High Score: Music composers plan an elevating role in gamers' experieces

—By Katrina Sieler (’15)

Mention video game music to people above 35 and they’re likely to think first of simple bloops and beeps, or the catchy tunes behind a bouncing Mario. And while everyone’s aware of the leaps in technology that have propelled the video game industry from “Pong” to “Call of Duty: Ghosts,” the leaps in video game music have been just as vast—but often unrecognized.

Student Researches Unchartered Territory

Danny Layher (’14) wants to change that. The senior from Springfield, Neb., dedicated his capstone research project to examining those musical leaps.

His project focused on three areas:

  1. the historical progression of video game technology
  2. video game music in relation to film
  3. applications of music in current games

“When we were looking at topics for this project, [Assistant Professor of Music] John Spilker actually recommended it because no one [in Nebraska Wesleyan’s Music Department] had ever done it before,” Layher said. “I was skeptical at first because I didn’t know how much information was out there.”

Turns out, there’s plenty. And when Layher came upon holes in scholarship on the subject, he turned to a definitive source to help fill the gaps: French composer Olivier Deriviere. His credits include musical scores for popular video games including “Assassin’s Creed IV,” “Of Orcs and Men,” Disney’s “Tangled, the Video Game,” “Alone in the Dark,” and “Remember Me.”

Video Game 'Remember Me' Set in Neo-Paris

Remember Me

Layher’s project focused particularly on “Remember Me,” a 2013 dystopian action adventure game set in a future “Neo-Paris” where people are manipulated by remixing their memories. “I wanted a relatively new video game to look at because I wanted something that demonstrates the most recent developments of video game music,” Layher said. As good fortune would have it, Layher also selected a game with an especially gifted—and responsive—composer.

Layher reached out to Deriviere with some emailed questions. “I honestly didn’t expect to hear back from him, but he emailed me that he would be happy to answer any questions. It was his idea to do the Skype interview.”

A Cross-Contninent Connection

Spilker was as thrilled about Deriviere’s responsiveness as Layher was. “I think it’s an exciting example of a student going above and beyond. Danny wants to be actively engaged and sees it not just as an assignment but as an experience here at Nebraska Wesleyan.”

Layher’s Lincoln-to-Paris interview lifted the veil on the professional and creative aspects of a project as large and involved as the “Remember Me” score.

“It took us a long time to figure out what the music should support—if it would be more the city or more the story or more the characters,” Deriviere said in a “behind the music” video on his website, olivierderiviere.com. “We wanted to do something a little bit softer because we wanted to be closer to Nilin [the game’s central character] and her story and her emotions.”

Deriviere's Music Adds Emotional Impact

John Kurlander, the game’s recording engineer, said, “The orchestral score for this game is different because the whole thing is composed to be electronically manipulated with rhythmic elements in the electronic score.” As Nilin’s Paris glitches, so does the game’s orchestral music. “And so it [creates] a unique and interesting sound that goes perfectly with the imagery of the game.”

Deriviere said his collaborations with people like Kurlander and the game’s art directors are an integral part of his work on any game. “It inspired me so much in terms of the colors and pace—in terms of how the music would fit into this universe,” he said. “All the ideas came from the game.”

Music works within this universe of the game in much the same way as it does within the universe of a movie, heightening or lessening a feeling—be it fear or rage or love or loss—at the pace that the story or the game demands. And in this overlap of music, emotion, story and game-play, Layher recognizes a great opportunity. “I have always been concerned with how people who are involved in a classical sense of music can convey that to future generations,” Layher said. “I feel that in understanding that, I can look at new ways to help engage younger generations in more classical music.”

It’s an excitement Deriviere shares. “Video games for me are the most interesting medium nowadays because we are looking for a language.” Like the Neo-Paris in “Remember Me,” that language promises to be both classic and new.

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Danny Layer's research on video game music led to cross-continent interview with French composer Olivier Deriviere
Olivier Deriviere