So I've noticed that audio generally gets dumbed down to "boom, pow"-sounds and background music in arcade-style shooters. Why is this? There is so much untapped potential! To prove this I decided post a few ideas for more immersive and interactive audio and music in shmups.• CUES
This is a very simple thing to do but can be used very effectively. The basic idea is to give every enemy an audio cue so you can hear what you're facing. How can you use this then and why would you want to? Well, it's always nice to have an extra indication of what you're facing. This can be beneficial in scenarios where it's hard to make out the enemy. For example many enemies might share a look, an audio cue would help the player separate them or even be the ONLY WAY to separate them, thus giving you an extra gameplay challenge.
In Space Giraffe the player's area of vision is sometimes clouded by pretty colors but the when you're shooting enemies, each enemy has a distinct audio cue. For example you should be wary of "flowers" that grow up and launch at you, by hearing that you're shooting on one you can quickly move out of the way and let it miss you. This way of making enemies make sounds helps a lot and complements the thought of the visuals being part of the difficulty, not always showing everything clearly.
Another way to use it is to warn a player what's up ahead. In arena shooters such as Geometry Wars or similar you could have an audio cue when new enemies are about to spawn. If you combine this with giving each enemy a unique sound, the player can prepare for what's next. This usually rewards the player the most if you don't present it right away but let him/her figure it out. That way it becomes part of learning the game, the patterns if you will, something traditionally fundamental for shmups.• INTERACTIVE MUSIC
There is always the option to make the music respond to gameplay. This can very from the simplest and most common implementation of changing the music when the player changes the level or reaches a boss. It can also be used in more subtle or significant ways. A concept I explored in Morsel's platformer Kaleidoscope
was having music that grew as you progressed in the game, in this case the more items (pigments) you picked up. In a shooter there are many possibilities for how to use music like this.
For example you can have the music get more complex as the player ventures further into a level. This is especially easy and useful in fixed-length games such as Leave Home
or Squid Yes! Not So Octopus!
. This way you don't have to worry about implementation but can instead write a piece of music the same length as the gameplay session and have it increase in intensity or change character when milestones are reached. No programming skills needed
Another way is to add/remove elements of the music (layers, instruments, whatever) when the player is doing good/bad. In Kaleidoscope
I composed the music as a complete track and then exported the different instruments as layers. In this way we could start all the audio files and then fade-in/fade-out layers according to what happened in the game. In shooters you can use stuff like score, multipliers, lives left, power-ups and similar to determine what the music should do. In Leave Home
the enemies and similar change depending on your score, the same could be done with music to further explain to the player what's happening behind the scenes. This is a great way to immerse the player even more into the game, something that could be very important in an often narrative-less genre like shmups (see Rez
).• COMBINING THE TWO
This has been done before by games such as Groov
and Garden of Coloured Lights
and requires a bit more work. It might even become the game's gimmick as with Groov
. The main idea here is to make stuff like your shots, enemies dying and all sound effects part of the music. This way you have a "generative" score to your game. This might be hard to compose since you're rather limited when it comes to melodies and chordal structure but with a little imagination you can make good stuff. For example you can always program the game so that all sounds made are changed to another key at a certain time, that way you can write a more varied piece but still keep the same basic concept going. Rez
once again admirably does this in the way the player's shots are beat sync'd and used as percussion for the soundtrack.• SIMPLE TOUCHES FOR BETTER AUDIO
There are many simple things you can do to make the audio in shmups fit better. A rather simple one is to make the shots (if static) be a division of the music's BPM. Similar to what I mentioned Rez
doing this could help reduce audio "clutter" and generally make everything click.
Another thing to consider is that shmups are traditionally short and repetitive games. This might be a no-brainer but composing longer more varied tracks with less repetition will greatly help make the game seem less dull. Don't be afraid to change the instrumentation, harmony and melodies more than you're used to as long as it flows well musically.
Finally I just want to encourage trying out new things. Shoot 'em up-music is traditionally high-energy, high-BPM affairs with lots of melodic noodling (japanese) or squeaky synths/chiptunes (western). While this is understandable there's no shame in trying a more ambient, slow paced soundtrack. This might change the mood of the game radically and make for a very zen experience. And hey, you can always use tempo-doubling as an interactive part of the music Thanks for reading!
I hope this was somewhat helpful. I'm by no means an expert but I AM a composer by trade and I've played more shmups than you can shake a stick at. If you have anything to add feel free to do so as I've only scratched the surface of what clever things you can do. I tip my hat to you dear reader