Generating music in video games

How do make music in a truly giant video game?
22 December 2020

Interview with 

Paul Weir, EarCom


this is a picture of a piano keyboard


Adam Murphy's been taking a look at how important what you hear can be when enjoying a video game, and how hard that can be to make as the game gets bigger and bigger, as he found out when he spoke to Paul Weir from EarCom, and audio Chief for the game No Man's Sky...

Adam - Games aren't just pushing buttons. The music in a game can be vital for setting a mood. You know you’re walking into a boss fight when the music gets uncomfortably intense. The problem though, is at any given time the player could be doing anything, walking in the right direction, enjoying the scenery, leaving their character motionless while they get a cup of tea, so how do you get the music right? I spoke to Paul Weir, video game music composer from EarCom, and Audio Chief for the game No Man’s Sky about how you make music for a video game.

Paul - I guess, as a composer, you know, you're trying to find those key moments, and the overall tone, you have the difference with film is all those moments in film are engineered for you and laid out for you. You can't really often do that in games. So you're looking for just those key moments where you can inject a certain feel, certain type of emotion, and often they may be very specific. It may be like in No Man's Sky. First time you leave a planet after building your spaceship. So it's just allowing the game to breathe and injecting those moments with a certain key emotion.

Adam - No Man’s Sky is a procedurally generated game, that means as you rocket around space in your ship, the game builds the galaxy as you go using random number generators, and some very sophisticated algorithms. That means no two players will see the same planets, or have exactly the same experience. So how do you match music for a game that everyone experiences differently, and you don’t play easy listening jazz during a big fight? Well, you use something called generative music.

Paul - Generative music. I mean it to be that you use rules, so probabilistic rules that are imposed on small, granular elements of music. So it may be a simple phase, maybe a bar loop, or like a base phase. Deconstructing the music into its components and then reconstructing it live based on certain rules that you've created. It may be "play a melody, every X number of seconds from a pool of say, 200 melodies." So it really requires you as a composer, to work in a different way, to work in a much more kind of modular, nonlinear way. It's like a recipe. You're creating all the components putting in all the ingredients. But instead of baking it before the game, you're letting the game create it for you. And then often drawing information from the game, in order to control what plays, how it plays, what the combinations are, when the changes happen. And that can be very powerful because you're reacting to what the player's doing, or what the game environment is doing. So it feels much more reactive to a player.

Adam - What gives it an impact though? How do you create emotion ahead of time with just the pieces of music?

Paul - It's hard to create those engineered emotional moments. So what you need to do is create the opportunity for those moments to happen without necessarily hard-wiring them. In No Man's Sky you may happen to be on a planet that generates beautiful sunsets, and you may happen to be there at the right time on a mountain to see that sunset, and to you, that feels very personal. It somehow connects with you because you're the only person to have ever seen that sunset on that planet. And the music is the same, maybe 80% of the time, it just exists and it's supporting the game. It's fine. It's not doing anything particularly spectacular, but there are those few moments where everything comes together, and it's random, but we've allowed those random opportunities to happen. And when they do happen, they're very powerful.

Adam - And if everyone plays for long enough, they'll run into one of those moments.

Paul - So that's the beauty of a procedural game. Everyone does have those moments and it has those stories to tell, and their stories are very individual. And that's, I think that's one of the really powerful things about procedural games. You know, everyone's experience is slightly different. Everyone tends to be very proud of those moments that they find. They'll game capture them, whereas a game which is much more linear, you know, everyone's experience is essentially the same. It doesn't mean it's any less fun, but it's a different kind of personal experience.


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