The video above contains end game spoilers. Don’t watch if you intend to play it.
Back in late 2011 I was approached by 2K Games to write music for the climactic ending of Spec Ops. They wanted two things: background music to set the tone for the final encounter, and a score for an eye-opening final encounter cutscene. I’ll talk about the background music in this post as proof that something very simple can benefit highly from careful consideration.
In this scene, Walker, the protagonist, limps through a dark and eerie room. Night has fallen and shadows embrace him. There’s a single light illuminating a large canvas portraying horrific events. After what seems like days of battle, Walker is mentally and physically spent, wounded, burned, alone. He can hardly stand yet he is moments away from finally confronting the game’s antagonist. The music for this scene needed to reflect the exhaustion in Walker’s body and the complete uncertainty of the impending confrontation. It had to embody all of the unspeakable and psychologically traumatizing things Walker did up to this point under the shield of war, and had to foreshadow that there was one final terror on its way.
Something foreboding and atmospheric was clearly needed for the level’s aesthetic, and where I would normally prefer to have ample time to develop a musical idea for something like this, the music had to be contained to a 30 second loop. Short musical loops like these are challenging. You need to write something that is supportive to the gameplay yet essentially unnoticeable. Repetition fatigue is the last thing you want a player to experience. Even when game designers expect players to spend 60 or 90 seconds on a certain section of gameplay, the composer should assume that players may spend far longer. This inherently rules out certain musical devices. Anything catchy should be discarded because even the most compelling music can become tiresome. You may be able to stretch out a few notes of the theme, but you have to be wary of using melody, chord changes, or potentially distracting instrumental effects. There are definitely solutions, and for this I chose to use a drone, something perfectly suited to the mood of the gameplay.
A drone is a sustained pitch (or several) that lasts throughout the entirety, or a section, of the music. Drones often serve as gateways. In many cultures they’re used to open doors to spirituality, initiate rites of passage, or simply lead the way to unfolding musical ideas. They can be used transport us or our characters somewhere even if the music stays relatively static. In Spec Ops, when my drone fades in, it supports the visual aesthetic well, and the player gets the feeling they’re about to experience something very dark.
My instrument of choice for the drone was a Rhodes piano. The Rhodes can have a very mysterious, amniotic tone paired with a biting attack. The tone fades quickly and requires restating which gives the ear something to listen for. This all seemed appropriate but still lacking something, so I added an oscillating effect, giving it an even pulse. This ended up serving as a kind of heartbeat, making the drone more interesting yet still wonderfully unnoticeable. It was far from finished, though. I couldn’t deliver 2K a half-minute loop of just a simple pulsating drone. Despite the mysticism and deeper meaning, it felt inadequate. I wanted to create music, not sound design.
Call and response was the solution, but how do you add call and response to dronal music? Take a listen to Tibetan monks meditating over Aum (or Om). Their voices are usually accompanied by a large gong, a small bowl, perhaps a bell. These instruments are tuned to the same note the monks sing. What usually happens is the gong hits first (the call) and is then answered by voices (the response). It’s really that simple but I wanted to make my call and response slightly more engaging. First I hit an octave and let it pulsate for a few seconds with the oscillation effect I added earlier. Then I hit a minor 10th on top, giving it a moody tonality, and let that pulsate too. I also added in a furtive yet steady low tone accompanied by an equally obscure ostinato guitar rhythm (which actually ties into the next piece of music). There it was–something musical flying underneath the listener’s attention. You can hear this in the first 40 seconds of the video.
In the end, this background music is something you can let run on for a very long time. As for the rest of the music, I’ll have to talk about that another day.