Game music isn’t all chirpy chip tunes or sweeping symphonic movements. Just like film scores, soundtracks inspire us, scare us, and can even bring us to tears with a well-placed melody or a jarring action cue.
Because of this, I decided it was time we start paying attention to music as well as the people lovingly creating it. Try playing through Final Fantasy VII, Borderlands, or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim with the sound turned off. None of these are even half as good without their scores subtly shifting tone and setting scenes around us.
Each month, I’ll take you on a guided tour through some of the notable albums released in the last few weeks and interview a composer on an upcoming project.
This month, we’ll take a look at Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, DmC: Devil May Cry, and Anarchy Reigns. We’ve also got an in-depth interview with Aliens: Colonial Marines composer Kevin Riepl.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Composer: Joe Hisaishi
It’s a bit disheartening that many Japanese role-playing games these days are moving away from jaunty adventuring tunes. Long-time Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi’s score for Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch delightfully combines the orchestral bombast found in older Final Fantasys and Dragon Quests with his own playful melodies.
Hisaishi’s music enhances the overall Ghibli quality to Ni No Kuni. You could use the studio’s art style and even the same story with any other composer’s work but it wouldn’t retain that feeling that you’re diving into a Miyazaki film. With Hisaishi’s help, Ni No Kuni gets a little extra sprinkle of magic in an already fantastic adventure.
DmC: Devil May Cry
Composers: Noisia and Tom Colvin
This is probably the least comfortable soundtrack I’ve listened to in many years. DmC: Devil May Cry leans heavily on pulsating and grating dissonance with an occasional burst of tinny orchestral melody.
Dutch electronic group Noisia took a step away from their signature drum ‘n’ bass for most of Devil May Cry and focused instead on a grungy and oppressively synthetic wall of noise.
Fans of dubstep insisting on “dirty” bass drops will likely enjoy the soul-vibrating nastiness to the bass lines in “Mundus Theme” and “Lilith’s Club.” Dubstep is already an overplayed addition to most games, but Noisia’s attempts fit it into Devil May Cry’s overall tone and maintains a feeling that the world is constantly shifting between reality and Limbo.
I dare you to not want to kick some ass after listening to Anarchy Reigns. Every song drips with that “hardcore” sound Sega established in Jet Set Radio and Crazy Taxi in the late ’90s, but here it updates it for a more hip-hop-aware world. Fat beats and heavily repetitive lyrics deliver a perfect one-two punch for tireless combos and horrible acts of digital violence.
Nothing about Anarchy Reigns is particularly classy or subtle, so it stands to reason that the music glorifies vengeance and thuggish braggadocio. Spending a few minutes with “Kill ‘Em All” and “Laughing at U” will almost certainly make you put on some gloves and destroy a punching bag.
Unlike Ni No Kuni and Devil May Cry, Anarchy Reigns’ music is always in your face like an overzealous hype man urging you to feel the beat.
Well, it worked. Excuse me while I go to the gym.
Kevin Riepl (Aliens: Colonial Marines)
Kevin Riepl composed music for over 10 years and worked on Gears of War, Unreal Tournament 2003, Resistance: Burning Skies, and Hunted: Demon’s Forge. His work is also in the films Silent Night and Dead Shadows. His latest project is Gearbox’s sci-fi/horror shooter, Aliens: Colonial Marines.
GamesBeat: What are the influences for the Aliens: Colonial Marines soundtrack? Did you draw from James Horner’s Aliens score?
Kevin Riepl: Both scores, Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien and James Horner’s Aliens, were a huge influence on how Colonial Marines took shape. I didn’t know how they would ultimately influence the music, but since Colonial Marines directly connects with the first two films, we decided to make it tonally similar.
The overall tonality of Aliens is present. When players first boot up the game, the sound harkens back to the opening swell in Aliens. Being a huge fan of the series, it was awesome to use that material and add my voice.
GamesBeat: Did you include references to other compositions, like Horner’s use of “Gayane’s Adagio” from Aram Kachaturian’s Gayane?
Ripel: Horner doesn’t use Gayane note-for-note, and I don’t either. I put my play on Horner’s approach.
In Alien, when the crew goes into the derelict and discovers the space jockey, the massive corpse in a chair, Goldsmith used a flute and an echoing piano. I definitely reflect on that because those were sounds both Goldsmith and Horner used.
GamesBeat: What are the differences between scoring a film and composing for a game?
Riepl: With any film, animated or live action, you have a final cut where you’re actually seeing the story in linear form. You’re scoring the story arch.
With games, you usually don’t get full scenes to work with. Sometimes, you’re provided with a little footage, or you can play an early build. But most of the time, things are not fully implemented. So you rely heavily on concept art and design notes.
Here it was very beneficial to draw from Alien and Aliens. As far as story and actions scenes, that music is often composed blindly — with a limited knowledge of the events. Sometimes, however, developers outline scenes with absolute start and finishing points and that makes it easier to fit pieces within the parameters. Most of the time, we have to write for environments rather than the story.
GamesBeat: What lead up to you working on Colonial Marines?
Riepl: I remember Colonial Marines first appeared in Game Informer in 2007. I’d just finished Gears of War, and I was looking out for new projects. Colonial Marines was in early development, and I just had to work on it.
I left a message on Gearbox’s answering machine and told them I was really interested in working on the project. They later told me I was one of the top choices after my work on Gears of War.
GamesBeat: How long into the development cycle did the soundtrack come together?
Riepl: Gearbox and I settled on the tone pretty early. The first piece or two were trying to strike a balance between new themes and familiar sounds in the Aliens universe. Once we had that, the sonic palette was pretty secure.
While getting to that point, we went back and forth trying to find how to work Colonial Marines’ sound in with the rest of the franchise. What was going to support the story the best? In the end, we went with bits of Horner and Goldsmith, but a lot of me.
GamesBeat: Which track from Colonial Marines stands out the most to you?
Riepl: One piece in particular sticks out because of how I came up with it.
I believe it’s called “Retreat.” I took the melody from Aliens. The scene where Hicks [played by Michael Biehn] screams “We are leaving.” I interpreted the cadence in his voice musically and brought that over into a horn melody. So the trumpet part used in “Retreat” comes from that line.
I wasn’t taught how to do that, but someone mentioned to me a long time ago that when you’re composing for a certain person that you should listen to their cadence and tonal rhythm when they speak. Everyone speaks with a unique pitch and rhythm.
GamesBeat: Was it difficult transitioning into the video game industry?
Riepl: Breaking into any field has its challenges. Before composing for games, I was writing music, scoring short films and getting into the gaming community through other creative artists and designers doing their thing.
It wasn’t a challenge when it came to writing. I took that in stride. Breaking in and making the connections was the challenge. The only thing that caused that to happen was constant persistence with meeting people. Not just with people who could hire me, but with other developers and composers.
Along the way, I made friends with Steve Garofalo at Epic Games. At the time, Epic was looking for a new musical direction and he threw my material in front of Cliff Bleszinski. I didn’t ask him to, so it just happened sort of naturally.
If a composer has what it takes, then it’s bound to happen.
GamesBeat: With Austin Wintory’s Grammy nomination for Journey, games are finally gaining more recognition for mainstream awards. Do you feel this will change how people think about and listen to soundtracks?
Riepl: I’m happy that Austin’s score received a nomination. The field does need more direction, though. I think it’s coming to the point now that “game composing” should just be considered composing and that work needs recognition for the same kind of awards as films. It’s not any less of a talent. It’s the same type of craft, and the fact that’s starting to get recognized is great.
GamesBeat: What do you think is holding game music back?
Riepl: I think it’s just that games have gotten a bad rap for so long because they’re games. They’re just as recognizable as films now, and the budgets are on par or higher.
It needs more notoriety than it gets. I’m happy that I’m part of the industry and helping to bring it to the forefront. We’re writing just as much and just as complicated music as what’s done for films.
I’ve been composing for 10 years now. I also do film scores. A colleague in the film industry congratulated me on succeeding when I got the Silent Night gig. I had a blast working on it, but the fact that I already had 10-11 years of experience before that made me feel I had already made it. Why are games not a legitimate success?
When I tell people I’m a video game composer, I try to give them a few examples, like Gears of War, but the response is always pretty mild. But if I say I’m a film composer, it’s just much more accepted. Games are still not looked at as equal. When I got that comment about Silent Night, that was proof of that.
There’s still a lot of work to do, but recognition is on its way and will happen. Many people who write scripts for TV and movies also do games. There shouldn’t be a lesser of the two.
GamesBeat: What pointers can you give to aspiring composers?
Riepl: Persistence! Just keep working. I know a lot of indie projects are very low-budget and crowdfunded, but always work for the sake of loving it and not because you dream of taking on bigger projects.
Also, try to develop your own voice or original style. Sometimes games call for an established sound, but don’t try to mimic what’s out there already. Sometimes that’s hard to do for up-and-coming composers as a lot of their desire comes from music that already exists.
Make connections in the field and go to conferences like the Game Developer’s Conference, the Penny Arcade Expo, and the Electronic Entertainment Expo. Making connections and friends in the industry is what really matters.
GamesBeat: Do you have any upcoming projects?
Riepl: Ascend: New Gods. It’s a fantasy-action title by Microsoft. I believe it is coming out in the first quarter. That’s the only project I can really talk about right now.