Composing for game with BioShock’s Garry Schyman

Music presented live at CIFM



Few composers have the opportunity to make their mark across film, television, and beyond. But BAFTA Award-winning composer Garry Schyman has made his way from working on the music for features, documentaries, and through to the world of video games. The American artist has produced many notable and acclaimed works for well-known game franchises such as the Bioshock series, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, and Resistance: Retribution.

In this latest CutCommon Global interview, we talk to Garry about the process of writing music for video games, and the future of game music. His music will be performed by the Canberra Youth Orchestra and Topology as part of Game On at the Canberra International Music Festival this week.

You’ve worked on many different projects throughout your career. How have you found composing music for games differs to composing for TV and film?

There are a number of aspects of writing music for games that are similar, but there are a number that differ. The main difference is that much of your work, not all, is written for portions of the game that are not locked to picture. So, for instance, you may be scoring a portion of the gameplay and it may last an infinite number of variations – in terms of who is playing the game. One person may take five minutes to defeat some monster and another person could do it in 40 seconds, so the secret is to write music that is, in essence, interactive. There are a number of techniques for doing this: the simplest is to write music that is looped. Therefore, that music can play seamlessly forever until the player achieves their goal.

What is the process of scoring for games, and what are some of the challenges?

I think interactivity. Very often, in-game cinematics are very similar or identical to scoring a film or television show. So, interactive music can be a challenge. In some ways, it’s similar to, or analogous to, writing concert music, because you’re writing music and it’s not locked to any specific picture, but you’re setting a mood. But, there are a number of techniques and, in fact, the expectation, these days, is that a composer’s music becomes more interactive and therefore you’re [faced] with certain challenges, like a 3D chest where you’re trying to write in layers and you’re having stairs, branching out to different portions of music, based upon what the player is doing. And of course, there is very sophisticated middleware that knows exactly what the player is doing and therefore will branch or change the music based upon what the player is achieving; or where the player is in the game, or whether they’re fighting Orcs or something, then hide behind a tree – then the music should change to reflect that he is no longer fighting and instead hiding out.

You are trying to give the player a sense that their unique personal experience is being scored, but that is a challenge because you never know where that player is at any one moment and you have to be prepared for all the options. The interactivity is getting more and more sophisticated, so that is a challenge. I am comfortable with it now, because I’ve been doing it for years, but writing music for television or games is a challenge, period; writing really good music that not only works, but makes your client happy. Because you’re not working in a vacuum, you’re working for a client. I’m a contract composer, I don’t work in-house. It is a challenge, it really is, but that’s what makes it interesting.

How many musical cues or assets do you have to write for a game?

It can be very extensive. The game I’m just finishing, literally just finished today, a few hours ago, is Shadow of War for the Warner Bros Studio, Monolith Productions. And I’ve written about three hours for that. I haven’t counted the cues, but they vary from anywhere from a minute to three to four minutes in length, so it’s hundreds and hundreds of pieces of music. Some of the games are short and simple, like playing them on an iPhone or android device; they tend to be less complex and require less music. The big AAA games can sometimes be 30, 40, or 50 hours of gameplay and there’s a huge amount of music. Then we record it with an orchestra and it can take two weeks to record it. I got to work with an orchestra, which is one of my favourite parts of the process, so that was cool.

You have composed for many action-themed projects throughout your career. What advice do you have for composing music for an action sequence? And how do you handle rising and falling tension?

I teach scoring for games at the University of Southern California and they have a program there called Screen Scoring, which is a one-year program for graduate students who are interested in writing music for film, television, and games. In fact, I have a whole two-hour lecture on writing action and combat music. It is a challenge to write really good action music. It takes a lot of effort and practice. I remember earlier in my career, when I was writing music for film and television, it was one of the things I found most intimidating – I don’t know that I was particularly good at it. But when I started writing for games, about 13 or 14 years ago, all of a sudden, so much of the music I was being required to compose was combat or action music. All of a sudden, I got really good at it. I put in an enormous number of hours and writing so many cues, I just got better at it.

I often, when I start my lectures, go back to the silent era to a great film called Alexander Nevsky, which employed one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century, Sergei Prokofiev, to score the movie. He wrote some great action music, and it is still performed today as a suite. Studying really terrific action music, John Williams one of my favourites, Jerry Goldsmith – brilliant at it – those guys were spectacular. It’s just listening and trying to write music that is unpredictable and not too repetitive.

There are many ways to write, and people are constantly coming up with new ways. It is a challenge because it tends to be very notey and busy, and if it’s not good then it really does not do the job well. So, it is a challenge for a composer to spend the time to write music and study music of the greats.

Your scores rely heavily on orchestral instruments. How do you prepare and write the music before recording, and how do you compose mock-up versions of the score before recording?

Yes, I do use synthesizers and I’ve written scores that are mostly, or at least half, synth. But yes, I work extensively with samples and synths, I have a very sophisticated set-up with software and so before anything gets recorded with live instruments there is a process of mocking up, where I provide the mocked-up score and it sounds pretty good.

We’re capable now of achieving somewhere close to orchestral-quality performance out of our computers, but it always gets better with live instruments – they add a spectacular excitement to it. But you can make it sound really good, so everything gets mocked up and approved so when the orchestras play, its not a surprise to anybody, it just gets better. No-one’s going to have their mouth agape with ‘what the hell were you thinking when you wrote that?’. They know it’s going to sound good, and now it’s just a matter of making it sound better.

As a composer, have you worked with the game designers in the implementation of your score into the game?

Actually, I have never actually implemented my music. I have never been required because there is always an audio director implementing it for me. I tell my students that they should learn the middleware software Wwise or FMod that implement the audio, including music, dialogue, and sound effects, because that makes them a lot more valuable to lower-budget projects, but I was not required to. Now, when I’m doing mostly AAA games, or games with a decent budget, there is always an audio person there. The game I’m just starting, I’m more involved in implementation and ideas about how to implement the music, so I’m thinking about it with them. I won’t actually cut the music in, but I will be involved in designing how the music is involved in the game.

Game design is an ever-evolving artform, with developers having different visions of how a game should present itself to the player. Has composing music for different games, such as Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Dante’s Inferno, and BioShock, affected the way you approach and write music – such as how the player is going to interpret the overall feel of the game?

The music is always reacting to the game, or a film, or television show. You’re always trying to get into the project, trying to understand what is going on on a deeper level, and so the genre and the style of playing, the characters in the game are all going to influence how you approach the score, and the people you work with. One of the things I always focused on is the people who have made the game and are working on the game long before I was hired, and they have a very deep understanding of what their game is about. They may not have any musical skills. They may not have the ability to discuss music technically, but emotionally they understand what’s working or not working in their games. So I very much respect that and I try to understand their perspective and try to give them what they feel is appropriate. And meanwhile, hopefully I’ll come up with something that surprises them in a good way, like maybe the music might express something they’d hoped might be there that surprises them in a really serendipitous way.

Have you written or designed any sound effects for the games you have worked on?

I have never been asked to and it has never been my focus. With young composers, I urge them strongly to become familiar with sounds and implementing sounds, because these jobs are being actively sought. You rarely see composer jobs advertised, but you will see audio folks being sought by a developer. Once you get in with a developer team that is doing audio, you at least have a shot to convince them to try some of your music as well. You also have a job, especially getting out of school or coming to Los Angeles. Composers do come to LA to start their career and make a living, so it’s a pretty valuable thing to have. I’m fortunate that I’ve had enough success that people are hiring me for music. I feel like I would have wasted their money if they payed me for the audio.

What do you feel the future holds for game music?

I think there are newer ideas entering the gaming sphere. Right now, I’m starting on a virtual reality game. I think VR is going to be very important, because it permits a whole new experience for the player. It will eventually, within a relatively near future, be close to a real experience, where you’ll be in a game and it will be almost identical to being in the real world. You’ll have that sort of option available, it then creates an interesting challenge for music to have music in that world and how it will work. Obviously, there is source music that emanates from the real world we live in now, but how do you handle scoring? Will it come from all around you or from some source? These are things that are being debated and experimented with right now. We’re just starting to discover what makes the most sense.

I’ll know more in a few months once we start implementing music with this VR game. It’s really fascinating. It may take a while to catch on because it requires purchasing expensive hardware, but in a few years things that are expensive now could become quite modest. In five years, maybe you could buy a headset for a few hundred dollars and you may not have to be connected to a computer, you may have a free-standing headset with enormous capabilities, maybe through streaming. It’s just endless possibilities, even beyond gaming.



See Garry Schyman’s music performed by the Canberra Youth Orchestra under the baton of Leonard Weiss. Canberra International Music Festival, May 6, in Game On!

Images supplied. CYO: Peter Hislop. Featured image: BioShock.

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