Music Australia News

Video Game Scores: A New Horizon for Classical Trained Composers

Composer Kevin Penkin Image Credit: The Music Network
Graham Strahle
| November 22, 2018

With an annual income of $2.2 billion that is expected to rise to $3.3 billion by 2020, it Australia’s video game industry is clearly booming. According to APRA AMCOS figures, the games industry in Victoria alone accounts for over 130 companies and 800 employees. For composers this can only mean good times, because the immersive environment from which video games are built depends very much on the contribution that music makes.

The shape of this industry as concerns composers was the subject of the recent High Score: Composition and Sound Art for Gaming one-day event that APRA AMCOS hosted at The Arcade in Melbourne. One notable theme was the rise of acoustic-based scores, and much interest gathered around composer Kevin Penkin, who as one of the keynote speakers has made a pioneering contribution in this area.

Hailing from Perth, Penkin graduated with a Master’s degree in screen composition from London’s Royal College of Music in 2015 and has since become one of Australia’s leading video game composers. His credits include music for the manga animé Made in Abyss and for the video game Florence released in February this year. Having made Time Magazine’s top 10 games of 2018, this is an intimate, classically-based score that consists of acoustic cello and piano – beautifully conceived and worth hearing whether one plays video games or not.

Cameron Lam, Art Music Specialist at APRA AMCOS and himself a composer, helped organise High Score and moderated some of the panels. Here he talks here about Penkin’s work and general themes that came out of the event.

What directions are emerging currently in the video game industry in Australia that involve composers?

CL: It is like film music in many ways. Different genres have different requirements. The trend in the last few years has been to bring artists in much earlier into a new game’s development. It is about sonic branding. The music exists before you compose the music. The sound of your game, and the immersive sonic environment the player finds themselves in, are very important. So the trend now, as in film, is to get the composer in from early on, to introduce them to the kind of world the game is exploring, and to ask them how they can reinforce that with sound. It is a much more collaborative and longer running relationship involving a lot more back and forth. This is making it a very exciting time.

Can you tell us about Kevin Penkin’s music in the video game Florence?

CL: Kevin’s composition studies and his Master’s degree translated very well and really assisted him in terms of making a success in the game world. Florence uses the structure of classical music, and he does this by creating a delicate score of cello and piano that helps tell the game’s love story about a single person who lives in Melbourne. It is emotive and really brilliantly uses the structure of classical music and the intimacy of chamber music to create that scenario. He used Australian musicians to record the score, and came back to Perth [from the UK, where he lives] especially to do this.

How is it that training in classical music offers composers new pathways in writing for video games?

CL: The way I often describe art music is that at its core is structure. Larger musical structures suit games in terms of their story element. There will be a series of levels, a world to paint, and one needs to have large structures to support that. The old arcade games build structures from repetition, and latterly there are Hollywood type game scores and their heaps of symphonic remakes. What lies in the middle interests me. There’s quite a big push to go back to the nuance you can get from acoustic music. Of course there are many games that use rock bands and hardcore electronic music too.

What demographic spread did you get at High Score in terms of attendance? Were there a lot of younger composers?

CL: It was a really wide pool, helped by the degree in interactive composition that launched a couple of years ago at the University of Melbourne. There is a high amount of energy currently going to Melbourne. Attendance was roughly a 50:50 split between those at student age in their 20s and those above in their 30s. Anyone who was willing to cross over was able to come. The event generated huge interest.

Lam says that on the strength of its first two iterations, the expectation is that High Score will become an annual event. An industry award for best video game score might even be a possibility once the industry is a little more established.

The aforementioned course offered by University of Melbourne is a Bachelor Of Music (Interactive Composition) – see details here. The Australian National University School of Music also offers a Composition for Film and Video Game program (see here), and University of Technology Sydney has a Game Design Studio subject that includes music composition (see here). Meanwhile, the Ludomusicology Society of Australia is a new organisation committed to research on game music.

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