Trying to write a video game theme song

Often times, when you start a game for the first time, you hear the opening theme before you see anything. It sets the tone and your initial impressions. A good opening theme is crucial to preparing you for the story ahead and triggering an emotional reaction. One of my favorite examples of this are the openings for every episode of Tales from the Borderlands. They use licensed music rather than original, but for the tone they try to create it works wonders.

But what is the point of me bringing all this up? Well, while being a fan of video games, I am also a musician and huge audiophile, and I’ve always wanted to attempt something that bridged the two areas. I wanted to attempt to write a game theme myself.

First off, I needed a concept. During the production of a game, the composer or producer usually works in tandem with the rest of the production team to create music that matches the scenes and flow of the game. For me it’ll have to be a little different. Since I’m writing a theme for a game that doesn’t exist, I get a lot more freedom.

That being said, I wanted to have a clear concept in my mind before beginning to write anything. The goal was to create a cohesive environment and to challenge myself to match a pre-established tone, rather than create a game to match a song. What concept did I settle on? I did a little asking around, so the concept was out of my hands. Eventually I arrived at the idea of an underwater horror game based around cave diving, with creatures lurking in the dark – yet the main antagonist is the lack of light and oxygen. Thanks for the idea, Mitchell. This was a great jumping point.

Below is an atmospheric exploration games that I could perhaps compare my concept to. Image by Capybara Games

Making the song was pretty straight forward. I’m not very good with DAWs (Ableton, Logic, Cubase, and so on) so my setup consists of three synthesizers, one electric piano, a drum machine, and an external multitrack sequencer, all recorded in live takes. If you’re interested in specifics, it’s Deepmind 12, Microfreak, Minilogue XD, Korg SV-1, Volca Beats, and Keystep Pro running through a mixing board that’s outputting into a zoom field recorder recording in stereo.

When I said I’m bad with DAWs, I wasn’t kidding. All my music is recorded all in one big live take, with all the sequencers and synths playing at once while I control every aspect and play lead parts and fade by hand. To illustrate exactly what I mean, the panning you hear on the first synth that comes in is me with my left hand on the balance knob on the mixing board, twisting it left and right the entire song while doing everything else.

Making music
This basically is me. Image by Pixar.

I started by having some really spacey pads in the background. This was the Deepmind 12. When I turned it on it was already on a preset I had been messing with a while back, and I liked the fit so I stuck with it. I started by just jumping back and forth between the Eb Major and Ab major chord (its in C minor/Eb major, by the way) and that just looped in the background.

I then found a sound on the Microfreak that had this semi random cadence looping C, Eb, G, then Bb. I liked this as a spacey and light base. It felt very bubbly, which matched the underwater theme very well. This would start the song off quite light and somber.

For a lead I wanted strings. I went with the second string option on the SV-1, which sounds like a mellotron rip-off. I liked this because it felt gritty and could be easily influenced to fit a lot of different tones.

This is where my vision for an opening comes into play. In my head it starts out above water with a beautiful sea view, then the camera begins descending into the water. You are met with a vibrant underwater scene, and the camera continues to take you deeper underwater. Over the course of the song, you go deeper and deeper and slowly light and color start to disappear. This continues until you’re in total darkness, and things start to take a turn.

Image by Frictional Games

Now you might be wondering how the light and spacey track gets dark and creepy. Well, remember how I said the Mellotron string rip-off is somewhat ambiguous and can shift tone? This is where that comes into play. It’s a very harsh string sound, and near the end of the song suddenly the strings hold on a single note for a long period of time. The rest of the music fades away until its just a single held string note playing on its own. It holds for some time until a sharp and echoing tone starts repeating, cutting off the strings. This repeats four times, until it fades entirely and leaves you in silence.

So that’s where I started; it’s not where I ended, though. I started putting this together one night and came out with a take of what I just described. In the end it wasn’t a great take, and the recording wasn’t the best so I called it a night. The next day I started again. I still kept the same vision and the song progressed in the same way, but two key things changed. When I turned the Microfreak on again it wasn’t on the same preset anymore, and I couldn’t remember which one it had been on. I started going through the presets one by one to try and find what I had made the night before, but never could.

What I did find was something better. The original sound I had was very blippy and retro, but the new one I found sounded much more cinematic. It feels much more opening – you’ll see what I mean when you listen.

The second change was the chord progression for the pads. Originally it was just back and forth between Eb Major and Ab major, but that felt quite stagnant and didn’t feel flowy enough. I changed it to C minor, G minor, Ab major, Eb major. This gave a little bit more progress to the chords and the strings had more dynamic chords to follow.

I started a take, but messed up right at the start. I then hit record again and went in for a second take. This is the take I ended up using. I wasn’t sure about it, initially but after passing it around it was well received, and now that’s what you hear.

That was a lot of explaining that I’m sure you didn’t need, but this is all part of the process. This was an experiment in creation: to sit down and walk through the process of composing music for a video game. The music is something many people appreciate, but it is often overlooked and rarely researched by players, especially when compared to other aspects of a game.

My hope is that this rough walkthrough of a mediocre attempt at creating a theme made you think more about the music you love. It was challenge that brought new perspective for me. Perhaps you could find a way to challenge yourself now. Go out there and try it.

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Cameron Keighley

Journalist based in Ottawa. I like to write about just about everything and I apologize for any dumb jokes. I get bored easily.
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