flash game “music”

maybe this is just me, but i feel like flash game music has a hugely untapped potential.

The electronic music program in my undergrad at West Chester helped engrain in me a preference of electronic music as an interactive performance art versus a static “tape piece” that involves no live element. Not that i don’t think that tape pieces have value or their place in our modern music history, it can just be more challenging for a piece to resonate with me as both a composer or an audience member if conceived that way.

That’s really a separate discussion; i bring this up because in the past half year or so my brother has started dabbling into creating flash games and i thought it would be fun to try my hand at creating the background music. The more i would discover about some of flash’s flexibility when it comes to music handling, the more my brain shifted the musical conception away from “background music” to “interactive sound experience”.

Most flash games i’ve played across the internet have a typical video game sound paradigm. There are two types of sounds: background music that will change occasionally based on a scene change or a severe game state change, and foreground effects that are more directly interactive with the character. For a lot of games, particularly certain genres of games such as 2-d scrollers, i think that paradigm works pretty well and can only be mucked about with when you have a particularly unique element to the game, but the two games that my brother have in development that i’m involved in are more puzzle like in nature and involve various evolving game states that lend itself well to having the music programmed with a much more direct relationship with what’s happening in the actual game.

It’s hard to explain without the games being complete to show examples; once those games go live i’ll probably write a post about the music and my philosophies behind its creation. But to exemplify the approach i’m taking with these games, here’s a two examples of existing games out there and how i would approach the sound experience with them. The first is a directly interactive sound experience based on gameplay elements, and the second is a more passive sound experience in which the background music evolves based on the evolution of the gameplay story.

Example One: dropsum 1.3

The “arcade game” gameplay has the most diverse gamestates that lend to sound manipulation, so i’m basing my brainstorming off of that.

The first easy thing to consider is the “required” number. The game starts off as a “9 required”. After you complete a certain amount of stages, the game changes to “11 required”, then “15 required”, then “19 required” (which no one has ever reached because it’s frickin’ impossible). This to me naturally lends itself to creating a base music layer that’s founded on time signatures: 9/8 for the 9 required, 11/8 for the 11 required, 15/8 for the 15 required, then probably 4/4 for the 19 required because for those that could ever get that far and are paying attention enough, it will throw them completely off.

The second easy thing to consider is the bubble numbers themselves. When you first start the game, you only get numbers up to 4. As you complete stages, more bubble numbers get added to increase the difficulty. I think the highest number i’ve ever gotten was 12. That lends itself to pitch classes, as in when you only have bubbles numbering up to 4, there’s only 4 pitches in the music vocabulary, when it gets to 5 you add a pitch, &c. I could see this done as either directly correlative to the base 9/8 layer material (the 9/8 layer is a rhythmic ostinato that starts off with 4 pitches and then adds more pitches to it as the numbers go up) or as a separate layer (the 9/8 base layer establishes a tonal vocabulary and a melody is put on top of that that only uses 4 pitches to start but then adds more pitches to it as the numbers go up).

The next thing to consider is color. Color in the bubbles change too quickly for the music to undergo drastic changes; you want the music to be indicative of the gameplay flow, and adding and removing completely new music elements based on the appearance and disappearance of color on the playfield would contradict the gameplay flow and feel disruptive. But the colors are also not ignorable; visually they’re right in your face and they’re key to you succeeding in the game, so for there to be *no* aural correlation to that visual element feels wrong. An easy solution is to have each color represent a timbre and just add that timbre to the existing melody line (based on the “bubble numbers are melody” idea), and maybe the presence (read: volume) of that particular timbre is directly related to how much of that color there is. For example, if the main melody is a piano single-note melody, yellow could be that same melody up the octave with a glock sound that you can only barely hear when there’s 5 or less yellows on the board, and every 5 yellows the volume increases.

Powerups are an interesting thing to this game too mainly because there’s a finite number of powerups that you can have. That’s a severe gameplay flaw, but lends itself great to creating some sort of countermelody or chordal backdrop that gets more ‘full’ the more powerups you have. The problem with that concept is that that aural aesthetic creates a sense of reward for having a full set of powerups which doesn’t quite correlate to real gameplay strategy since you need to get rid of powerups to make way for more powerful powerups if you have a lot of useless ones. That wouldn’t deter me from exploring that idea, but it may prevent me from feeling comfortable using sound in that way because of the contradicting message.

Example Two: The Company of Myself

my youtube playthrough

The music for TCoM is actually very well suited to the game and doesn’t need change. But if philosophically i were to change the music style and approach, it would go something like this:

There’s a typical background music loop that incorporates a melody of some sort. At the start of every new scene, elements of a countermelody get added. Say the countermelody is 12 notes total in a loop. At the end of scene 1, two of those notes get revealed. At the end of scene 2, two more notes get revealed. &c. That countermelody volumewise is clearly put in the background and stays there. This leads up to the scene where we first encounter Kathryn where the countermelody switches from background to foreground, fully complementing the main melody. In the scene where Kathryn “dies”, that countermelody abruptly shuts off.

Actually, at that moment when Kathryn dies, it’d probably be better for the entire music track to shut off for the remainder of that scene. Then when the next scene comes in, there’s a slow fade-in to the main music loop, but there’s a character change to that music loop, something that clearly reflects on the plot reveal of Kathryn’s death. Maybe the Kathryn countermelody is still incorporated, but in a fragmented and dissonant way as opposed to as a complement.

I feel there could be some musical correlation to the creation and execution of “history copies”, but the easy answer of creating some sort of ‘echo’ remnant would require a lot of care in the main loop’s composition to make sure that the echo doesn’t clash with itself. A different approach could be to create a different “flavor” of the main loop for each history iteration, and to enhance that with changing some of the visual background elements upon each history creation. For example, every time that a history iteration needs to be created, create some visual decay or abstractness in the background, and have the music loop include some dissonance or semi-tones that give it a less stable character.

That might have to peak in a level like the last one where you’re creating a *lot* of multiple history copies in order to achieve completion of the level, but if you do it five times and then just leave it, that might not be so bad visually if you’re able to continue the effect aurally in some way at least for another 10 or 15 iterations. it’d be tricky but doable; it probably lends itself to maybe creating a gameplay paradigm where there’s only a finite version of history copies you are allowed to make before you have to restart (which would probably eliminate the last level from existing).

Those are just two examples off of the top of my head that i feel approach the sound experience in the game differently than the way a lot of game music tends to be implemented. Again, not every game can use this sort of aesthetic, but for games that have that sort of interactive potential – either directly interactive like the first example, or scene/story based evolution like the second example – it feels like something that’s greatly underutilized that could greatly enhance a person’s playing experience and level of depth to the game at both a conscious and subconscious level.

We’ll see how that turns out with my brother’s games once they’re fully developed.

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