Case Study: the music of Star Wars games

by James M. Potter

We all know what to expect at the start of a Star Wars game: ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away’; that iconic John Williams theme, blaring from speakers that will never be large enough to do it full justice; receding yellow text updating you to pertinent events in the universe like some sort of post-apocalyptic news ticker.

But it’s what happens immediately after that has reviewers reaching for their notepads. The text recedes into nothing, the camera pans down from a star-filled sky…and the developer takes over responsibility. Now comes their first opportunity to show that they’ve carefully dovetailed their concept into the vast history of a very well-established universe. But accomplishing this is not just the task of the visual department, which needs to capture the drab Imperial greys and expansive planetary vistas; and it’s not just the character design, which needs to populate the game with improbably humanoid aliens with silly names. Nor does the responsibility fall squarely on the story writers, who must craft an involving and fitting narrative with frequent recourse to moral absolutism – not to mention authentically clunky dialogue.

It is, I think, the composers assigned to these games who have perhaps the toughest assignment. Immediately after the opening march fades away, composers are required to immediately provide something that is new and fresh but also recognisably John Williams-esque. You can watch the composers of Bioware’s highly-anticipated MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic talk about these challenges here (their strategy perhaps being based on ‘safety in numbers’…).

The Old Republic has as its jumping off point the very successful single-player RPG, Knights of the Old Republic. Here the composer, Jeremy Soule, had arguably a bigger challenge in 2003 than the Bioware folks do this year. Not only was it necessary to provide music for a number of different worlds, and sub-areas of those worlds, over a long story arc, but the resources with which to do this were startlingly limited. Soule outlined the task in an interview:

KOTOR (Knights of the Old Republic) was more ambient because at the time we only had an 8 megabit per second MIDI system. That was state of the art. I literally could not write for a full orchestra for Star Wars. I had to fool people into thinking they were hearing a full orchestra. I’d write woodwinds and drums, or woodwinds, horns and drums, or strings and drums and brass. I couldn’t run the whole orchestra at once, it was impossible.

I suspect that composers writing now are thankful that audio processing has caught up. Star Wars is a ‘space opera’, defined in many respects by the use of a bombastic symphonic orchestra. This style to be filtered very carefully through the 8mb system Soule describes.

That Lucasarts (the organisation handling the Star Wars property) sets huge store by the audio of its franchise is shown by the split development of Knights of the Old Republic. Whilst Bioware handled story, gameplay, and characters, Lucasarts retained direct control over the game’s audio, perhaps aware that the software limitations would need to be carefully managed in order to preserve a ‘Star Wars feel’. It was they who were responsible for hiring Soule.

Later on I’m planning to do a case study of a particular Star Wars game, to look at precisely how the composers identified ‘Star-Warsy’ elements in John Williams’ music and folded them into their scores – and whether it worked. Stay tuned!