When I began writing music, I felt hamstrung when it came to melodic and harmonic progressions. Despite playing a panoply of percussion instruments in bands and orchestras nearly my entire life, I never did learn to sight read music, at least not when it went up and down the staff. I can sight-read drum music all day!
My innate capabilities composing for melodic instruments were sorely lacking. But the one thing I did have going for me is a lifetime of playing drums and video games (told you it wasn’t a waste of time, dad!). And that made me attuned to one specific area of game design: rhythm.
Virtually all video games include a time-based component to their gameplay. Games like Dark Souls, Overwatch, and even JRPGs like Xenoblade Chronicles 2 have time-based mechanics. Whether it’s dodging a demon’s scythe attack, warping out of the way of a Hanzo ult, or executing the perfect Blade combo, most games live and die by the player inputting commands in the correct order, at the correct time.
So basically, all gamers are drummers!
How does this manifest in game design? I like to think of it as a gradient, with games deadlocked to the rhythm, like Parappa the Rapper and Beatmania, on one end and games completely decoupled from time-based decisions on the other, like Civilization, Stellaris, and Point-and-Click Adventure games.
Tons of games reside in-between those two extremes. Mini-games that ask you to time button presses, damage bonuses for correctly timed combos, and even the dreaded quick-time event can be a rhythmic mechanic.
My experience with Necrodancer
To illustrate the point, I’d like to share some of the insights I gained from writing the score for Crypt of the Necrodancer.
Necrodancer’s gameplay is directly linked to the gameplay in a similar way as Rock Band, Parappa the Rapper, Thumper, and so many other classical rhythm games are. Necrodancer is a bit different than many rhythm games in that the accuracy of your rhythm isn’t actually paramount. What’s important is that you only get one move per beat. The game lends leniency to your timing, and as long as you don’t input an extra move in between beats, or wait an entire beat between inputs, the game considers you in rhythm.
This is important! The degree to which timing is critical to the gameplay can be communicated through the composition, production, and arrangement of the music.
Necrodancer’s music is written with this in mind; since adherence to a rigid, metronomic timing isn’t required, it’s more of a guide than something to be directly tracked, like in Rock Band or Parappa the Rapper. You don’t see EXCELLENT! or U RAPPIN’ AWFUL!. You either adhere to one move per beat and have a multiplier, or you don’t.
In early sections of the the game, like the tutorial below, the beat is extremely simple. It’s got strong transients on all four beats, to help newcomers feel it out.
Later, the music is less tied to directly accentuating every beat. In addition to mechanical challenges like more complex enemy behavior and environmental hazards, the music itself became more complex to challenge players’ internal beat-keeping.
The music in the Frankensteinway Fight is full of syncopated, jazzy piano riffs, and a sort of frenzied feeling to represent the maniacal piano monster you’re fighting. There’s a throughline of on-beat percussion mostly throughout, however, we also decided that there should at least be a hint for players to follow if they didn’t have a musical background. This was something we enforced with all the remix soundtracks as well. It’s challenging to make such a high volume of music when you can’t really have breakdowns, arrhythmic intros, outros, bridges, etc.!
Where do we find the rhythm?
It can be challenging to determine which mechanics are most important to represent rhythmically, whether in the gameplay feel itself or paralleled in the score.
Here are some notable examples across a spectrum of gameplay types, roughly ordered from most rhythmic to least rhythmic:
Thumper is a game that calls itself “rhythm violence." I think it certainly earns this moniker. The compositions in Thumper are expertly matched to the visual aesthetic, and the production allows the sound design to break out of the soundfield.
Less-transient percussion helps the transient sound design stick out. Hyper-produced club music, for example, would oversaturate the audio with beats, making it harder for players to pick out the important sounds.
You’ll notice in “Triangle” that the timpani-like percussion at center stage has a plosive, punchy quality, but it isn’t so transient that it could be mistaken for a sound effect. Much of the music sounds are “blunted," with longer attacks on the sounds to leave room for the SFX to punch through.
Distance is a psychedelic TRON-esque racing game. It’s also a great example of a game in which rhythm and tempo is paramount, but not directly linked to gameplay mechanics.
Traps and hazards on the track are not necessarily synced up with the beat of the music, but the music in each area has an appropriate tempo and rhythm to match the track. Oftentimes, these things just need to be felt out. There is no perfect answer to which tempo matches best with gameplay. Game designers should lean on their composer’s expertise here, and composers should do their best to try and understand what the designers are really asking for.
Every game composer has likely dealt with a game designer wanting music to be more “epic," “hardcore," or “intense” - any number of abstract concepts that can be hard to nail down in practical terms. It’s good practice to have a heart-to-heart with the designer to ascertain why they are using these terms. In my experience, video or phone calls are best to really appraise the emotional tone of their request.
Almost as intense as the original MIDI soundtrack.
Obviously speed metal works for DOOM. Why? Speed metal is conducive to the pace of gameplay. The rapidity of enemy encounters, weapon switching, and strafe-jumping all occurs on a timescale congruent with speed metal. The music is almost overbearing - sound effects are not as important mechanically in DOOM as in many other games.
They provide useful feedback, of course, but the few sounds that really give you time-based information, such as a rocket firing and hurtling toward its target, or a grenade bouncing along, are the exceptions and not the rule. DOOM allows the music to take the front seat much more so than many modern shooters. It knows that it’s a ridiculous demon-slayin’ hayride and plays to that effect.
Desktop Dungeons is an entirely turn-based game. It can be very liberating, but also quite challenging to score a game that has no rhythmic components whatsoever!
The music I wrote for the desert area in Desktop Dungeons modulates tempo with impunity, because the pace is dictated by the player. In these cases, I like to employ looser tempo restrictions, not only because music with a rubato feel is more interesting to me, but rhythm is paramount to establishing a mood, particularly when you’re trying to establish tension in a game that gives you infinite time to decide your course of action.
The final area in Desktop Dungeons is a gauntlet section where the player ascends a tower with increasingly difficult enemies. I wrote three separate versions of the track, all cross-fadable with each other. Each successive version layers on additional instrumental components. The final iteration is complete with massive choir, horns blaring, giant war drums - the works. If that version of the track had played the entire time, the player might have been oversaturated by the intensity of the track, and any impact would be lost!
You can still have rhythmic progression and dynamics to score a game’s mechanics, even if the game has no rhythmic inspiration to draw from.
Go forth and feel the rhythm
The vast majority of games are intrinsically rhythmic. Next time you play Super Mario Bros. 3, try and pay special attention to how rapidly you can spam the tail attack when you’re Raccoon Mario. In Final Fantasy VI, feel how quickly you can move your selector in the menu. In Halo, note how long it takes for a sniper rifle to reload, and the time requirement between shots. Start to think of these things as rhythms. They can inform not only the music you create or commission for a game, but identify problems with your game feel that are difficult to diagnose in other ways.