What would you consider to be a universal language? Some might say love, mathematics, music…maybe even all three. In my personal opinion, and experiences, the first two examples are far from universal so I’ll just go with music. But on a serious note music truly is a universal language. It is an aspect of creativity and communication that is found in all cultures and generations of human life on earth. Whether you think it sounds good or not, we can all pick up on the emotions that a composer is trying to convey. Often times sounds and melodies can capture the essence of a situation where words would fall short.
I had the chance to speak with indie videogame composer Ashton Mills and his upcoming project The Game Composer’s Toolkit. With plenty of field experience Ashton wants to offer creative insight into the world of videogame composing. His article series will focus on the challenges and difficulties that can arise in the development process. Don’t be deterred to check out the series if you are not a composer yourself. Ashton said his toolkit can be used by beginner composers, veterans or the everyday layman. Although the release of the first article is still pending Ashton talked with me about his composing experience and what to expect from the series.
What led you to composing? Did you always plan on composing specifically for videogames?
I’ve been composing since I was little. I remember having a little keyboard when I was about 5 that could record you playing and play it back, I used to spend hours making up tunes, more like random scribbles of note, but I loved it and it always sounded amazing to me. Every instrument I’ve learned to play I’ve always gone straight to making my own music on. It has always been a big part of how I learn.
I’ve also been playing games since I was very little, both for personal escape and sociably. The idea of writing music for games I think had been ticking away somewhere in my brain for a long time before I became conscious of it. I think gradually over time it’s became clearer to me that this is the thing I really really want to be doing with my life.
I love composing just for the sake of it, but seeing my music used to add depth to a virtual world is the most inspiring thing in the world. The chords and melodies I create are used to bring visual objects to life, and paint a wash of emotion over them. I think I would have always ended up doing this whatever route I might have taken to get here.
So you were a 5 year old prodigy 😉 (Emily)
Haha I’m not sure I was a prodigy, loner would be more apt! (Ash)
From your experience what difficulties do you think arise specific to video game composing apposed to composing music for more common forms?
One of the most exciting things about composing for games is that it presents you with unique creative challenges. Namely these boil down to non-linearity and active participation.
Film is a linear medium. Imagine you are composing a scene for a film where a hero runs through a big room, shoots a few baddies and exits on the far side. The scene lasts 3 minutes. It is always going to last 3 minutes. So as a composer you write 3 minutes of music, at the beginning it’s suspenseful, then the hero gets spotted and music ramps up in action, then the baddies are dealt with and it becomes calm again and fades off as he leaves the room.
Games are non-linear. Imagine the same scene as a level in a video game. One player might take 30 seconds to get through the room, one might take an hour. One might get through unspotted by baddies, one might run in guns blazing. So you need to make the music flexible so that it lasts for any potential length of time, and you need to make sure the music changes mood in the right places depending on what the player does.
Games contain a whole host of different entities that will respond differently depending on what the player does, and also depending on what random decisions the game is making. You need music to adapt to that, and that is where it gets really challenging and fun.
There are also challenges that arise from you having to manage the experience of the player, which is very different from the experience of a film-watcher or concert audience member. This is because the game-player is an active participant rather than a passive one. You need the player to stay engaged, to invest their valuable time and brain power in something that feels immersive and enjoyable and doesn’t descend into feeling like a chore to play, we’ve all played games like that!
You need to excite the player at certain times, relax them at others, scare them at others, and do so in a natural way. Winifred Phillips, in her amazing book the Composer’s Guide to Video Game Music, gives the example of menu music, saying that you need to be very careful in menu screens not to overwhelm the player at the first point in a game when they have to make a decision, before any of the fun has started. Other examples of managing the experience are how you use music to give cues to the player about what’s happening in the game. Such as when the music fades out to let you know you’ve killed all the bad guys. You also have stingers, which might be used to reward a player, like if you go up a level.
There are many specific challenges I could go into but I’ve already talked at you for ages!
How did you get inspired to develop the Game Composer’s Toolkit? And what is the aim of this project?
My inspiration for doing this really is the openness of the game audio community. I’ve learned so much about the industry and how it works in a short space of time thanks to there being a culture of transparency and willingness to share one’s understanding. I received so much help getting started from composer Ryan Ike, having just contacted him totally out of the blue because I heard him on a podcast saying ‘reach out if you need some advice getting started in game composing.’ I definitely owe him a few pints! Leonard Paul at the School of Video Game Audio is an oracle of knowledge in all areas of game audio and has helped me so much. There’s Akash Thakkar and Jacob Parnell who write excellent blogs. And I listen religiously to Level with Emily Reese which is always a massive inspiration. So with this broad culture of openness and willingness to share, which I benefit so much from, I really wanted to put something back into it, and I think the best thing I can offer is a focus on the creative side.
The Games Composer’s Toolkit is going to be a series of articles that give composers ideas for how to overcome these challenges when making music for games. Each one will focus on a different topic and present a range of different creative approaches. The aim of the series is not to give rules but ideas, because music is so subjective. I really like the idea of having a toolkit of things to try in different situations that can inspire you to try different solutions. It’s intended for both beginner and experienced composers to give them food for thought, but also could be helpful for devs, to help them get a better picture of what they want their game to sound like and to how to talk to their musicians.
You have a broad range of experience when it comes to musical instruments. But I am curious if you will be the sole contributor for the Toolkit or if you plan on getting insight and contributions from other composers as well?
Oh that’s a really good idea I hadn’t thought of that! Yes I would love to get other composers on board; I bet there’s a good few people who’d be up for it that I know.
Will your content only be presented in written form? Or do you plan on sharing audio, video, and visuals as well?
I intend to go for the whole shebang really, although so far I’ve only used written with audio excerpts. I think it would be really useful to demo how to do somethings with video, and also having music notation examples in there.
And how often do you plan on posting updates?
I’d like to say that I’ll do one every month or something, but knowing myself and how I work I will probably do it sporadically when I have new ideas. I know from reading and listening to other related resources that this seems to be the way it goes so I think I’d rather be upfront about that from the start!
Will the Toolkit offer open dialogue between you and readers or will it be more lecture style advice?
I will try and enable comments on the article pages but my website seems to be a goldmine for bots for some reason! I will put my email address on there and encourage people to contact me if they have questions.
When you were starting out as a new composer, where did you look for creative advice and guidance?
So far it’s all come from my own experience. Although, the first episode is about creating seamless loops, and I do remember listening to an episode of Level where the guest talked about how he made the music sound like it wasn’t looping. I can’t for the life of me remember who that was though, but I think that got me thinking about it.
Most artistic careers are very difficult to gain a footing in. Have you been able to financially support yourself through composing alone? And will the Toolkit touch upon such lifestyle advice for composers starting out and struggling to make ends meet?
My artistic career is dynamic, very much in keeping with the creative leadership model for artistic practice: that you have an artistic identity that is present across the different things you do. There are several roles that make up my professional life including performing; composing and community music with vulnerable people, and each of these fulfill a certain need for me.
In short I do financially support myself entirely through music, but this involves working in a variety of settings, which suits me well.
In terms of the toolkit I had intended for this to mainly focus on the creative side as I think there is more out there about the business side of things, but if there are things that I think will be helpful to share that I can offer then sure, I will put them in!
I think a creative career is all about planting seeds, warning: gardening analogy, You don’t know what will grow and what will fail, and how the climate is going to effect everything. But one thing you know for certain is that if you don’t plant any seeds, and [or] keep them watered, nothing will grow.
No need for warnings it was a good analogy (Emily)
Helping the community has played a large part in your musical career. You have traveled to various countries such as Israel, Uganda, Singapore, and have worked with all types of individuals, children, adults, autistic, homeless. How has music allowed you to connect with individuals who at first may seem to have nothing in common with you?
Music is a powerful force for change and it transcends boundaries. One of the best examples of this is when I was running workshops in a Palestinian school. It was me and a class of thirty children, no teacher or translator and my Arabic was no better than their English. There was a big language barrier. Yet somehow we managed a really successful project in which we wrote a song, in Arabic, with body percussion and performed it in front of the school. The whole icebreaking process was hardly any different to how I would work in an English school. If you put music at the heart of your process then you don’t need to communicate with words!
I think creativity is all about connections. Nothing you create is ever really completely new, but the piecing together of things that already exist on some level. There’s a brilliant chapter on this in Learning by Heart by Corita Kent and Jan Stewart, a very inspiring book for arts people. This act of making connections also comes into the collaborative relationships that form when you create together. If you don’t have anything in common, you create something new, then you have that in common.
Woah that’s intense (Emily)
Ash Mills may not be catching Pokémon due to having a windows phone (Yes I brought up Pokémon during the interview) but I think he will be able to capture an audience for his series. The Game Composer’s Toolkit will be offering such specific advice that it will be interesting to see exactly how the series unfolds. You can find out more about Ash and the Game Composer’s Toolkit over on his website.