A Sierra Retrospective: Part 2 – Composing a Quest 2017-07-23 06:06:49
The philosopher Plato once said about music that “It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, and flight to the imagination.” It was this flight to the imagination that was most relevant to Sierra’s adventure games.
Sierra had an unrivaled music department that produced many groundbreaking adventure game soundtracks during the ‘80s and ‘90s. “The level of talent they had within the music department was just unbelievable,” says Robert Holmes, composer on the Gabriel Knight series. “All of these guys in the music department, they were really, really, really good. There just wasn’t a slacker in the entire group.”
He says that working with such a talented group of musicians helped to bring everybody’s work up to a higher standard.
“The way Sierra would work was once a quarter there would be a company meeting and everyone would show off a demo or something that was part of their current project. You knew at some point your music was going to be shown as part of that to the whole company, so you really wanted it to be good.”
While music was certainly seen as a vital ingredient in the game design process, the composers and music team were usually brought in towards the end of production. Ken Allen, composer on many Sierra titles including King’s Quest V, The Colonel’s Bequest and Space Quest IV, says that “Music is often an afterthought in games, so I’ve been brought into the project late in the process. I have heard of some games where the music was chosen at the beginning and the game was designed around that, but those tend to be games out of Japan.”
Once a composer had been brought onto a game, they would meet with the designer to get a feel for the project and what the designer had in mind for the music.
Mark Seibert was Sierra’s first staff musician and composed the soundtracks for games like Quest for Glory I, Conquests of Camelot and King’s Quest V. He explains that when he was first hired there was no design format for building a game soundtrack, so developing that system was an early priority. “Since we were making adventure games, I approached it like scoring a movie. Yes, of course the order in which things happen might be different, and the lengths of each scene might change (or even some of the story elements might be slightly different), but in general we could break it down into a series of events like a story or a movie. So that’s where I started with the designers,” he says. “Creating this framework helped us understand the big story arcs, and I think it also helped our designers to see their design in a new and different way.”
Ken Allen explains that as well as understanding the story arc, the composer also needed to get an understanding of what the designer was looking for. “I talked with the designers to get a feel for the musical style they imagined, and to see if they had any preconceived ideas for the music in cutscenes, or if they wanted characters to each have a theme,” Ken says. “I was looking for the psychology everywhere music is needed.”
While working through the game design document looking for the musical cues required – a process called spotting – the composer would also listen to music the designer liked or felt was similar to what they envisioned for a particular scene. This process helped to clarify for the composer what the designer wanted and why they felt a particular style of music would be appropriate.
Using the information gathered from this spotting process, the composer would then start to develop concept pieces. While sometimes they might have the luxury of a fully designed game with a script for inspiration, it was usually sketches, storyboards or scene descriptions.
Allen says he would work on proof of concept pieces to make sure everyone was on the same page, while also choosing instrumentation based on emotions the designer wanted to evoke.
“If we decided on a certain musical style, the instruments I select would support that decision.”
The process was a little different for Robert Holmes when he composed the soundtrack for the first Gabriel Knight game. Holmes and designer Jane Jensen had become romantically involved prior to working together on Gabriel Knight, so in a rare situation, Holmes was part of the process from the very beginning.
Together, they would take daily walks around Bass Lake in Sierra National Forest and talk about ideas and how Jensen envisioned the series.
“We both watched movies together and talked about various influences, so I had a pretty good sense of what she was attracted to and what she was trying to achieve. And I brought my film music education to the problem and thought about what some of the guys I respected in the film world would do,” Robert says. “I think what I was trying to do was make music that was darker, more dramatic, and a little more emotional than had been done in games.”
Composing music for Sierra’s early games was also a different process for each system that the company released on.
Music in games today is generally a digital creature. An MP3 of your favorite artist could be a recording of drums, guitar and keyboards. These instruments are recorded on separate tracks which are then mixed together, or layered over each other, to form a complete song. A game soundtrack is created in the same way.
Turn back the clock to the 1980s, however, and the situation was vastly different.