This Game Does Not Exist
For my final project at San Francisco State University, I designed and composed a series of themes for video games that do not exist.
These pseudo-games take the form of various popular genres in the current gaming zenith. From pop-inspired tracks for a tactical shooter to classically-informed electronic music for an indie farming simulator, this project is designed to show both flexibility and understanding of various approaches to game scoring.
All compositions are original. All vocals, except for the vocal synthesizer in The White Room, are my own and self-recorded. All album covers are my own design and concept.
Mark of Ares: "The AAA Action-Adventure Title"
An orphan who happens to be the chosen one, who wants nothing to do with her fate, is the only one who can–and must–take down the treacherous evil that lies before her. She is stronger than a small army, prefers the company of animals to humans, and only comes to begrudgingly accept help near the end of her story. (Oh, and the chosen one should have been a man, so naturally, that causes some issue.)
... Did I get all the tropes? ✅
Mark of Ares follows Roula, a defiant daughter of sorrow and neglect. Left mostly to her own devices, she would remark (only when considerably pressed to do so) that she was practically raised by wolves, and far prefers their company to whomever she's speaking to. She is tall, a little odd, and strong as an ox with seemingly no effort. Her features are plain, save for mirrored birthmarks that travel from her fingers up to her forearms. Whispers of her parentage range from farmhands to the Gods, but no one knows.
As so happens to Chosen Ones™, one fated day changed her life forever: a dusty temple erupts with terror as creatures long-thought dead sprang to life from seemingly nowhere. Naturally, Roula's markings glow as if made of gold, and her already great strength is increased tenfold. She could arm-wrestle Hercules, bend the swords of ten soldiers with only a wish; and now, she has to use that scarlet strength to save her neglectful village from all manners of horrors and a basilisk.
And while that is where this musical journey ends, it's sure to follow that Roula will fell many more beasts, and uncover the genesis of her marking.
Notes on the score
I embraced the trope-laden exposition to dig into some of the popular genre features in AAA titles, including hard-hitting war drums, soldering brass sections, and larger-than-life orchestration. Drawing from the ancient Greek angle, the primary themes are modal (Aeolian and Phryggian), and functional harmony is almost entirely absent in favor of incidental harmonies created by layered gestures and themes over droning octaves or ninths.
Mark of Ares (Title Theme) To play when the game first boots up. Not intended to loop, but could repeat if the player leaves the screen untouched.
The title theme signifies both the meaning and power of the Mark of Ares, and the burden of being marked.
Outside the Temple To play before the player enters the temple. Designed to loop, though exported with an audio tail to avoid a sudden cut.
Roula's theme is the first four notes in "Outside the Colosseum", and serves as an underpinning for the majority of the fighting music. The bed of low strings infuses dread into the texture by adding a half-step dissonance to the droning octaves, while the solo oboe and violin represent the lone hero in their transparent and isolated orchestration.
Sanguine (The Fight Begins) To play when the player enters the temple and triggers the initial fight. Designed to loop, though exported with an audio tail to avoid a sudden cut.
The rising and falling intensity of the orchestration over the piano's unending eighth-note drone upholds the uncertainty of battle. Though through-composed for this score, this idea lends itself to the potential to transform this cue into an adaptive soundtrack by changing only the orchestration. The original design of this piece was only for solo piano, but it evolved into its ultimate orchestration upon completion of the title theme.
The Basilisk To play when the game first boots up. Not intended to loop, but could repeat if the player leaves the screen untouched.
The Basilisk theme relies heavily on chromaticism that emulates snaking around on the piano and through the orchestra, and the hard-hitting left hand drone gives the player an added level of stress (and/or encouragement!) during their quest to fell the unruly creature. If ever performed or recorded with a live orchestra, this is the only score in the collection that would require two pianos.
Mark of Ares (Reprise) To play during transitional cutscenes and the final credits. Not intended to loop, but could repeat if the player leaves the screen untouched.
The return of the title theme could return at various choice moments in later gameplay, but the two most likely candidates are leading into the credits (of a much longer version of this game), or into the next chapter of the game; somewhere beyond the village, the temple, and the basilisk. This final track is the first place where the harmony approaches functional, and counterpoint gets to emerge as part of the texture.
The White Door: "The Mystery Explorer"
In this "choose your own adventure"-style explorer, the player begins by aimlessly wandering through procedurally generated rooms. With little exposition, the player-character acknowledges that they must be dreaming (because surely these rooms couldn't exist apart, much less together), and realize that these various, random, entirely disconnected rooms have only two things in common: there is no sign of life, save a carefully-crafted spider's web, and the only points of entry or exit are identical white doors. The mystery unfolds through journal collections at various points in the ever-changing map:
I have had many dreams where I left one room and entered another; and when I turned back, the room from which I came was no longer behind me, but rather, a new room entirely.
And each time I doubled back through a door, it was something completely different; they didn’t even have traces of belonging to the same house. Once, I walked through a Parisian manor, then straight into a room scarred with war in some cold, ancient place. I have seen no other signs of life, save the traces of the creators of the abandoned rooms. Not even the remains of a trapped mouse, a lost fly; nothing.
In these dreams, I begin with a deep ache; an unshakable yearning just to find the original room, whose walls I quickly forget. When my faded picture of the original room dissolves completely, I am not relieved: the ache becomes empty, and turns into wanting for wanting’s sake.
Eventually, the rooms became darker; colder; hostile, in many cases. The only one I couldn’t pass through was surely the threshold of the damned: a lone, blind spider the size of a bear hung patiently, legs curled in and moving gently, just waiting for the lightest knock against her infinite web. Something in the walls gave green light, but all light seemed to disappear where she draped herself. The signs of life I had been missing were all here, cloaked in death.
The corridor seemed to have no entry–as if my doorway was an ill-placed hole in the fabric of her lair–and if it had an end, I didn’t want to know it. In my vision, I presumed it was an infinite web in which the spider could always see you, even if you couldn’t see her.
Something I noticed far, far too late in my journey is that every door looked–no, was exactly the same. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the most elegant mansion, or the most primitive shack, the most vacant space; the door remains the same. Even when there are many to choose from! That evil, awful, unyielding white door with the golden handle appears again, and again, and again; the least it could do is change its color, or anything but the room behind it.
Why does it remain the same? Why should it enjoy the luxury of consistency when everything around me changes? When I keep changing??
Dear Dreamwalker, I believe I can see you: I believe I’ve seen you in the corner of every room and around every door. We’re ships forever fated to pass, but your proverbial sails give me hope. I hope that in this infinite corridor, I might at last meet you, and we can exchange stories only we know without having to say a word.
[Based on the pagination and the handwriting, it appears a significant amount of time has passed since the last entry.]
To the Dreamwalker: I’ve given up hope of opening the right door. I now believe I should just stay in one room and wait. I’ll wait for you somewhere, someday; and if I am finally allowed to rest, or to sleep, please don’t try to wake me. It was nice knowing you through windows and doorways. I hope to meet you, soon...
[The writing seems like it’s from a pained or immobilized hand.]
Dreamwalker, I have found my room. It’s one I used to fear. I think I understand it now.
[The writing begins to tear the paper. The spacing of each letter is erratic, and unlike previous entries, it’s written almost entirely diagonally. Against the punctures and tattered layers of spider's web, you make out a single message.]
I’M STILL WAITING
Notes on the score
The first to phases are closer to ambiences than full pieces of music, but they plant the seeds for all thematic material in C minor. In Phase 4, the synth drone finally gives way to a chord progression that begins in a C octatonic scale (naturally, of course, for the spider's integral role in this story) and creeps back to C minor.
Apothecare: "The Indie Farming Simulator"
In Apothecare, you are a coin-sized witch that lives in a cozy toadstool in a wooded forest. You run a little apothecary to fix the minor ails that come with your woodland counterparts: a family of mice are almost always in for a series of rotating colds from the little ones; gophers seek muscle relaxants after a hard day’s excavation. (A little known secret of forest creatures from forests where it is forever spring is the ability to resize themselves in order to visit you.)
The inside and outside of your house flourish with herbs, flowers, ferns, and delicate foliage that you tend to diligently and carefully to ensure they thrive. You craft new recipes, cross-pollinate flowers for increased potency, and explore the forest to gather more components.
The trees are always green here; the snow never falls, and the sun and moon fade into each other so seamlessly, it's easy to forget the time of day. Time passes through the growth of your plants, who grow and die, but your friends are evergreen.
If not evidenced by the basic premises, this is a game designed for patience and relaxation. Gameplay falls into four basic categories:
Botany, for the care and keeping of your gardens, plants, and greenhouse
Foraging, for the exploration of the nearby forest to gather more materials for your garden
Alchemy, for combining all of your found and harvested materials to stock your apothecary. The player would use a carefully detailed journal to create different potions and drafts for their woodland customers.
Civility, for befriending your woodland clients (who are still primarily in the barter economy, and trade you various goods and services for your potions). This may include visiting their houses and dense, joining them for afternoon tea, and offering help for various tasks if they're in need.
Notes on the Score
Inflorescence (Title Theme, Botany Theme) Designed to loop, though exported with an audio tail to avoid a sudden cut.
This theme serves two themes: one as the title theme for the entire game, and the other for the Botany mechanic (described above). Though petit in both formal and harmonic material, the space provided by both the spacious synthesizers, distant voice, and rhythmic motion only at the beat level provides an ample amount of mental space that allows the player to feel relaxed and unrushed during their gardening.
Flow State (Alchemy Theme) Designed to loop, though exported with an audio tail to avoid a sudden cut.
Flow State is an exercise in motivational music: the bouncing filters, drums, and arpeggiators serve key characteristics of motivational music for the player by weaving in motion to various layers of the music without demanding much of the ear. The looping point could trigger at 0:48 instead of looping all the way back to the beginning and still loop successfully.
Into the Dark Wood (Foraging Theme) Designed to loop, though exported with an audio tail to avoid a sudden cut.
Similar to Flow State, this piece exercises motivational music, but this time favors the lead meandering harmony. The panned and indecisive hi-hat layered over the heartbeat-style kick drum in addition to the relentless eighth-note lead gives the player a mild sense of dread, though not enough to think that something truly bad could happen in The Dark Wood. (It's supposed to be a relaxing game, after all.)
Tea and Civility (Civility Theme) Designed to loop, though exported with an audio tail to avoid a sudden cut.
Upon encountering writer's block for this particular theme, after having enjoyed the minor-leaning harmonies of all three pieces, my studio partner tossed out a simple suggestion: "make this theme as major as possible."
And so I did! With a I-IV-V/V-V concept, this piece landed in harmonic language somewhere between joyful Haydn and Mozart, and rhythmically verged more into minuet territory than its original waltz form.
ATLAS: "The Tactical Shooter"
This first-person shooter would be directly modeled after CS:GO and Valorant: in ATLAS, a group of five Titans fight a group of five Olympians. Though the story often plays second fiddle to all else in a game like this,
Titans are AI war machines created by ATLAS, an international group of militaristic bad actors moving in the shadows of bureaucracy. Standing at seven feet tall and weighing approximately four-hundred pounds, Titans are self-sufficient, self-repairing, artificially intelligent soldiers. (Survivorship bias wasn't a problem for ATLAS, as so few of their machines have ever successfully been destroyed.)
ATLAS members pulled strings in all of the wealthiest militaries to purchase and deploy Titans, and militaries who couldn’t afford their own Titans were gifted fleets by Titan Corp. Eventually, they slowly chipped away at local police, religious, and government officials until the Titans, bound by no one, were in complete control.
Some ATLAS members broke away and developed their own faction to resist the Titan takeover. Branding themselves PROMETHEANS, they developed a cybernetic implant safe for most organic matter and recruited the Olympians: fighters, scientists, and leaders from all across the globe, unified by Prometheus, an AI an designed to counteract the Titans from stolen Titan Corp code.
Notes on the score
These pieces are modeled after Riot's Valorant Championship Tournament (VCT) songs by Grabbitz and Ashnikko. Some of the characteristics that stuck out can most aptly be described as "hype," "antagonistic," and in the case of "Fire Again," a little "bratty." I emulated this by designing and choosing gritty synthesizers and leaning heavily into a fiery bass and drums, and though instrumental, the pieces take the form of songs and could very easily facilitate lyrics and a singer.
One of the most salient aspect of these VCT songs is that the breakdowns are isolated and used as sound effects in the game. I designed the breakdown in the Titans Theme to be eligible for the same treatment.
Since tactical shooters rely so heavily on in-game sound effects for footsteps, direction of gunfire, and various environmental triggers, there is no looping music during gameplay. Instead, they are afforded a small amount of menu and lobby music, which are understated and generally short. The Olympians Theme introductory section is designed to serve both purposes.
Amethyst: "The Pixelated Heart-breaker"
Game developers and players alike continue to explore the vast possibilities available in "simple" pixel games. In recent years, Celeste captivated millions of players by integrating well-loved pixel aesthetic with a stunning narrative and unique physics. I imagine Amethyst could do the same.
Amethyst is about more than exploration, more than jumping from ledge to ledge in the hopes that you make it, and more than finding gems in the earth. It retains all those qualities, but encourages the player to dig deeper, metaphorically and physically. Players encounter Amelie, a forever-pouting sprite who got lost some centuries ago and decided to stay lost, and follows you in hopes of dragging you down in the mountain with her; but shortly after, Pierre appears, forever wandering but never lost. He helps you see paths you wouldn't otherwise take.
This theme, that would serve as both the titular music and the first delve into the mountain (of potentially many), lays out the horizon for the player: what is, what will be, and what could be.
Notes on the score
The sound palate of this piece calls back to chiptunes without being relegated to basic wave forms. I opted for an electronic drum kit over the noise percussion to allow for a more modern feeling, though the primary leading synths revolve heavily around the classic sine and square wave forms attached to pixelated games.
The piece starts somewhere in the realm of B-flat mixolydian and eventually meanders to a triumphant resolve in E-flat major during the final section of the piece. The transitional sections snake through secondary dominants and stay in neighboring minor keys to create darker patches in the adventure, while ultimately returning to the adventurous mixolydian, set to endlessly return.
MIKROS: "The Space Explorer"
You awaken, at first, to nothing.
Slowly, distant shapes show themselves to you; some are shy, but others are emboldened by the silent call to rise.
The nothingness before you is now entirely composed of countless stars: new and ancient, named and nameless, foes and allies all at once.
You come to realize that you, floating out in the midst of all of them, must look the same: a cold, distant idea of a star in the heart of infinity, headed on a path you cannot see.
You do not know your name, but you hear the whispers of a thousand passing stars say:
In MIKROS, your playable character is a lone star in an endless space: small, bright, and aimless. There is no sense of "lost," because lost implies a goal or a home or something to return to: instead, you wander. When you drift into neighboring star systems and galaxies, or into dark patches of nowhere, you experience visions and wisdom from the beings that live there. Across a star system familiar to the player, these visions range from the gentle teachings of the moon to being trapped under a glass by one who calls himself King, forced to fight your way out of someone else's vision to return to your own journey.
And at the end of the game, though you are still small and aimless, the light of your star is a little different. And so you wander, nameless except for the shout of a thousand proud voices:
Notes on the score
Lyra and The Wanderer are pieces of music that truly come from the stars: the first four-note motive of Lyra and the permeating ostinato of The Wanderer come from laying staff lines over a star chart. I originally developed these ideas for an acoustic ensemble, but reworked them with an electronic palate more closely related to space.
Moonless and Brand of the Sun are moments in which Mikros delves into a vision set out by a strong guiding force. In this instance, Moonless reflects a desert with no moon and no end in sight, intended to highlight that endlessness can be confining. Brand of the Sun is the desert in the harsh light of day, illuminating that not all starlight is good starlight, and not all wishes granted yield desirable outcomes.
A personal note:
This entire project began with MIKROS: I wanted so desperately to catch the experience of The Wanderer, walking through different worlds and visions, hearing so many different pieces of wisdom from voices across time. I wanted every piece to be The Wanderer: I wanted every note to be meaningful and gripped with sorrow and joy all at once. And I wanted to do everything perfectly.
But the artifice of perfection is not the true experience of The Wanderer.
I was so caught up in what that journey should have looked like, that I neglected to realize I was already writing this precise experience: all of my teachers, mentors, and inspirations appear in these vignettes. My sensibilities have been, and continue to be, shaped by those around me, and the conversations I had by mistake, and the questions I couldn't let go of. Every note I have written has been in some way touched by my professors and mentors, whether or not they know it. I have lived a different musical life in each term of my collegiate career, and in every moment in between, and I couldn't have done it without them.
So to all of them–all of you, for those of you who read this–my gratitude is boundless. Thank you.