Page last updated at 11:46 GMT, Monday, 9 March 2009

Magical challenge of video game music

By Monise Durrani
Producer, BBC Radio 4 Click On

Harry Potter games
Composing music for non-linear entertainment poses different challenges

How do you write a soundtrack for something which doesn't follow a conventional linear narrative?  That's the challenge faced by composers when writing the music for computer games.

With games of films now standard - and movies centring on characters from computer games, it is easy to see similarities between the two.

But creating the music for a film and for a computer game are very different tasks says composer James Hannigan, whose credits include the last two Harry Potter games, and Command and Conquer Red Alert 3. He also writes for television and film.

"The biggest difference between games music and film music is really the function" says Hannigan.

The player doesn't necessarily want to be told how to feel, they are shaping their own experience
James Hannigan, composer

"You have to remember that the gamer is both audience and participant - they're observing this world, they're watching a story, but they're also a participant in the story ".

So how he writes his music has to reflect and respond to the different roles of the player within the game.

A key task is getting the timing right - a composer does not want to pre-empt feelings of suspense or fear, for example, and the music needs to remain in keeping with the actions of the game-player.

"That's a huge problem", says Hannigan.  "Most music that goes into games is pre-composed, it's written before it gets applied, so you're writing music for situations that haven't existed yet".

Unlike in a film, where the music will follow the narrative and reflect what is taking place onscreen, in a game, the composer has no way of knowing how long a gamer will remain in any given situation.  The music is instead written to loop; or to switch to a different piece of music as the player progresses in the game.

'Music flow'

"The game itself is driving the flow of the music," Hannigan explains.

Hannigan enjoys the process of writing for games most when he can start his composition at a very early stage of the games development.

"It's about what's motivating the music" he says. " I like to consider issues about how the music gets used, and what the designers are trying to achieve with the game.

"To have a game where the music doesn't feel like an afterthought, you have to have the music as an integral part of the game design".

Another challenge is that the role of the player can vary from game to game. In some, the action in the game is in the first person; and the player is fully immersed in the game's 'universe'.

Other games, including the Harry Potter series, are in the third person - although the player is controlling the action; they are still watching a character on screen. 

Command and Conquer
Orchestral compositions add gravitas to big budget video games

This has an impact on the music Hannigan writes: "I think the perspective you [the gamer] have on events is very significant.  If it's a first person game, you're sending out the message that this is you, this is your eyes and ears".

He believes that having very obvious music in a first person game would conflict with the game-players sense of immersion: "The player doesn't necessarily want to be told how to feel, they are shaping their own experience, and so the music is there more to provide a sense of atmosphere or location".

In third-person games, the music has a different function, he says.

"You're in control, but there's also a sense that you're part of an interactive audience, so there is room to have more manipulative music that treats you at least partly as an audience".

For a game like Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince there is also a relationship with the film soundtrack to consider.

"There has to be a similar approach to the music" says Hannigan.  "I'll work some of the famous Hedwig's Theme into some of the music to identify it as Harry Potter - it's very much the game of the film".

The soundtrack for the game was recorded by the Philharmonia Orchestra at Pinewood's Air Studios.  At the moment, such a grand level of music production is relatively unusual in a game, and typically only reserved for so-called AAA games, those with the biggest budgets.

But composing for games is becoming recognised as an artform outside of the games industry.  A concert series called Video Games Live, featuring orchestras and choirs, as well as sound effects and video clips from games, has become a worldwide hit with audiences; and increasingly the soundtracks to games are being released as MP3s for fans to download.

For Hannigan, the interest in music from young game players is exciting: "I think the games validate the music.  It's classical music but it's acceptable and reasonably fashionable to people because it comes from their favourite games," he says.

"Players will spend a long time with a game so they will hear the music a lot - it can have a huge impact on them."

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