Checking the Score: The Politics of Game Music

Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.

When you think of your favorite game, there’s a good chance that the musical score was at least partly responsible for your enjoyment. Game music — like graphics and story and just about every aspect of game production — has grown in sophistication and quality since the early days of the industry. Video game scores can equal, or surpass, those soundtracks created for feature films when it comes to emotional variety, color and the ability to enhance the story telling experience. As game music has developed, the complexity of making that music has likewise increased, and the choices that producers, developers and composers face are difficult ones. One of the most controversial and contentious aspects of game music is the use of live musicians versus sampled, digital instruments.

Back at the 8-bit dawn of games, game music was extremely simple, limited to “chiptune” compositions and barely recognizable synthesized imitations of instruments (like other retro game products, there is a flourishing chiptune music segment of the hobby that creates, and re-creates music using 1980s technology). In the late 1980s and early 90s, as computer technology became more sophisticated and affordable sampling became a reality. Sampling is simply making a short digital recording of an instrumental or vocal sound and then using the computer to manipulate that sound so it can be played at any pitch. At first, samples sounded pretty bad because sample rates (the number of times a second the computer takes a “picture” of the instrument) were limited, but now there is almost nothing to get in the way of samples being nearly indistinguishable from live musicians.

Sample libraries are almost indistinguishable from live musicians, but take paying gigs away from studio players

Sample libraries are almost indistinguishable from live musicians, but take paying gigs away from studio players

As sampling technology increased in effectiveness, composers were faced with not just a musical choice, but a moral dilemma, one that film and game producers continue to contend with: do we hire live musicians to record our score, or use sampled instruments? Live musicians must be paid union wages (if they belong to the union) because they have invested thousands of hours in practice and they are earning a livelihood from music. Sample libraries — the good ones, anyway — are extremely costly, but the samples can be used without additional payment.

Most composers, given a choice, would prefer to use live musicians because their products are more flexible, expressive, musically sophisticated and, well…alive. Composers in games usually create a “mockup” of the score using samples, and then record the final product — if the budget allows — using live musicians. Some indie games or even bigger products use samples or combinations of samples out of budget concerns or because sampled music can be manipulated in ways that create effects live musicians can’t produce on their instruments. The ethic issue of using samples — which takes a potential job away from hard-working professional musicians — hasn’t gone away.

Skywalker Sound - recording Forza Motorsport 5 - photo credit Lance Hayes

Another huge issue — especially in Los Angeles, which has been the traditional hub of film and game music recording — is the role of musicians’ unions. Unions for players and composer exist, as in any industry, to protect the interests of members and help create acceptable working conditions. Sometimes there is a disconnect between members and union leadership. In LA, union members were forbidden to record game scores because they received no residuals (payments based on number of sold copies). As a result,union musicians were locked out a potentially lucrative market, and composers and developers who wanted to employ live musicians were forced to record orchestras in London or Prague, where musicians were paid a one-time-only fee.

The issue came to a head in 2014 when composer Austin Wintory (Journey, flOw, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate) was threatened with a $50,000 fine by the union — of which he is a member — for working on The Banner Saga and violating the union’s rules around video games. Wintory’s public response was posted on YouTube and widely praised, with composers and union musicians using the incident to put pressure on union leadership to negotiate with video game producers. In worked, sort of. In June of 2014, the American Federation of Musicians drafted a contract for its musicians working on games, but developers were slow to accept the deal, as were member musicians. It’s clear that the politics of game music will continue to be a big part of the industry.