Video game composers need to create soundtracks for a virtual world of possibilities.

From the jaunty tunes of Super Mario to the tense Halo score, music plays an important role in creating an immersive video game experience. But while a sweeping soundtrack can give gameplay a cinematic feel, ANU PhD scholar Thomas Connell says composing music for video games is different to writing for movies.  

“Film is linear. Every time you play it, you get the same experience,” he says. “But with a video game, you start at the start and you will get to the end, but you can do all sorts of stuff in between. Your music has to be very different.”  

A lifelong gamer, Connell is the composer and sound designer for Ailuri, a 2D game set to be released later this year on Steam and Nintendo Switch. The story follows a red panda’s quest to rescue endangered animals and save the world from environmental destruction.

“I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from my classical music background,” Connell says. “I’ve referenced Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Beethoven and all sorts of different pieces because they’ve captured certain emotions.”  

Thomas Connell (seated) and Dr Alexander Hunter from the ANU School of Music. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

To assemble Ailuri’s soundtrack, Connell uses Wwise, a software program that applies algorithms to create music that can change depending on the situation. 

“In a game, you don’t know how long someone’s going to spend in an area, so your music has to be adaptable,” Connell explains. “If you have the same section of music that’s just going to repeat over and over, it can get really annoying.”  

Dr Alexander Hunter says video games are an exciting and innovative space for composers. Not only is the field well funded and the technology fast-moving, but ludomusicology — the study of music in video games — is gaining respect in the academic world.  

“When I was being trained, there was this idea that being a video game composer was just writing scary, spooky music and that it was this lesser thing. I think that’s really changed in the last five years,” he says.  

Hunter compares today’s video games with the heyday of opera in the 19th century. “Wagner had this idea that opera has the potential to be the total work — you go to a place and it’s this totally immersive experience, but over the years it’s become a bit niche.  

“With games it’s like you’re in an opera, but you’re the main character and the story is responding to and interacting with you. For composers, it’s a chance to be part of this immersive storytelling with all these cool, dynamic opportunities.” 

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