April 1, 2011 at 3:08 AM ET
Bear McCreary has a list of complaints about the music he hears in video games. And, frankly, if anyone has a good reason to notice the shortcomings it's him.
Not only is McCreary the famed composer behind the music for TV hits like "Battlestar Galactica" and "The Walking Dead," he also happens to be a lifelong gamer.
So when he was asked to create the score for PlayStation 3 game "SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALs," he jumped at the chance. Not only had he played all the previous "SOCOM" games ... he also had some big ideas about how to do video game music better.
"I came to the producers with a list of things that bugged me about video game music," he said during an interview earlier this week. "This is a topic that I've been bitching about my whole life. There are certain things I've always wanted to hear vido game scores do. And as I got involved in the project I asked the producers and developers, 'Can I do this? Can I do this? Can I do this?'"
The answer, it turns out, was "yes, yes and yes." The developers and producers at Sony and Zipper Interactive wanted to make "SOCOM 4's" single-player campaign more cinematic than ever before and they needed a composer who could help them do that through the game's music. And McCreary, with his reputation for making bold, innovative musical scores, had exactly the vision they were looking for.
And so McCreary ended up spending more than two years taking on his video game pet peeves and, in doing so, created a ground-breaking score for "SOCOM 4." His unique, adaptive score features more than nine hours of original music and live performances from 120 musicians ... and it might just change video game music as we know it. (Check out the above video for a look at McCreary in action.)
"I think we've created a game score that is really unlike anything else I've heard or heard of," he says.
Composer and gamer
The classically-trained McCreary was only 24 years old when he began wowing critics and audiences alike with the gripping and unforgettable ethnic-themed score he created for the hit TV series "Battlestar Galactica." Anyone who has watched even a single episode of that show knows what I'm talking about. (Those Japanese taiko drums!) Variety called it "some of the most innovative music on TV today."
But his impressive résumé hardly ends there. McCreary has composed scores for the feature film "Step Up 3D" and TV series "The Cape," "Eureka" and "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" and has, most recently, been scoring the zombie TV series "The Walking Dead." (Check out his blog here.)
Meanwhile, he got his first video game music experience with last year's "Dark Void" and "Dark Void Zero" games.
The cross-over to video games certainly makes sense. McCreary has been playing games since "the 8-bit days" and calls out the "Metal Gear Solid" series and the early "Mega Man" games as some of his favorites.
But as someone passionate about both music and games, he can't help but notice where video game music goes wrong. At the top of his list of pet peeves is the way game music fails to adapt to players' actions in "musically pleasing ways."
For example, games often have specific music to indicate that the player is in danger and then different music to indicate that the player is out of danger. And McCreary points out that, in a typical game, the music will very quickly and obviously cross-fade from one to the other as the situation changes.
"Whether you're aware of it or not, you become very savvy to those changes so that when you're playing a game and you defeat a bunch of enemies and the music fades, that's how you know you're out of danger," he says. "To me, this is the music violating its central purpose, which is heightened realism and heightened the tension. If the music is telling you 'It's OK, you've killed the last enemy' I think it's doing a disservice to your experience."
Another big pet peeve of his: "When you die at a difficult part of a game multiple times in a row and you always respawn at the same place, anybody who's played a video games knows that the music starts to annoy you because you're hearing the same music ad nauseam." (Don't I know it.)
McCreary says such musical shortcomings are not for a lack of caring or trying on the part of the game industry.
"The technology is still in its infancy," he says. "In many ways, we're kind of like at the dawn of talkies in film. We're just figuring out how this is done."
Still, these are exactly the kind of shortcomings that McCreary says "SOCOM 4" players won't experience.
Seeking the Holy Grail
"SOCOM 4" — due to launch on April 19 — is the latest installment in the popular third-person tactical shooting franchise. Set in Southeast Asia, the game features "a much more character-based story than any previous 'SOCOM' game," McCreary says.
With a focus on narrative arc, the developers at Zipper were aiming to make the "SOCOM 4" single-player experience the equivalent of a blockbuster film. And that meant they needed a score that could speak to players on the kind of emotional and visceral level that film scores speak to moviegoers.
"When we first met and started working on this at the Sony offices, the words 'The Holy Grail' kept coming up," McCreary says.
"The Holy Grail of video game music," he explains, is a game score that makes you, the player, feel as if there's an orchestra in your room playing along as you play the game.
It's not an easy task. With film and television, composers are working in a controlled environment — that is, the story is fixed and flows along a predetermined path for a very specific amount of time. But with video games, the players are handed the reins.
McCreary said his goal with "SOCOM 4" was to create a score that would not only be evocative of its Southeast Asia setting but also highly responsive to the player's in-game actions and constantly presenting them with something new musically. In fact, he wanted to make it so that players would never hear the exact same piece of music twice, even if they played the same level in the game many times.
"It was 24 months of solid writing, producing and recording," McCreary says, but he composed a score not only distinctively Asian in tone but one that also delivered that rousing orchestral energy that fans of the "SOCOM" games would expect. And he brought in some 120 musicians to perform all the music live — an 85-plus member orchestra, a group of ethnic-instrument soloist, a 15-person taiko drum group and a 15-person gamelan ensemble to boot.
Meanwhile, McCreary says the power packed inside the PlayStation 3 along with the machine's spacious Blu-ray discs had a lot to do with what he and the developers were, ultimately, able to do with all that music.
"We took advantage of the PlayStation hardware in a way that I don't know has been done before to create music that is incredibly adaptive," he says, explaining that the developers created a system that made it so each of the musical pieces could be broken out into a stunning number of layers and modules which could then be rearranged for the player in a multitude of ways.
"Basically we're creating a system in which the PlayStation 3 computer can compose the music as you play the game," he says. "We're giving the PlayStation all the pieces it needs to function like that conductor — to be able to cue the musicians, to randomize, to be able to interpret your actions."
Ultimately, McCreary says he wrote a four hour score that — with adaptations and variations — became a nine hour score. Then, the game's development team was able to split that out even further to get 20 or 30 hours of musical variations into this one game.
"All of this creates a very fluid system," he says. "It creates the feeling of music that is flowing endlessly and not repeating."
So did they achieve the Holy Grail of game music? "SOCOM" fans will have a chance to decide for themselves when the game launches on April 19th. McCreary says he certainly feels like he and the "SOCOM 4" team dove into uncharted waters a bit with their ambitious, adaptive score. But he believes, "we're going to get to the point where, more and more, games will go that extra mile to make sure music sounds fluid and sounds real."
Meanwhile, though all of this sounds like an epic endeavor, McCreary says that, for him, scoring a video game is much the same as scoring a movie or a TV show.
"Ultimately it's just about telling a story," he says. "I still write character themes. I still develop those character themes. I still create a sonic world for this story to take place in. Those are the things that are really challenging, those are the things that are ultimately the most fun, and those are the things that make me want to be a musician."
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