For composers, video games are the surreal land of opportunity

Sept. 28, 2012 | 5:00 a.m.
goldencat sniping For composers, video games are the surreal land of opportunity

A screenshot of Bethesda Softworks’ upcoming game “Dishonored,” which features a score from Daniel Licht. (Bethesda Softworks)

Ramin Djawadi always dreamed of composing a film score, and the Berklee College of Music graduate has done plenty, including 2008’s “Iron Man.” But this week saw the release of one of Djawadi’s most ambitious soundtracks to date — “Medal of Honor: Warfighter.”

Not in a theater near you? That’s because “Warfighter” is not a movie, it’s a video game. “My goal was always to do music for movies,” Djawadi says. “But having said that, the way things have developed today have made games like giant movies.”

For a cadre of top composers, the action isn’t in film but video games. Djawadi’s score for “Medal of Honor: Warfighter,” for instance, boasts 100 minutes of music, much of it downright experimental by film composition standards. It’s alternately symphonic, electronic and rock ’n’ roll, and it’s emblematic of an industry that’s providing room to roam for those used to scoring to picture.

Yet it isn’t just musical freedom that has composers excited about the growth in video game music. A reliance on big-budget films, they say, has created an industry with a wider-than-ever gap between blockbusters and more modest films. The former offer little room to experiment, and the latter pack significantly smaller music budgets. Even though the money spent on tent-pole fare isn’t declining, composers say the money spent on music is.

“I don’t do that many video games, but it’s becoming quite challenging in the film world,” says John Debney, an Emmy-nominated composer for “Hatfields & McCoys.”

“They’re still making large-scale films, and yet the music budgets are usually not commensurate to what the production budget is,” he continues. “For whatever reason, music is one of the areas they rob Peter to pay Paul. Therefore it makes the idea of doing a game more interesting and more viable to someone like me.”

Box office receipts for the early part of 2012 were heavily weighted toward the big budget and the brand names. Through the first 61/2 months of the year, more than $1 billion of the $6.05 billion in total box office was generated just from “The Avengers” and “The Hunger Games.”

danlicht 9 20 2012 For composers, video games are the surreal land of opportunity

Composer Daniel Licht, who scored Bethesda Softworks’ “Dishonored.” (Costa Communications)

“A lot of the middle ground movies have disappeared,” says “Dexter” composer Daniel Licht. “All the movies-of-the-week have disappeared. There’s a whole class of film composing that just does not exist anymore. So TV and film composers have gone into video games to keep working on long-form fiction.”

Musically, video games have become more attractive out of necessity, despite the fact that in terms of the overall money spent on a game, the amount allotted to music is small.

“Usually 1, sometimes 2% of the overall budget is the video game’s music budget,” says Steve Schnur, who oversees music at Electronic Arts. No longer do top composers view the video-game world as child’s play. “The Dark Knight Rises” composer Hans Zimmer has scored multiple games, “Shrek” composer Harry Gregson-Williams has contributed to the “Metal Gear Solid” series and Brian Tyler recently worked on the action film “Battle: Los Angeles” and the action game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.”

callofduty For composers, video games are the surreal land of opportunity

Film composer Brian Tyler scored 2011’s “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.” (Activision).

“The score will never play the same way twice,” Tyler says. “I like to watch people play ‘Call of Duty.’ It’s like watching a DJ remix my music.”

“Dexter’s” Licht had been working in film and television for more than a decade before scoring his first game, and if he has a regret, it’s that he waited so long.

“The sad story is that 10 or 12 years ago I was in Seattle recording the score for ‘Stephen King’s Thinner,’ ” he says. “A contractor said, ‘Are you interested in doing video games.’ I was like, ‘Ha! No! I’m a film composer.’ I was thinking video games were just old Nintendo games — just electronics with not a very big budget. That turned out not to be the case.”

On Oct. 9 Bethesda Softworks will release “Dishonored,” a highly anticipated action-adventure game scored by Licht. He couldn’t be happier with the result — an ambient, violin-heavy score aimed to reflect 19th century London. The game even comes complete with a series of animated webisodes that provided more traditional scoring opportunities.

“Film has become a little paint-by-numbers,” Licht says. “They have such huge budgets that no one takes chances. They’ll go for a brand-name composer and a stock sound rather than trying something startling. I know that’s not always the case. ‘The Social Network,’ for instance, had a different feel.”

The 2010 David Fincher film featured a sparse electronic score by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and his frequent collaborator Atticus Ross. It was an unlikely Academy Award winner for original score. But it was actually the previous year’s Oscar score winner, Disney/Pixar film “Up,” that may have done more to bring respect to composers from outsider disciplines.

Before “Up” composer Michael Giacchino partnered with J.J. Abrams for the ABC series “Alias,” he was writing scores for video games. His 1999 “Medal of Honor” score is a genre touchstone, as it treated the Electronic Arts game as if it were a Steven Spielberg war epic.

lennertz For composers, video games are the surreal land of opportunity

Composer Christopher Lennertz is currently at work on NBC’s “Revolution.” His game credits include offerings from the “Medal of Honor” and “Mass Effect” franchises. (Costa Communications)

“Horrible Bosses” composer Christopher Lennertz followed in Giacchino’s footsteps and ultimately scored three “Medal of Honor” titles. “We were all jumping up and down and cheering when Michael won his Oscar,” says Lennertz, who’s at work on NBC’s “Revolution.” “There was legitimacy then.”

Popular video game soundtracks, such as the accompaniment to 2010 Microsoft game “Halo: Reach,” can sell as many as 30,000 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan. Though details are scant, Paul McCartney revealed this summer that he is working with Bungie, the studio that developed “Halo: Reach,” on an upcoming project.

If anyone isn’t already paying attention to video game music, a Beatle should help. “Video game music fans are as obsessive to game scores as we were to the ‘Star Wars’ score or to the ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ score,” says Electronic Arts’ Schnur. “We were all obsessed with those. Those became important in the cultural conversation. I would say the same today when it comes to ‘Medal of Honor.’”

medal6 For composers, video games are the surreal land of opportunity

A screenshot of Electronic Arts’ upcoming game “Medal of Honor: Warfighter,” which features a score from Ramin Djawadi. (Electronic Arts)

At the very least, Giacchino and Lennertz are evidence that the franchise has helped fuel careers. Video games have become vital, says Tyler, in developing new composer talent.

“For as long as I can think back, there were two areas you could compose and find work: television and movies,” he says. “Now there’s a third completely separate entity that exists for composing, and it didn’t exist a few years ago.”

Debney goes one step further. Composing for media is a relatively niche art, he acknowledges, and he compares those booking live orchestras for video games to the art patrons of yore, in that they are helping to keep a skill alive.

“People who aren’t in this business may not realize that a musician spends 15 or 20 years studying an instrument or a discipline,” he says. “If they can’t play on a video game or a film score or a TV show, that art goes away.”

It’s likely here to stay, but composers are bracing for change. As the gaming industry transitions to one dominated by mobile games and digital downloads, ultimately it may more closely mirror the movie industry.

zelda link For composers, video games are the surreal land of opportunity

A screenshot of Nintendo’s “The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.” The music in the series is described as one of the “classics” of video game compositions. (Nintendo)

“There’s room for big movies, indie movies, cable movies and Web series,” says Lennertz. “The same goes for games. There will be the blockbusters and there will be small stuff that’s a lot more niche based. What’s going to drop out is going to be the same thing that has dropped out of movies — the middle level. It’s largely disappeared in film. You will have high-end, and you will have simple, mobile games.”

Culturally, the reach is already becoming clear. A career highlight, says Lennertz, was being invited to the Netherlands a few years back to lead the country’s Metropole Orchestra in an evening of symphonic classics.

What classics? “The classics,” he says, “you know, like ‘Halo’ and ‘Zelda.’”

Todd Martens


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15 Responses to For composers, video games are the surreal land of opportunity

  1. Julie says:

    What about the actual game composers? Inon Zur, Jack Wall, Tommy Tallarico, Cris Valesco, the Japanese composers, Chance Thomas, Chris Tin (who just one a Grammy for a video game score), Sascha Dickysian, Laura Karpman, Marty O'Donnell, Jesper Kyd, Russell Brower, Jason Graves, Richard Jacques, Gary Schyman, and the fifty others working non-stop in the industry for the last 15 years?

    And these are just the ones in LA.

    Sorry, …. but you totally missed the mark here.

    Example… The "Classics?" that was Koji Kondo and Marty O'Donnell.

    Honestly, where did you do your research?

    • Debacle says:

      Absolutely right, while the big name composers create scores, it's the long running VG composers who have created the iconic sounds that really catch your ear. VG soundtracks aren't just about momentary emotions, but the long-form ambiance of how your character sees the world. Take Zelda's Ocarina of Time, where a simple flute solo immediately tells you not only that you're a hero, but one in a fantastical world. Then contrast this with Red Dead Redemption, which feels like it's straight out of a spaghetti western.

      A more telling example however is the difference between two middle-eastern sounds. Hans Zimmers CoD sound tracks aren't bad by any means, but you don't feel attached to them because they hover incredibly close to generic film tracks. The opposite of this is Matt Uelmen's vignette in WoW, which is equally arabesque and alien, something that immediately tells you where it's coming from.

      A similar example is in Jesper Kyd's Assassin's Creed 1 & 2. While Kyd takes more direct culture sounds, it's in the artful ambiance and willingness to let the music echo the world that makes them truly iconic. Take AC2's "Earth," a simple choral arrangement that speaks absolute volumes about the place and age that your character exists in.

      Finally I'd mention one of the most famous tracks of all, Frank Klepacki's Hell March. You literally cannot call yourself a VG aficionado if you can't recognize it. Why is it so pertinent in comparison to say works by Harry Gregson or Brian Tyler? Because it's integral to the drive of the story. You feel equally a part of and apart from the world through the driving nature of this and its predicate tracks, allowing you to completely subsume yourself in the game. This isn't some droning score or overwrought masterpiece, but rather a sound emblematic of the gamer's goals and desires.

      So while I'm all for the advance of VG soundtracks, I wholeheartedly believe that their future should not be tied in with the same sounds and services provided by film, because the two are utterly different in approach and ideal. Zimmer and McCartney are legends in their own industries, and should be lauded for that, but they cannot not simply recycle their styles into a game world the way they might a static film or sound set. Games are living organisms, and must be treated as such in order to bring the full scope of their potential to bear.

    • Maybe because the article is about cross-media composers. Can you name any movies that O'Donnell or Kondo scored? I can't. Noob.

    • Guest says:

      Chris Lennertz was saying he conducted an evening of classic VideoGame music in the Netherlands, not that he wrote the music to Zelda or Halo. Yeesh.. And they mentioned several videogame composers in the article; this particular article's focus was on mainstream film composers, famous ones, who scored or are scoring video games. None of the composers you listed are known primarily as film composers (yet). Reading comprehension much? Brian Tyler (Expendables 2), Chris Lennertz (Think Like a Man), Giacchino (UP, MI:4) and John Debney (New Year's Eve) have all scored multiple #1 films at the box office in the last 2 years. SEE NOW? $$$$$$$$$$

  2. Can't wait! No second chance! I love these games, mostly the guns. I just got a M4 like in the game and they have a bunch of other guns from different games.

  3. bob rice says:

    Dear Todd:

    Let me know if you would like to meet the icon's of game composing – Inon Zur, Cris Velasco, Sascha Dikiciyan, Tom Salta, Kevin Reiple, Steve Ouimette and the like.

    Bob Rice four bars intertainment

  4. Darron says:

    Video Game music has been better than hollywood music for years now…where have you guys been? Tommy Tallarico, Nobou Uematsu, Akira Yamaoka, Jesper Kyd and many more, just look them up.

    One soundtrack from a game in the Final Fantasy series probably sells more than 5 big budget hollywood movie soundtracks combined

  5. @MFGreth says:

    I don't understand it either Julie. When game composers themselves get no limelight in a article about game music, it's a little disheartening. Not that the guys in this article aren't great… Ramin Djawadi's Game of Thrones ost is the most played thing on my iTunes… but it'd be nice to see game composers get a little recognition. Jeremy Soule, Chris Hülsbeck, Kazumi Totaka, Jack Wall, Ko Otani, Michiru Ōshima, Clint Bajakian…

  6. moe says:

    You…did not mention anyone of any real importance to the industry…don't get me wrong, all those fellows are great, but what about the people who pioneered this industry? It didn't just spring up from an egg 10 years ago. There have been people working tirelessly for decades in this industry who made it what it is today. People are going to read this and never know the names of the people who have " video game composer" under their name on a name tag or business card. Not just someone venturing out.

  7. Dave says:

    Haha an article about games music that leaves out actual games composers, like Jesper Kyd, Jeremy Soule, James Hannigan, Jack Wall and Jason Graves. Dumb.

  8. Guest2 says:

    If anyone is wondering why no one scores these games with AFM musicians, you can look at the contract here that forces every single composer to go overseas. #afmatwork

    (you do not need to log in to anything to read or save this contract that the AFM forces videogame producers to sign.. and virtually no one will). This deserves its' own article, don't you think????

  9. Guest says:

    Great story! And to the complaining commenters — this is a story reporting on a new trend in the industry. Not a wikipedia entry on the history of video game composers.

  10. A number of music educators are also addressing video games in their music classrooms. The next generation of composers, whether they create music for films or videogames, are today's K-12 students after all!

  11. Brian Schmidt says:

    Just as an update– of course history was made last year when Austin Wintory's soundtrack for the video game, Journey, was nominated for a Grammy (although it lost to the soundtrack for the film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). As etobias noted, video game music composition is starting to appear in more traditional university curricula, as well as conferences such as GameSoundCon ( , or the Game Developers Conference (

    Also of note: although the article mentioned mainly "AAA" games (big budget games from major studios), there is a large and growing number of "middle class" games– fully professional games, but not the giant blockbusters, and there is a lot of well paying work for composers for this class of games as well. And of course, tens of thousands of "indy" games.

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