Adaptive Game Music: Introduction

20 Oct
October 20, 2012

Imagine this scenario in your favorite shooter game: Your player is battling through a bright and dreary multiplayer map against her friends. She takes refuge in the second floor of a building, accompanied by urgent music with a sound of morbid intensity.

This music is an orchestral arrangement of strings, horns, and drums playing in your player’s headphones. There are no enemies in sight–for now. As she stops and crouches at the dimly-lit window, the music subtly lulls to a less urgent volume. Your player dawns her sniper rifle, settling into the shadow of the windowsill. She knows the other team is coming, and her position is perfect.

When she looks down her scope, the mix of the music shifts slowly, until almost all she hears is the rumbling drums beating along to the rhythmic sound of her character’s breathing. She aims directly at a corner of the only building the enemy has for cover.

Steadying her controls, she waits…

In the distance, a grenade explodes. The music intensifies noticeably. One of her team is down. The sound of her breathing quickens as the drums begin beating louder and more urgently. They’re close, your player knows, and will be rounding that corner in mere moments.

As she holds her character’s breath and steadies the aim of her cross-hair, the horns and cellos strike and hold a perilous minor chord, which gets louder, and louder, and louder… The screen begins to turn red; your player hears the invading sound of her character’s heart beating heavily as she struggles to hold her breath and focus down the scope of her rifle-

Then an enemy swings around the corner of the building and right in your player’s sights:

She fires!

The crack of her gunfire triggers an explosive musical transition–a darting staccato of melody and harmony from string and horn sections and a dominating pattern of drums–instantly after she fires. The bullet connects with a visceral thud and an audible crash of a symbol. The music shifts from the dark-sounding minor key to an excited, victorious major-key arrangement.

How does your player feel in this very moment?

Even though you may struggle to imagine the sounds this player hears, we can safely assume that by now she’s completely immersed. The music–which adapts constantly to her input and events in the game world–powerfully intensifies her emotional experience.

My true passion stems from the creation of experiences. Like storytellers or musicians, game designers are in the business of emotions. The core motivation behind my aspirations is my desire to draw others in and help them experience something striking, memorable, and emotionally engaging.

Naturally, music serves such a large purpose in immersing users–that is, when it actually makes sense. Movies are probably the easiest example, right? Horror films certainly aren’t as scary without an outrageous amount of murderously suspenseful music. Heck, look at Jersey Shore: already emotionally terrifying as it is, but imagine if the editors cut horror music into the mix!

Unfortunately, games aren’t scripted like movies, or entirely predictable like Jersey Shore. Of course, we can just compose a music track for everything, right? While we certainly try to imagine contextually relevant music for different situations within our games, players have an uncanny tendency to never play our games properlyThis is the method we shall call: Option A!

Option A: Try to anticipate every possible situation where it’d make sense for your players to hear a change in music, then tell your composers to figure out how that would sound. Even when this is implemented well, it never works as intended, and it rarely transitions musically between tracks. Several games have tried this recently, especially ones with open worlds like Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Great game, but have you ever gone exploring on foot? “Peaceful Exploring Music” is rudely interrupted by the only “Scary Combat Music” track; every single time a dragon flies within ten thousand yards of your character. Since dragons tend to do that every 30 seconds in the game, and rarely happen to notice you’re there before flying away, you’re unceasingly subjected to random, dissonant, irrelevant shifts in music.

Option B: Don’t try to change music on the fly, unless absolutely necessary. Play the same music every boss battle, every time you’re in the menu, every time you’re not in danger, etc. Because the music is more static (or to you audio/composition guys, linear), this also happens to create many experiences with irrelevant music.

Both of these options are lacking something important. Both produce ultimately repetitive music.

I’m here to talk about Option C: Adaptive Music.

Remember the scenario I began this post with? It describes an example of Adaptive Music, not to be confused with Option A. Instead of trying to piece complete chunks of music tracks together, Adaptive Music systems arrange music in real-time, measure by measure, in response to events and conditions within the game world. For music to make sense and still react in real-time to the variable nature of games, the reaction needs to be almost instantaneous, just as your player heard an explosive shift in her music instantly after firing her weapon.

For almost a year, I’ve been cultivating a new way for games to facilitate this kind of truly adaptive music system. It’s a framework that will better enable developers to engage players with music actually worth caring about, and for a fraction of the cost.

Sounds cool, right?

Of course, there’s a few more problems standing in the way, which is exactly what I’ll be discussing in my next post. I think it’s just about time to tackle those head on.

In addition, I’ll be discussing the most popular game audio/music tools and the workflow behind them. Many audio and gaming folks have released products geared towards the implementation of adaptive music; even more deal with adaptive audio but have limited music functionality. I’ll also cover how I intend to reinvent the audio pipeline for the large number of studios that utilize proprietary music tools and scripting languages.

This is not exactly a simple concept, and I may very well have said something nonsensical. Ask for clarifications if you need them. Also, I’ve got a question for you!

  • How do you feel about video game music as it is today? Are my criticisms reasonable?
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