Get in the Game

Whether they know it or not, modern video gamers are remixers. An artist performing on stage may improvise, mixing loops and samples to the delight of
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Whether they know it or not, modern video gamers are remixers. An artist performing on stage may improvise, mixing loops and samples to the delight of

Whether they know it or not, modern video gamers are remixers. An artist performing on stage may improvise, mixing loops and samples to the delight of the crowd and working melodic variations and juxtaposed rhythms into a one-time-only performance. However, in countless living rooms, gamers also create unique musical experiences based on their movements and actions. The music exhibited in both cases is music for the moment, dictated by decisions. It is neither transcribed, preconceived nor prearranged. It is nonlinear music, and now that this fresh form has been solidified into the code of advanced, present-day video games, remixers everywhere should be geeking out about their chance to inject their musical sensibilities into the games of the future.


Traditionally, popular forms of music have made their way into game soundtracks as licensed tracks assembled from proven artists to help market the game. Most commonly, sports and racing genres have implemented these tracks in a revolving playlist or jukebox designed to heighten the adrenaline response. Meanwhile, story-driven games are focused on providing a dramatic underscore, usually a cinematic and orchestral approach to driving the game. Film scores are effective at conveying action and emotion, but they are linear, requiring fixed music to support the fixed onscreen motion. Video games, of course, are not fixed, so the goal of today's game score is to seamlessly adapt to changing situations and environments as if the music were scored directly to the gameplay. To do that means to assemble music that works in an interactive, nonlinear fashion, now referred to as “adaptive music.”

For years, game-music composers have been working with programmers to fuel the advancement of adaptive music. Coincidentally, DJs and electronic-music producers have been assembling tracks for the very same kind of flexibility required for onstage improvisation. This parallel development recently collided with Amon Tobin's original game soundtrack for Ubisoft's Splinter Cell Chaos Theory in 2005. Although the soundtrack was adapted to a linear form to be released on CD, the mixes truly shine within the game because it's never the same mix twice.

In fact, DJs and electronic musicians have been thinking in nonlinear terms for a long time. The deconstructionist hip-hop composer Mike Relm, who's also the music producer for the Turntable Timmy animation and game series, says, “Because my musical background is that of a DJ, I think of music in terms of how different songs and parts would mix in and out of each other. If you break down the soundtrack for a video game, adaptive music does pretty much the same thing. It's all about the smooth transitions and flow. Most people play a game for hours without realizing that they've been listening to the same pieces, mixed up and rearranged depending on how they play.”


The techniques for transforming tracks for adaptive playback can be as varied as the games on the market today. Since this is an evolving art, your imagination is the only limitation. Adaptive music is essentially the result of idea implementation, where programmers find new ways to bring the composer's interactive ideas into reality. How and when your tracks need to adapt is generally dictated by the game. Game conditions such as entering a hostile environment, retreating from that environment, navigating in stealth mode or facing enemy reinforcement are common examples of when a game score will shift to a different level of intensity. What really drives the adaptive quality of the music is to fully understand the particular nuances of the gameplay that make one game different from the next, then musically supporting those aspects that make it unique.

Consider your tracks as phrase blocks in which some blocks form the foundation, while others form the substance, and still others bridge to new forms. Those blocks may be triggered or rearranged within the game's sequencer, depending on the actions or circumstances of the player. Common block types include ambient loops, layering loops, branching loops, intros, outros and transitions.


The most basic phrase block is the ambient loop, generally reserved for periods of navigation. This is a low-intensity loop designed to enhance the visual surroundings and create a sense of anticipation. Though basic in function, it can be very versatile when combined with other phrase types. For instance, the ambient loop can be woven seamlessly into more intense loops by allowing the loop to continue as a new loop is triggered. That illustrates a layered composition, known in game-music terms as simply “layering,” and is really no different than un-muting or raising the fader on a different track.


Game-audio engines, like sequencers, contain a number of tracks for music elements. One way to approach adaptive music is to layer those looped elements on top of each other to emphasize different levels of intensity. If you consider drums, bass, keyboards and vocals as individual tracks of a complete composition, adding and subtracting those tracks will build up and break down the intensity of the mix. When and how those tracks are added and subtracted is completely controlled by the game state, in which the player must satisfy specific conditions to initiate the inclusion or exclusion of any track. Those conditions may include the physical distance of a player's avatar to an enemy, entering or exiting any location within a map, being detected by the enemy's artifical intelligence or just about anything else you can imagine.


Branching provides a slightly different approach to adaptive music production. In its most basic form, branching is sequential; the game's state will trigger a new, complete mix of a phrase or loop. Take, for instance, EA Sports' NBA Street Vol. 3. Once the Gamebreaker mode is activated, all previous music cuts to a special Gamebreaker loop. That loop continues until you either complete the Gamebreaker dunk or run out of time trying.

Like layering, branched loops are segments of an overall composition, but are not intended to be played simultaneously. Branched loops are premixed variations of the same composition and are used to indicate different intensity levels. Low-, medium- and high-intensity mixes are typically created for branching. At first, that may seem less flexible than layering, but if you consider the overall potential of musical development that you can express within the loops, you may find it is a more attractive approach for periods of dramatic emphasis. Themes, motifs and rhythms are easily tweaked and developed over the course of those loops, allowing you to really flex your creativity. Bear in mind, there are no hard and fast rules to adaptive music, so feel free to combine both layering and branching techniques to squeeze the most from your tracks.


Until now, I have limited the discussion to looped phrase blocks. That is not to suggest that music should be looping continuously throughout every game. In fact, some discretion will actually help the effectiveness of your tracks. If you've noticed that today's blockbuster movies contain wall-to-wall music, you might appreciate a few moments of silence. Movies average two hours in length, but a game can last 12 hours or more. Your game score will benefit from a bit of breathability, and with that, you can get more sophisticated in how your music plays through the use of intros, outros and transitions.

Intro and outro phrases will give your loops a more polished and scored feel in terms of building a complete composition. The functions of those phrases are obvious, but how you treat them will demonstrate their effectiveness. Intros and outros may be short or long and will help provide a natural treatment for changes in game states (or lack thereof). If the player enters a new territory and a new composition starts loading, an outro followed by some silence will help support the change in scenery when the new composition is triggered. On the other hand, it is plausible that a loop may be programmed to immediately proceed to the outro if the player ceases movement for an extended period of time. The programmer may create any number of markers within a loop. Those markers are used to activate or deactivate any other phrase blocks, such as outros, according to what game conditions exist.

If the player walks into a maelstrom of activity, a new phrase may trigger immediately to link the old and new compositions by way of a transitional phrase. The transition, like the intro and outro, is a key element to providing a true score of the action, while lending some depth to your music.


Before diving headfirst into the game-score arena, its best to consider with whom you're sharing it. As in film, there is a game-audio hierarchy. Music may be very satisfying, but it's still third banana among dialog and sound effects in terms of volume within the overall audio mix. But don't fret; you'll have moments to shine. Just pick your spots. Musical subtlety can be rewarding. In fact, the more your music supports the other sound elements, the more likely you will be asked back to work on another game.

A major consideration for your tracks is when to lay off and when to push. There is only so much sonic space that can be shared between music and sound effects before you just get mud. You can avoid muddiness by paying close attention to your EQ. If you have a composition playing under a symphony of explosions, there's no point in boosting the bass and piling on additional tracks. Your music will be lost. It is best to be aggressive in style but sparing with the music's tracks and frequency range, so that everything can be heard. Using EQ, try rolling off frequencies below 70 or 80 Hz for areas in the game containing sound effects with a lot of low-end activity. You may find that other frequencies benefit from reduction as well. You can test your mixes against gameplay video to find where your music sits best. Remember, if your soundtrack goes to CD, then you can beef it back up in the remix.


For sources of inspiration, you can request the art, script and technical documents from the game producer. The artwork will help you create a matching palette of sounds, instrumentation, styles and textures. A thorough knowledge of the script will help you to emphasize key moments in the story. And though the technical documents may be lengthy, they will arm you with a strong understanding of the abilities of the characters, which you can support within the music.

Most games contain moments of emphasis characterized by changes in difficulty, such as boss fights. It's important to support these peaks and valleys in the music. If you were to graph the intensity of your music from start to finish, it should mirror the graph of game intensity, so pace your music accordingly.

The creation of special themes, motifs and rhythms should be applied to the important characters within the game. Those themes can be revisited and reworked to emphasize the changes in character development, as well as support their mental and physical states.


DJs and electronic-music producers have forged a new school of musical thought, one that macro-analyzes musical relationships at the phrase level. Game scores, as an interactive art, are now doing the same, creating a new stage for remixing. The future of adaptive music is bright, and Mike Relm agrees. “The technology that's going to be available five or 10 years from now, combined with all the different ways to make music, are going to make for a revolutionary art form. I can't wait until iPods and car stereos are adaptive; that's when the fun really begins.”


Due to the popularity of the game industry, landing a game-music job is getting increasingly more difficult, but don't be discouraged. If you're good enough, they'll find you. In the meantime, here are a few tips that can help you along.

  • Game Industry ContactsThose little booklets that come with your video game can be used for more than simply learning the moves. Many booklets contain the credits for the game. Take down the names of the audio personnel, the producers and the outsourcing manager. Now you have people to contact. Likewise, note who made the music. If you feel your styles are compatible, contact the music composer and suggest collaborating.
  • Online ResourcesWebsites about game development, such as and can answer a lot of your questions and show you who's who in the industry. They have job listings and opportunities to make your presence known. I'm there; you should be, too. See also and the Game Audio Network Guild at
  • ConventionsGame conventions, including the Game Developer's Conference ( and E3 (, can expose you to many in the industry. During those events, there are nightly parties. Plan ahead, and offer your services as entertainment for those events or for venues around San Francisco and L.A., where those conventions are held.

When you're finally hired, your life will change. Any free time you thought you had will go to meetings, game overviews and music production for the next three to four months, so you'd better postpone those tours with your band. But don't worry; it's fun, and it pays!