By Justin Lassen
We’ve all seen the game audio landscape change over the years from obscure after-thought to full on planned productions. The first game soundtrack I heard that really made me feel it was as good as a movie soundtrack was Jeremy Soule’s Icewind Dale 1 soundtrack. A fully digital orchestra, but still capable of transporting me into that fantasy world. Game audio has always had the potential for appreciation in more mediums than games alone.
Here I want to highlight how I’ve utilized game audio in 4 of my projects that were not explicitly games alone, but brought it into new territories and industries. First and foremost, I consider myself a game composer, so when I get asked to do projects in other industries besides games, I can’t help but naturally bring those game composing methodologies and techniques with me. Whether it is film soundtracks, loop libraries, art galleries, I just can’t shake that I have game composing in my blood. Why fight it? I embrace it and utilize my game audio in those projects to further blur the lines and break new ground on what is acceptable and where things can go in the future.
Game Audio Status Quo
When you think of game audio and music, you might think of the nostalgic 8-bit sounds of great video games like Super Mario Bros or perhaps older Atari games. You might also think of ambient soundscapes like in MYST or Silent Hill and furthermore you might finally think of the over-hyped multi-genre orchestral glue that holds multiplayer games like Call of Duty and Halo together. These are all good uses of “game audio”, but I believe that “game audio” has always been more than just merely “game audio” and can be used in much more than games alone and can actually become a venue in themselves.
Here are 4 projects I’d like to highlight how I’ve personally used game audio:
Synaesthesia: The Environment is the Orchestra
In 2005, I created a pioneering music/CG (computer generated art) series called Synaesthesia, which has gone on to receive millions of downloads, listens, fans, articles, covers, etc. It has been featured in art galleries and licensed in various high profile projects, films and live events all over the world.
Almost six years later, a project that I was only working on for self expression and appreciation of art continues to grab at the heart strings of artists, gamers and industry players around the world. For this I am truly humbled. What makes this so unique is that I was utilizing more freeform game-like (ambient/orchestral/dark-classical) compositions to bring 2D and 3D matte paintings and conceptual artwork to “life” in a cool new way.
Instead of the traditional “scoring to picture”, I was letting the picture score the music almost quite literally. In each case, the artist who created the paintings and the art enthusiasts and collectors who would view the paintings along with the music actually felt transported into the scene itself without a single frame of animation. This was also the basis in which I composed the pieces. I look at art and am transported into far away worlds and dark fairytales, and I wanted to share that experience with others. It as if the environments themselves were making the decisions for me on what instruments to use, what effects, what sounds, and it all came together via creative composition and sound design as if the environment was performing the orchestral pieces.
While it might not be something you would “bump” at a club, or play on your car-ride to work, the compositions could easily be the backdrop to a lot of video games today as they are quite suited for CG and gaming lifestyles and environments. I find it interesting that igame music has thrived in a completely adjacent industry all together with accolades and awards at events like Siggraph, GDC (Game Developers Conference), CES, etc.
Splicing Video Game Composers and Film Soundtracks
A lot of people like to draw a line between “game soundtracks” and “film soundtracks”, though creatively they are the same process but with different technological guidelines and budgets. When I was asked to put together the soundtrack to Clive Barker’s Midnight Meat Train movie, I knew I wanted to somehow bridge video game industry and film industry together in a unique way.
Along with dark collaborations with bands and artists like Apocalyptica and Iconcrash, I also asked my friends and fellow composers Jason Hayes (StarCraft, World of WarCraft) and Gerard Marino (God of War) to collaborate with me on a special track specifically for the film soundtrack, and the end results were frightening and powerful. Both Jason and Gerard collaborated together on the basic track and gave me the stems to mutilate and remix and further bring into the dark world of Clive Barker. We were able to mix game/film scoring and modern remixing together in a new way!
While the company executives didn’t quite understand the concept of bringing in these celebrated game composers into a film soundtrack project at first, everyone grew to love the cult-classic soundtrack in the end. This had not been done before. To this day it has been written up with highest ratings on top horror and film websites and magazines. I took a chance by merging 2 industries together with great results for everyone, proving that game soundtrack composers can work on more than just video games alone. Both Jason and Gerard’s work has also been performed by Tommy Tallarico’s Video Games Live Orchestra which will be having it’s 200th live show at E3 2011!
Walking into the White Rabbit Asylum
I was also asked to make a special premium collection “loop library” for Sony. I am known for traveling the world with an arsenal of microphones, high-res recorders and mobile studios and capturing audio from some of the most ancient places, archaic catacombs, castles, basilicas, abandoned ghost towns, mines, Mayan temples, etc.. When I’m traveling, I like to remember more than a few photos. I like to remember what the place felt like, and audio really helps me do that.
So I compiled highlights of about 8 years of travel into a 2-Disc collection along with several excerpts from various live orchestras I worked with on my travels around the globe. With all those recordings and sounds, I created musical compositions and sound designs that Sony dubbed the “aural scrapbook of the strange” very much how I would compose for a video game. In this sense, you can find a lot of stuff in this library for just about any kind of game or film project, whether you are just starting out as a composer or are a seasoned pro, there is something in it for everyone.
I was able to use these loops and audio in a bunch of games for companies like Konami in Japan. This library has been given a lot of wonderful reviews from audio magazines, game journalists and film sites and is one of Sony’s more unique offerings into the darker realms of “interactive composition”. Having composed the game soundtrack to the cult classic zombie survival horror game ‘Out of Hell’, I utilized a lot of those techniques of meshing sound design, composition and game orchestration when I was designing the sounds and loops for the series.
Blue Marble Game Co.
Finally, one of the most unique challenges to come my way was to create a ‘game’ soundtrack for a health/serious ‘game’ that helps with therapy and rehabilitation for service members returning from combat zones. It is a Department of Defense funded game project for Blue Marble Game Co. I was given a set of unique guidelines to compose for the scenes and activities in the game. Blue Marble Game Co is perhaps at the very forefront of revolutionary games for this purpose as well as exciting touch screen and interactive elements. This is unique because this is not your typical Call of Duty type game, in fact, it’s on the envelope of an exciting new generation of interactive experiences that are not only fun to play but also helpful for people with health issues like mild traumatic brain injuries.
Collaborative Process and The Future of Game Audio
Composing games today for the biggest titles has become more of a collaborative process. I am asked to collaborate with a lot of film and game composers and you learn that no matter what the project is, we’re all in this together and we utilize a lot of the same resources now. With music technology tools becoming more and more stream-lined, their becomes a blur between game, film, radio and live performance, composing and recording, that we’re all starting to see and appreciate each-others challenges and techniques a lot more. I started doing game audio back in the mid 90′s when it was just starting to quicken and flourish. If a guy like me can branch out from the humble modding days (TC’s, game modifications, etc.) and find a way to survive in other industries, there is hope for us all together. I look forward to seeing how this adventure continues and how more people can branch out of the game industry, though, never forget your roots.
With 15 years of experience in the music, film, and video game industries, Justin Lassen is well versed in all aspects of the creative arts, and his blend of classical technique and modern methodology has defined his success in all manner of genres. His wildly popular instrumental series, Synaesthesia, has been highly praised by everyone from CGSociety to EQ and Playboy Magazines. Likewise, his dark, symphonic masterpiece, And Now We See But Through A Glass Darkly, has seen over 100 million downloads since its release in 2003.