SMART COMBAT MUSIC – Jesse Harlin (April 2006)

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GOD OF WAR’s hydra battle marks a turning point after which lesser enemies will not be joined with musical tension. 



SINCE PONG, THE VAST MAJORITY OF video games have been adversarial in nature, pitting the player against either human or AI opponents. As such, whether your game has boss fights, fist fights, or fire fights, a large percentage of the music written for it is action-oriented combat music. These days, interactive music is a hot topic, as evidenced by at least three different panels devoted solely to the subject at this year’s Game Developers Conference—and “linear gameplay” is quickly becoming the new dirty word in game development. This means composers and audio implementers need to look at interactive music more as a necessity than a novelty.

As games continue their evolution into an ever-more cinematic experience, so too must combat music evolve to keep pace with the changing needs of interactive gameplay.


Interactive music is nothing more than a broad concept and does not necessarily constitute cinematic music implementation. Cinematic music moves the audience because it’s indivisibly linked to the drama being played out on the screen. As such, the difference between interactive music and cinematically interactive music comes down to a simple question: Are you correctly scoring the drama from the player’s perceived situation?

Far too often, the answer is “No.” Perhaps the most common combat music interactivity scheme used in games today is an enemy AI-based combat awareness mechanism. In short, combat music is triggered when the enemy AI detects the player’s presence and continues until the player has defeated all enemies, evaded all enemies, or died. It’s an approach that gamers have heard time and time again in everything from RESIDENT EVIL 4 to KINGDOM HEARTS to SLY COOPER.

The inherent problem with combat awareness audio is that it doesn’t take the player’s awareness into consideration. By its very definition, this approach to interactive music scores the perceived tension level of the enemy AI, not the player’s. If the player runs away or hides, the music returns to a neutral state because the enemy AI no longer perceives a threat, regardless of the knowledge the player has that enemies are still lurking nearby. Additionally, there is no musical feedback in this mechanism should the player spot the enemies before their attack state is triggered.

What can result is an awkward interactive combat music system that’s constantly starting and stopping music cues, switching back and forth between two different dramatic musical statements with only a few seconds devoted to each.


The opening tutorial level of GOD OF WAR, on the other hand, is an exceptional example of smart combat music interactivity. The score’s greatest attribute is that it’s widely dynamic, constantly scoring the perceived threat to the player with an appropriate tension level. The very first battle Kratos has with a group of the undead is very tense, and a suitably frenetic action cue spurs the player along through the challenge. After that, the music continues to build throughout the level climaxing at the first hydra battle. The really important part to observe is how the next battle with a group of undead beings is scored. The tension level is significantly lower. Here the game is saying through its music, “No need to be too concerned. You can take these guys. After all, stud, you just killed a giant serpent.”

The score to GOD OF WAR recognizes a very important point in interactive game scoring. After the first introductory battle, small skirmishes will never hold the same level of dramatic tension because they only represent a small obstacle to the player. As such, any game endeavoring to cinematically score combat needs to have a minimum of three different tension levels: neutral/non-combat music, low- tension/small threat combat music, and high-tension/large threat combat music.


Because game engines vary so widely, it’s difficult to offer a simple catchall solution to the issue of smart combat music. The most important point to bear in mind is that no single interactive music mechanism is enough to smartly emulate a cinematic experience. If the engine uses an enemy-detection radius to trigger a combat state, consider implementing two different radii. The first is a CombatOn radius set relatively close to the enemy itself. The second is a CombatOff radius that is set extremely wide. So long as there are enemies or non-exhausted spawn points located within the second CombatOff radius, combat music continues.

Another possible option is the addition of a ForceCombat script into the music engine that overrides any AI-dictated conditions and mandates a combat music state. Any simple in-game event can then be used to turn the ForceCombat script off and return functionality to its normal state. The most important point is to take the time to spot through each level in terms of mood, tension, drama, and pacing and implement dynamically different interactive combat music in such a way as to augment each of these elements as they relate to the player at all times.

The next generation of console games holds the promise of great steps forward with interactive gameplay, and interactive music is poised to become the new standard in game scoring. With some careful planning and a smart approach to implementation, composers will find themselves action heroes in their own right as they deliver the interactive heart and soul of the game’s soundtrack.