The “doo-doot doot da-doot doot! Doot” of Super Mario Bros.
The “Gotta pee, gotta pee, for the singles party!” of Skyrim.
But it’s important when applying music to a video game to remember that the star is only as good as the supporting cast. Some of the most important music in any video game is the soundtrack between the super memorable stuff: the interstitial music.
My 10-second Google search defines interstitial tissue as “connective tissue between the cellular elements of a structure.” Essentially, interstitial tissue connects more notable structures together, in order to keep an organism cohesive. It’s a good analogy to follow when scoring a video game. One of music’s roles in virtually any medium is to establish, shape, or influence the emotional contours of a work. To absolutely no one’s surprise, one of the best examples of interstitial music comes from a little game called Overwatch.
Keep things epic without destroying ears
It’s great to have a blockbuster banger to grab people’s heart by the throat, but if it’s followed by awkward silence, the mood is lost. Overwatch’s absurdly epic/heroic theme song fills me with ecstacy every time I hear it, but what keeps the juices flowing are the underappreciated pieces that accompany screens like the match results and lobby. These interstitial pieces serve to match the emotional tenor of Overwatch - the pulse must always be pounding. At no time is Overwatch a game about methodical, well-considered plans of action mulled over and pressed into service after due consideration. Overwatch is a game about shooting a giant ape with a dubstep gun before he can shock your cowboy pal to death. The interstitial cues stay aligned with the theme of the more conspicuous tracks, while providing a drop in intensity to prevent theme fatigue.
Cues like these can prime the listener for a different emotion. Here, the pre-game music prepares the listener for a lighter, sillier zone. But it still falls under the same energetic, pulsing rubric established in the ‘bigger” pieces.
A degree of restraint is always called for in video game scores, to avoid this fatigue. Ironic, I know, coming from me, as I’ve made a career cramming arpeggios into the smallest unit of time possible for high-intensity games, but that’s the exception that proves the rule, because -
Interstitial music can be internal to a single track
Even if a game is defined by relentless intensity, you can find opportunities to include moments of rest that stay thematically appropriate, but give the listener’s ear/brain/face time to recover. The most intense music you can imagine becomes less intense and more annoying the longer it goes on without respite. Looping video game music must take this into consideration, and provide ebbs and flows in dynamics, volume, and timbre. One of my favorite recent pieces to demonstrate this is XCOM 2’s squad loadout music by Tim Wynn. Despite having a recurring rhythmic motif that repeats through the entirety, multiple sections provide relief to the listener, both in volume and compositional intensity.
The first change in intensity happens here.
What’s important to note is that this change is almost a lateral move in terms of intensity. The rhythm is more spaced out, and the melody is given more room to breathe. Intensity doesn’t only refer to volume; the density of the composition certainly affects how “assaulted” the ear is!
The next section reprises much of the previous composition, and then the loop point happens here (at least in the in-game looping version).
Since this piece scores the very narrow concept of “you are preparing your loadout for a mission," it’s important to have an arrangement focused on that idea. The player will be musing over potential synergies and role configurations, so excessively dynamic music would be distracting. The composer walks a fine line of variation and homogeneity, in effect creating an endless, elastic interstitial tissue to connect the previous and next game states.
Video game music is a part of a living system. Sometimes developers use library music, or hire/license a band/artist they like to score their games. There are plenty of cases of this working wonderfully, such as the library tracks music tracks in Braid (aided by the time-warping effect on the music), Stuart Chatwood’s score for Darkest Dungeon, or 65daysofstatic’s work on No Man’s Sky, but the skillset required for a cohesive game soundtrack is very different from that of writing a collection of songs.
If you’re a composer, it’s a good idea to make sure you test the game if you can to see how your music flows. If you’re a developer, try to understand your composer’s methodology for making pieces connect. When music is aligned effectively with the game’s tone and mechanics, it can help to smooth over bumps in the tone or flow of the game. Conversely, intentionally subverting the flow can highlight a moment or mechanic that you want to stick out like a sore thumb. There are no hard rules here!
Music between intensity peaks serves to reinforce the emotional consistency of the experience. Silence should be used when appropriate, but be sure it doesn’t come across as dead air. Unless that’s what you intend!
Interstitiality can be applied more granularly within a single track to alleviate ear fatigue. This is more of a compositional point for the composers, but it’s good practice for the developer, as a somewhat neutral third party, to keep in mind.
Music in games generally should either be as interactive as the game, or composed in a way that complements the design. This means care should be taken to ensure that the music doesn’t trample over emotional or systemic highlights of the game. Music can also help accentuate concepts in a game that might be too subtle, without hitting the player over the head with them.
Game music is a strange new art form that requires more than just traditional musical sense. It requires considerable thought about not only emotional content, but emotional momentum. Interstitial music is one of the most effective tools you have to maintain this momentum!
Danny Baranowsky is a composer, musician and larger-than-life personality living in Seattle, Washington by way of Mesa, Arizona. Over the past decade, Danny has risen to the top of his field, composing the music for best-selling games Canabalt, Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac, Desktop Dungeons, Crypt of the Necrodancer, and more. This year, Danny looks to expand his musical misadventures - working on solo material, game prototypes, chicken dinners, and even a live set! No task is too tall for Danny (he is 6’4”). Keep on the lookout for more music and tweets regarding the refresh rates and input latency of OLED monitors in the future.