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Originally published September 20, 2009 at 8:29 PM | Page modified September 21, 2009 at 6:16 PM

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Brier Dudley

'Halo' wouldn't be the same without evocative music of Marty O'Donnell

Just as "Star Wars" wouldn't be "Star Wars" without the awesome soundtrack by John Williams, "Halo" wouldn't be the same without the evocative music of Marty O'Donnell.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Listen to music from "Halo 3: ODST"

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Just as "Star Wars" wouldn't be "Star Wars" without the awesome soundtrack by John Williams, "Halo" wouldn't be the same without the evocative music of Marty O'Donnell.

The iconic video game's signature music was created by a former advertising jingle writer who has done audio for Bungie, the studio behind "Halo," since its early days in Chicago.

O'Donnell's biggest hit used to be the jingle for Flintstones vitamins — "We are Flintstones kids, 10 million strong and growing" — but now it's "Halo," the first game soundtrack to make the Billboard charts.

The music has been a cornerstone of the game since it was shown by Steve Jobs at Macworld in 1999 up through the newest version, "Halo 3: ODST," going on sale Tuesday.

O'Donnell and his musical collaborator, Mike Salvatori, will simultaneously release the ODST soundtrack as a two-disc set.

Buying this kind of music may sound crazy to nongamers, but more than 120,000 copies of the "Halo 2" soundtrack were sold.

Looking at it another way, O'Donnell is introducing classical music to a younger generation, writing music heavy on piano and stringed instruments that's played repeatedly by millions of people around the world. More than 27 million copies of "Halo" games have been sold, and "ODST" will easily push that over 30 million.

The phenomenon isn't limited to "Halo." Game music is popular enough that live concerts are held around the country, and Seattle's Northwest Sinfonia has become sought-after performers for game scores.

Star in this world

In that world, O'Donnell is one of the biggest stars, according to Brian Schmidt, a game composer and consultant in Bellevue who invited O'Donnell to give a keynote address at a games music conference in Los Angeles this week.

"He's easily a John Williams," Schmidt said. "He has written the most easily recognized video-game music of his generation. Play the first five notes of 'Halo' and everybody starts cheering."

O'Donnell also encourages other studios to place a higher priority on how music is integrated into their games.

"I think having an audio director who is also a composer inside the studio and has enough clout to have some influence, I think it makes things better," O'Donnell said. "I completely recommend that to any of the other studios out there."

Unique situation

Bungie has a unique situation with O'Donnell. He's involved from the beginning in game creation, and he has authority that comes from his tenure and age — at 54 he's the oldest employee and was the first family man hired.

This can draw some grief from co-workers. For instance, game designers included a bonus achievement in "ODST" called "Be Like Marty." It rewards players who make it through a "Firefight" battle without killing a single enemy.

"Most of the young punks here have this unfounded belief that, because of my age, I'm not good at 'Halo.' This of course is not true. ... The truth is, Marty has never actually 'been like Marty,' " O'Donnell said. "At some point in the future, when they least expect it, I will pay them back for this."

Musical influence

Music came naturally to O'Donnell, whose mother taught piano and father made films. He studied composition at the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music and the University of Southern California before starting the Chicago audio business with Salvatori, producing music for films and ads.

O'Donnell began working with Bungie on contract in the 1990s when his company diversified into the video-game industry.

After he started work on the first version of "Halo," O'Donnell decided to join Bungie full time in 2000. He kept his stake in the audio business, where Salvatori provides services to Bungie and collaborates with O'Donnell on composition.

It was a bold move for a married father of two. "I had an established business and they were these guys just barely out of the basement of a dormitory," he recalled.

But O'Donnell had an epiphany during a late-night session writing music for a kitty-litter ad. "We were so serious and it just sort of hit me — 'What am I doing?' " he said. "I was just so tired of doing jingles like that, scoring animated cats in Tidy Cat commercials, it was just like, I've got to get out of this."

Then there was the pull of "Halo." "I totally believed 'Halo' was going to be a huge success even in 1999 — I saw what it was. I saw where it was going," O'Donnell said.

That wasn't the only change coming. Less than two weeks after O'Donnell joined, Bungie was acquired by Microsoft and he moved to the Seattle area.

Move west

Now O'Donnell works in a cozy studio in Bungie's Kirkland office, outfitted with a piano, mixing board and recording booth. He and Salvatori send their compositions back and forth electronically, and share composing credit.

Creating music for a game, O'Donnell tries to "score the emotions of what we want the player to be feeling while they're playing," he said.

This carried over in "ODST," which is set in a mysterious city where "orbital drop shock troopers" arrive to battle invading aliens.

"With 'ODST,' it's still really about how you should feel as the player, especially in the city at night, alone, looking for your friends, so it was really all about that feeling," he said. "I kept trying to bring that feeling back."

The rain served as an inspiration, similar to the way "Halo" designers have taken cues from the woodsy terrain of their adopted home.

The first piece O'Donnell wrote for "ODST" captured the essence of a dark and rainy evening, with a melancholy piano sequence.

"Maybe I've lived here long enough, the first thing I did, I just said, 'Yeah, this is rain,' " he said. "Once I had that, I felt good about it."

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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