This article is based on thoughts and some personal experience of mine in the field of Adaptive music for video games. Isn’t it amazing to see the huge leap forward of the music for video games, when we look back over the past 30 years? Nowadays, the video game music is fully comparable with its big brother, the Film Music and even the prestigious music awards Grammy, acknowledged it to be an Art in its own right, putting it in the same category as it. And that’s not all.

Game music is usually labeled as interactive.

The video game music shares the same production and art values, while being adaptive in real time. But before we look into the present and future of Adaptive music for video games, let’s make an important clarification. Video game music is usually labeled as „Interactive”, or „Adaptive”. Question is – are these just two words to name the same thing, or is there any difference? And while it’s often meant to describe the same thing , here is how I understand the difference , in couple of examples:

Interactive music

Example 1 — Music track changes when the player goes from one area into another in the game (room, forest, village , cave etc) and the separate music tracks reflect the specific features of these areas;

Example 2 — Action music starts, when the player engages into a fight.

Adaptive music

Example 1 — The music mood swiftly transforms from one into another, when the player makes a choice out of a couple options available. For instance:

  • Make a noble deed and save people from a danger.
  • Turn a blind eye on the same people who need the help and move on.
  • Capitalize on the situation to earn something.

As a result of the choice, there can be a change in the world and the music could „adapt” to the newly created situation in that world. I have used this technique in the music implementation of Divinity: Original Sin 2 (spoiler alert), where the fate and look of an entire city can be determined by a decision of the player. Provided you decide to doom the city, the music of the once full of life place, goes into a tragic and terrifying mood.

About the Baldur’s Gate III music: the first impression – early access

Example 2 — Depending on the level of severity in a situation, provoked by the player, music can change its mood – starting from tension and then transforming into a grave danger state. I used this functionality in „Crysis 2”, where depending on the number of enemies the player has alerted , the music was transforming in real time in the following way:

  • Tension mood starts, when the player approaches the enemies, but they are still unaware of his/her presence;
  • Action mood kicks in, when the nearby enemies are alerted and the fight starts;
  • Frantic mood „seizes” the music, when the situation turns into a „madhouse” and everybody is after the player (you can see gameplay video showing this functionality here).

We can go on and give many more examples and they will all reflect the different types of games and gameplay mechanics, but most of it will fall in one of these two categories above – Interactive / Adaptive.

Technically speaking both categories (Interactive and Adaptive) are a result of players actions, but in the latter one, the music does not just change, but rather adapts to a newly created situation, which is a result of thoughtful decisions of the player. Having these clarification in mind we can more clearly understand the evolution of the game music and think about its future. It is spectacular to see how the role of music in video games has historically changed from being a mere background , then becoming interactive and turning into an adaptive one today.

How about the future then?

Here are a few thoughts of mine. All of the examples mentioned above reflect only the player’s decision and actions and the way they influence the world around him/her. How about adaptive music, which changes as a result of unpredictable series of events in an open sandbox game for example? Music that adapts not only to the gamers actions, but also to unpredictable, global events like war, peace, broken alliances or newly created ones, for instance? More and more open world games contain complex political and economical systems, which have their „own life”, in parallel with the player’s campaign.

It is spectacular to see how the role of music in video games has historically changed.

Imagine you explore a realm, which just got a complete overhaul of the music, because it was conquered by another ruler? It was not a result of your actions, but happened on a systemic level. You were used to a tune that was previously playing there, but it is completely different now, because the new reign brings its own folklore style. How cool would that be? Or a random brawl occurs in a tavern, which results in… the death of the musicians playing there.

Then it is only natural, the next time you enter the same inn, to find out that the old music is no longer playing there (you could have saved those musicians but you were busy punching someone else. Too bad). Such music features would make the game world so much more alive, meaningful and thus more enjoyable, right? Of course all these bold ideas are directly connected with the game worlds and the respective gameplay mechanics. But I believe that even in the most simple gameplay design there are options for adaptive music, to increase the immersion.

Imagine, if you have a real bad luck in playing mini-games for example, which gets you involved in unpleasant encounters in a game. It’s not a result of a decision, but the situation still changes and so does the music.

How about a chance at the beginning of a RPG game, where by selecting your background and character features.

Another possibility that comes to mind is music, which „shapes” to your predefined main character for example. How about a chance at the beginning of a RPG game, where by selecting your background and character features, you also get in-game music, adapted to your selected features? I had the chance to work in this direction, by designing the music system of „Divinity: Original Sin 2”. There, at the beginning of the game, the player is given the choice to select his/her main music instrument, which then takes lead in the music and shapes it during fights and various other situations. This feature, combined with the separate main themes for each origin character you can play, results in a more varied music experience for the gamers. You can check the „Divinity: Original Sin2” music system design features here.

Game Music and the Classical Hollywood soundtracks

But this is just the beginning in this direction. We can go so much deeper and further, by completely changing the style or, „detect” the player’s music taste or even… his/her emotional states throughout the game. The funny thing is that these ideas are all possible with the current technologies that we have at our disposal, even today. We can do it and it is only a matter of resources. The sky’s the limit, I believe. And that’s the real beauty of it.

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Borislav Slavov

Composer & Music Director of Baldur's Gate 3, Divinity: Original Sin 2, Larian Studios. Previously Crysis 2 & 3, Two Worlds II, Knights of Honor.