Video game film score PART 1 – Background

Sup alien bitches. Welcome to the first ever (or first in a while) blog series from us, the musicians from hyperspace, vt100. We’ve been asked to score (aka write the music for) a short animated film. It just so happens that this film is intimately tied to video games which is quite lucky for us. In this series we will be talking both about video game music and scoring short films, AT THE SAME TIME.

Over the next few months, we will take you with us as we write a video game film score. This is going to be fun. We’re not sure how many parts there will be in this series though, but just know, this is the first. Strap in, strap on, and let’s get ready to ride.

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Context: Film and Video games

Like most musicians, we also have day jobs. Though, to be fair, our day job comes with some fun connections at times. A young director approached us over lunch and simply said, “hey, would you score my movie?

We simply said, “Who the fuck are you?” – We mean, what would we say to a stranger? They told us who they were, of course,, then they told us about the project. As it would turn out this project is exactly the kinda thing we’ve always wanted to do; we’re so fuggin excited.

In this short film, “Stuck” (working title) the main character is a young boy who loves to play video games; like fucking super loves games. This young boy plays so many games, in fact, that the video game console gets stuck to his hand. Whoops, that’s not weird. Anyways, I can’t give away spoilers, but the boy has to figure some shit out to deal with his new ailment. Our job is to provide the music for this young man and help the audience understand just what he’s feeling.

How long does all this drama take to unfold? Five whole minutes. While this may not seem like a lot, this is actually five whole minutes of music as there’s no dialog. The pressure is on, and what an opportunity to story tell through music!

Just to ice the cake, the director just also happens to love (wait for it…) SYNTHESIZERS! Yay! He very much wanted the whole soundtrack of the film to have an old school video game theme. In his reels, he even used a bunch of NES music to express the tone he was after. The director wants video game music for his movie, oh man, what a rare opportunity indeed.

Yep, this is a project for us. Everyone… it’s time to load the starship. Hyperspace Awaits!!

Context: Musical Story Telling

A film tells a story, music accents the story being told; this is the nature of film scoring. Whereas when we write music on our own, we do so very specifically for ourselves and to explore our own creative soul, this is not the case for a film score. A film score has some specific needs and these are needs we can express somewhat simply.

Given the story and the artistic desires of the director, there’s a lot we know in advance about the pieces of music we shall write. We also understand themes, orchestration, emotions, tempo already. All of this comes from the director and the work they’ve already done in preparing the story prior to our initial meeting.

Okay, so, what kinds of music will we need to write for this film score?

  • Music for a fictional video game, Bubble Knight. Our main character plays this video game… a lot. We will be writing music for it’s various levels. This music will set the overall musical theme for the whole short.
  • Based on the musical theme our main character’s experience with video games gets comically annoying for a bit. We will extend the video game themes but make things more real… and annoying
  • Based on the musical theme our main character then becomes quite defeated. This is where things get sad and serious
  • Based on our musical theme our main character will have some resolution. Our final emotion is going to express these feelings for our character, all the while staying within the structure we set forth in the first bullet.
  • Based on our musical theme, we want to make the credits rewarding and fun.

You might notice these bold letters, musical theme – everything in this film relates to the game Bubble Knight, though as the film progresses we will inject not only new emotions into that theme, but a more filled out sense of reality. This might be kinda meta, so you’ll have to bear with us to see how it plays out if you don’t understand quite yet.

Context: Orchestration Notes

Orchestration is all about what instruments play what parts in your… orchestra! There’s a lot too it; you can read entire books on the subject. For the purposes of this film score, when we use the term orchestration, we’re specifically talking about the synthesizer voices that comprise this film’s sonic landscape. Just what instruments will we use in our orchestra to provide the emotional contexts we identified above?

While this isn’t necessarily a requirement of all film scoring, it is for this film score. This orchestration provides another laying of theme to our film. There are two elements of this theme worth calling out:

  1. Everything in this film is a relationship between a video game and real life. Our approach to orchestration will help reinforce this idea and ultimately help our audience stay connected to the main character’s journey.
  2. For this film the director wants an old-school video game vibe. In the reels he even clipped in some NES music to express his vision (he used megaman 3 music though, talk about a tall order).

Our orchestration choices should reflect these two goals. That is, they should allow us to create that old school video game vibe, but we should be able to come in and out of reality. And, to top it all off, we want the music in this film to help everything glue together, so we don’t want dramatic shifts in our orchestral players, just subtle ones (i.e. we kinda want this to feel like a single orchestra was performing the score).

We probably just made this up right now, cause we’re total bad asses, but what we’re talking about here is that there’s an orchestral theme to this film in addition to the orchestration enhancing the film’s emotional expression. This is a lot to ask of some instruments (and players), but it’s well worth it we assure you.

Context: Bubble Knight

We’ve explored how we need to emotionally support the story as well as how the instruments will play a roll in how the audience experiences this fantastic little film. But there’s yet an important question, Does the video game our main character is playing even matter? We’d argue, yes, yes it does.

But wait, how does it matter? Remember that this game’s music sets a theme. Okay sure, but there’s a bit more than that. This video games music not only needs to line up with any images we need of the game, it also speaks to who our main character is as a person.

Think about it – Does the main character like shitty games or cool games? Little kid games or high quality games? Does he even care about the game’s music or is he so enthralled in the game that the music doesn’t matter? There’s a lot of nuance we can inject about our character through his game choice and music contained therein. It’s not that this necessary makes or breaks the film, but its another way we can influence our audience’s connection with the main character. Music, in this case, will tell just as much of a story as the images.

Different Game – Different Music

Briefly back to our point that the music needs to make sense for any images we see of the game in the film. We do briefly see the game he is playing in the reels, if we have the wrong music, at least some people will be really thrown off (not everyone plays enough games to pick up on these things, tbh). Different games have different music, anyone who’s played enough games will tell you that.

For example, consider these two musical examples, do they both feel natural to you when you imagine a game called Bubble Knight?

Super Mario Bro’s, could you imagine music like this in a game titled Bubble Knight?
Now consider this music, would this be more fitting to a game called bubble knight?

If you feel both would work for Bubble Knight, well, you clearly aren’t a game composer. What’s less debatable is how different these two pieces of music are. One is kinda happy-go-lucky whereas the other is a bit more serious imparting a sense of tension on the player. A game’s music, much like a film score, will leave an emotional impression on the player; this is something we definitely want to explore in the context of this film.

Note also, there’s some interesting overlap in games as any single game will likely explore a number of virtual senarios. What’s interesting is that we can kinda blend less intuitive styles of game music together and get away with it. Now, it still needs to be Bubble Knight’s music, but what that music has to be in relationship to genre has some flexibility.

Next Steps

And that, folks, is the background about this film we’re going to score, “Stuck”. We’re going to take you on this journey with us too; every step of the way. What are the steps? (or in other words, what kinds of blog topics can we expect in the coming weeks?) Well…

  • Research, research, research
  • Write a ton of music to feel out the direction of the film
  • Refine that music and put it to video
  • Release a movie, everyone rejoices!

But really, there’s so much research. We’re just glad we finally have an excuse to get deep and nerdy with video game music. We’re also really excited to verbosely share this experience with all of you. Thanks for being here, truly.

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