Writing music for videogames is unlike scoring film or television for one simple, or not-so-simple, reason: every time a gamer plays, be they novice or experienced, the path of the game will be different. Every single time. That requires what’s called “dynamic” or “adaptive” music. Nine times out of 10, it’s instrumental, with perhaps one or two show pieces.
“The fundamental difference is that videogames are inherently non-linear,” says Shaun Chasin, who’s scored Ring Of Elysium, Quell 4D, and Apple Arcade’s Way of the Turtle. “In a film, you always know that at this moment in time, on this frame, something specific will happen – and it will happen that way for every viewer of the film. But even if it’s a straightforward, linear game, some players will take different amounts of time to do things, or do things out of order.”
While a player can also use the volume slide to shut music off altogether if they find it distracting, for those who let it enhance their playing experience, music might be heard, for example, when they peruse the game menu; or when they’re shooting at a mortal enemy; or when they’re sneaking through the corridor of a castle. Music that’s part of the actual game is called “diegetic.”
So, what’s required of a songwriter who wishes to get into videogame scoring?
Being a gamer is Number One; knowing not just how to play a game, but how a game plays.
Jake Butineau calls it “game literacy.” He’s been in the gaming industry for the past seven years, creating the music for such titles as Super Animal Royale, Destiny’s Sword, and Dune Sea.
“It’s very important,” says Butineau, “because the music is following the player’s actions, in almost all cases for games. If you can’t go in and provide those actions, and provide a player experience, for you to see how the music would react to a player, then it’s really tricky to score it.” Butineau is so dedicated to the field, for a next step he wants to get into actual game design, “to even further immerse myself in this mindset of, ‘How do games work?’ because that will help me score,” he says.
“I learned all of the skills I needed to at the game jams” – Jake Butineau
Newcomer Aaron Paris, who considers himself “a little bit” of a gamer, just worked on his first gaming project. The Kilometre Music Group signing, who’s involved with Frank Dukes’ Kingsway Music Library, and has a credit on Ye’s DONDA 2 album, was invited by renowned, award-winning Canadian screen composer Keith Power (who’s scored the TV shows Hawaii Five-0, Magnum PI, MacGyver, and Heartland) to co-compose the trailer for the game Soulframe.
“He sent an outline of chords and a rough skeleton of the composition, and then he gave me a bunch of references of what he wanted it to sound and feel like,” says Paris says. “From there, I added a whole string arrangement, some vocals, guitar, and bass.” The game is still in production, but he’s set to work on the entire soundtrack.
To get his start a decade ago, Chasin actually minored in videogame scoring at the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he also participated in numerous “game jams” – a kind of high-pressure song camp/hackathon for scoring videogames.
“Those are amazing,” says Chasin. “Typically, you get put in a random team with people you’ve never met before. Say, it’s a Friday night when you meet them, and then everything is due Monday, and you stay up all weekend and just make a game with these people. It’s a wonderful way to learn. It’s a wonderful way to network. There’s some people that I met doing game jams that I still work with now.”
Butineau agrees. “The really nice thing about getting into the videogame audio space is that you can have as many of the skills as you like, because you’ll find a team in which you fit,” he says. “A great way to see what skills you want to learn, and to practice working with a team, is through game jams – which they have in-person in big cities, but there’s also a lot of online game jams.
“That’s really how I got my start. I learned all of the skills I needed to at the jams, because you just immerse yourself in the process.”