An Eclectic Mix
LittleBigPlanet is a physics based platformer for the PS3, featuring a built-in sandbox editor which allows players to build their own creations and then share them with the game’s community via the PlayStation Network. The game’s music was required to work in its Story Mode, that is the levels created by Media Molecule, whilst also acting as a library of tracks which players could choose from when scoring their own levels in Create Mode. This could have proved to be an impossible task were it not for LittleBigPlanet‘s unconventional mix of themes, styles and genres. Instead, this eclecticism was embraced, and became the inspiration and driving force behind the game’s music.
The “journey around the world” nature of the Story Mode in LittleBigPlanet was the most specific part of the brief, each track having to be representative of the country theme which it belonged to. Whilst the game doesn’t directly refer to any specific countries, during development we used this method to give the various themes focus. We also wanted a way for players to manipulate the music to have it adapt to the peaks and troughs of the gameplay experiences they would create. So we devised an interactive music system that would allow this, but be simple enough for non-musicians to get their heads around.
What we ended up with were 6 parallel stereo stems, each containing a separate element of the track. This allows players to set the mix, by specifying the level of each component stem. This is achieved by the player selecting a little physical music object, representative of the piece of music, from their POPIT interface, slapping it down in their level, and then tweaking it to adjust its parameters. Linear music uses exactly the same system, but with only one volume slider to play with. Multiple music objects can be placed down throughout a level, allowing users to change the mix of the interactive music, or swap to an entirely different piece of music altogether should they so wish.
Mat Clark of Sonica Studios wrote the bulk of the original music, with me lending a hand on a few of the interactive tracks and creating additional linear tracks where required. A lush orchestral score was never on the cards for this project – we were looking for a bunch of different styles, with a hand-crafted sound inspired by the music of 1970s kids TV shows. Both Mat and I were adamant that every track should have some live instrumentation and Mat brought in some great talent, evident in the finished tracks.
For each interactive music object, we strived to have one stem that was primarily ambient (usually the first stem, to encourage players to find it and make use of it) and one stem which brought a totally different flavour to the track (usually the last stem, so that it felt like a bit of an outsider relative to the other stems). It’s easy to add intensity by bringing in the drums or percussion stems, but I was concious of having an ambient bed for those subtler moments, and something new which could mix things up a bit. This gave the interactive pieces an additional trick up their sleeve, allowing them to be used in more than just one level without sounding like a verbatim regurgitation. This also pays homage to the concept of mashups, the idea of different styles being mixed together fitting nicely with the game’s overall style. I expect many players have a lot of fun just playing with the mix to find a vibe that fits that part of their level, that in itself being a new experience for them and an interesting insight in to the construction of a piece of music.
But it would be a bit simplistic to think of the interactive music as simply a linear track which has been stemmed-out in to its component parts. If you write a linear track and do this, you’ll find that many of your stems are empty most of the time. It’s important to remember that it is the player who sets the mix and intensity of the music, so empty stems will confuse them when they are playing with the mix (“why does moving this slider do nothing?”) and deny them the ability to score their level effectively (“why didn’t the drums kick in when the race started like I intended?”). You could use a more sophisticated interactive music system, but then you are raising the barrier to entry and scaring away players unfamiliar with anything more musically sophisticated than an iPod. This was a learning process which Mat had to go through, not having worked in the interactive domain before. So, for some of the early pieces I was pretty hands on demonstrating what was needed to make the music work as intended. For the most part, this meant over-writing the music – all the stems have to work together musically for sure, but it’s OK if when they are all cranked up the mix sounds too busy because it is the player who controls that chaos not the composer. That doesn’t mean the music has to sound the same all the way through or be totally void of dynamics – if we wanted to loose an instrument, then we’d replace it with something else, or find a way to diminish its presence without it totally vanishing.
Mat was beavering away at the interactive music, we brought in Daniel Pemberton to lend his skills to the game’s intro movie. Daniel’s quirky hand-made style
set the tone for the game with aplomb, fitting in nicely around Stephen
Fry‘s wonderful voice work.
Like many of you, the first I heard of LittleBigPlanet was when the game was announced as part of Phil Harrison’s keynote at the Game Developer’s Conference 2007. Actually, that’s not strictly speaking true. I had already seen videos of the game in my previous job at Sony’s London Studio; countless 3rd party assets pass through a busy 1st party audio department, as you can imagine. But it’s fair to say that that GDC presentation was the first time I got really excited about the project and was instrumental in me wanting to work for Media Molecule.
Get It Together, the Go! Team track used in the GDC presentation worked outrageously well, augmenting the game’s abundant sense of fun and naïve, childish creativity. In many respects it set a rather difficult precedent – bringing two pieces of media together which have been created in isolation of each other and having them fuse together so powerfully is incredibly rare. But at no point did I view the process of choosing licensed tracks as an exercise in finding more of the same – that wouldn’t sit well with the patch-work aesthetic, and would make the library of tracks available to players too “samey” and therefore limiting.
I was interested in establishing a process which would intrinsically force the evaluation and selection of new music, that is music unsullied by prior experience, association and emotion. Licensed music can be used in this way of course – LittleBigPlanet uses the 1960’s library track Left Bank 2 precisely because it is known to most Brits (and other folks in reception of BBC programming) from its use over an astonishing three decades in the late Tony Hart‘s kids TV shows which were focussed on art and creativity. But I believe that selecting a piece of music solely because you like it is only appropriate at your own funeral – there has to be some kind of connection to the project at hand. Otherwise you’re making the assumption that everyone shares your feelings towards that piece of music, which will result in a total disconnect between the project and its music for many of your players. You can’t pick music which appeals to everyone, so at the very least you must try to find music that is fitting. So when I received track suggestions, which inevitably consisted primarily of people’s all-time favourites, I batted most of them away with my big old list o’ requirements:
must come from one of the eight countries featured in the game
– Each country must have at least one track
– No single country can have more than two tracks
– Music should strive to be in a style not stereotypical of its country of origin
– Music should be in a style or vibe not already fulfilled by another track
Dogmatically enforcing this policy encouraged hunting for fresh material, and ensured a licensed soundtrack that:
grounded in the world of the game
– did not encroach on the game’s original music
– expanded the library of tracks to provide a wide selection for players to choose from
The downside was that finding tracks which fitted the bill was a lot of hard work. With the help of Martin Hewett at SCEE’s music licensing department, we eventually filtered through over 2,000 potential tracks to come up with a short-list of around 30 which the team tested in-game and opined on to determine the final selection.
Near the end of the licensing process it became clear that, whilst we had put together a soundtrack which did a great job scoring the Story Mode levels and had a wide selection of tracks for players to choose from in Create Mode, there were some emotional holes in the track selection. Just because there was no pressing call for, say, “sad music” in the Story Mode levels did not mean that players wouldn’t want such a piece of music for use in their own levels. Daniel Pemberton had offered us access to his back catalogue of tunes written for TV, so we took him up on that and selected a bunch of tracks which broadened the scope of the game’s music library.
Of course, you can never provide enough music for a project with millions of potential levels. Even releasing additional music via DLC, as welcomed as it is by the community, is but a drop in the ocean. One solution is to allow the community to create their own music, but there are copyright concerns with allowing user uploaded audio. So, I’m currently working on ways that we can support the community in their endeavours to write music within LittleBigPlanet. There are already a huge number of levels which feature musical contraptions and sequencers built by the community, taking advantage of the limited number of music samples that I provided them with, so there is an obvious desire there. This is but one example of letting the community lead the way with the evolution of the game, which is Media Molecule’s raison d’être moving on from v1.0 of LittleBigPlanet.
Project Audio Factoids
133 minutes of music
21 licensed tracks (incl. 10 from Daniel Pemberton’s back catalogue)
9 bespoke interactive tracks
5 bespoke linear tracks
~500 lines of Dialogue in 14 languages
The Audio Team
Audio Design – Kenneth Young
Audio Programming – Matt Willis
Original Music – Mat Clark, Kenneth Young, Daniel Pemberton
Music Licensing – Martin Hewett (SCEE)
Additional Sound Implementation – Dominic Smart
Amir Heshmati – dulcimer, guitar
Ashley Milton – bass
Hammy – drums
Idris Ramen – clarinet, tenor sax
Jason McDermid – trumpet
Jemma Freeman – guitar
Kenneth Young – guitar, mandolin, whistling
Nick Pynn – balalaika, banjo, bass, violin
Pete Baikie – bass, guitar
Pete Long – baritone sax, flute, piccolo
Rob Hopcraft – trumpet
Simon Atkins – accordion, organ, piano.
This article originally appeared on Music4Games.net