Music Creation for Games

I’ve tried a couple of programs in the run up to trying to make some good game music, mostly software designed for making great chiptune pieces. In previous projects, I’ve used a program called Famitracker, which produces 8-bit music based on the sounds of the Famicom or Nintendo Entertainment System.


The difficulty with Famitracker is creating the “instruments” or the sounds that the blips make. The image above shows the various settings which can be changed to create unique instruments, and a handy little virtual piano to preview your created sounds. This is where I’ve struggled before. You can just import instruments from other sources, but it is then implementing other people’s instruments into your track that proves difficult.


It would be nice if the virtual piano could be used to lay down the track, but it’s not the end of the world using the keyboard keys instead. In the main window of this image you can see the track visually. It is made up of beats which align horizontally, and channels which are displayed in columns and allow different instrument types to be played at once. The letters and numbers in each space depict the notes or sounds being played, and correlate to a specific instrument. This track is a chiptune version of Welcome Home by Coheed & Cambria which I started to write. In the Square 1 channel I’ve put the main melody. I would usually use Square 2 for harmonies, but haven’t placed any here. The Triangle channel plays a much softer note, and I’ve used this for my base line. The Noise channel plays white noise-like tones which can make a drum beat if programmed well, and I’ve attempted to make one here (although it’s not perfect just yet!) The letters obviously refer to notes, and the number refer to the octave that the note is played it. When you play the track back, it plays from top to bottom. You can hear a little tune I wrote in Famitracker here. This was a piece I used for some motion graphics a while ago.

Another program that I was really excited to acquire was PXTone by Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya, creator of Cave Story. I’ve mentioned this before, because it creates the music that Amaya uses in his games, and everything he makes is just exceptional quality.


This is where you customise the instruments you wish to use. While it’s possible to add effects to instruments, most of the instruments the software uses come in a file with the program. Most of them are short blips and electronic sounds, which aren’t based on the sounds of any specific console but have a chiptune feel to them!


This is a visual representation of when each instrument makes a sound. The beats are spaced vertically this time, with the track playing from left to right. Here I’ve made a melody and a harmony using a similar blip instrument, and a simple drum beat using a drum sample. Most of the programming in PXTone is done visually rather than using letters and numbers, which takes a while to get used to but is nice for those who aren’t familiar with music theory.


Each horizontal line in the image above can be expanded to see the tones that are played. For reference, keyboard keys are displayed on the left hand side of the screen. These correlate to the orange blocks, which represent the tone and timing of the note being played. This track is an experimental track which I worked on for a while to get myself into the software. I originally tried to create something using a pentatonic scale, but found myself making something that sounded like a piece from a Daisuke Amaya game! The best examples of PXTone tracks have to be from Cave Story, so here’s the Cave Story theme to help you get an idea of the type of sound produced:


The software I’ve had most success with so far is one that I’ve only recently discovered. SunVox was recommended to me as a great chiptune creation program, but is also just a very user-friendly sequencer that can be used to create tracks using any sound or sample.


To get familiar with the program, I start to create my own synthesised version of Joe Hisaishi’s Kaze no Toorimichi from My Neighbour Totoro (although it still needs alot of work because the timing is really weird). At the top you have a similar layout to Famitracker, where rows represent beats and columns represent layers of instruments. The tones are similarly represented by letters for notes and numbers for octaves, although in this case notes can be added using the virtual piano in the row below. This just makes life so much easier! I often find myself making mistakes whilst trying to remember which note belongs to which keyboard key, although this input method is still available.


The “02” next to each note shows which instrument is being played. The instruments are shown visually here. You can see that “02” is a sampler instrument, in this case a midi piano sound. By experimenting with the program I noticed that the high notes of this particular instrument sound a little like a Japanese plucked string instrument, with a little imagination! Most of my instruments are samples, although the generator is what really makes the chiptune-like elements of the track. In this example, each instrument is connected directly to the output, but filter and effect modules can easily be placed between the two to change the sound of the instrument.


This makes a very weird sound! You can see the levels here in each instrument and the output as the track is playing. The track plays from left to right in the bottom window, where the little patterned blocks are aligned. Each block represents a segment of the music which can be layered, copied and pasted and changed by moving blocks around. I haven’t done it here, but you can customise the patterns to have more meaning! Repeated patterns show places where I have repeated parts of the track, which is very useful for creating drum tracks and base lines.

I had a go at using some of the Japanese music theory I’d learned to create a track in SunVox which used a broken pentatonic scale as a basis. I’ve carried on using the suspicious piano instrument and a flute sample to create a melody. This is written in E flat major, but has quite a dark, serious tone to it. I didn’t take it much further as I hoped to create something a little lighter. I have screencap issues so please forgive the audio only!

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First Try 2D Level Design


I started off today by drawing this artist’s impression of the outside of my Ryokan for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to work out what the landscape around the building looked like, and secondly I wanted to try to practice a slightly neater style of drawing that I can use for tidy, accurate level design! As it turned out, the building took up most of the page and I didn’t manage to get many surrounding objects in! But I think my tidy lines worked out much better. I have a tendency to scribble, and my designs are often indecipherable except by me!

I watched the Japanese Ring last night by coincidence. For those who aren’t familiar with the series, half of the story of Ring takes place in a holiday resort in the country called Hakone Pacific Land, which I always imagined was similar to Centre Parcs! In the Japanese film version, there is a big wooden sign at the entrance to the resort, which inspired the wooden sign next to my Ryokan. A little homage to one of my favourite Japanese novels! Whilst watching the film, I couldn’t help but analyse building structures. The film constantly moves about from city apartments to country inns, so there’s a variety of sources to go by. One notable feature of the Hakone Pacific Land cabins were that they were raised from the ground, with steps leading up to the entrance. I’m not sure if this is just a reason to hide a well under one of the buildings or whether this is a typical Japanese feature, but kind of reminded me of the part in My Neighbour Totoro where Mei peers underneath her large country house to look for a small spirit being who is hiding there. Personally, I’ve never had a house that I could look under! And I would be very worried if I could…

The house was actually recreated for the Expo 2005, which will be a really great model to design from for future buildings!

If anything, this morning’s Ryokan sketch got me thinking about the difference between the playable level background and the inactive, distant background. This will probably be mountainous, which is a backdrop which came up in Ring a few times, and makes a good background because it takes up a lot of space, is huge and consists of dull colours which won’t detract from the playable level. There may be a little sky and some clouds too.

To give myself another starting point, I started to think about level shapes. Personally, I think it’s easy to work inside a set space than design random pathways with no real structure. Just as an experiment, I looked at the shapes of some Japanese colour Kanji, as each of my levels will have their own distinct colour schemes.

The colour scheme for the first level is pink, or rose-coloured– “momoiro” in Japanese! I double checked all the kana in case the internet was playing practical jokes, I’ve heard stories of people accidentally getting “soup” tattooed onto themselves when they wanted “dragon” for example! Pink is also sometimes referred to as peach-coloured, but apart from that I think I’m safe to use this symbol.
From this, I tried to build rocky structures with buildings and other features, although I still found it difficult to arrange an entire level off the top of my head. I think my safest bet for now is to keep drawing it and adapting it until it becomes clear. I’ve also found that it’s easier to concentrate on a smaller area at once, so I may split the map into four and work on a corner at a time, starting with the top-left corner where the Ryokan is situated. Here are some of my very early scribbles, you’ll see what I mean about them being fairly difficult to read! I know what they mean though.

This is the first step in level design, according to Peter McClory who posted his really great insight into his design technique on his Blog. This was his initial level design for a game currently in development:

I’m glad to read that he favours the scrap paper approach to initial design! My original Ryokan interior design was drawn on the back of an envelope! I think it’s important to get an idea down on paper before it fades or changes, so sometimes it’s necessary to grab whatever is closest and draw.

With this design down, McClory moved onto squared paper to get a scale and accurate version of the level. He explains how important this is, because it must be designed to the constraints of the character who will be moving through the level.

Once this was complete, McClory moved into tracing paper and drew in the small details of the level, traced from the basic structure on the squared paper. The result is a wonderful pencil sketch, which I could only hope to equal! Tracing paper is currently top of my shopping list.

Heroes & Villains

The Heroine
I’m now much closer to a version of Hana that I’m really happy with. I’ve moved away from focusing on “Western” or “foreign” characteristics, and started to think about the properties of the average tourist! Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to be a tourist for a few years now, so I’ve conjured up the ultimate tourist image using the guidelines of the internet…

  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Shirt
  • Johnny Depp
  • Camera
  • Watch
  • Bag (big)
  • Shorts
  • Sandals
  • Google image search suggests that only overweight people can be tourists
  • Also, the stereotypical tourist only visits warm countries
  • I haven’t managed to apply all these to my final character design, considering the difficulties of converting small details into low-res pixel art (the character sprite will be 32 pixels tall at most). However, it would be interesting to factor some of these aspects into the inventory system- for example when she opens up her bag there could be a camera, sunglasses and a passport, which serve no purpose in the game but show that she is enjoying a sunny holiday in Japan. To apply these characteristics, I started off with a female-shaped template, which I can now use as a basis for any female character within the game. I’ve tried to put her in a few poses in order to create a little personality!

    I used the three of these images to play around with a few minor alternatives, like “shorts or jeans?” “T-shirt or jacket?” and “messenger bag or backpack?”

    (You can also see that I finally realised if I turn the brightness down to about -20 on my scanner then my scans come out a lot nicer!)
    Combine the best aspects of these ideas with the original characteristics of Western Otaku and you have my final* character design:

    *Note that I’m still toying with the idea of adding head-wear. Personally I’m a huge fan of hats, and feel I would definitely wear one on a Japanese holiday!

    The Villain
    At first I wasn’t sure if I actually wanted a “villain” in my game, or whether it would be a sort of natural phenomenon which causes disturbance. With the help of A Geek In Japan and a quick look into Japanese mythology, I’ve realised that I can pretty much combine villain and natural phenomenon together to create my “antagonist” (villain sounds too criminal for what I’m aiming for!).

    In times past, the Japanese believed that Gods lived inside Sakura trees, and just before the rice-sowing season offerings were made under the trees.

    From A Geek In Japan

    With little knowledge about the majority of Japanese mythical beings, I turned to what I knew from anime.

    In Cat Soup, the main character Nyatta travels to the land of the dead to reclaim the half of the soul of his sister, which was taken away by a Jizou. The start of the film shows that the sister Nyako is dying, and the Jizou comes to claim the soul. The soul is split in two when Nyatta tries to pull it back.

    The Jizuo in Cat Soup has a creepy fixed smile. Although it doesn’t have the appearance of a being able to deal real harm to anyone, it seems to be fairly content about its soul-stealing nature. I thought perhaps I could use a similar being for Hanami, however when I researched these beings I realised that they are not regarded as villainous. In fact, in Cat Soup he is simply doing his duty by collecting the soul of a dead child (read the Wikipedia article for more details!). In Japan, statues can be found everywhere. People place children’s hats and bibs onto the statues to provide a blessing to their children.

    A Jizuo statue is also seen in My Neighbour Totoro, when the two girls step into a shrine to protect themselves from the rain.

    While the Jizuo could be considered the main “villain” in Cat Soup, in actual fact he is not a villainous character. In Totoro, the Jizuo statue acts as protection rather than hindrance. I started to think about how I could create a similar scenario, inspired by the idea if Gods living in trees, and spirits who reside in shrines and statues. I wrote up this villain criteria list:

  • Based on, but not identical to, an existing Japanese “creature” from mythology/legend/folklore
  • A being who resides in Sakura trees, but who is recognised with a Shrine elsewhere
  • Not a representation of something “evil”, but perhaps something “forgotten” or “misunderstood” (especially going along with themes of loneliness etc.)
  • Perhaps the act of disturbance is a cry for help, or a punishment for forsaken rituals
  • Whilst researching possible candidates, I discovered the story of Zashiki-warashi, a child-like being who has the power to provide and take away good-fortune. Its child-like nature means that its statues look quite similar to the Jizuo, who is often portrayed as having child-like features. It has a mischievous nature, which could lead to the “disturbance” of Hanami. I haven’t figured out details yet, but for now I’m going to carry on with character design for my “villain”!