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Originally published Monday, December 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Big-time movie, TV composers explore video games as a fresh musical frontier

With an expected $50 billion in global sales this year, video games have turned into such a big business that established composers from film and television are signing on to create the sweeping scores and intricate sounds that help guide players through their missions.

Los Angeles Times

Music composer Garry Schyman sits in his Los Angeles studio, at a desk topped with Gustav Mahler biographies and Krzysztof Penderecki recordings, and ponders the hero's predicament. He pivots to his keyboard and plays a handful of chords conveying utter loss, the draining of hope.

If you happen to play the video game "Resistance: Retribution" after it's released next spring, you'll take on the role of a British soldier working to subvert an alien invasion in post-apocalyptic Europe. Schyman's soundtrack will accompany your virtual exploits, heightening your thrills and frustrations.

The game's creators want the 90-second piece he is creating, "Luxembourg Suspense," to project despair as the hero is cornered by hordes of venomous creatures eager for their next meal.

Which song will come next? That depends entirely on the player. If he fights, the game triggers a Schyman tune designed to crank up the adrenaline. A victory is rewarded by a triumphant score; death triggers a dirge.

In a few short years, as the visual effects and realism of video games have evolved, so too have their soundtracks — from comical bleeps and annoying loops of ear candy to lush, epic works that adapt to fit whatever a player decides to do.

With an expected $50 billion in global sales this year, video games have turned into such a big business that established composers from film and television are signing on to create the sweeping scores and intricate sounds that help guide players through their missions.

Harry Gregson-Williams, who scored "Shrek," created the music for the action game "Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots." Steve Jablonsky, the composer for "Transformers," wrote music for "The Sims" and "Gears of War 2." Danny Elfman, whose theme music for the 1989 "Batman" movie won him a Grammy, scored the role-playing adventure game series "Fable."

The gigs pay well: Composers can receive as much as $2,000 for each minute of music they write, with a typical game requiring 60 to 90 minutes of music. Including the allowance for hiring musicians, renting recording studios and postproduction work, the music budgets for top-notch games can reach as high as a half-million dollars.

Creating music for games is a specific task. Since "Resistance: Retribution" is still being created, Schyman has to compose without seeing any of the action.

He works from a spreadsheet sent by the game's developers — Sony Bend, based in Bend, Ore. — with each of roughly three-dozen lines telling him what kind of short song is required for a given scene.

The game's programmers will later be able to take apart the 63 minutes of music clips Schyman is creating, then weave them back together in numerous combinations to make them last through hours of game play.

Unlike the linear storytelling of movies, the plots of games vary based on the second-by-second decisions made by players.

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"With a film, you're given a scene, and you have to follow the tempo and flow that the director has created," Jablonsky said.

"With games, I'm told to write a two-minute piece of music in a certain style to make players feel a certain way. I'm not given any pictures to work from, so I have to make that up in my head. It's an interesting challenge to write without any pictures, but fun."

Following the action

Brian Schmidt, a game composer in Bellevue, sums up the task by referencing a situation in the movie "The Truman Show." In it, Jim Carrey plays an insurance salesman who discovers that his entire life is a televised reality series. Since his actions are live and unscripted, the show's soundtrack is created on the spot by a pianist improvising based on what Truman does.

"In games, you never know what the player will choose to do next. The music has to be able to adapt to whatever the player does," said Aaron Marks, a Fallbrook, Calif., composer and co-author of the book "Game Development Essentials: Game Audio Development."

Few composers have made a more complete transition from film to games than Schyman. The classically trained composer, whose credits include the film "Lost in Africa" and the TV series "Magnum, P.I." and "Father Murphy," now crafts video-game music.

In the early 1990s, intrigued by the potential of a new form of entertainment that lets players participate in the storytelling, Schyman took on his first game project with a title called "Voyeur." It was among the first to feature music recorded with an orchestra.

Back then, game gigs didn't pay well, and consoles couldn't support sophisticated audio.

After three titles, Schyman returned to scoring for film and television.

In 2004, he took a chance on a game called "Destroy All Humans." By then, consoles had morphed into powerful computers, and their high-quality audio meant games could feature movielike soundtracks.

What's more, games had become a moneymaker.

Now all of Schyman's commissions come from games, thanks to growing admiration among developers for his ability to create memorable scores. Although he will consider the occasional TV or movie job, he relishes the creative freedom and technical challenges of game assignments.

"Film music can be very soft and ambient," he said. "But game developers want strong musical statements. So from a creative standpoint, games are a great place to be right now."

From grunge to games

For the "Resistance: Retribution" soundtrack, Schyman hired a nine-piece brass ensemble and rented London Bridge Studio in Shoreline.

Within the same brick walls where Seattle grunge was defined in the 1990s by bands such as Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, Schyman conducted the horns, trombone, trumpets and tubas thundering through his score. The ground shook as it would with the weight of armies marching to battle.

The musicians never played more than a couple of minutes at a time, and they often paused after mere seconds.

The music is recorded in snippets so it can be converted into digital fragments that may be mixed, blended and summoned to follow the events in the game.

To tie music to specific actions and plot twists, game developers create hundreds of triggers: Entering a room, opening a box, drawing a sword, confronting an enemy, losing a battle or solving a riddle can each prompt the appropriate melody.

It's more than just turning tracks on and off. The music has to flow seamlessly to match the level of intensity within a game without being repetitive, annoying or jarring.

"Garry's music has to have enough flexibility to be able to turn on a dime, and still have enough depth to be interesting," said John Garvin, director of product development at Sony Bend, a unit of Sony Computer Entertainment America, where "Resistance: Retribution" is being developed.

If done right, game music can "turn a powerful experience into a sublime experience," said Ken Levine, whose Boston-based studio, Irrational Games, created the hit game "BioShock."

Levine, "BioShock" 's lead developer, was initially skeptical of how music could add to a game. While playing games, he muted the sound and cranked up his own albums.

But Schyman surprised him. In the game's first scene, players find themselves in a once-beautiful world that has slipped into decay as its inhabitants fall victim to a mysterious dark force.

Levine said the foreboding score sets the tone for the horrors to come.

"He was able to project the grandeur and collapse of this city with music that had a certain longing in it," Levine said. "Now, I can't imagine that scene without Garry's score."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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