Composer Dale North takes us inside the creative process of video game music scoring.
You couldn’t escape it even if you wanted to. It crawls inside your head. Takes up residence. Music is arguably an essential ingredient to our daily lives. Video game music encompasses the fabric of the game player’s life. No matter what generation of gaming you hail from, those iconic video game themes — past, present and future — enhance the gaming experience.
It can inspire courage, rage and even fear. Good video game music, whether you’re playing on a console, portable system, or your cellphone, is supposed to do those things to you. It’s supposed to take you deeper into the world it explores.
What would Super Mario Bros. be without that jaunty theme? What would Grand Theft Auto be without the multiple radio stations punctuating the thrill of cruising the San Andreas streets? Music is as important as gameplay. Without it, our games wouldn’t be quite as enjoyable — or memorable.
Learning the Hard Way
Dale North wants to create video game music that’s more than simply cinematic; it should be imaginative.
Composer Dale North knows how to create memorable video game music. He’s been involved in the video game industry for well over a decade. His most recent credits include Unraveled: Tale of the Shipbreaker’s Daughter, Wheel of Fortune Puzzle Pop, Dragon Fantasy Book II, the Sinmara Saga and others.
North, a versatile musician who has worked as a singer, songwriter and arranger, originally established himself in the game music remixing scene, then went on to become a leading video game journalist in addition to scoring and producing solo albums.
Consequently, he has stayed busy on varied projects that push the boundaries of what you can expect from a video game music score.
As such, he understands the pull of video game music quite clearly. In fact, North recalls the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Famicom, when the composers did so much with those simple tones and technology, perfectly paralleling the imagination and creativity on-screen.
“The works of Koji Kondo in the Mario and Zelda games were memorable themes for me, just as they would be for anyone else who grew up in that era,” North says. “But Japanese role-playing games such as Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy cemented my interest in game music and even then had me daydreaming of becoming a game music composer.”
North grew up in Tokyo, Japan, so for him there was a direct link to games and eventually to video game music.
“I studied music there formally and then later in the United States,” North adds. “I’m a classically trained composer, pianist and vocalist. I am fortunate to have had a thorough and varied musical education. And it’s not over.”
According to North, his training allows him to comfortably speak the language of music and communicate and collaborate with other musicians.
“But I was probably a generation too early to have the privilege of receiving game-industry-focused musical training,” North says. “So I continue to learn the hard way — experience. Thankfully the world of game music is so vast and multifaceted now that there’s space for a composer to just kind of do what they want. Training isn’t as important as drive and willingness, I think.”
Like just about any composer for any field of entertainment, North adds, he started out with small, independent projects. But the rise of independently developed games has continued to lure him in. Not that he would turn down larger projects, but the smaller ones are giving him a breadth of creative freedom not otherwise found in bigger projects.
“I’m working on about 20 of these games in 2016 for PC, mobile and consoles,” he says.
As a video game composer, North approaches his scores from an emotional perspective, not gimmicky themes or overly bombastic soundscapes.
“My only goal as a composer is emotional impact, but that’s at odds with creating something that is supposed to be complementary and often in the background,” he says. “So, if anything, I’m trying to inspire and move the player from a distance, doing my small part in a team effort. If the player notices and appreciates my music, that’s great. But if they felt it made the game better, that’s fantastic.”
Still, as a video game composer, wouldn’t you want to be heard? He admits that every composer has a similar dream of standing in front of a hired orchestra and hearing their compositions come back at them. And the next dream is to have that continue until retirement. Video games are an entirely different beast.
For video game composers, the top goal is typically working on triple-A blockbusters that have healthy audio budgets, he says; however, there’s more to it.
“I have that dream as well,” North says, “but that’s secondary to working with creative, inspired people who are seeking that emotional impact I mentioned earlier. My dream is to work with others to have players connect with games in deeper and more meaningful ways.”
The obvious source for quality video game music are the visuals and the storytelling, but North always takes a different approach.
“I gain inspiration from experiences designed for emotional impact, and I find this more in Japanese-developed games than in anything else,” he says. “The combination of visuals, storytelling, design and music inspired me when I was young and continues to do so today in my work.”
Cinematic vs. Imaginative Music
A screenshot from the game Unraveled: Tale of the Shipbreaker’s Daughter.
It’s been a good stretch of decades since the first NES was released (in 1983), so the video game music industry has had plenty of time to evolve.
North has worked in video game music through multiple console cycles and technology types and has seen new genres and interfaces emerge.
“None of that has influenced the changes in game music as much as the growth of the industry has,” North says. “Growing budgets had music sounding more like movies. Synthesizers gave way to orchestral recording sessions. Now sound track sales and international game music concerts are the norm.”
The growth and change will continue, but the focus never will. “Music that serves the gaming experience will continue to be unique,” he says.
With video games becoming more sophisticated in execution, where most games rival big-budget Hollywood movies, should the composer’s work be more cinematic in nature?
North doesn’t exactly think so. In fact, he believes this means the music has to be more imaginative.
“Composers are usually hired to make the music that is in someone else’s head,” North says. “And with cinematic experiences, that’s usually a movie-like score. But the best music happens when the team realizes that the playing field is wide open and that any kind of sound imaginable is better than the expected sound.”
If you check out any of North’s scores, you’ll hear many styles represented. Typically, the budget and time frame determine the creative process. The majority of his game music is crafted electronically, on a desktop, with virtual instruments.
“I prefer to do exactly that in my own studio and overdub a few live elements for color,” North says. “I think that film and game music are quite different, but we have middle ground in trying to support the overall project through our creativity. Musicians live to be heard. The best composers strive for that while also serving the work.”