Game Designers in Detail: David Kanaga

Game Designers In Detail is a three-question interview series between a current NYU Game Center MFA student and a PRACTICE speaker.

In this interview, MFA Pierre Depaz and speaker David Kanaga discuss the playfulness found in both musical improvisation and in games, how David creates his “Let’s Score” videos, and the structures of experimentation in game music.

To go deeper into the craft of game design, join us for PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail on November 14-16. More information and tickets available here!

Pierre Depaz: In your opinion, what are the common features shared by musical improvisation and play?

David Kanaga: I think music improvisation is a kind of play, so any consistent features of ‘play’ generally are going to apply to music improvisation. Free movement.. chase games (canon), dialogues, meditations, singing, laughing, dancing in general is the main quality of music improv, i think, and its a very open and non-judgmental thing, or can be. But it’s also possible to have competitive/tactical/strategic improvisation, features of the more ‘gamey’ end of the spectrum, tending toward conflict rather than pure cooperation. You can imagine a rap battle, now scrap the verbal content, and its still a competitive form, now allow the rappers to make sounds simultaneously, and the combat is now ‘hands on’ (sound-on-sound) and approaching melee form (where the classic rap battle is turn-based). It is maybe like a fighting game? But one which can turn its head on a dime to become a ballet or whatever else it might like, scrapping competition, or amplifying it at will.. I think this points toward some more interesting questions,  e.g. what are the common features of music improv and more massive playspaces, like political or financial process or geological process, or weather patterns, fluid dynamics and so on. The point of music broadly, I think, is to make connections, whether between tones or textures or senses or disparate materials or whatever, and to treat these as units or concepts and to ‘harmonize’ them. So, for instance, a conductor’s control of the orchestra harmonizes with the concept of a benevolent dictator or military commander, a totally undirected free improv group’s emergent dynamics harmonizes with the concept of an anarchic ‘state of nature’ of sorts, and even in conflict there are harmonies, poles of harmonic grounds (tonics and pseudo-tonics) tugging with and against one another, the play impulse existing somewhere in the latent potential being held by the tautness resulting from all this.

PD: I really appreciate your “Let’s Score” videos, providing alternative sound environments to existing games. How do you go about developing these projects? Do you have any particular inspirations/goals in mind when you start? Here are two examples that we will put on the website along with the interview. If you feel that there are other videos that might be relevant, please feel free to point it out!


Let’s Score Oregon vs. USC

 Assassin’s Creed

(here’s another: Mario Galaxy Ballet )

These are improvised/composed in Ableton with the film footage (which can be loaded into ableton) as a kind of ‘score’ to perform along time to. The video is like the conductor, it provides the rhythmic information, but it doesn’t provide any strict info as to what tones to use, so i can select those myself, informed by the moods/intensities of the clip. I think about the movie as if it were the output of a computer game, but a movie feels much easier to score than a computer game, since it’s only one path rather than many. In computer games we have to make a general theory of how a soundtrack works in various possible and actual configurations. With the movie, it’s just ‘mickey-mousing’ its called, and we only have to ask– Where are the events, the points of contact, sudden motions, etc? What are the flows and gradual processes, and continuous movements, etc? all of these movements can be mapped to analogous movements in the play of musical parameters, which are either discrete or continuous, so i improvise an idea roughly, and then tidy it up to line up the events, to make it sound more realistic. And this whole process, since it’s fairly simple, can proceed with almost no thinking whatever, just letting the intuition guide the ‘decisions,’ and this is a good workout to get ready for computer games which require way too much thinking, to bring a competitor into that process, something vs. thought.

PD: Do you think there are only particular genres of games or particular aesthetics which can greatly benefit from great video game music, or is it something that should always be pushed to the maximum, independently of the particular game design?

DK: First, let me differentiate between two kinds of video game music– the first is the soundtrack, the second is as the ‘formal cause’ of the game’s structure in time, which can be considered a musical composition even prior to adding any sounds (like a ballet).

The soundtrack should not always be pushed to the maximum, only if you want to make a melodrama. All AAA games should probably max it out though, as they seem to want to be melodramas. All genres can benefit, provided they’re willing to become melodramatic. There Will Be Blood is a melodrama, too, a chilling one…. in case the word brings to mind only gushy musics.

Musical structure, on the other hand, is something I think just about any game will benefit from accentuating/embracing (pushing may cause prolapse). “Game Feel’ is a totally musical concept, it is the game trying to become a musical instrument (whether sonic or not). Even any non-instrumental numerical aspects of games have a musical side to them as well, and I think tuning into the feel of raw number not as an instrumental ‘end’, but as a connective tissue, this is also musical and is applicable to all games.

Finally, the two kinds of music can be woven together, which is the kind of work I am interested in doing, and I don’t suspect this is always a good idea, but I am fairly certain that it is always possible.