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Could video games and musical theatre be the most unexpected crossover of 2023?


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Towards the conclusion of Baldur’s Gate 3, which is widely recognized as the top video game of the year, players have the opportunity to venture into hell. If they choose to do so, they will encounter the game’s version of the devil, a charming yet diabolical trickster who goes by the name Raphael.

It’s one of the toughest, most dramatic encounters in the game, the culmination of 150 hours of play. Naturally, developer Larian Studios wanted it to feel monumental. So they decided that the battle should be accompanied by a song, and that Raphael should be the one singing it. “The idea for a song to be performed by Raphael himself came from our director Swen Vincke about six months before the release of the game,” says Borislav Slavov, Baldur’s Gate 3’s music director. “The team instantly loved it.”

The soundtrack for Baldur’s Gate 3 features a grand orchestral score, fitting for its epic fantasy storyline. However, Raphael, the main antagonist, is not just a formidable foe. He is also witty, sly, self-absorbed, and enjoys putting on a show. Slavov, a fan of West End theatre, started to consider alternative options for this part of the soundtrack. When the lyrics were presented to him, he saw an exciting opportunity to create a full-fledged musical number.

The outcome was Raphael’s Final Act, a brief tribute to Raphael’s strength and the player’s impending downfall. It combines a haunting pipe-organ tune with dramatic orchestral crescendos and arrogant, taunting lyrics sung by Raphael’s voice actor. Interestingly, if you use the Silence spell on Raphael during the battle, his lyrics are silenced in the music.

In a game designed to generate memorable moments, Raphael’s Final Act stands out. And curiously, Larian isn’t the only developer to take inspiration from musicals this year. Numerous big games have used musical numbers to punctuate key moments. It is a fascinating trend, one that highlights developers’ confidence – because of all narrative modes, musical theatre leaves the least room for its creators to hide.

‘The moment the lyrics landed on my desk, I realised that there was one thrilling way to go’ … Borislav Slavov, musical director of Baldur’s Gate 3.

The new addition to Cyberpunk 2077, called “Phantom Liberty,” is a thrilling espionage tale that takes place in the heavily guarded area of Night City known as Dogtown. The objective of the game is to save a presidential agent who has been captured by a ruthless military leader. One of the main missions involves attending a lavish event at the peak of a towering building, which the player must sneak into. The highlight of this mission is a performance by the game’s fictional pop sensation, Lizzy Wizzy, who sings her hit song “Delicate Weapon,” written and performed by real-life artist Grimes.

“Our inspiration for this quest drew from beloved spy-thriller classics. We aimed to capture the atmosphere of elegant parties where glamorous individuals engage in discussions about vital matters with apathetic tones,” explains Konrad Chlasta, CD Projekt Red’s coordinator for quest design. “We recognized the significance of music in these iconic scenes, with each song telling its own story.”

CD Projekt aimed to produce a musical sequence that would captivate players while simultaneously highlighting the perilous nature of their characters’ intrusion. However, executing a “live” musical performance in a video game is a challenging task. Not only must the song be convincing, but the performance must also appear realistic, which can be difficult to achieve with real-time animations. According to Chlasta, while cinematic story cutscenes are manageable, any unnatural movements or unsynchronized voice lines during songs would be immediately noticeable and disrupt the immersion.

Collaboration from various disciplines in game design was necessary to create the Delicate Weapon sequence, including artists, animators, level designers, quest designers, cinematics, writers, and programmers. However, the most important factor in the success of the performance was timing. The initial idea of starting the song as soon as the party began did not allow players to fully engage with the guests and conversations. It was determined that the ideal moment for the song to begin was after a shift in tone, symbolizing a pivotal moment in the plan and the realization of being caught in a larger trap.

“In the completed edition, Lizzy’s show commences immediately after you establish contact with the desired agent. At this moment, your previous assumptions about loyalties and the situation at hand drastically change, causing you to ponder the significance amidst Lizzie’s holographic displays. According to Chlasta, most viewers take the time to appreciate the performance rather than rushing through the plot, which is the intended effect of the concert. It serves as a brief interlude before the next events unfold.”

‘Our references included cult classics of the spy-thriller genre’ … Konrad Chlasta, CD Projekt’s quest design coordinator.

One of the most extreme examples of using music to tell a story this year was seen in Remedy Entertainment’s game Alan Wake 2. The Finnish studio collaborated with the real-life band Poets of The Fall, who composed multiple songs for the fictional rock trio Old Gods of Asgard and performed them within the game.

Sam Lake, creative director at Remedy, explains that incorporating music and songs into their storytelling has been a lengthy process. He has long desired to include a musical sequence in their games. In Alan Wake 2, the protagonist Alan, a skilled writer, finds himself stuck in the Dark Place – a parallel dimension where his words have the power to materialize. Lake notes that the surreal atmosphere of the Dark Place presented the perfect chance to create a musical moment, as the entire realm can be viewed as a chaotic and delirious dream of Alan Wake.

Lake came up with a plan to showcase Alan’s life in a four-part musical performance. As part of our collaboration with Poets of the Fall, I wrote a draft of the lyrics for the songs, which Marko Saaresto (the lead singer and songwriter for Poets of the Fall) then turned into the final lyrics.

The final product is a nine-minute musical story called “Herald of Darkness.” Remedy chose to combine live-action footage of the performance with the game’s world, allowing the player to explore a stage set while the song plays on large screens in the background. The cast of the game performed it live at the Game Awards in LA in December. The band Poets of the Fall, playing as Old Gods of Asgard, reached No. 18 on the album charts for a week, showing that the game’s story actually had an impact on real life.

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According to Lake, creating the musical sequences for Alan Wake 2 was a challenging task that involved coordinating song performances and a choreographed dance performed by key game characters. This also included designing the level in which the player would experience the musical. Despite these difficulties, We Sing stands out as the highlight of the game. Its unexpected presence in a survival horror game turns what could be seen as a weakness into a strength by directly addressing the story’s inherent silliness. Lake explains that this was the perfect way to recap Alan Wake’s character and story while also showcasing the craziness of the Dark Place setting.

In an impressive feat, a game is set to achieve this in 2023. Summerfall Studios launched their first game, Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical, in August. As the name suggests, Stray Gods is a complete interactive production, similar to a show in London’s West End. The decisions made by the player not only impact the plot, but also the direction of the musical numbers.

‘Can I make the player fall in love with a character in the space of a single song?’ … Summerfall studios co-founder David Gaider.

David Gaider, creative director and co-founder of Summerfall Studios, recalls considering the concept of an interactive musical during his time at BioWare working on Dragon Age: Inquisition. This idea played to the studio’s strengths in dialogue, character development, and storytelling, but also presented a new and intriguing challenge. However, the implementation of branching dialogue with music and timers proved to be much more difficult than initially anticipated.

Stray Gods follows the journey of Grace, a youthful vocalist who inherits the abilities of the ancient Greek muse. With this power, she can compel individuals to express their emotions and wishes through music. However, this also draws the attention of the ancient Greek Gods, who accuse her of killing the former muse. In order to clear her name, Grace must uncover the truth behind the incident. In essence, it is an ideal plot for a musical performance.

Stray Gods offers a unique experience for players, as they have the power to impact the story through their choices. Throughout the game, players are presented with opportunities to determine the direction of the performance. According to Gaider, creating the intricate branching songs was a significant challenge from both a creative and design standpoint. This was due in part to the fact that the game’s narrative is primarily communicated through music, which posed certain obstacles in terms of defining what constituted a song versus dialogue set to music.

Designing a main character who remains consistent while also allowing players to make choices is a common challenge in game development, but Gaider explains that the addition of music made it even more complex. In traditional musicals, the main character has a clear journey with their own dreams and aspirations. However, when player agency is added, things become more difficult. Gaider uses the famous musical episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, “Once More With Feeling,” as a source of inspiration during the creation of Stray Gods, as it changed the way the episode’s story was structured. Ultimately, it was a learning process and the team didn’t fully grasp it until near the end of development.

According to Gaider, Stray Gods was a labor of love that took five years to create and was a one-of-a-kind blend of storytelling and musical theater. This project also taught Gaider the impact that music can have on a narrative. He had a theory that he could use music to make players develop romantic feelings for a character in a shorter amount of time compared to lengthy dialogue in previous games. As it turns out, his theory was proven correct.

Video games have recognized the significance of incorporating music alongside gameplay to establish a specific mood for a level or encounter. However, these projects showcase the potential of music when it is directly integrated into the storyline and becomes an active participant rather than a passive element. Slavov believes that incorporating songs into story-driven games is an effective way to enhance the impact of the narrative and elevate it to a higher level. As humans, we have a tendency to associate important moments in our lives with songs we were listening to at that time, and Slavov believes that the same applies to songs in video games.

Source: theguardian.com