Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Little Big Planet is a game that uses various interactive music techniques throughout its levels. In this post I will analyse some of these techniques, using The Game Audio Tutorial book by Richard Stevens and Dave Raybould as a reference.

The Gardens Level (Video 1):

Music Switches And Smooth Transitions

All levels in Little Big Planet are marked up by gongs whose main function is to save the game at particular locations. Most of the times, the gongs also work as switches or triggers that activate changes in the music. As mentioned in the GAT book, switching from one song to another might sound “clunky” if this occurs at an aleatory time of the song (p.184). Therefore, in order to soften or mask these changes, transitions or certain techniques like cross fades or smoke effects are required (p.187). In Little Big Planet, both techniques are used.  The gongs have a special smoke-like sound effect that helps masking the change from one state of music to another. At the same time, there is always a subtle cross fade in the music when one song switches to a different one, helping the music vanish smoothly.

Look at minute 3:40 in the above video. The volume of the music lowers down as soon as the player reaches the gong and the wheel. When he reaches the next gong, the same music keeps playing, but now a flute melody and a "banjo" counterpoint appear along with it. Throughout the game, each time the player reaches a character to speak with it, the music volume turns down.

Layers: Subtle Changes in Music

The GAT book explains how in most games, music is only present in special occasions in order to mark emotion and have more impact (p.164). Little Big Planet is not the case, as it has music all the time.  However, it manages to achieve variety and express emotion without sounding repetitive or boring. This is mainly accomplished through the use of layers. Most of the times, when a player reaches a gong, a layer of music is added or removed. For example, the appearance of a flute solo, a saxophone improvisation, or a drum beat.  In the GAT book, this technique of overlapping stems is called Vertical Layering (p.213). This way, during a whole level, there might be just one song made up by different layers, that make the tune more interesting and varied.  The use of layers also helps solving the problem of disk space vs. music variation; with just one song made up of different layers, you can make many different combinations.

In the following video we can see an example of layering. 

The Savannah Level (Video 2):

Watch minute 2:37. As the player advances, the music gradually varies some melodies keeping the same rhythmical base. Instrumentation varies as well, providing different changes in the music texture. Some times there are less instruments than other times. Now listen to minute 6:26. The music starts playing a saxophone melody that goes in counterpoint with the flute.

Creating Impact Through Radical Changes in Music

When an extreme change occurs in the visual sequence of the game, the song changes to a different one, reinforcing the mood and events going on. This creates impact as it breaks the long period of a layering song. In minute 5:20 of the above video, the layering song stops as the player reaches a gong and gets into a club. The gong’s smoking effect camouflages the abrupt stopping, and a new song starts sounding as if it were the one heard at the bar (functioning as a diegetic kind of music). The fact of changing the song using diegetic music, is one way to contribute to the immersion and variety in the game.

Exceptions: Linear Music

As we have seen, Little Big Planet explores many different types of music techniques. It even uses ones that are not so common in video games, like linear music. As stated in the GAT book, linear music is the one that lasts a specific duration and goes along with a visual sequence. It is mainly used in film, trailers, credits, or adverts (pg.172). It’s not interactive, unless you have the option to turn it on or off.

The following example shows a level in which the music is a licensed song composed by the Mexican band Kinky

The Canyons Level (Video 3):

This song works fine in the game as it is long enough to cover the level. If for any reason you spend too much time in the level, it will loop without sounding boring.


In Little Big Planet we can find loops among the layers that build songs. Some layers loop, and others don’t, making the whole music sound organic and fluid.  The saxophone example mentioned above in the layering example, serves to illustrate this.

There are other types of loops that occur during the menu screens, when the player is choosing where to go next in the map. This music, referred to as “lobby music” in the GAT book (p.173), is a short tune that suddenly stops when the player presses start. In Little Big Planet, a sound effect helps attenuating the sudden ending of the song at any point. See minute 0:26 in video 2.

Final thoughts

Interactive music has to be flexible. It must be made adaptable, so that it can be easily combined and mixed throughout the game, as this is crucial in order to achieve variety.

The music in Little Big Planet includes many different styles even when disk space is limited in video games. The game’s developers and sound designers had to combine all the techniques mentioned above, in order to make the tunes varied and rich in harmonies and textures. As a result, the whole soundtrack stands out from other interactive games, and it proves that non-repetitive design in music is possible even when there is music present throughout the whole game play.

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