Top 3 tips when writing music for video games

Top 3 tips when writing music for video games

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Next up in our series of guest blog posts we have Chris J. Nairn who specialises in music composition for video games, he has worked on music for very popular TV shows, as well as working with a range of high profile clients. He has also worked on Oh My Godheads, a game from the Collective catalogue! 


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“Shut up, I’m not crying, you’re crying!”
Final Fantasy VII was the first game I ever played that made me feel truly emotional.

I remember it so well. It was Christmas ’97,  I was twelve years old, and I’d been given a PlayStation. Final Fantasy VII was the game I’d begged my parents for, after I’d read about it in an issue of PlayStation Official Magazine. 

I remember really trying to hold the tears back after watching *that* cut scene. Then, to top it all off, straight afterwards I was flung into a boss battle with JENOVA, which I was not mentally prepared for…I was mess! At first I put it down to hormones, but later, I realised it was the emotion provoked from the perfect marriage of story and music.

I still get that feeling, that sense of sadness and nostalgia, twenty years later when I hear the same theme. That’s how powerful it is.
This is why I return to  live orchestral performances of Final Fantasy music to this day. I’m heading to Dusseldorf next week to see Distant Worlds for the third time – it’s been twenty years since the release of Final Fantasy VII, so let’s hope that “Aeris’s Theme” will be part of the line-up.

And this is why creating emotion in music is so important to me. I want to make players feel how I felt all those years ago!

This was my focal point when writing the score for my current game “City of the Shroud,” a tactical RPG fused with a fighting game – its think-on-your-feet combat paired with a heavy focus on interactive narrative gave me a lot of elements to work with.
I had been given a lot of freedom with the CotS soundtrack. The only thing I had to bear in mind was that it needed to have a JRPG flavour, with Middle Eastern influences. I saw the potential to really bring a lot of emotion to the game due to its themes -battle scenes, famine, chaos, power struggles, entrapment.

So, here are my top three tips for evoking emotion through the music you create – which, to me, is the most important job of a game composer.


Tip 1: Music is 80% Psychology, 20% Technology

The first thing I ask myself, before I’ve written a note, is: What emotional response do I want from the players?

This will affect the chords and melodies that I begin to play around with on a keyboard. For example, if I want melancholy, I’ll avoid resolving chord progressions on the first and fifth for as long as possible, so that players don’t feel the release they subconsciously expect. In an eight-chord progression, I might step out of the key on the fourth and eighth chords. Have a listen to what I came up with for the city map theme “Journey to the South”. The author of CotS, Moira Katson and I agreed that the music here should be a poignant heroic theme with a sense of hope, but also great uncertainty about the journey ahead.

If the chords and melody work on a piano, most of the time, it translates to other instrumentation. I aimed to write the most memorable melody possible that would be used as a recurring motif to complement certain points in Moira’s story. So, it was incredibly important to nail it from the start, and make sure the music returned to this core emotion throughout. Here’s the orchestral version of “Journey of the South.”


Tip 2: The motif is your friend


Once you have a strong melody in place, it’s really important to place it at pinnacle parts of the story. Use it wisely!

It will create a sense of nostalgia and emotion. Take “Aeris’s Theme.” During Final Fantasy VII, whenever something important happens to the character, the melody is dropped in, and players form an emotional connection with it as they do the same with Aeris. When she dies, and the melody returns, it feels like a final goodbye, and a reminder of what you’ve been through with the character.

This is a pretty subconscious process – as a player, you’re probably only aware of hearing the theme about half the time that it occurs, but it’s there, working its magic! And it may not appear in exactly the same form. It’s about deriving motifs from the original theme – different enough to feel clever and versatile, similar enough to direct your mind back to that emotion.

For example, compare “Aeris’s Theme” and “Flowers Blooming in the Church.”

Listen and see how they have essentially the same melody from “Aeris’s Theme”, despite the different structure and slight variations. And here are a couple of examples from the CotS trailer. The heroic theme is there, which I later strip back to piano-only.


Tip 3: Keep it seamless, yet interesting!


A smooth player experience is important when writing music for game, but so is mixing it up if you really want players to connect with the music and respond with emotion.

These people have lent you their ears for a considerable period of time – if you give them a two-minute loop that repeats itself at uninspired moments, and jars with their gaming experience you could turn them off quite quickly (I’ve had this many a time with certain games!) They could potentially hear the same song dozens of times – don’t hit them round the head with it!

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A series of subtle surprises is key, and something players always appreciate. Introducing new ideas is an integral tool for keeping users interested in the game, encouraging them to keep playing by enhancing the experience.

Take the boss theme for CotS. The rest of the soundtrack for the game is largely orchestral, so here, I wanted to heighten the drama by introducing electric guitars and picking up the pace. People need to feel transported into a new “place”, and experience a sense of urgency and pressure.

And, crucially, notice how when I repeat the verses, I swap in and out new instruments (can you hear the eerie piano notes?) and in the final chorus, I double up the number of drum kicks, to keep up the excitement. I also almost completely drop the song just before the final chorus, which amps up the impact when it comes back in.



So, those are my top three tips for writing music for game. Thanks for reading!

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