts in the gameplay, and the producers want music to accompany those actions, the composer must create music without knowing how the player will interact with their virtual universe. “It’s totally unpredictable,” says Lavoie. “We don’t know when the player will act a certain way – say, to start combat, or simply to walk around [the game’s environment]. Yet, the music has to be omni-present.”

Lavoie, who holds a doctorate in composition, and who’s also been teaching film and videogame composition for about 15 years, also calls it “modular music.” The composition isn’t linear; instead, it’s made up of a multitude of elements that can be assembled in different ways, to give the impression of a log soundtrack that isn’t redundant.

“So, for example, I’ll compose four-bar blocks that can be played in any order, because I’ve made sure that they’re harmonious,” he says. “The end of each block therefore needs to work with the beginning of all the other blocks. That’s what I call ‘open form.’ The whole idea being that not only do those blocks need to create an environment specific to a moment in the game, a module, but each also has to segue harmoniously to the music of the game’s next moment.”

“It’s logical to me that the videogame composer community took root in Montréal. We not only have a whole industry, but we have the expertise, too.” — Mathieu Lavoie

The other compositional technique that sets videogame music apart from that of cinema is one that Lavoie calls the “variability technique”: “Within a block,” he says, “you can imagine a musical theme, a melody, but in a way that it sounds just as good played by a clarinet or a violin. You can record the melody played by many instruments, and even record different melodies operating on a shared harmonic base, without having to re-compose the base of the module.”

You then instruct the game’s software to pick from the bank of melodies and instruments and assemble them to give the illusion of one long composition. “This way, each time you play the module, there’s a feeling of newness, because there are numerous possible combinations between the instruments and melodies. It allows us to create a lot of music without necessarily having to re-compose everything; in other words, with the same amount of effort, you can achieve three to four more times the quantity of original music by using open form and variability.”

Along with his Vibe Avenue team, Lavoie works on about 12 projects at a time every year. The majority of his clients are independent studios in the Montréal or Québec videogame industry. The community of independents is booming, very dynamic and unique, in that they are grouped in the Guilde des développeurs de jeux vidéo indépendants du Québec. “It’s logical to me that the video game composer’s community took roots in Montréal,” says Lavoie. “We not only have a whole industry, but we have the expertise, too. Take, for example, Audiokinetic, who developed the Wwise software, the tool of choice for the dynamic integration of music in videogames.”

In short, composing for videogames really is like a jigsaw puzzle, one that requires years of labour to complete a single project. Yet to Lavoie, that’s a privilege when compared to scoring films, because composers often have much tighter deadlines. “Generally, when a videogame studio approaches us for their music needs, we’re in charge of the whole gamut of soundscapes for the game,” he says. “From composing the music, to dialogue, to sound design. That’s something that’s missing in the realm of film, since apart from the director, there’s no audio specialist who supervises the whole soundscape of the movie. That gives us much greater control [over the final product] than in movies.”

Times have changed since the golden age of videogame music, and the unforgettable musical themes of Japanese masters of the genre. Like Koji Kondo, composer of the Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda themes, or Nobuo Uematsu, the “Beethoven of video game music,” responsible for the musical themes of games such as Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger, among many other classics. “They were often one-minute loops that played over and over,” says Lavoie. No wonder those melodies are etched so deeply in our childhood brains.

“Does our work bring a distinct musical signature? We talk about it often, my partner and I,” says Lavoie confirms. “We’re weary of being pigeonholed, in case we get overlooked for certain projects! I think our trademark is the fusion of musical styles that we can offer. In almost every game we work on, we manage to create hybrid musical genres. And we work really hard on coming up with really catchy themes – melodies are important in a videogame, but they need to be used carefully. Our most popular soundtrack was the one for the game, Ultimate Chicken Horse, and its very funky theme. We sold several thousand copies of the soundtrack, and we’ve even played concerts with it!”