While Australia’s live music industry continues to struggle, musicians turning to the local games industry for composing jobs are striking gold.
Music in video games has evolved quickly through technical and creative innovations, leaving behind that synthesised, 8-bit or “chiptune” music sound popular in early arcade and console games.
Game soundtracks are an integral part of the overall tone and experience of players, with some composers’ work attracting attention outside of the game experience itself.
Nobuo Uematsu’s work on the Final Fantasy series has spawned concert experiences worldwide, with the global tour of “Distant Worlds”, a symphony concert dedicated to the game’s soundtracks, boasting more than 100 performances to date.
During Melbourne International Games Week (MIGW), APRA AMCOS hosted High Score, a conference focused on excellence in video game music within Australia. The wide array of events highlighted the strengths in Australia’s industry.
Collaboration and crossover
With 91 per cent of Australian households owning a video game device, and total revenue for games and esports in Australia reaching $3.41 billion in 2020, it’s no wonder the local industry is experiencing exponential growth.
Local video game composers such as Mick Gordon, the creator of the iconic metal stylings in the Doom games, have led the way for even more Australians to bring local games to life through music.
Swinburne University senior lecturer and video game composer Dr Dan Golding says Australia’s game industry is unique in the level of collaboration between creatives across many disciplines, which has allowed the industry to thrive.
We have a really thriving, independent, creative and arts-minded community … there is a genuine crossover between other creative industries like music, which is really cool.
Dr Golding is the composer behind the soundtracks for the wildly successful Untitled Goose Game, the Frog Detective series and Push Me Pull You, which was the first game soundtrack to be nominated for an ARIA award.
He says one of the highlights of working in the Australian video game industry as a composer is the level of creative freedom often afforded to creatives due to the small community.
“I think there’s room to do really cool and interesting things here, which is great.”
The upcoming Massive Monster title Cult of the Lamb, composed by Narayana Johnson (also known as River Boy), is an example of the scene’s creative freedom forming something that’s catching global attention.
Cult of the Lamb is a cutesy – on the surface – dungeon crawling, base building and community management game about a possessed lamb leading a cult.
Johnson spoke at High Score about his work on the soundtrack, which is a blend of sweet marimba tunes, and distorted, chopped up bass synths and vocals that sound like they’re from the depths of Hell.
The blend of genres and overall tone match the game’s aesthetic of cute animals in a dark, occult world.
Prior to working on the title, Johnson was producing pop and electronic music, which Massive Monster was interested in incorporating into the game’s score.
Speaking to ACMI, Johnson said the team was adamant that he create a soundtrack that was still his own.
It’s been like: ‘Okay, just do you, but make it sound like you could get killed by a cult monster around every corner!
Johnson connected with the creative director for the game via a previous musical project he had worked on, and the collaboration grew from there.
Composer, sound designer and audio programmer Maize Wallin also says the opportunities to collaborate with other musicians and composers on games is a highlight for them.
They recently worked with local punk band Cable Ties to adapt their music into HOPE, an indie game spotlighted at High Score.
“When we look at Melbourne and Australia, we are creating amazing music here with bands and artists who have real parallels in the games we make here with small studio and solo developers.”
Innovation in game soundtracks
Dr Golding says there’s a number of Australian titles doing groundbreaking work when it comes to their soundscapes.
His top pick is the upcoming co-op game inspired by and steeped in Indigenous culture, Innchanted, with Meena Shamaly as the composer for the project.
Shamaly is a video game composer who began in the music industry, before becoming immersed in the world of sound design and composition in games.
He is also the host of ABC Classic’s Game Show, a radio program dedicated to exploring the use of music in video games and the impact it can have on games as a whole.
No one can talk about the video game music scene in Australia and say that it’s a lesser scene; it’s right up there with the best of them.
Working alongside Paulina Samy, the creative director for Innchanted, Shamaly reached out to Indigenous musicians who weren’t working in the games industry at the time to collaborate and bring their talent to the soundtrack.
“I think the beauty of video games is when you bring someone who isn’t actually ‘part’ of that world, and bring in their fresh ideas and approach to music,” he says.
A living piece of art
Shamaly says one of the big differences between music created for video games as opposed to other forms is the interactivity and technical side that composers need to consider.
He likens music in video games to a “living, breathing entity,” in the adaptive nature it needs to take on to evolve or respond to a player’s actions.
“You’re not writing one piece of music that will live exactly as it is, in the same way forever.”
A masterclass in music
One of the big winners from MIGW’s Australian Game Developer Awards is The Artful Escape, developed by Melbourne-based studio Beethoven & Dinosaur, which took home the excellence in art and audio awards for 2021.
Behind the project is Johnny Galvatron, lead singer of rock band The Galvatrons.
The game explores the story of Francis Vendetti, a musician trying to step out from his uncle’s musical shadow and break out on his own. Francis then goes on a psychedelic journey on the eve of his first performance to inspire his stage persona.
The Artful Escape places music at the forefront, with soaring guitar riffs accompanying the mind-bending graphics and musically inspired world Francis explores to find out who he is as a musician.