Music in Games / Cris Velasco and Sascha Dikiciyan, Prototype score

You may not know the names Cris Velasco or Sascha Dikiciyan off the top of your head, but if you’re any sort of gamer you’ve heard their music at some point and most likely recently. Dikiciyan and Velasco are two of the biggest names in gaming scores and work on some of the biggest titles. Dikiciyan has scored multiple games including some of the Quake series. Velasco on the other hand might be best known for his work with the God of War series, though his credits are long and varied as well. As a team they’ve developed scores for the likes of Dark Messiah, Splinter Cell 4, Beowulf, Haze and Hellgate: London. In case you haven’t gotten the point, they’re kind of a big deal in this kind of thing and at the moment they are both working on some very high-profile PS3 games.

However, you’ve most likely heard the music recently in Prototype, for which they composed the entire score. TVGB got the chance to toss some questions at the tag-team composers and found out a few interesting things about the music industry, classic music scores and all about composing music for the man inside the genetically mutated anti-hero. Read on to discover the shocking truth!

That VideoGame Blog (TVGB): You two are kind of legendary within the gaming music world. What do you think makes your music so popular for games?

Sascha Dikiciyan (SD): I think Cris and I have that unique hybrid sound that has become popular and thankfully in demand. When we first started working together, the community thought it was unusual to have two people write music. But our unique approach and styles blended together had people take notice. That’s not to say we can’t write on our own; Cris just finished Darksiders and God of War III and I wrapped up Sony’s MAG.

Cris Velasco (CV): We also put a lot of time and effort into each cue. I’ve had people tell me, “You guys care too much about these game scores.” It’s true. Sascha and I work extremely hard to give each game its own musical identity.

TVGB: What do you think is unique about scoring for games?

CV & SD: About 80 percent of game music is not written to picture. This means that we usually only have a verbal description or possibly a screenshot of what we’re writing music for with a project. Often you also have to write tracks that are only a minute long but also need to sound like an endless loop. It can be quite a challenge to pull that off seamlessly. Finally, most gameplay is non-linear. Unlike a movie or TV show, you won’t have the exact same experience each time you play the same game. This is the reason why so many composers are asked to write “adaptive” music. There are all kinds of ways to do this but the end result is that the music should come close to feeling like every moment of the game was tailored to each player’s own experience. This can be a very complicated process and is a difficult compositional challenge, especially if you’re not familiar with games.

TVGB: We’ve been finding as we conduct interviews that many game composers fell into composing for games accidentally or at least it was never a set goal. How did you get involved in it?

SD: When I started learning music at a young age it wasn’t really a set goal back then obviously. But I have been involved with computers and games all my life (starting way back in 1982 with the VIC-20) and at some point it felt just like a natural progression. It kind of just happened. It was just around the time where CD-roms became the norm and they changed audio forever. I played the original Quake with the NIN soundtrack and thought, “Wow finally no more midi. Real music.” Next thing you know, I was working on Quake II in 1997.

CV: I’ve been into games since Space Invaders came out on Atari. In 1998, I graduated from UCLA with a degree in music composition. I was always interested in writing the big, epic orchestral scores that I loved from the movies and it never occurred to me that games could be a viable career path at that time. Then I heard that the audio in games was being taken more seriously and that some games were even getting live orchestral scores. It seemed like perfect timing to me and I then decided to pursue composing for games full time. It took a lot of years though and I definitely paid my dues, but things worked out for me and I couldn’t be happier with how my career in games has taken off.

TVGB: What do you like about composing for games? Dislike?

CV: I like the fact that we can usually be as creative as we want to. While the directors and audio leads generally do have a pretty good idea of how they want the game to sound, they’ve also been pretty receptive to our creative input as well. They trust us to do a great job and won’t micro-manage like you can get in television or films. I also love that I can frequently get unabashedly epic when I feel the need! It seems rare to find a game that won’t need that at times. The only thing I really dislike is that a game score at times dies out after the game has gotten old. I hope the aftermarket presence for game scores will expand (iTunes, CD’s, etc) and I’m confident it will change even more in the near future.

SD: I love the creativity. I like the challenges. People have to really realize that writing music for games is in a lot of ways more difficult than for movies. I never was a fan of the business side. I feel there’s a lot of room for improvement. Sometimes it’s a fight getting your score on iTunes, which is just counter-productive especially since it helps to promote the game. But corporate formalities are something that just come with the territory.

TVGB: What attracted you to doing the music for Prototype?

SD: After we had a chance to read the initial story outline we were pretty much hooked. I also loved the title and the early art Radical had done. It just seemed like an amazing project. In the end it was Scott Morgan’s (Prototype‘s Sound Supervisor) vision and freedom he gave us from the start that really attracted us to the project.

TVGB: Was scoring an open-world game more challenging than a more linear one with at least slightly more recognizable cues for score changes?

CV: For us, it’s about the same really. We’re still just writing music that will enhance the player’s experience. It’s kind of up to the developer to build an audio engine that takes the music and then plays it in a cool and intuitive way for an open-world game. This is good for us because it takes some of the pressure off and allows us to just focus on writing good music.

TVGB: What were your influences for this particular score?

CV: The orchestra was a combination of traditional film-like writing combined with some crazy 20th century, avant-garde techniques. There’s also a lot of percussion that we recorded specifically for this project, even some new percussion that we invented right in the studio; plus all the electronica and tweaked organic sounds. We each had our own personal influences of course, but I think as a whole it is something unique to Prototype.

SD: I think early on we were checking out the score to Land of the Dead (If I’m not mistaken). It’s abrasive, lots of percussion. But very soon it became clear that we just had to draw from our own styles and ideas than other influences. At times the score is very minimalist; other times loud and violent. This has been our most ambitious score yet and a big part of it was to just be more unique and less influenced by an existing score.

TVGB: How does one come up with mood music appropriate for a biological weapon?

CV: We actually wanted to avoid that and try to score Alex Mercer’s “inner” character. He’s the ultimate anti-hero at heart and it seemed that the music should be more of a reflection of his tragic nature rather than his badass-ness. That’s really just in his main theme though. I guess most of the rest of the score reflects the badass-ness.

TVGB: Gaming music has come a long way from its 8-bit roots, yet many of us still remember those old scores better than we do modern ones. Do you think this is because of their catchy simplicity or were old school tunes really that much more addictive?

SD: That’s a very good point. I think it’s a mixture of both. The music, like the games themselves was so simple that it really crept into your brain fast. Today games are so much more complex and complicated. Music is often way over the top or too little. I can remember very few melodies or themes from games in the last ten years rather than from ’80 to 1997, for example.

CV: There was very little music in those old games, combined with lots of repetition because of hardware limitations. For example, the Mario Bros. theme is not really that simple of a tune actually. But once you’ve heard it a hundred times it’s quite impossible not to walk away humming it. Games can have upwards of two hours worth of music now. We’re really getting into the storyline and scoring the actions, moods and characters. We’re trying to enhance the gameplay, not hit you over the head with a repeated melody. That type of old school scoring just wouldn’t work today. People would just shut it off. So I think that there’s still a lot of current games with very strong melodic statements. The implementation is just more subtle.

TVGB: Speaking of old school, what’s your favorite classic gaming tune?

CV: There’s an orchestrated version of the Russian-sounding tune from Tetris that was played at Games in Concert 2 in Utrecht a couple years ago that I thought was awesome. I also always find myself signing along to the “The Chase” music from Ms. Pacman.

SD: For me, the original DOOM for sure; just an amazing classic.

TVGB: Where do you see gaming music in five years? Will videogame scores be as big a deal as film scores? Will they begin to garner the same attention when really great ones come out?

SD: You know, I really wish game scores would get more attention. I think unless we have our own categories at the Grammys or Oscars, it will always be in the shadows.

TVGb: What are you guys working on next? Any top secret games you’d love to spill the beans about?

SD: We just finished work on Gearbox’s fantastic new title Borderlands. I also just wrapped up work on Sony’s upcoming massively online title called MAG. It’s a heavy electronic, industrial score. I also do work as a remixer under the name Toksin (myspace.com/toksin) and currently finishing up a mix for Celldweller.

CV: I’ve recently written music for Darksiders and currently composing for God of War 3. Sascha and I also have another really cool MMO that we worked on earlier this year for Sony Online.

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