The composer for the digital collectible card game Mythgard (Rhino Games, 2020) shares a perspective on the design and implementation of the game’s music. Composition challenges included creating a dynamic music system that would work across multiple platforms without middleware and crafting an iconic “sound” for the game’s mythology-infused science fiction universe.

As happens in a lot of game development team-building, it was prior connections that led me to join the Mythgard team. I’d worked with A Shell in the Pit audio in Vancouver, British Columbia, on several projects before, including Fossil Echo and Wandersong, so when Gordon McGladdery, their founder, reached out to me about Mythgard (Rhino Games, 2020), I jumped at the chance.

I got involved with Mythgard moderately early on—we had basic game design in place, still with some placeholder art for cards and the gameplay arena, and a story outline and world to work from. It’s always useful to be brought into a project earlier rather than later. You can absorb more about the game’s world, come up with musical ideas that reflect and enhance that world, and, on many occasions, actually influence the game’s development arc, intermingling disciplines in a way that makes for a stronger artistic and gameplay statement.

At Rhino Games, we had a lot of great cross-department and cross-discipline collaboration, feedback, and support. There were people in each area of development with whom the buck stopped, so to speak, but everyone was always eager to chime in enthusiastically about new bits of art, gameplay/design ideas, VO performances, or musical cues. For example, turn timers took a bit of massaging to get right. We started off with an electronic “countdown” sound design-forward approach, but we soon realized an escalating, dissonant trumpet ostinato pattern would be more effective at ratcheting up tension, while not breaking the dramatic feel that the game’s score established. That final solution involved the UI team, the sound designers, and I all working together to find the optimal solution. This sort of collaboration ran through the project, made for a lively, supportive environment, and kindled a well-fueled creative spark for everyone. There were some challenges, too, but it’s all a matter of scale. There’s only so much you can do, so many checkboxes you can fill in when you have a team of around a dozen, so you need to be careful and pick your battles for maximum efficacy.

Mythgard’s music system can be broken down into gameplay and nongameplay sections. Nongameplay covers things like the menu music, matchmaking cues, and single-player cutscenes. They’re all fairly straightforward. Cutscene music is treated just like score for a movie, and menus and such are simple loops with, on occasion, endings that trigger on cue. Gameplay music, on the other hand, is more sophisticated and covers the interactive, in-match score, which evolves based on time elapsed, whose turn it is (yours or your opponent’s), and who ultimately wins.

The interactive gameplay music involves a very simple yet elegant solution, constrained by some technical requirements that the team wanted us to adhere to—namely, that whatever system we used would work on the mobile, desktop, and web-browser-based versions of the game. Whatever system we devised would have to work within Unity (our game engine) with no external middleware. What we came up with needed only three features: the ability to accurately count musical beats at a given tempo, the ability to execute simple fades, and the ability to trigger new musical elements with precise timing.

After that, it was all in how we structured the music system.

Mythgard is a turn-based card game. You and your opponent alternate turns during each match. The music is therefore going to be tied to the big chunks, the large actions the players take. There’s only one piece of music for matches, so it needs to have flexibility to keep things interesting and dynamic. As such, I designed the match music in three sections: a Neutral section, an Enemy section, and a Hero section. When the match begins, we get a “match start” stinger that kicks off the game, then the music transitions into the Neutral section. That way, regardless of whether it’s your turn or the enemy’s turn, we always start the same way. If we reach the end of the Neutral section before the end of the first turn, we segue to the Enemy or Hero section, depending on whose turn it is, yours or theirs. If there’s no turn time limit, we can always come back around to the neutral loop section to break things up further, but sooner or later, the player is going to end their turn and pass the turn to their opponent. When that happens, the music switches gears to the opposite faction track—if it was your turn, we switch to Enemy, and if it was their turn, we go to Hero.

Now, this is the clever part coming up (well, I think it’s cleverish, at least): the transition happens on the next beat of the piece, after the “end turn” button is pressed. The cleverness comes from the fact that the piece is written in a very uneven, shifting 7/4 time signature, which makes a sudden transition from any single beat in any section of the piece to the start of any of the other sections feel very seamless and natural. It’s not anything revolutionary, but it is effective and doesn’t require any external audio middleware.

Outside of switching from Enemy to Hero sides when turns change hands, the rest of the match music’s design follows a mantra of “keep it interesting, and the players will make the connection.” There’s a surprising amount of listener psychology involved in gameplay music. People tend to associate things they see in the game with musical gestures, whether or not you intended the connection. As such, writing musically interesting cues with dramatic peaks and valleys helps keep things exciting, and when something musically fascinating happens at the same time that something fascinating happens in the gameplay, players will make that leap—they hear the music doing a cool thing™ and believe it’s because they did a cool thing.

Having notably different instrumental palettes for Hero and Enemy also allowed us to not-so-subtly tug on the player’s emotions. Regal horns and brasslike synths help make the player feel noble and heroic, and the chanting of Orff-like choirs, guttural low brass, and aggressive percussion color the other player in a sinister light.

The design process for this music system followed a fairly direct path from beginning to end. We couldn’t build something massively sophisticated, and there wasn’t a budget for several match/combat tracks, so building a system that shifted dynamically depending on whose turn it was made the most of our limited resources. Sometimes having restrictions just makes you come up with more and more clever solutions!

The only real compositional challenge I faced during this process was the restriction that I not change the tempo within the combat track, or any other tracks that use our beat-synced transition system (like the “searching for match” cue, for example), but that’s not the hardest restriction to adhere to. Switching from simple to compound meter or adding elements of rhythmic augmentation served well enough to keep things interesting. Perhaps if we’d had several match tracks to conform to this system it might have been harder to keep things varied, but with what we had, it wasn’t difficult.

The inspiration for Mythgard’s musical style all came from the art. The fantasy and mythological elements lent themselves to a sort of “epic” scale of orchestra, with a healthy dose of “mystical” sprinkled in, but the sci-fi/cyberpunk parts seemed to demand a more retro electronic approach, so I blended those orchestral sounds, occasional magical, mystical elements, and analogue synths together to create something that felt right for the world. As far as outside inspirations…I wasn’t thinking of specific things whilst writing, but I suspect scores like Basil Poledouris’s Conan the Barbarian, and Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings, colored by things like Daft Punk and Joseph Trapanese’s score for TRON: Legacy as well as a melange of period ’80s synth work undoubtedly influenced me on some level.

Mythgard’s single-player mode tells its story through a series of comic-book style cutscenes, complete with sound design, voice acting, and music, with the player switching between several viewpoint characters throughout the campaign. I tried to establish a tone for each character and faction, almost a subpalette/subensemble unique to them, and then come up with a motif for each that I could play around with. For example, the Ved’ma forces have a very Slavic sound, borrowing harmonic ideas influenced by Russian hymns and featuring plucked strings designed to evoke traditional instruments like the balalaika family. Parsa’s vibe, on the other hand, features sounds that evoke angelic voices and the duduk, an Armenian double-reed instrument, processed through an array of guitar effects pedals, taking something warm and emotive and trapping it inside an electronic box—a not-so-subtle nod to Parsa’s high-tech golemlike creations, their souls implied to be trapped inside mechanical bodies.

All game scores have challenges associated with them, but Mythgard was a unique endeavor from start to finish. From building a “sound” unlike anything I’d done before that fit the high-tech-meets-magic-and-myth universe to crafting a functional and flexible interactive music system sans traditional middleware solutions, there was a lot of neat, new ground to break. The response from players has been incredibly strong. It was a fun world to create in, and I look forward to the next time I get to dip my toes in it.