Behind the music of Infamous: Second Son
Sony Computer Entertainment America’s vast, glass-fronted campus is a humming nexus of the digital age, a droning place of clicking mice and clacking keyboards.
But deep inside the San Mateo tech-hive there are a few tightly connected rooms where life takes on an analog tone, one that is different from Silicon Valley’s usual vibe. These are the studios where soundtracks for studios like Insomniac, Naughty Dog and Sucker Punch are created and recorded.
Their mixing decks sport levers, dials and switches. The recording room is filled with tambourines, cymbals, guitars, sheet music, a piano.
And the people who inhabit these places are different from the usual game office crowd. They spend their lives jingling around with strings and ivories, drumsticks and metallophones. They fiddle and faddle in an aural world of real, actual music.
What they ultimately produce are the soundtracks for games like Infamous: Second Son, released last week. A game soundtrack can take up to two years to create, according to director of music Chuck Doud.
“We’ll start on a project really early,” he says. “There’s a lot that happens under the hood.”
Music in games have a long history, going back to simple notation combinations created entirely electronically, to full orchestral scores and even Grammy nominations. “Our job is to make sure the music makes a connection with the player,” says Doud. “We keep you immersed. We are marrying that vision with technology to create a dynamic and adaptive score.”
This is where game scores can fall down, badly, when they erupt for no good reason into heart-thumping action sequences, while you, the player, are strolling down some in-game street, feeling slightly bemused.
“Some developers use a really simplistic approach, ” explains Doud. “They will say that in this field there may be five enemies and as long as there are enemies we will have the music kick up. And you can clear out a room and there may be some dude two floors down and he is still in that proximity range that is making the music go crazy and you are walking around saying ‘what did I do?’ You are now disconnected from the game and it may take a while before you are fully re-engaged again.
“We write a script for what you want the music to do in any situation,” he adds. “When this thing happens in the game we want the music to do something specific. Then we will write a little subset of rules that says, ‘ah, but when this happens, ignore all those rules and go do this.’ That’s how you avoid the music going crazy when there is no need for it to go crazy.”
Ultimately, computers and code are needed to marry the music with the game. “We put a priority on the integration of the score into the game,” says Doud. “You can work with the best composer and you can have the best production resources and you can listen to it and think ‘oh man this score is great,’ but if it is not implemented into the game correctly then it is going to fall flat.
“The talent of the people who are making games has matured to the level where it is demanding that the music do a better job. We’re at a point where you are seeing a more intelligent use of the music.”