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Introduction and Installation: Understanding Music for Games – The Big Interactive Picture

Music in video games serves to set the mood and enhance the emotion of what the viewer is experiencing. The dissonant drone of tremolo strings can foreshadow what’s about to happen, and a symphonic crash can punctuate what has just occurred. These ideas echo principles used in music for picture going back to the days of piano players performing live beneath the glow of a silent picture upon the big screen. Of course, the primary difference between movies and video games is that in the former, the viewer only plays a passive non-participatory role; while in the latter, the viewer is an active participant, directly affecting the action on screen. With video games, the sequence of events can change each time a player plays the game, leaving the traditional linear approach to scoring for motion pictures extremely limited in the ever-changing environment of video games. Even more, music in video games can offer players a feedback mechanism that can reward them for their success and chide them in defeat.

Another important difference between games and motion picture is the timeline, or lack thereof. When working with film, the scene plays back the same way the hundredth time as it did the first. This predictability makes it easy to plan musical accents to punctuate key moments and to know just how to transition between scenes of changing moods. Digital Audio Workstations used by film composers typically provide purpose-built features to allow them to synchronize their music to each and every frame of the movie’s timeline. With video games, there is no timeline, no way to know how long the player will linger or when they may unexpectedly jump into danger, and no way to know the exact moment in which they defeat their evil nemesis. Creating a musical score that is as dynamic as the game itself requires unique tools that can directly connect and react to gameplay.

It’s the sense of unpredictability and/or the reactivity to gameplay that has coined terms like interactive music, dynamic music, and adaptive music; these terms are necessary to distinguish video game music from traditional linear scores, but what’s the difference between them? Depending on whom you talk to, the answer ranges from nothing at all, to very defined, albeit sometimes contradictory differences. Simply put, there’s no consensus on what these terms signify individually. But what they all have in common is that the music has a degree of nonlinearity. In other words, it changes or evolves due to factors ranging from simple randomization, specific player actions, or general overarching circumstances like the time of day. Within Wwise, anything to do with musical nonlinearity is typically managed within the Interactive Music Hierarchy, as this section of the software provides many distinct features that address the unique needs of video game music.