How Composers Shape The Sounds Of Our Digital Universes

Before we get into this journey of sonic discovery, I want you, the kind and generous reader taking the time to read these words to think back to the very first video game location that made you fall head over heels for this marvellous art form. Maybe it was the first time you witnessed the splendour of The Citadel in Mass Effect or opened the gates to New Vegas. The first thing you are typically greeted with is a gorgeous visual, and a new suite of music. Whilst technology improves and knocks the shine off of those earlier 3D graphics, the sounds we hear remain iconic and live forever within our hearts. Music is a powerful and often overlooked storytelling device, serving not only to make battles intense or romances sweeter but to help cement the identity of a place. The music that becomes connected to a world, city or even tavern is what makes iconic locations, iconic. This is doubly important in games that take place over various locations across hundreds of hours.

It’s an indie game

Take a look at two of the biggest indies of this past generation, Divinity: Original Sin II and Destiny 2 (an indie game as of Bungie’s split with Activision in 2019 (Editors note: Don’t @ us, or do and be ignored)), for example. Composers Borislav Slavov and Skye Lewin are presented with completely different challenges within completely different genres, yet the fundamental skills and thought processes required to develop the sounds of their universes remain the same. 

“Games are non-linear and often very complex experiences, where the music needs to be composed and produced in a way that is evocative,  yet not intrusive when played hundreds of times,” Borislav told me. 

Music can’t be static

What Borislav, composer on DOSII and Baldur’s Gate III, is touching on here is something I have lectured to many other musicians and writers that often overlook the importance of video game music: the music has to adapt to you, rather than follow a pre-determined path. This is a challenge that sets video game music apart as a truly unique creative experience. Skye Lewin, whose credits range from the Destiny franchise through to TV mainstays such as CSI and Fargo, tells me that “the dynamic nature of creating music for video games creates an extra layer of technical complexity. Linear media has a different set of challenges, but the complexity of making music that’s both musical and that’s capable of functioning in innumerable combinations is very appealing.” He continues.  

“I like the challenge of composing through the eyes of an implementer and music editor, constantly evaluating the functional details as well as the creative aesthetic.”

DOSII and Destiny 2 are both giant, magnificent beasts of games, packed full of many varied and exciting activities, locations and hidden secrets. However, to add another layer of complexity on top of the core challenges faced by composers from the get-go, the eco-system a game exists within will radically shift the direction the music will go. For Borislav, the biggest challenge wasn’t only creating an iconic score within the heavily saturated genre of fantasy, but a score that can adapt elegantly to the autonomy of players exploring the world. 

You’re so smooth

“The music system needed to be designed and built in such a way that no matter what, or where the player does something, the musical flow stays intact and smooth. Let me give you some examples. In the game, you can basically teleport from one place to many others at any given moment. The music had to elegantly switch, no matter how different two locations are (like a tavern and a dark dungeon, for instance). You can go back and forth instantly between lots of different places.”

Whilst many games offer a fast travel option, which can become quite a jarring experience aurally when zipping from dense forests to bustling cities, DOSII added an extra layer of difficulty for Borislav with the games uniquely flexible party system.

“Furthermore you can split your party and send everyone in different directions. When you switch from one party member to another, it needs to be smooth, like a new cinema frame. Then, you have your selected music instrument, which takes the lead in the soundtrack in certain moments in your campaign and battles. All these events can happen anywhere, anytime, spread across all the party members at any given moment. In other words, the transitions in such a complex music system were quite a challenge. Not only technically but also from a creative point of view.”

Absorb the world

Borislav told me that he achieved this seemingly insurmountable feat by “immersing [himself] in the game world [he was] scoring, by watching its art, talking with the team, or reading the narrative[s] they create.” alongside living in the mountains with his black labrador. But whereas DOSII presents players with a large, narrative-focused experience, Destiny 2 is an MMORPG, where every aspect of the game is designed to be replayed for that sweet, sweet loot. Though players can find themselves spending hundreds of hours within the cities of DOSII, the core gameplay loop of Destiny means you could be repeating the same task 5 times in an hour. For Skye and the team of writers at Bungie, creating a score that was subtle enough to not become taxing when listened on repeat, whilst also standing on its own two feet as a musical form whilst thematically matching the location and current activity would have been an incredibly daunting task. Skye explained to me that: 

“We definitely put a lot of care into the music, and into making it compliment and support the narrative and player experience. I think that most music wants to be able to stand on its own and tell its own “musical” story. To me, that story is part of what makes music “musical,” so when a piece of music both works to enhance an experience, and can also be an aural experience on its own, that’s a good sign.” He continued. “Mostly, we just want to make sure the music reflects what it needs to reflect, aesthetically and otherwise… the specific [musical] choices are really secondary to, and spring from, the emotions and experience that are being conveyed.”

Just let your ears enjoy it

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of Skye’s compositional process, he told me that “Personally, I like to follow my instincts. When following one’s instincts, a composer can almost let the music compose itself, allowing the music to inform where it wants to go. When that happens, it’s the composer’s responsibility to guide the composition, so it doesn’t depart the bounds that make it work in a given context.”

With the recently release Baldur’s Gate III (via early access) and the upcoming Destiny expansion “Beyond Light”, Borislav and Skye are about to shape the musical sounds of the next generation of video games through their ingenuity, razor-sharp focus and uncanny ability to tap into our hearts through the subtle art of compositional exposition.