Music for video games a unique challenge


With "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero" reigning as must-have video games, one might assume that it's a good time for rockers to start composing game music. But the very specific skills required to write for games can make that crossover even more difficult than writing for film and television.

"It's a very different mindset and a very different approach to music," says Tommy Tallarico, a prolific game composer and executive producer of the "Video Game Live" symphonic concert series. "It can be very hard to go from thinking and writing in a linear structure of a song or a film score to the layered, vertical approach of a game. Also, for film and television, you're writing background music to support a story. In games, it's foreground music -- it really is driving the action and affecting the player. If you're not a player, and you don't understand what emotions a player should be feeling, it's a very difficult job."

A few high-profile rockers have composed original work for game soundtracks: Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails worked on the "Quake" series, Steve Vai contributed to "Halo 2" and Dweezil Zappa -- collaborating with Tallarico -- created music for a revamped "Pac-Man" game. More often, though, rockers license master tracks to a game or contribute remixes of existing tracks. In fact, it's no longer unusual for a new song from a major rock act to be heard first as part of a game, as was the case with Green Day's "American Idiot," which was used in the soundtrack to "Madden NFL 2005."

Publishing deals with game companies have also been hot, as games such as the "Guitar Hero" series require that rock songs be re-recorded in sound-alike versions that can be manipulated as an interactive element of the game. Nile Rodgers, a top record producer and founder of the group Chic, represents a different kind of rock-to-game crossover: His company, Sumthing Distribution, has become a leading distributor of video game soundtracks.

Several top Hollywood composers have created some well-regarded game scores: John Debney composed the music for "Lair," Bill Conti composed for the video game version of "The Godfather" and Howard Shore wrote the original score for the "Soul of the Ultimate Nation" game. In general, though, game composers have a specialized talent in their field and are often paired with a rock musician who wants to contribute to a game; when Steve Vai worked on "Halo 2" he collaborated closely with the game's primary composer, Marty O'Donnell.

Composer Tallarico has sought to create a live crossover of sorts by blending symphonic game scores with rock concert energy and production value in the "Video Game Live" events. He also has a particularly personal connection to the rock 'n' roll world. Growing up, he was strongly influenced by the music of his second cousin, singer Steven Tyler (nee Tallarico) of Aerosmith. "For a long time I wanted to be in a band just like my cousin," he says. "But my life changed when I saw (1977's) 'Star Wars' and heard that soundtrack. I went straight from idolizing Aerosmith to idolizing John Williams."