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Their scores can be huge

Composers of video game music earn up to $2,000 a minute for snippets that can be arranged to fit the changing action.

December 08, 2008|Alex Pham | Pham is a Times staff writer.

Music composer Garry Schyman sits in his Culver City studio, at a desk topped with Gustav Mahler biographies and Krzysztof Penderecki recordings, and ponders the hero's predicament. He pivots to his keyboard and plays a handful of chords conveying utter loss, the draining of hope.

If you happen to play the video game Resistance: Retribution after it's released next spring, you'll take on the role of a British soldier working to subvert an alien invasion in post-apocalyptic Europe. Schyman's soundtrack will accompany your virtual exploits, heightening your thrills and frustrations.

The game's creators want the 90-second piece he is creating now, "Luxembourg Suspense," to project despair as the hero is cornered by hordes of venomous creatures eager for their next meal. Which song will come next? That depends entirely on the player. If he fights, the game triggers a Schyman tune designed to crank up the adrenaline. A victory is rewarded by a triumphant score; death triggers a dirge.

In a few short years, as the visual effects and realism of video games have evolved, so too have their soundtracks -- from comical bleeps and annoying loops of ear candy to lush, epic soundtracks that instantly adapt to fit whatever a player decides to do. With an expected $50 billion in global sales this year, video games have turned into such a big business that established composers from film and television are signing on to create the sweeping scores and intricate sounds that help guide players through their missions.

Harry Gregson-Williams, who scored "Shrek," created the music for the action game Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Steve Jablonsky, the composer for "Transformers," wrote music for the Sims and Gears of War 2. Danny Elfman, whose theme music for the 1989 "Batman" movie won him a Grammy Award, scored the role-playing adventure game series Fable.

The gigs pay well: Composers can receive as much as $2,000 for each minute of music they write, with a typical game requiring 60 to 90 minutes of music. Including the allowance for hiring musicians, renting recording studios and post-production work, the music budgets for top-notch games can reach as high as half a million dollars.


Creating music for games is a unique task. Since Resistance: Retribution is still being created, Schyman has to compose without seeing any of the action. He works from a spreadsheet sent by the game's developers in Oregon, with each of roughly three dozen lines telling him what kind of short song is required for a given scene. The game's programmers will later be able to take apart the 63 minutes of music clips Schyman is creating, then weave them back together in numerous combinations to make them last through hours of game play without getting tedious.

Unlike the linear storytelling of movies, the plots of games vary based on the second-by-second decisions made by players.

"With a film, you're given a scene, and you have to follow the tempo and flow that the director has created," Jablonsky said. "With games, I'm told to write a 2-minute piece of music in a certain style to make players feel a certain way. I'm not given any pictures to work from, so I have to make that up in my head. It's an interesting challenge to write without any pictures, but fun."

Brian Schmidt, a game composer in Bellevue, Wash., sums up the task by referencing a situation in the movie "The Truman Show." In it, Jim Carrey plays an insurance salesman who discovers that his entire life is a televised reality series. Since his actions are live and unscripted, the show's soundtrack is created on the spot by a pianist improvising based on what Truman does.

"In games, you never know what the player will choose to do next. The music has to be able to adapt to whatever the player does," said Aaron Marks, a Fallbrook, Calif., composer and co-author of the book "Game Development Essentials: Game Audio Development."

Few composers have made a more complete transition from film to games than Schyman. The classically trained composer, whose credits include the film "Lost in Africa" and the TV series "Magnum, P.I." and "Father Murphy," now makes a good living crafting video game music.

In the early 1990s, intrigued by the potential of a new form of entertainment that lets players participate in the storytelling, Schyman took on his first game project with a title called Voyeur. It was among the first to feature music recorded with an orchestra. Back then, game gigs didn't pay very well, and consoles couldn't support sophisticated audio. After three titles, Schyman returned to scoring for film and television.

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