Video gaming has become a multi-billion-dollar industry over the past 50 years, and its popularity continues to grow year on year. Today, gamers devote hours to exploring every corner of these virtual worlds – and sound is at the heart of what makes each fantastical universe so immersive.
As a renowned video game composer, PHMG’s Head of Creative Jason Lord talks to us about his experience working in the field, and the process behind creating a truly engaging soundscape.
Most of the work I do is in the fantasy and sci-fi realm, so I get to have fun experimenting with different applications. A lot of the time these projects have an aesthetic that lends itself to organic/synthetic foley – like with Freedom Planet and Freedom Planet 2. These games were widely successful due to their retro platforming roots, and we used a combination of real-world sounds – which were recorded by hand using props at my studio – and a selection of synthetic sound effects created by signal oscillators and waveform editing to make sure the final piece reflected this.
I’ve also enjoyed working on the music and SFX for Grapple Force Rena and the voiceover engineering for Visage, but my absolute favorite project to date has to be Infiniroom – an infinite running game where the player’s surroundings constantly change to hinder their path. My role composing music and SFX for this project was spent trying to achieve a groovy, robotic feel that would complement the retro style of the game.
Alongside SFX and composing, I scout and nurture up-and-coming voice talent at my studio, Extra Terrible. Our focus is usually on sourcing opportunities in the Dallas-Forth Worth area, but one of my latest projects has taken me outside of this realm and into collaborations with Spanish, French, English and Japanese voice artists. We work with these actors to create performances that fit with the more ‘interactive’ experience you find in video games – adding cartoonish flair with a hint of fantasy action – but it really can vary from project to project. Diversity here is key.
As a leading creative at PHMG, Jason develops exclusive audio for a variety of brands – but his work in video game composition has equipped him with an entirely separate range of skills, too.
My compositional process is a bit different from contemporary music creation. There are set boundaries with video game design, such as UI experience – which covers menus, options and non-sequiturs – as well as the different levels, like the main gameplay music depending on the scenario, cutscenes where characters interact, and atmospheric elements like ambient noise. Music composers follow the team from start to finish to get a rough idea of how many tracks and musical ideas are needed, and then usually adjust this near the end of production – just like the final polishing in any other department. The goals are similar in that composer aims to create an overarching theme or motif that helps tie the experience together from an audio standpoint. People tend to categorize these pieces as ‘video game music’, but I’ve found that the level of skill and creativity involved today means they could easily stand alone as their own genres.
The nuances of video games compared to film and media is that we view this medium as an ‘interactive experience’. The goal is to allow the consumer to have some control over the presentation – like choosing how to navigate or move a character – to make sure it’s completely immersive. Immersion is the single most identifiable trait of a good video game, but it’s one that’s difficult to master.
Experimenting with and meshing soundscapes together this way is extremely rewarding, and there’s nothing quite like creating a sonic environment out of nothing. But the real magic is when all these elements come together – the gameplay, storytelling, music and art. That’s when you create a game that can suspend your belief and hold your attention as a player.
Gaming is an industry widely populated by men – but there are some incredible women working behind the scenes who Jason pays homage to.
There’s a time-honored story that the character Samus from Metroid was thought to be a man until the final cutscene, where she discards her armor to reveal her true identity. I always found this allegory applicable to some of the most iconic music in video game history. The entirety of the Megaman soundtrack was the work of Manami Matsumae. These songs have been covered, remixed, and orchestrated a million times over, and now serve as a hallmark of inspiration for the composers that follow her. Winifred Phillips’ amazing audio work contributed to the sounds of God of War, Little Big Planet, and Assassin’s Creed. And Yoko Shimamura composed the music for Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy, and one of my favorite series – The Mario and Luigi RPG titles. Her music is synonymous with fantasy RPG, and her orchestration style and iconic use of piano have paved the way for modern cinematic gameplay since 2001.
I encourage listeners to research and pay homage to the minds that had a hand in crafting their childhoods through these audible experiences – it’s often inspiring to find out where many of these incredible ideas have come from.
Sound design in the video gaming industry is always evolving – and Jason’s contribution to this field influences the way we approach our work here at PHMG. His fresh perspective allows us to continue innovating and creating in exciting new ways, and we use some of the same compositional techniques to make sure we really capture the sound of our clients.