Video game music comes in a variety of forms, widened by the wealth of mixed media that comprise games themselves — gameplay, music, storytelling, game theory, art design, VR, etc. — which amount to an exuberant tapestry. As the video game industry increases its breadth and appeal, game music (and the games themselves) must become highly eclectic. In this post, we examine the use of music in indie and game jam games, looking at the niches and subcultures that exist therein.

Indie and game jam games are fascinating subcultures in themselves, arising from the burgeoning culture of amateur and professional developers, game designers, and artists in recent years. They are worthy innovators that help dictate the state-of-the-art in the video games enterprise.

What musical style/genre is used in what type of game is a major thread in this blog. I’m going to look at the correlation between musical styles (such as symphonic, rock, etc.) in indie and jam titles, as well as to offer a side glance on how these intersect with game genres (such as action, adventure, puzzle, etc.)

These are important issues for  modern game composers, game developers and players, (as well as music theorist or computational musicologists like myself) since we need to understand the type of music that we wish to generate and in which context. The use of music is important if we want consumers to be engaged in the game. Also, it’s no use having fairy music for a horror game, or using EDM to accompany chess — one shouldn’t bring a knife to a gun fight, as it were, or risk having the customers feel they’ve not got their money’s worth. Apart from gameplay there are technical and budgetary limitations too. It would be impossible to compose a symphony for a game jam, and it’s a bit stingy to use chiptune for a AAA blockbuster.

We’ve conducted a survey of 86 indie games and 134 jam games, examining the use of music styles in indie and jam games, and provide an overview of the results here. Let’s look at the findings!

Context: Indie and Jam Games

We need to start off with a picture of what indie and jam games are. An indie game is one that is created by individuals, teams, or small companies, but usually without the support of a publisher, although the definition is as slippery as Wittgenstein’s ‘game’, that is, just a collection of family resemblances with no strict definition. Typically, indie games are compact and made on a tight budget. They use a variety of video game genres and hybrids of those genres, and include somewhat adventurous, but often technically limited musical scores. Megacopter: Blades of the Goddess is a typical indie game, by Pizza Bear Games, a screenshot of which is shown below.

Megacopter: Blades of the Goddess, in www.polygon.com

A jam game is a game invented in the context of a “game jam”, a gathering of people brought together to produce a game, usually within the space of 24-72 hours — as for example a Ludum Dare game jam, which has a particular theme on each jam and requires developers’ progress to be tracked online. The winner of Ludum Dare 35 is previewed below, which is Window Frame, a platform game that takes place within a PC window.

A screenshot from Window Frame, in indienova.com

These projects are usually high-stress affairs, particularly jams, without proper nutrition and arguably not enough reflection and reworking to produce sparkling sleek products, but with hundred percent commitment and energy, enabling highly interesting and satisfying makeshift concept pieces.

Unlike games from mid-sized or AAA publishers, indie and jam games involve few top-down restrictions, resulting in increased innovation, creativity, and artistic freedom. The former produce games for the mass market and have huge budgets, take few risks, and use subject matter that has wide appeal. There are also important differences between indie games and jam games: the latter exist in spite of a dearth of time and money. The general attitude of game jam developers is like that of a hit-and-run, smash-and-grab hack crime-fiction writer: get the book finished by 1 o’clock and start off a different book after lunch. They remind me of my old dentist, who used to say: I’m not the best, but I’m the quickest.

This metaphor applies to jam games more than indie games because they really lack the time and resources required to get a polished product. But it’s just as possible I’ve got this the wrong way round, and we shouldn’t be looking at these restrictions as limitations, but as strengths. Since jam games are predicated on the imposed structures of time and money, this could be considered an asset: fluency in adversity is a badge of honour. These boys are the gladiators of tech; they like nothing better than to flex their muscles in the throes of battle and come out with nothing more than having just survived.

A game jam in mid flow

Now let’s get to the music. Music in video games is a fairly unique notion in the context of musical genres generally. While each musical subculture has its own story to tell, there are arguably few musical subcultures that are so colourfully nuanced yet have such broad appeal — occupying the entire globe these days — as well as being highly differentiated, involving mixtures and hybrids that make jazz fusion eccentrics look like ham-sandwich civil servants.

In broad terms, the use of music in video games is comparative with the use of music in films, but in video games the music is possibly more interdependent within the action, particularly in bone fide adaptive or interactive music, such as NieR-Automata for example, which has a tightly-wrought soundtrack entwined around the musical action. Even in films such as Star Wars, music is used in a way that is outside of, and apart from the action — it is ‘non-diegetic’ to use the jargon of film school. Although there are exceptions.

The epic film music of Dunkirk, where Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan have created a close synergy between music and drama, the sounds and music of the film are deftly intertwined. Indie and jam games often don’t have the time and money for complex interactive and/or adaptive musical outputs. It is basically a truism that the important innovations in mainstream video games (common in mid-sized and AAA games) are probably not possible in indie and jam games, because of time limitations. Large publishing houses can pay to have the time to consider musical possibilities in greater depth. In some mid-sized and AAA games, music itself can be the central concept, such as in Guitar Hero and Rockband, although even with the big publishers, video games with a music feature is the exception rather than the rule.

A screenshot of Rockband4, from destructoid.com

In indie and jam games, the music is usually an accompaniment to the action, rather than a main idea, presumably because this is the quickest and most convenient role for it to play. Indeed, in indie and jam games, music is more often the mistress to gameplay and, well, everything else. The general principle in indie and jam games is that, yes of course music is important but so is a lot of other stuff — such as graphics, playability, controls, etc. The ‘gameplay itself’ must be king because this is the most effective way to satisfy the players’ needs.

This is not to say that good use of music, even in indie and jam games, is not hugely important. As noted in the-artifice.com, using music is not a matter of just applying music indiscriminately, but using it sensitively and appropriately:

As in films, effective use (or lack of use) of music in videogames has proven to be the difference between a defining emotional climax reaching its full splendor, and [a] what would have otherwise been captivating moment achieving the poignancy of a dried tomato.

Game and Music Demographics

Let’s dig into the data! We examined Ludum Dare games over the past 15 years, and looked at indie games on the Steam platform over recent years. The following charts provide an overview of the results of our survey, analysing the styles of 86 indie games and 134 jam games.

The demographics of indie and jam games show tell-tale similarities and differences in the use of music styles. Mainstream styles across multimedia, such as pop and EDM, are widely used by both, but of course there are subtleties in usage in terms with how these connect with video game genres, which I’ll consider below. Folk, jazz, piano, and funk are underrepresented by both indie and jam games, and likewise there are subtleties of the game genre that we’ll look into shortly. There are a number of important differences in the use of styles in indie and jam games: nearly 20% of game jam game don’t use music, compared with the less that 5% of indie titles; chiptune get a massive boost in popularity in game jams over indie games that favour rock and symphonic styles instead. We must admit that this is a partly unexpected result, since chiptune is commonly associated with indie games. This might reflect the current trend on the Steam platform to use more sophisticated sounding genres. Further research is certainly required, however.

Jam developers must do ‘everything’ themselves – in a short space of time – and this can be a daunting task. While some developers have DIY music in game jams as part and parcel of the virtuosity of the developer — written under the ancient contract of what could be called the spirit of the jam, which is that they don’t subcontract anyone else (otherwise there would be no point of a jam) — many do simply import their own tunes. Time spent composing and producing music might be viewed as ‘dead time’ when you’ve got a game to deliver in 48/72 hours. An interesting point uncovered from the data is that Ludum Dare winners always use some sort of music, whereas there is a good proportion of jam games that don’t (almost 20%). Thus music, although less important for jam games than for indie games, is an asset for increasing the perceived quality of a game. But in both indie and jam games, music doesn’t actually take centre-stage. Moreover, we saw in the data that early Ludum Dare competitions in the noughties have games that often don’t use music, whereas more recent Ludum Dare games often do.

There are a number of music libraries that sell tracks for indie and jam developers, such as Indiegamemusic.com. There are also a number of free music libraries, which might be useful for jamers, such as royaltyfreemusic.net, freesound.org, stockmusic.net. Even in terms of the spirit of the jam, composing/generating/synthesising the right music in such a short time-frame is a tough ask. And it is understandable that with time pressures they end up not putting in any music at all, not even as much as royalty-free music. However, indiegamemusic.com’s Roald Strausse glibly provides the perfect comeback to such moves: ‘I think games should have music’. And so do I. If games do use music it is all for the better, and so it is totally justified that winners of the Ludum Dare competition have some sort of music, since this provides a much richer experience.

Indie developers and game jammers notoriously have difficulty with finding or generating the right music for the right game at the right time. And the effectiveness of music in indies and jams can often be scrutinised in terms of a lack of time and resources. As I’ve thought about in another blog, music has come a long way since 8-bit and MIDI soundtracks — the type of music that accompanied games such as Mario and Zelda on consoles such as the NES and the Sega Megadrive. In indie and game jams, 8-bit retro music, aka chiptune, is often purposefully used/composed/synthesised to evoke a sense of nostalgia. Made-to-order chiptune is integral to this rather curious subculture: it’s like jam games are trying to recreate the 1980s, a common theme across various media in the noughties and teens. This may be a marriage of convenience, because simple synthesised music is quick to develop and royalty-free and thus useful for developers who lack time and money.

The following is indie game music from FEZ, by Disasterpiece:

With indies, symphonic and rock are very common, but these are less often used in jams. This again points to time and resources explanations: indie games have more time and resources so they tend to employ difficult-to-generate styles such as symphonic and rock; jam games have little time and resources so they tend not to use these difficult-to-create styles. The primary obstacle with symphonic and rock are the instrumental sounds: orchestras and guitars are hard to recreate using  digital synthesis and sampling.

To give the game jamers credit, an even more convenient arrangement would be to have no music at all: the lazy option. But this doesn’t happen as much as it could, according to the results. And while everyone seems to agree that most games should have music, there’s a valid argument for not having music in many situations. If a game doesn’t require it, it’s not appropriate, then of course the eerie silence of a golf course is a convenient option. The important differences in music use between indie and jam games, is that developers more occasionally opt-out of the music option in jams. This is explained by the internal forces of these musical subcultures. For example, it may be because they feel it’s too much bother to come up with the appropriate music in 24-76 hours.

A closer look at genre

Let’s look at an overview of the data on game genres and music styles for indies and jams. The following charts show the proportions of game genres used in jams and indies, respectively:

 

The following charts show how musical styles are represented in the most common genres in game jams:

The following charts show how musical styles are represented in the most common genres in indies:

The correlation between musical style with game genre is not an easy thing to predict, a point that is particularly acute with respect to jams. This may be because there are seemingly few stereotypical ways to make music in jams. And genres of game jams are often complexly hybrid. It seems it’s another badge of honour to come up with the most unusual genre mish-mash as possible in jams. Sometimes, it seems the mixes are ludicrous just because developers want them to be — erratic departures from cultural norms. Typical odd mixes include platform puzzle games or puzzle action games. These are the sort of mashes that wouldn’t even get on the cutting room floor of the AAA studios, which are much more cautious in their attitude towards consumers.

Despite the mish-mash in jams, there may be some important correlations between the use of musical styles and game genres, particularly with respect to indies. Broadly, indies incorporate a greater variety of video game genres than do jams. However, action, adventure, strategy, RPG, and puzzle games are common genres in both. And both indies and jams frequently have action and adventure games that commonly use chiptune, pop, EDM, and symphonic. In jams, RPG and strategy games frequently go for the ambient and no music options, while also in jams, rock and symphonic are less common options for RPG and strategy games. By contrast, in indies, RPG and strategy games frequently use rock and symphonic options, while RPG and strategy games rarely go for such an option as no music.

Conclusion

It would be appropriate and circumspect now to question the tentative conclusions made about some of the above findings. It was observed that styles, such as symphonic, EDM, pop, and ambient are common in indies and jams. But it is difficult to say if this is so significant for indies and jams in and of themselves because these musical styles are common per se, across any media in any part of the Western world.

There are also worries with other conclusions of the statistical observations. Owing to a preference for harking back to the 1980s in current popular culture and the sheer love of retro in video games across the board, the abundance of chiptune in jam games perhaps cannot be put down simply to the result of lack of time and resources in this area. It’s got to be an outside possibility that maybe the stats are a result partly of the influence of a cultural milieu and partly a consequence of what developers intend to do.  At least maybe the trend is in fact a marriage of convenience between a lack of means and an abundance of musical cultural influence and developer preference. Indeed, the lack of chiptune in indie games indirectly supports this idea that the use of chiptune in jams is an aesthetic choice. And a cursory glance of mid-sized and triple-AAA companies shows that chiptune is an uncommon addition, supporting this claim. So while we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the chiptune correlation with jams is an aesthetic choice, it must certainly be a possibility.

Another interesting thing about jams is the use of hybrid game genres and musical styles. I couldn’t have called this before doing the in-depth survey and analysis. The jam game really comes into its own as a subculture with its innovative mixing and matching of game genres and music genres. Large game companies literally have too much to lose by doing such radical experimentation. And this is perhaps one of the great things about small game jams and indie companies: they encourage innovation in music and video games that simply can’t be achieved in the real world.

To look to the future, any composer or musician should be aware and sensitive to innovation in the jam and indie worlds. It’s clear that given the freedom, developers sometimes don’t recognise game genres or musical styles (an unsettling thought for a music theorist that makes his living out of studying musical styles). However, there are strong correlations between game genres and musical styles in indies that are much weaker in jams. It seems that the bottom line is, when given permission to stray off a beaten path, developers stray to their heart’s content.