SOCOM 4 and a Brief History of Videogame Music

After several years working on SOCOM 4, I recently had the chance to play through the game and hear my score in action.  The developers and I had lofty goals when we started this process, so I was curious to see how it all came together.  Would the music integrate into the gameplay as seamlessly as we’d hoped?

As I played through SOCOM 4, I realized the functionality of videogame music is something I’ve thought about for nearly my entire life.  I first started playing games when I was a kid.  At that time, in the mid-1980’s, videogame music had basically just been born.  In the late 70’s and early 80’s, game sound effects and music were a virtually indistinguishable glob of beeps and chirps.  Music had no emotional impact on the gaming experience.

However, in the early 80’s, the ever-forward march of technology gave birth to the Nintendo Entertainment System.  This glorious piece of hardware allowed for five discreet sound channels, played off an on-board synthesizer.  The combination of triangle waves, sine waves and white noise allowed for disparate timbres and tones.  The differentiation of tone colors is one of the key aspects of orchestration, so the NES actually paved the way for the first “orchestrated” videogame music.

Game consoles now had the ingredients necessary to create real music.  The capacity for polyphony, dynamics and timbre led to the inclusion of counterpoint, harmony, accompaniment and melody.  Videogame composers in the 1980’s took these limited tools, and sculpted truly memorable music.

I was recently discussing this era of videogame music with my friend who is a bit of an expert, James Rolfe, aka The Angry Videogame Nerd.

“While having breakfast with Bear, he mentioned that the music from ‘Mega Man 2’ was like Iron Maiden. I’ve never heard anyone explain it better,” James recalled. “I always thought the 8-bit music really rocked. The title theme from ‘Double Dragon’ on NES was like a guitar solo. It’s a tune that’s been stuck in my head from my childhood all the way through my adult years. The ‘Castlevania’ music was so cartoonishly creepy, it sent shivers down my spine as a kid. The 8-bit era had a unique sound of its own, and countless tunes that are impossible to forget.”

The heyday of the NES resulted in some of the catchiest tunes ever implanted in my brain.  Growing up playing Mega Man II or Super Mario Bros. 3, I was exhilarated by the rocking tunes blasting from my speakers.  I didn’t care that this music was played back through five digital channels off a Japanese microchip.  This music ignited my imagination.

My other passion at this time was orchestral film music.  I grew up listening to Jerry Goldsmith, Alan Silvestri, Danny Elfman and John Williams.  And I dreamt of a day when videogame music could sound like their epic scores.

Technology would catch up with my daydreams in the mid-90’s.  Consoles advanced to the point where videogame music was liberated from on-board synthesis.  An increase in computing power and storage capacity prompted an overnight revolution: games were suddenly free to include pre-recorded music.

The first such game I ever personally experienced was Sega-CD’s classic SONIC CD, scored by legendary game composer Spencer Nilsen, an achievement that still ranks as one of my favorite game scores of all time.  I asked Nilsen, who also scored such seminal Sega titles as Ecco the Dolphin and Batman Returns, about his experiences working in the videogame industry at this pivotal time.

“When I first joined Sega in 1992, Red Book or ‘recorded’ audio was still in its infant stages,” Nilsen told me.  “But we were already in development of a CD-ROM based game system, which eventually debuted as the Sega-CD a year or so later. It was the first popular home game system to deliver compressed video and full bandwidth audio (16-bit, 44.1k), but that came at the cost of memory space. Therefore, we were constantly in a tug-o-war with the coders to get more real estate on the disc for the music.”

While the Sega-CD never gained the popularity of its cartridge-based counterpart, the Sega Genesis, its technology nevertheless revolutionized the way people heard music in videogames.  “The option of recording real musicians playing their instruments, in the widest possible range of styles, blew the doors wide open for game composers,” Nilsen explained.  “We were finally able to explore the full range of emotion, like with film scores or records.”

Despite the evolving technology, game composers of all the early console systems still had to deal with limited storage capacity.  But, these restraints actually “necessitated resourcefulness on the part of the composers. The fact that sometimes a player would spend an inordinate amount of time in one area of the game, meant the music would then have to loop, so heavy melodies or blazing guitar solos didn’t work so well. It was most important to establish a mood and emotional setting for the player, and I think when you have limited resources, you are more in-tune with what’s critical to the scene vs. what would be ‘nice to have.’”

USES OF MUSIC IN THE GAMING EXPERIENCE

As a gamer, I watched the art of videogame music evolve.  And yet, the more I became aware of it, the more I began to recognize the reasons it was not as effective as film music.  Music production values skyrocketed in the 1990’s, yet the actual use of music was slower to evolve.  Game scores eventually rivaled their cinematic counterparts in orchestral ambition, but did little to change how music functioned in the game.

Playing games, I began to notice moments when music crossfaded awkwardly from one cue to the next.  This doesn’t happen in a film or television score, where the composer is able to write graceful musical transitions, because the timing is set in stone.

I also began to notice that certain cues would be heard over and over, diminishing their impact.  The more often I would hear those dissonant pieces, the less scary they became.  Eventually, I would completely tune them out.

This happens to everyone, whether on a conscious level or not. I think this goes back to our earliest, primordial ancestors.  They had to evolve brain functions that allowed them to discern the sound of a babbling brook from the sound of a lion sneaking through the reeds, trying to eat them.

This principal is in action throughout our daily lives.  That car alarm blaring outside your window?  The roar of traffic?  Sirens racing past?  Eventually, when we’ve heard these sounds enough, we ignore them.  This inherent complacency to repeating sounds makes an effective videogame score difficult to achieve.

Crossfades and repetition were at the forefront of my mind when I first met with Zipper Interactive and Sony to discuss the score for SOCOM 4.  We all agreed that the more often gamers hear a cue, the less scary it becomes, and that crossfades are not a good way to transition from one piece to another.  But, what could we do about it?

The “holy grail” solution would be to create a game score where no cue is ever repeated and no crossfades are used: to make it feel as if the score were being written specifically for the player, reacting in real time to their decisions.  Our goals were ambitious, for sure.  Tackling this presented tremendous challenges on both the technical and musical level.

Technically, the developers had their hands full trying to revise their audio engine so it could properly handle the approach we were discussing.  (For the first several months of scoring, we weren’t even sure if it would work at all!)

Musically, I had to satisfy the technical requirements, yet still preserve the narrative emotions the music needed to convey.  Simply changing the music was not enough, the music had to evolve and simultaneously preserve its tone and character.

Our goal was to create the feeling for the player that there’s a virtual conductor watching the game, and reacting to the player’s every decision.  Rather than crossfading from one cue to the next, our virtual conductor would cue his orchestra and they would respond immediately, creating a genuinely musical transition.

Now that the game is finally available, I have had a chance to play through it and experience the end result of all our efforts.  I must confess I had my reservations that it would work, but I’m thrilled with the result.  The music is unusually exhilarating, and constantly shifting.  There are virtually no noticeable crossfades between cues.  The score sounds different even if the player repeats a level and makes all the same moves!  I could feel the presence of that virtual conductor in the music, making decisions that even I couldn’t have anticipated.

The score is subtle, but this impact is powerful.  I suspect that most gamers will have a heightened experience, especially because they will likely not even notice what the music is doing to their emotions.

I wonder what I would have thought if I could have experienced SOCOM 4 when I was a kid, growing up playing Nintendo and collecting film scores.  I am certain I would have been thrilled to hear game music that sounds, and behaves, like a film score.  I dreamt of a videogame score that could feel as if it were being composed specifically for each player, adapting and shifting to capture the mood of every moment.  Thanks to the powerful technology available today, and the talented artists and programmers at Sony and Zipper Interactive, I was able to write a score I believe fulfills this promise.

Of course, implementation and adaptability don’t mean a damn if the music isn’t good in the first place.  And that, dear readers, is up to you to decide.  My 2-CD expanded soundtrack for SOCOM 4 will soon be available from La La Land Records.  As usual, the first few orders will be autographed, but they go fast.  Pre-orders will become available at the official La La Land Records website next Tuesday at 1pm Pacific Standard Time.

Next week, I will also update the blog with an entry detailing all the exotic instrumentation, themes, and sessions that went into the creation of this score.  I’ll also post exclusive audio clips and session photos.  It’s going to be a big blog entry, with lots of goodies, documenting one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever undertaken in my career.  I am eager to hear what you guys think of this score.

-Bear