Musical engines, and the musical scores these engines employ, exist today that have some reactive agility towards changing game states, but there is scope for improvement which will allow musical scores to meet more accurately the ever-changing aesthetic needs of the modern video game. In this paper I will put forward the argument that greater levels of dynamic music increase the immersive capacity of the game on the player. I intend to build upon existing systems to increase this level of agility, by way of both creating working engines in MaxMSP and by composing music appropriate for use within them. The project will work on three distinct systems: first, a branching music system, second, a generative music system, and third, a hybrid intermittent system which incorporates elements of both other engines to further increase the reactive agility and memorability of the music for the player.
This paper addresses the need for interdisciplinary scholarly discourse on this topic. Practical video-game music study is inescapably interdisciplinary; therefore, adequate attention to all constituent elements must be made. Most broadly, this is a study within popular and audio-visual culture. Some of the key debates it touches upon relate to audio and visual perception, aesthetic intentions and results, and the psychologically immersive power of video games and their music. Primarily, this paper offers a practical method and solution to limitations found in current dynamic musical systems. This introduction will briefly highlight these elements and will illustrate foundational concerns on which I base this thesis. First is the clarification of some basic terminology that is used throughout the paper. Second is a short discussion on the emergence and evolution of video-game music study as well as the extent to which video games have economically and culturally effected entertainment media, and their possible consideration as a form of art. Towards the end of this introduction are two key discussions that pertain directly to the aims of this paper. The first concerns the fundamental power video games have to immerse a player in a virtual world and how music reinforces this immersion. The second concerns the implications that the interactive, non-linear and temporally indeterminate nature of this medium has for musical composition. I will conclude with a detailed outline of the material covered in each chapter of this paper. I provide a short survey of the history of video-game music at the beginning of the next chapter.
Before discussion of these various avenues, clarification on some terminology is needed. As defined by Karen Collins and Rod Munday respectively a video-game is, ‘any game consumed on video screens’, and video-game music is music ‘written for, or adapted to video-games’. Further elaboration yields that video-game music is ‘pre-composed and recorded for playback to accompany specific locations or events in the game’. It is important to be aware of the nature of the video game as a fundamentally interactive medium and that this nature is inherent across all of its assets, including music. Therefore video games include dynamic music, music that is active and can change according to in-game triggers or states. This can mean that the music will inhabit an indeterminate duration of time, tonality, style (among others), based on momentary in-game parameters. This also means that this music can be considered temporally indeterminate. I will refer to any player of games as either gamer or player.
Working in this relatively young field, academics concerned have felt a challenge to establish the reputation of video games within academia. The first page of James Newman’s 2004 book Videogames, is titled ‘Taking Games Seriously’, clearly implying that video games were not taken seriously. Newman states that for the majority of the five decades of their existence, video games have been viewed as ‘adolescent indulgence’ and considered the ‘medium of children’. In 1999 Matthew Belinkie had also reflected this feeling when he subtitled his history of video games ‘Not Just Kids Stuff’ – and possibly these views of video games as a juvenile pre-occupation have also impacted perceptions of academic video-game study. Collins recalls that, when writing in the early 2000s, ‘it seemed somehow necessary to preface each article with a series of facts and figures about the importance of the game industry in terms of economic value, demographics, and cultural impact.’ A decade on, video-game academics no longer need to devote a considerable amount of time defending the value of their study. By 2008 Collins felt that it had ‘become unnecessary to quote such statistics to legitimize’ this field.
Lars Konzak finds that discourse on video games fall into three main categories: the economic and technological product of a game; the socio-cultural effect video games have on the players or audience; and the aesthetics of games. As my study applies technological solutions to aesthetic concerns, in an attempt to influence the degree to which a player can become immersed in the game, it relates to all of Konzak’s three main areas of game study. However, the majority of this paper is concerned with the practicalities of designing musical systems and therefore can only relate to socio-cultural effects and aesthetics in a secondary fashion.
Initially, game studies neglected the essential role of music and it wasn’t until the late 1980s that the earliest papers relating to video-game music study emerged. Tim Knight’s 1987 paper Mastering Sound and Music on the Atari ST and Brian Schmidt’s 1989 paper Designing sound tracks for coin-op games were some of the first, focusing on the practicalities of composition using these hardwares. Due to the speed at which the technology has advanced, a huge amount of the literature focuses on the technology and the inherent practicalities of using it and composing within its constraints. Not surprisingly, due to the youth of the study much of academic writing is broadly focused, such as Zach Whalen’s Play Along and Collins’s key work Game Sound. Studies on psychological phenomena such as perception and immersion are reasonably present such as Michiel Kamp’s Musical Ecologies in Video Games and Sean M. Zehnder’s and Scott D. Lipscomb’s Immersion in the Virtual Environment. In recent years scholars such as Kiri Miller and Roger Moseley have noted the similarities between game play and instrument play, further suggesting the need for video-game music study to be based in broad cross-disciplinary knowledge. Video-game music study is currently moving further away from the general and more toward the specific. Case studies are one example, few of which exist in print; however, more are becoming available in online journals such as Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research. Articles on video-game music have appeared in many varied journals including Music and the Moving Image, Contemporary Music Review, and the Journal of Game Design and Development Education again reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of this field. While no specific journal is dedicated to the study of video-game music many focused conferences are beginning to arise, including most notably the Ludomusicology Research Group, which has held conferences across the UK at Oxford, Liverpool and Chichester Universities. Further, the inaugural North American Conference on Video Game Music held at the Dana School of Music took place in 2014. These findings suggest that the study of video-game music is active, diverse and a growing field.
Since the 1980s, the video game industry has rapidly expanded in scale, and the popularity of gaming has hugely increased. In 2013 the games industry’s reported value was $66 billion with their projection for 2017 running at $78 billion. In a 2001 survey 35% of people questioned stated that video games were their preferred entertainment, television being second, and films third. A 2009 National Gamers Survey concluded that ‘83% of the US population played video games’. In September 2013, Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar) was released and grossed $1 billion in just three days setting a Guinness 2014 world record for the fastest entertainment property to ever achieve this. Guinness World Records editor-in-chief states ‘GTA totally deserves to be recognised as an icon of modern British culture’. In his study of the video games industry, Tom Chatfield argues that ‘there is fast becoming no ‘us’ or ‘them’ when it comes to games…whatever your opinion on video games, they will soon be universal.’ Certainly video games can no longer be viewed as the domain of children and adolescents – with the average age of gamer estimated at thirty in 2013. With the further expansion of video games via mobile smartphone gaming – estimated to have 6.2m players a day in April 2013 – it would seem that video games have firmly cemented their position in popular culture.
The popularity of video games has even elevated their status further with BAFTA awards for games and appearances in the top five of Classic FM’s 2013 Hall Of Fame. Orchestras devoted to playing music from video-game scores have arisen including Video Games Live and The Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony, the latter selling out all tickets for the 2011 concert series. Scoring music for games has also attracted the compositional talents of established film and television composers such as Danny Elfman for Fable, Michael Giacchino for the Medal of Honour series and Jeremy Soule for his scores contributing to the Elder Scrolls series: Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim. This shows that games are treated with the same kind of artistic respect that is afforded to other entertainment media.
Raphael Koster, in 1999, stated that ‘the public already discusses and treats games as an art form, and uses the same standards of judgment for them as they do for films or novels or any other artistic medium.’ Roger Scruton finds that some philosophers ‘have tried to link the philosophy of art to central questions concerning meaning, understanding, and value’. He explains that all of these issues relate to the ontology of art and that we must consider ‘what kind of thing is a work of art? Where, or when, is art? Do works of music, works of literature, painting, sculptures and buildings all occupy a like place in our ontology?’ Scruton underscores that the topic of aesthetics is ‘highly controversial’ and, as complete discussion on the philosophical implications of considering a work ‘art’ is beyond the scope of this paper, I do not presume to emphasise any specific conclusion other than to suggest that video games might be considered art.
My own view of video games as a form of art has brought me to the conclusion that certain limitations exist currently that could be improved for the greater expressivity of the medium. It has already been found that video game music draws on many filmic tropes and that its music is designed to ‘create a compelling and entertaining emulation’. Due to its close relation to that of film and television, there is ‘widespread adoption of filmic perspectives and techniques’ in the creation, practice and study of its music and therefore, itseems to be suggested that film music study has influenced video-game music study. The functional similarity to which video-game music and film music can be discussed bare such a close resemblance that it seems sensible to start from these established academic grounds. Music accompanying film has the ability to establish setting or atmosphere, draw attention to particular elements or narrative developments, contribute to the creation of emotional responses in its audience as well as to help build a ‘sense of continuity’between what might seem unconnected images. It is suggested that these functions encourage our ‘absorption into the film by distracting us from its technological basis’. Whalen agrees that in video games, music, together with other elements, also ‘immerses players in a fictional space’.  Whalen builds a strong argument for the ‘compelling and immersive properties’ in three landmark video games case studies. In Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time he claims that the music helps ‘enhance our belief in the consistency of a particular emulated world’ by attaching musical signatures to different environmental settings and that Silent Hill creates a musically driven experience by corresponding to the ‘threatening, intrusive atmosphere of the city’.
The examples discussed by Whalen show that music accompanying a video game has the same potential to affect as it does when accompanying film. However, differences between the audience’s experience of a film and their experience of a video game give rise to many more considerations for its musical composition beyond those taken by the film composer. Whalen attributes the difference in experience to the fact that the ‘game is played rather than viewed’. What Whalen is bringing into question is the game’s linearity. Due to the presence of a player the medium of video games is narratively non-linear. Whereas a film (and therefore film music) has a fixed duration, the duration of a video game is to a large extent dependent on the player’s behavior. The film-music composer does not need to allow for differences in temporality in the narrative when composing, an essential point of difference from the video-game composer.
Munday describes immersion as ‘either the heightened sense of a particular aspect of a person’s immediate surroundings, or the sensation of being transported into a mediated alternate reality’ and goes on to explain that ‘the activity of threading a needle or hammering a nail can be immersive in the former … while reading a book or watching a film can be immersive’ in the latter. Munday terms the first type of immersion as cognitive and claims it is dependent on the brain’s ability to block out other stimuli when focused on a single task. A well-known example relating specifically to sound is known as the ‘cocktail party effect’ (see I Pollack and J Pickett). Munday applies the term mythic to his second type of immersion and sees it as the chance to actually act … as someone, or something, else. Munday proposes a caveat: ‘for immersion to occur, the activity or stimulus has to be sufficiently engaging to block out the normal sense impressions of one’s surroundings’ and ‘that the real world must be dimmed in order for the mediated one to be illuminated.’ Video games offer the chance for a player to experience both cognitive and mythic types of immersion.
Finding immersion in video games, Rebecca Farley describes players as concentrating ‘wholly on the game – on the dice or the puck or the pawn.’ Due to the user’s ability to control the object the player becomes responsible for the object and feels positive and negative situations, which the object experiences, personally. Bruner explains this phenomenon as a type of object-attachment causality: ‘when objects move with respect to one another within highly limited constraints, we see causality’. This is regardless of whether the object is humanoid, like Mario in Super Mario Bros; a pawn, in a chess game; or a puck, an inanimate object, in a hockey (sports) game. The player becomes immersed in the experiences of the object because those experiences are self-referential.
(a) competition, experience defeating others; (b) challenge, experience success following effort; (c) diversion, escape an experience of stress; (d) fantasy, experience novel or unrealistic stimuli; (e) social interaction, have a social experience; and (f) arousal, experience activated positive emotions such as excitement.
Sherry and Lucas find that if the goals desired by any individual gamer are attained it will result in more hours of gameplay by that player. We can say that any one of these states produces a certain level of the immersive qualities, described by Munday, in a player. It is suggested that attaining more of these psychological states will result in a deeper level of immersion for the player with increased ‘dimming’ of the real world and ‘illuminating’ of the virtual. From this list, the video game composer is able to aid in the goal attainment of ‘experiencing novel or unrealistic stimuli’.
Przybylski and colleagues describe their research as splitting ‘the general immersion state into three subcomponents: … physical presence, feeling as if one is actually in the world; emotional presence, feeling that game events have real emotional weight; and narrative presence, having a personal investment and engagement with the story’. Sound assets can help to augment the strength of presence in all three subcomponents; music helps reinforce emotional and narrative presence and sound effects aid in creating the illusion of physical presence.
It can be argued that aural stimuli have a greater effect than visual stimuli on creating a realistic virtual space in video games. For example, take the case of a non-player character talking in game; we are stimulated by, the two-dimensional image of the character on screen and the three-dimensional sound produced by hardware speakers. Munday explains that ‘a virtual doorbell sounds exactly like a real one, because waves of recorded sound are perceived in exactly the same way as waves of real-world sound.’ Therefore, in this situation the sound is the only stimulus that mimics the way we would perceive the character were they to exist in the real world. Both recording techniques and 3D modeling techniques allow for the virtual creation of three-dimensional virtual sounds and three-dimensional virtual objects, however it is only the stereo sound production of a typical home speaker system that is capable of reproducing the sound in three dimensions whereas the visuals remain in two-dimensions on the screen. Munday has demonstrated the strong influencing and immersing capability of sound upon the player in that it produces a virtual reality.
From Munday’s example it would appear that adequate technology is one of the key factors in delivering a virtual reality. Frances Dyson agrees that the idea of technology acting ‘as a form of poiesis … has been made for all media’ types and that these technologies allow the activation of ‘hitherto inert objects’. Dyson explains that headphone technology augments ‘by delimiting or filtering sound in the environment’, therefore to a degree forcing the listener to become cognitively immersed. The type of audio production equipment (for example: headphones, stereo speakers, 5.1 surround, 7.1 surround) is therefore important to the way in which sonic immersion can be established in the player. Moreover, immersive speaker configurations provide a useful tool that the audio designer can exploit to aid in the creation of the virtual world. These findings indicate there is a necessity for reactive three-dimensional sound in games.
With the modern ability to program reactive dynamic audio engines capable of complementing various dramatic and scenic needs within game contexts affords yet greater responsibility of sound in immersing the player. Todd Winkler gives a full description of the potential offered by computer-aided composition to increase flexibility and add musical interest:
timing of decision making, mouse movements, or keyboard strokes, could be linked to control the tempo of the music; or, clicking and dragging an object downward might cause the music to go lower, or the timbre to get darker. Constrained random values could be used to create endless variations, so that the music for one scene would always be changing but have the stylistic consistency required of the dramatic structure. Parameter changes could also be controlled by the time spent within a single scene, so that the music would intensify as the viewing continued.
These control possibilities are particularly relevant to video game music, where computer interaction and on-screen movement dictated by the user are essential components. Winkler goes on to state that ‘clearly, music and sound responsive to user input will increase the feeling of interaction and participation’ and, I suggest when applied to video-games, player immersion. It seems that it is extremely important to keep considerations of control input at the forefront of thought when designing and composing music for video games.
Jesper Kaae describes four essential considerations specific to video-game music ‘that would normally not need to be taken into consideration in traditional composing.’ First, ‘technical considerations regarding computer power/technology’; second, ‘composing tools and implementation’; third, ‘functional considerations regarding aesthetics and user experience’; and fourth, ‘the compositional requirements of dynamic music, which often require a completely new way of thinking about music.’ By focusing on the dynamic aspect of this medium this thesis meets the requirement for a new interdisciplinary approach and contributes to new ways of thinking about music.
Different compositional techniques must be employed which allow for the unpredictable onscreen action should music accompany this action. The aim of video-game music is to create the illusion of musical linearity by creating an adaptive and interactive score.In the event that the music accompanies gameplay before, during and after a transition in gameplay, this music is called continuous. Though it is not necessary in all scenarios to create a continuous score, this paper focuses on the situations where it may be used. Collins suggests a reason for continuous music in these situations, in that it ‘assists in the continuity of a game … since a disjointed score generally leads to a disjointed playing experience’. This paper builds an approach to the composition and reaction of continuous music accompanying transitional periods within game play to assist in the immersive continuity of play. In doing so, it will address the four considerations that Kaae described.
The discussion on the compositional requirements of dynamic music—Kaae’s fourth consideration—will always be aimed towards the aesthetic experience of the user—Kaae’s third consideration—and will also require knowledge of what tensions and effects, both technological and musical, the implementation into a gameworld would make—Kaae’s first and second considerations. Therefore these four points are heavily intertwined, and this must be taken into account for the compositional approach.
Kaae’s considerations lend further weight to the interdisciplinary nature of this field of composition. The composer must be aware of visual drama and its effects on a viewer, have a conceptual knowledge of computer programming, appreciate the technological limitations of the hardware, and understand the cultural and aesthetic context for their score all before writing a note of music.
This study contributes to practical discussions on the composition of dynamic music for video games from the composer’s perspective. Creating greater levels of immersion in players is a justification for the proposals of this thesis. I lay down foundational aesthetic elements in order to proceed with a logical methodology. The aim of this paper is to build upon (Chapters One and Two), and further hybridise (Chapter Three), two techniques used by composers and by video game designers to increase further the reactive agility and memorability of the music for the player. Each chapter of this paper explores a different technique for joining two (possibly disparate) types of gameplay, or gamestates, with appropriate continuous music. In each, I discuss a particular musical engine capable of implementing continuous music.
Chapter One will discuss a branching-music engine, which uses a pre-composed musical mosaic (or musical pixels) to create a linear score with the potential to diverge at appropriate moments accompanying onscreen action. I use the case study of the Final Fantasy battle system to show how the implementation of a branching-music engine could assist in maintaining the continuity of gameplay experience that current disjointed scores, which appear in many games, create. To aid this argument I have implemented a branching-music engine, using the graphical object oriented programming environment MaxMSP, in the style of the battle music composed by Nobuo Uematsu, the composer of the early Final Fantasy series. The reader can find this in the accompanying demonstrations patch.
In Chapter Two I consider how a generative-music engine can also implement a continuous music and also address some of the limitations of the branching-music engine. Further I describe a technique for an effective generative music for video games that creates musical ‘personalities’ that can mimic a particular style of music for a limited period of time. Crucially, this engine is able to transition between any two personalities to create musical coincidence with the game. GMGEn (Game Music Generation Engine) is a program I have created in MaxMSP to act as an example of this concept. GMGEn is available in the Demonstrations_Application, ‘How to’ video which can be found here.
Chapter Three will discuss potential limitations of the branching music engine described in Chapter One and the generative music engine described in Chapter Two, and highlights how these issues can be solved by way of a third engine, which hybridises both. As this engine has an indeterminate musical state it is termed the intermittent-music engine. I go on to discuss the implementation of this engine in two different game scenarios and what emergent structures in this music will appear. The final outcome is to formulate a new compositional approach delivering dynamic music, which accompanies the onscreen action with greater agility than currently present in the field, increasing the memorability and therefore the immersive effect of the video-game music.
 K Collins, Game Sound, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 2008, pp. 2-4; and R Munday, ‘Music in Video Games’, in Music Sound and Multimedia, J. Sexton (ed), Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2007, p. 51.
 J Newman, Videogames, Routledge, Oxon, 2004, p. 1.
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 It is to be noted that in the near future 3DTVs allowing stereoscopic viewing will be more ubiquitous. When this future is reached there will no longer be the limit on visual hardware for the player. The limitation will then be on the software developers to exploit this hardware within their games.
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