Game Music: Halo

Halo OST CoverI really, really wanted to include this in my history series but that would have been cheating since I never actually played much Halo. This is a shame since the composers are both talented and fascinating, beating Valve to the punch on several points years before Half-Life 2. So this week, Halo: Combat Evolved.

Composed for Bungie by Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori, the Halo soundtrack is one of the greats and was justifiably praised when the game was unleashed on the world. I never got into Halo – my introduction to it came right after finishing Max Payne and the shift in tone was a little too jarring for comfort – a little dumbed down, cartoony and simplistic. The soundtrack though is anything but, and a great deal of thought obviously went into its creation. For a sci-fi action game the music stays surprisingly clear of techno and electonica, preferring martial or tribal themes, emphasising the combat – naturally – and the ancient setting of the titular Halo.

Halo’s audio engine has features not dissimilar to iMUSE, achieving similar goals. O’Donnell worked closely with the level designers, “spotting” each level to produce varieties of music suitable to locations and events, and determining how the music would change and react across each level. These chunks of music could be stitched and blended together dynamically as the game progressed to react to the action. As well as the musical score the audio engine could blend in ambient sound effects using 3D positioning to better immerse the player in the soundscape. Following a school of thought that Kelly Bailey would adopt for Valve years later, O’Donnell kept the in-game music generally sparse and low-key, using stronger scores for emphasis and feedback:

I believe that music is best used in a game is to quicken the emotional state of the player and it works best when used least. If music is constantly playing it tends to become sonic wallpaper and loses its impact when it is needed to truly enhance some dramatic component of game play. In Halo, there are more than 80 minutes of original music, but these minutes are spread over the course of a single player’s experience, which could extend from 20 to 70 hours of play. Therefore, much of the time no music is present.

– Martin o’Donnell, GDC 2002: “Producing Audio for Halo”

If you’re at all interested in video game music composition or composers, read the above article, it’s genuinely interesting, and not just from a music perspective but from FX development too.

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