As Games Get More Systemic, Composing Music For Them Is Getting Harder

How branching narratives run counter to the ways linear narratives are scored.
Still from the Interactive Thriller 'Erica', A young woman gives a concerned look over her shoulder. The wall behind her has a black symbol scrawled over a floral wall paper.

Erica is a new FMV game that was announced and then simultaneously released at Gamescom this week. We had the game's composer, award winning Austin Wintory, come on Waypoint Radio to talk about Erica, movie spoilers, and what a few of his favorite brands are. You can listen to the full episode and read an excerpt below.

Austin Walker: I think about the Imperial theme from Star Wars as this thing that in your head you think "Oh, yeah, they play that all the time that's always playing whenever." It actually isn't the case. They deploy that a few times in a Star Wars film, and then what they do is they build certain motifs that show up in other places. And because it's a film they can know that by the time they're ready to deploy the big guns, whoever's main theme that is, whatever the big dramatic climactic encounter is, whatever that is they built up those motifs so that they can cash in on them.


But when I play Fallout 4 and and I'm doing the big whatever mission with the Brotherhood of Steel, I've heard the Brotherhood of Steel main theme every time I've been in their base, or the other thing is maybe I haven't. And that's my question for you: how, as a composer, do you count on or address in a game not knowing how often a player will have heard bits of that music? Because that's something in Erica with the kind of branching story and the way in which options do be closed out for you. Does that change? Is there a world in which I haven't heard whatever the riff is that's associated with Erica's father as many times as another player? I'd love to hear more about that.

Austin Wintory: Yes, what you're saying was a big challenge. You nailed it with the whole Imperial march thing where by the time we hear it, using that example, that theme really is hammered heavily during the Vader-Luke Cloud City fight in which he cuts off his hand, spoiler.

Walker: Oh ok!

Wintory: You've had 40 years to get your act together. So, you know, I'm pathologically anti-spoiler but that one I think we'll let slide. It's like "Oh my God Soylent Green is people!"

Walker: Now you've spoiled a second thing! Unbelievable!

Patrick: "Oh I really think you shouldn't spoil things but you know what I'm going to spoil two things back to back!"

Wintory: You wanna know what Rosebud really was also?

Walker: No! I will not!


Patrick: You can't go for a trilogy, we're gonna stop you.

Walker: The Ghostbusters cartoon already spoiled that for me when I was a child, so never again!

Wintory: Back when Egon was a blond! But yeah, that's so funny. So the point is during that very spoilery lightsaber fight we are hearing the Imperial March in this very culminating kind of way where, you totally nailed it. We are hearing it where John Williams knew full well that he had planted that seed repeatedly and now the the giant very imposing and menacing version of it has far more meaning and reaches us more kind of in his gut visceral way because it's not being trotted out for the first time as some novelty.

And that's that's where you know great storytelling is all about structure. Like when you see an amazing stand-up comedian where they have this air of spontaneity, but the callbacks and the references make you realize that they know full well where they're going at any given moment and they're master storytellers. That to me is just the greatest art, and that's what I'm always trying to figure out how to do on every project I work on. Even if it's the most open-world, free, player agency to the max type of thing. I'm always looking for ways to subtly impose some kind of structure so that I can tell a story. Where B is the natural consequence of A and C is the consequence of B, etcetera, etcetera, 'cause that's what storytelling is.


And so with Erica, you are absolutely right, there are things that pay off where you may not have fully seen the setup of it because you chose something different. First off, that's a huge writing challenge for the developers to figure out how to not screw over their own story in the service of player agency. You know almost like Telltale Games, those will have these branches and then they all converge again on the core and then it branches again, and then it converges again and Erica definitely has some of that as well. It's not like it's this "spokes on a wheel" where the game starts at the hub and then you just go off in any direction and it's completely different game.

It is more like a movie where the beginning middle and end are fundamentally similar for players, but the the sheer number of variations is pretty staggering on both big and small levels. So there's definitely a few scenes where I really had to pay off this big moment, and I thought "This whole scene is technically optional. It's really easy to not see this." So how do I make sure that I'm not under serving the Player's emotional take away in other scenes where they don't have this one. To be honest, I don't even know if I solved that because it's such a systemic challenge to this kind of storytelling.

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