Video games: Utahn creates high-scoring musical scores
Utahn Chance Thomas writes sweeping musical scores for video games in much the same way famed composer John Williams does for films only what Thomas does is far more complicated.
Movie audiences sit passively in a theater and listen to the score as the movie unfolds. But for a video game, Thomas writes music that has to anticipate the player's every move. If the action builds, based on what the player chooses, then the music has to crescendo. If the action suddenly stops, the music must reflect that new, quieter tone.
"There are interactive parts of the game where the drama unfolds unpredictably in spontaneous ways," Thomas said. "It can move at a moment's notice up into different layers of composition."
Thomas, 49, Bountiful, has written the game scores for a variety of popular interactive titles, including "Quest for Glory V," "King Kong," "Marvel Ultimate Alliance," "The Lord of the Rings Online," "The Hobbit" and, most recently, "Avatar: The Game." His newest score can be heard on the upcoming "Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars," which will be released Tuesday.
For "Avatar," for example, Thomas had to create as many as four layers of music on top of one another for a scene, each relaying a different response from the player. These musical layers are then stitched together on the fly as the player goes through the game.
"We had intros, transition pieces, all different, like little building blocks that you can put in and pull out at any time," he said about each section of music. "It's a tremendous amount of work. You get a typical film and you have maybe an hour-and-a-half score. For "Avatar," we had a 4 Â½-hour score. That's a lot of tunes."
Thomas was set to get a business degree at Brigham Young University until he discovered a recording studio on campus, "and that was it. I was a music guy from then on," he said.
Since then, he produced music for commercials by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (for which he won an Emmy), McDonald's, Blue Cross & Blue Shield and Ford, as well as for the Oscar-winning 2002 animated short, "The ChubbChubbs."
But after a neighbor introduced Thomas to video games and the notion that interactive entertainment was beginning to use more sophisticated music, he fell into the video game world. Back then, Thomas wasn't much of a gamer save for "Pong" or "Space Invaders."
Thomas got his first job with Sierra, the landmark Washington game company that created classic adventure games such as the "Kings Quest" and "Space Quest" series. He created the score for "Quest for Glory V," one of the first games to use a full orchestra, which he recorded in Salt Lake City.
He later moved back to Utah, where he wrote more gaming scores. He also set up the audio department for the Salt Lake City studio of gaming giant Electronic Arts.
"We're big fans of Chance," said Jon Dean, executive producer for EA Salt Lake, which produced the "My Littlest Pony" video games and the latest "Monopoly" title. "I've always been pleased with the work he's done for us. He has the real understanding of the art and craft of it."
While Thomas believes in the "art and craft" of video-game music, he says the recording association behind the Grammy Awards is still struggling with this emerging platform. He and others have been trying to persuade the group to create an awards category for video-game soundtracks. It wasn't until 1999 that gaming music could be submitted, but currently the music is lumped into the same categories as film and television soundtracks.
Thomas and other video-game composers have petitioned the association again now that "Civilization V" became the first game to win a Grammy for a song. "That kind of lit a fire under those of us who have been wanting this category to happen," he said.
Like music for movies and television, video-game scores help convey a particular mood at any given time, Dean said, even if it's the player who decides where the story goes.
"The type of music [in a video game] can completely change that experience," Dean said. "It adds another dimension."
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A complex art
In order to produce background music for video games, composers like Utah's Chance Thomas have to write different pieces of music for different ways the player controls each moment in the game. The pieces of music are then layered and stitched together on the fly as the game is played, based on how the player reacts. His newest score can be heard on the upcoming "Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars," which will be released Tuesday, for all gaming consoles.
Game composer speaks
Bountiful video game composer Chance Thomas will talk about how he composed the music for "Avatar: The Game."
When • Tuesday, March 29, 7:30 p.m.
Where • Sorensen Student Center's Ragan Theater, 800 W. University Parkway, Utah Valley University, Orem
Tickets •$10 with student ID, $15 without, available at 801-863-8797 or in the Sorensen Student Center.