Wednesday 7 January 2009

Marty O'Donnell in Interview - Part 4

In this, probably the longest single post of the series, Marty explains the relationship between music and location as well as how much of the music he composes in response to the level. Then, in perhaps my favourite part of the interview, Marty answers my question about why he didn’t (and still doesn’t) allow players to change the volume of the music and sound in the Halo games, resulting in a passionate response about the issue of player control vs. designer control.

Ben: So, the way Halo has used music… it seems like music is triggered based on location or events. So you crest the top of a hill and that particular string piece plays or something like that. I’m interested to know, how much of the level did you know was going to be there when you started writing and when you started recording?

Marty: I’m not sure if I could say what the percentage is… but the majority of the music is written because of what’s happening in the levels. Sometimes I’ve already made what we call music tags, tags that work a certain way or have certain variations within them or certain intensities, I know I can go from here to here. I have these music pieces that are built that will respond in certain ways and I’m building them while I’m watching what the level designers are doing.

But then before I actually implement the music or finish even recording the music, the levels are pretty much done and scripted. So we have what we call trigger volumes. Events will be triggered based on what the player’s doing, or the location of the player, or how much time the players spent. You can pick a trigger and we can trigger something off of it. Pick some event that can happen in real time and we can anticipate it and put in a condition that will be aware of that thing.

So any of those triggers I can decide, this would be a perfect point to start a piece of music, stop a piece of music, change a piece of music, overlay some other piece of music, you name it.

And because I’m sitting and working with the designers all the time, basically, I sit with them and say ‘what are you intending to do in this level, what is the emotional journey you want the payer to have from here to her to here, [etc]’ and then we just keep working that out and that’s when the music is finalized, sometimes it’s composed from scratch from those discussions, sometimes it’s music that I’ve already sort of already anticipated would be useful and I try using it in certain situations. It’s probably half & half in terms of how much music is composed prior to the level being completed and how much is composed after the level is completed and designed.

B: I also read in an interview with you, that you deliberately decided not to let the player fiddle with the volume of the music and the mix. I thought that was a really interesting choice.

M: That goes all the way back to Halo 1, you’re right.

B: And I didn’t even know as well, I’d never gone to look for it until I had started my analysis for it, and tried to turn it up so I could hear it over the noise of a tank. Is that choice related to you want to have that composer control?

M: *laughs* Probably, I think my genetic makeup is ‘I’m a composer’ but I like technology, I love games and I play games and I help design games, but… yeah, my DNA is as a composer and composers are primarily control guys. Even more than that is that I want people to have a really great experience. It’s as though I was a chef and, look, I’m making a really great meal and if the first thing somebody does when I serve them is they pour ketchup all over it or salt all over it, I’m like ‘wait a minute! You’re not tasting what I prepared. Now, if someone tastes it and goes ‘wow this tastes like crap, I need ketchup’ then fine. What I didn’t like was people, especially game players, have gotten into a habit that they should have control over all these things and basically I’m saying, you know what, no – you shouldn’t. What you should do is, play my game and if you hate it you should return it. *laughs* You should stop playing it. But I don’t want you to return it because you poured ketchup on it right away.

“If the very first thing people do, and which I’ve seen people do, is they change the mix before they even play through the game… my suggestion was, hey I have no problem giving people control over the entire mix of the game, that’s fine, I want to give you control of the entire mix of the game, however I’d like you to earn that right *laughs* and I would like the technology to be… play the game my way once, and then you unlock the mixing console and now you can go back and play the game again… but at least I know at least one time you heard it and experienced it the way I like it… I’m not even saying it’s the right way, I’m just saying this is what my vision was. So, what I don’t want-- people go ‘hey you know I had a really crappy audio experience’ and then I say ‘really?’ And they go ‘Yeah, well of course I turned the sound effects all the way up and I couldn’t hear the music’. It’s sorta like, well that’s not the experience I gave you so… On none of the games I’ve been able to convince the technologists at Bungie that we have to have a mixing console for the fans that is only implemented after they have completed the game. I would love to have that, in all honesty I think that would be ideal because then at least I know they would be experiencing the game the way I like it, and I hope they like it, and then they can play around with it to their hearts content.

But it’s sorta like going to a movie theatre and saying “I always like dialogue louder, so even before I watch this movie I want the projectionist to turn the dialogue up”, and that’s just not the way we see movies. And here’s the problem, as a passive audience member in a movie you’re just are expecting that you’re going to hear the mix that people wanted you to hear, and most of the time you say, wow either I loved that movie and I love the mix or I didn’t, but you don’t have this expectation that you’re gonna be able to control that. I don’t think it’s necessarily think it’s a good thing for game-players to think that they should have control over every parameter of a game.

You might as well say ‘hey, if you want to, change everything that’s red to green – because you prefer green. …And no one says the artists are control freaks, even though, trust me, artists are way more control freaks than composers, but that’s just my opinion. *laughs* But no ones expecting that you should be able to choose your own colour palette, unless you’re doing something like Little Big Planet which is a game which is all about the sand box, which is all about you creating your own characters and lighting and fog and textures and you name it. But basically you’re still giving players a controlled palette that designers have already decided… here’s the sandbox, and here’s the parameters we believe are fun to play in, go play.

Anyway, that’s a long answer to your question but that’s why I did that thing about the mix. Very, very few people have complained to me about not being able to mix Halo games their way. I have had some people complain and I apologise I say well that just wasn’t my intent and if you didn’t enjoy it then you didn’t enjoy my mix, and I understand that but…

B: Wow, that’s hard to believe that anyone would complain.

M: Well no I’ve had it don’t worry. *laughs* And I apologised, but at least I know they are complaining about… they don’t like my vision of the audio. They’re not just having a bad experience because they happened to set a fader badly. To most players they don’t know the difference between ‘I intended them to have this experience’ or ‘they inadvertently caused the experience to the bad’ all they remember is the bad experience.

B: Yeah that’s interesting. I had a funny experience with Bioshock at the end of last year, I put it in and I started playing and I went “The music is too loud!” because I couldn’t hear anything else, so I was really glad I could turn it down. So I guess that’s the trade-off, you’ve got to be confidents that you’ve set it all right.

M: Yeah… I mean it’s like… I make the trailers and so forth too for Halo games and no one thinks twice about… we work forever on a the final mix, right. If you’re seeing a linear trailer you’re seeing the mix… no one has the expectation that you’re going to watch a trailer and turn the music up or the dialogue down or turn the effects up or whatever and change the mix… I don’t think it’s necessarily the right expectation to have in a game. Certainly if they have that expectation it’s because they’ve been forced to use it too many times which means that’s a failure of the audio designers because they haven’t done good mixes.

Now, the caveat to that is, I believe the tradition started especially on the PC because, back in the day when you played games on PC’s everybody had different sound cards, and the audio designers could not know what the persons final experience would be, they had no clue. So they had to give all those faders and switches and sliders to people because they knew everybody’s experience was going to automatically be different. So, for me, I understand why it started, I think it’s just a bad habit. And to some extent I think it’s gotten game designers and audio designer people for games a little sloppy because they just feel like, ‘we can just throw a pile of music in there and not have to think about mixing it in, and they can throw a bunch of sound effects in and have all the sound effects normalized and unnaturally loud because they figure ‘well, people will just turn it up and down according to their preference.’ And I think that’s just not how you mix anything.

I would rather actually spend the time trying to do as good a mix as I possibly can, and then having the fans say ‘I love the game, I loved the audio’ or ‘I loved the game but the music was too soft, or the music was too loud.’ And I learn from that, most people didn’t like the mix or whatever. So far I’ve been OK.

But you see what I’m saying? What happens with gamers is they tend to think, well this is an interactive medium and that means that as the player I should have control over everything… and to me I’m thinking, you know what, no, not really… the game designer is making a game and trying to make a cool experience for you and there are going to be a lot of interactive parts to the game but it’s still… I don’t know if you’re religious at all… but it’s like Calvinism, the idea that there is a sovereign God, or there’s man’s free will, right. Well, in the game universe, the game designer is basically like God, but we want the player to believe they have free will, believe they are truly making choices but really we’re sort of God in the background saying ‘yeah you’re gonna have this illusion of free will but we know where you are, we know what you’re doing and you’re never going to get through that door no matter what you do *laughs* but here’s 5 other doors that you can choose any order you want to.”

B: Yeah, I guess the skill is in… well its sorta negative connotations to it, but manipulating the player.

M: No, no, we manipulate, no doubt about it. And frankly think about it, well you can think about it however you want, let me put it this way. You have a tribe of people. No technology at all. And everyone sits around the campfire and everyone can tell a story. Well, after a couple weeks, that tribe of people is gonna say, hey lets have Fred tell the story tonight because he always tells good stories. Just because we all have the ability or we all have the right to tell our own story… some of us are just not that good at telling stories. So certain people in the tribe become the storytellers and become the shamans, and that’s just the way people are.

Just because we say ‘hey, here’s a game and you can tell your own story’, well guess what – people don’t really want that because… probably most people tell kinda boring stories… they still want to be entertained, and to be entertained you have to have someone who’s entertaining behind it.”

Yeah that’s my philosophy, trust me I’m not necessarily right, it’s just what I think. *laughs*

In the next part, I ask Marty about musical scoring in multiplayer and why he doesn’t think it’s currently necessary, and what it would take to convince him otherwise.


Michael Abbott said...

This has been a terrific series. I'm so glad you took the time to transcribe what, I'm sure, was a very lengthy interview. What a champ O'Donnell was to give you so much real, solid process-oriented stuff.

I'm especially pleased to see the issue of manipulation raised. This is often seen as a pejorative term, but most of us in the performing arts spend the lions share of our time thinking about how to do this well and meaningfully. I love the fact that O'Donnell embraces the concept and sees music as a pivotal element in the manipulation that audiences/players expect us to deliver to them.

Thanks for giving us a heaping helping of analysis into something we rarely see covered so well or so thoroughly.

Ben Abraham said...

Ah, my pleasure. I can't stress enough how much of a class act Marty was - a consummate professional and extremely giving with his time.

Hope the rest are just as interesting!

Nels Anderson said...

I'll echo what Michael has said and agree that this has been absolutely excellent. I know next to nothing about music/audio and reading this as a relative outsider to this domain has been great.

I don't understand the aversion to "manipulation" either. Maybe it's just the term itself and that in the real world, we don't like to be manipulated. It's still strange though, since somber music during a funeral scene in a film is intended to manipulate the viewer into a somewhat illogical feeling (sadness over a fake person's death), but nobody cries foul there. Perhaps changing to window dressing and calling it "influence" might help some folks out ... ?

Regardless, there's manipulation aplenty and it's really important, as long as it's done well. Games are finite systems, so true freedom is impossible. But it's possible to manipulate the player into thinking so by giving them a few meaningful choices. Executing that well is one of the medium's biggest challenges, but when it happens, the medium is at its most rewarding.