Yesterday, I placed in a game jam for the first time in my 11-year history of participating in game jams. The game that took my team and me to that position was Sonny's Delivery Service, an entry in the 2023 GDevelop jam which recently ended.
I'm not minding the Audio score all that much because nothing, and I mean nothing at all, can take away from the fact that this game became what it is because my teammates, Tulenväki Studios and Fatal Exit, drew inspiration from the music. I felt that no matter how slowly the game was progressing and no matter our weaknesses, this team was ready to keep going, and to make this game the absolute best they could be, as a holistic experience, after hearing what I could give.
They already had a flier in the mechanics, but Fatal Exit, who was originally scheduled to do the music for this jam, couldn't handle it. I expressed my desire to jam on Twitter, and Fatal Exit invited me into the team, telling the devs in advance about my brand of emotional music. After telling them about a piece of music that immediately came to mind whenever I thought of exploring the world from a bird's-eye view -- namely, Zazie's Vue du ciel -- I plugged my keyboard into the PC, opened up FL Studio, and improvised the main theme of this game, everyday heroism, in a similar vein to Vue du ciel. But this time, I gave it a more heartwarming bent.
The tone of the game changed immediately. Missions were created around that heartwarming bent: you could now deliver groceries, letters, bouquets of flowers, greeting cards, heck, even a wedding ring, via drone. Between Tulenväki Studios' Rami, Fatal Exit, and myself, we came up with dialogue and mission ideas. The game touched people's hearts.
This situation feels like a dream to me, to be honest. After 11 years of never placing in a game jam throughout my infrequent participation in game jams, I had the good fortune to make a team that landed second place out of 120 entries. I had the good fortune to be in a team that took the game to new heights in large part because of the music. I feel acknowledged. I feel validated. We all do, in this team.
To be clear: that is not to say that I didn't feel acknowledged and validated by teams I was previously a part of; there are many teams that I still feel happy that I was part of to this day. I'll touch on that later.
Realistically, when looking for work as video game musicians, we are given the salient advice of looking for projects that are at least 70% complete, unless the mechanics of the game are intertwined with the beat of the music, like rhythm games. Some leeway can be given, but anything much less than that is a gamble that, more often than not, ends in a game in development hell. I'm sure we've had our fair share of games in development hell; I've had a fair few in my time.
There are solo devs and teams of devs who pour a great deal of thought into their mechanics, their art style, the dialogues, the general look and feel of the world. Choosing a musician is a process that, to them, requires utmost care so as to make the entire thing a holistic experience. The one that immediately comes to mind for me is Apico, developed by TNgineers, with music by Mothense. Feasibly, I can see a project like this needing to be 70% complete.
There are teams of people who talk with each other and do everything they can to make the game a holistic experience, drawing from each other's experiences and know-how. The example that immediately comes to mind -- biased though I may be (because I contributed session vocals to it) -- is Revita. Several people worked the art, several people did the voice acting, BenStar did the development, Christoph Jakob did music, and several people gave their session musicianship. Truthfully, when I think about the scope of a project like this, I don't know at what point the music gets brought in, but I can see it happening a touch earlier than 70% completion.
And then, there's the experience that we go through in jams: our musicianship gets underestimated or ignored, we come across devs that see music as a thing to be tacked on, and we come across teams that seem to go through the motions. We try to tell them, with the passion that we put into our craft, what our teams are capable of and what they can strive for. Some of us can write tunes that are well-loved by our teammates and people listening in mere minutes. And yet, our team doesn't finish, can't finish, or puts out a game that just about passes.
Or there are the teams that do finish, but the creative drive just fizzles out towards the end or immediately after.
The factors vary. People can be going through things and can't give their 100%. There may be a reduced timeframe for the team to finish the game due to studies or work. Burnout, mental health struggles, physical health struggles, work struggles, personal struggles -- these are all things that'll plague us at some point in our journey, things that understandably make us unable to give our all to this field. To some, however, despite whatever they're going through, it's important that a game comes out if at all possible.
Or, for whatever reason, there can be a lack of drive. A team can simply go through the motions, and teams like this feel absolutely soul-crushing. All of these things feel out of our control if we don't have people who know our kind of craft, and if we get randomly placed into teams at the start of a jam.
Sometimes, we can be lucky and, through random selection, end up in a team that is deeply passionate about the game being developed, regardless of whether we finish on time. If you're also a video game musician like myself, I'd like to know your thoughts on the matter. For my part, I appreciate teams like this because it shows that they have heart, that they care about the game, its atmosphere, and its message, and want to see it through, even if they don't manage to finish. It says something about the kind of work ethic I respect in creatives of any kind. Difficulties can crop up that make it impossible to finish. But dang it, if someone pours passion into something, others around them pick up on it.
Passion can't be forced -- however, it sure can be cultivated, encouraged. Looking back to the games we love and seeing exactly what makes them stand the test of time is a good exercise, one that I feel we should try and strive for. What is it that sends shivers down our spines when we enter a boss room? What is it that bids us stop and listen when we enter a place of great holiness, a shrine, a cave? What makes a race or a battle or a sequence in a game just plain fun? What makes these moments in games special? The passion I speak of, I think we aren't just able to see it in the visuals. We're able to hear it in the music and sounds. We're able to feel it in the rumblings of our controllers, or in the vibrations put out by our speakers.
Two jam entries I want to shout out that featured passionate and driven teams that unfortunately did not finish were Hearten and Reverie of the Lost*. The love that the team members poured into their games still stays with me to this day. And to them, the music was not an afterthought. The music was informed by the stories behind the games, and in its turn, the music also informed the game and gave people a sound with which to immerse themselves in the world they were creating, while they were working against the clock to finish their entries.
We musicians serve the game, but dang, it would be nice to have more devs understand, from the get-go, the power we bring to games. Great music can enhance a great game, and in some cases give a terrible game cult status. At the end of the day, if we're playing games, how these games play is king. But the other creative things that get into a game are not afterthoughts. Music shouldn't be one either. Now and then, it'd be nice to think very early on what kind of sound would make the game truly feel like something else.
And to that end, I cite the Splatoon series, with its various teams and session musicians who are happy to throw absolute curveballs at the devs. The summer update for Splatoon 3 brought, among others, this for a battle theme -- both an affirmation of previous musical tradition in the series, and a departure from the relative metrical and musical simplicity of previous battle themes.
How's that for fun? I am almost certain that the vast, vast majority of game developers would not think of video game music in this way. Devs, let yourselves be thrown curveballs by the people looking to score music for you. You won't be disappointed!
*Reverie of the Lost did ultimately get submitted into a jam the year after its planned release, with additional work put in by team members old and new.
Talking with my jam team after we got the results for the GDevelop jam, I was told that many people gave up on teaming up with random teams after a while. They found their close contacts after years of trial and failure, and they went on to make games that would win their respective events. When you know the people you're working with, it makes a difference, I suppose.
I don't want to sound bleak for anyone looking to score music for video games, so I will avoid that. However, I'll aim to be as realistic as I can: teaming up with randoms and getting to know more people in jam scenes is how we find people we'd like to work with. Making friends in game audio is how we find people we'd like to work with. And for most of us, consistently failing to place (or straight up forgetting that in favour of unranked jams) is how we find people we'd like to work with.
The biggest takeaway I feel each of us can get from this entire situation is this: confidence comes from within. Placing in a game jam is validating, but we need to get to the point that we know, inwardly, that what musicianship we can bring to the table is good even without the need for a game jam win. People listen to the music we make, however improbable that seems. No matter what style we write in, when we bring our musicianship to the table with a dev team, we are giving them a part of us -- we are giving them a sliver of the various things and memories that influenced our musicianship, our expression.
The best thing we can do for ourselves is to keep insisting, through the way we speak of ourselves and through the way we put ourselves forward, that what we have to offer is good, actually, and nobody can take that away.