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A Sweet take on video game scores

Michael Sweet

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Video gamers the world over are going to recognize this...

XBox Music

That's an Xbox 360 console waking up. A sound, or a tune, I suppose that was composed specifically for the Xbox by a professional musician. The music gets even more complicated once you load up a disc.

Composers spend days -- or even weeks, sometimes -- scoring the more complicated games.

Michael Sweet writes some of that music. He also teaches aspiring game composers how to do it at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Michael Sweet: The field of video games has been around for quite a number of years, but the sort of exploration into sort of modern genres of music and the ability for us to use orchestral music and things like that inside of video games is relatively new, I think. And it's because of video game budgets sort of slowly increasing over time, as well as technology being able to broaden the scope of what music can do in a video game.

Ryssdal: When you sit down to write for a video game, is it pretty much the same process as writing for a television show or a movie or something?

SWEET: In linear media, as in film, we try and tell the story of what's going on on screen, but there's a significant difference when you get to video games, where you're still trying to tell the story, but the player's actually in control of how the story is playing out. It's basically you set up a rule set for the music...

Ryssdal: By rule you mean, if he shoots this guy then the music sounds like this, and if the car crashes this way, it sounds like this?

SWEET: Absolutely. It's basically you set up a rule set for the music, where if an event happens then it triggers this piece of music, if the boss monster comes out at the end of the level, you want that tension to rise up and the music to change in conjunction with those actions.

Ryssdal: So I want to play a piece of music that you actually scored for a video game called "Supremacy." Let's roll that...

SUPREMACY MUSIC

Ryssdal: And right there the hero is doing something dramatic probably right?

SWEET: That's a fairly sort of dramatic score, with a lot of tension, and it has a little bit of science fiction in it. So yeah, when you're writing you actually end up writing sort of many pieces of music that need to flow from one to another. And so you actually write, you can write a whole mess of transition pieces that take you from one, from the low tension to the very exciting and dramatic action, and back to the exploration mode and things like that, and you can tie all these pieces together -- either by branching or layering elements together.

Ryssdal: So let's play another piece of music. This one is a piece you sent along. It's from a game called "Africa." I want to listen to it here and then ask you a couple of questions.

AFRICA MUSIC

Ryssdal: What makes that special? I mean that could be... It sounds to me a little bit like the music from, what was that Angela Lansbury TV series from however long ago it was, right? It sounds a little bit like that, so what makes it good for you in video games terms?

SWEET: I think that entire score, the game is called "Africa," and it's a photojournalism game where you actually go to Africa, and you go out on safari and you try and take interesting pictures of wildlife and animals out in the depths of Africa. And it's really quite a beautiful game. The game itself was created with a 106-piece orchestra, this huge massive orchestra. And I think that there are scores that have this sort of beautiful quality that bring you into the game, and have this ability to move you from an emotional level. And I feel like this score really does that.

Ryssdal: You know, I imagine it runs from things you can play on your iPhone to full-size video games, so the market for this kind of music, for the people who can write it, must be enormous.

SWEET: The market is sort of exploding, and the dollar-to-dollar ratio between films and video games has really become this gigantic entity where I think people are respecting video games at a whole new level. A typical video game, a really high triple-A title, like "Halo" or something like that, costs millions and millions of dollars to make, but it also generates quite a bit of revenue on the other end of it as well.

Ryssdal: Michael Sweet and the art of video game scoring at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass. Michael, thanks a lot.

SWEET: Thank you very much.

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