Musical Themes

Alex Anderson 🚀Alex Anderson 🚀, July 8, 2021
Musical Themes

Flight Directors pride themselves on their music collection. When I was a flight director at the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center, we would collect as much music as possible, often copying it from other flight directors. We took music very seriously because of how much impact it had on the mission. Occasionally, crews would ask that the flight director not play music, but those missions always felt tepid and bland. Music provides soul and feeling to the experiences in the simulator. Good flight directors know how to pick a track of music that conveys what they want the crew to feel at any given moment.

There were two schools of thought when it came to what music to play for missions. The first group of flight directors studied their music so well that they could search for and pull out specific tracks at any point during the mission. Their hands would quickly type into the search field of iTunes, they would scroll the scrubber to the exact moment they wanted in the song, and then their other hand would press a sound effect key while they played the song, creating a transition between songs without being jarring. This method was crucial for those moments when flight directors have to fly by the seat of their pants, either flying a flight they have never flown before, or working a new angle on a mission for a particularly intrepid crew.

The other camp maintain playlists for all of their missions, with each moment of the mission mapped and charted out through music. At the beginning of the mission they would press the play button, and wouldn't adjust the music unless absolutely necessary. This lets the flight director focus on other aspects of the mission, leaving the music to itself. It also helps to keep cadence as the mission progresses, making sure it doesn't go too fast or slow.

There is a middle ground, where flight directors would create playlists of certain moods, or feelings, that happen during a mission. Playlists like "Battle", "Calm", "Travel", "Mysterious", and the most important "Victory"! This makes for an easy way to pick a track for a moment without having to memorize the entire music library. Also, this method works well for modeling music in Thorium Nova.

Theme Playlists

The idea is that Thorium Nova has certain themes that the engine is able to determine based on what the crew is currently doing and cues from the mission timeline. If they are under attack, then the music would shift to a Battle song; if they are at warp or impulse speeds, it plays a Travel song. If they activate their cloaking device it plays a Sneaky track and if they are sitting in one place doing a bunch of sensor scans it plays an Investigation track. Many of these can be automated, and for those moments that need their own track, the mission writer can add cues to specify exactly what should be happening.

When the theme or mood changes, Thorium Nova would randomly pick a music track from the new mood and the music would automatically cross-fade between the tracks to avoid jarring jumps. If a jump would be more appropriate, the mission writer can have the song immediately jump when the transition happens. As long as the ship is in a certain mood, the music will transition through the songs in the mood playlist.

Thorium Nova will come bundled several tracks for each of the themes, so you can start playing the game without having to worry about adding your own music. But of course, adding your own music would be as easy as putting songs into a plugin. Those songs would automatically be added to the rotation for that mood. And, of course, Flight Directors can turn off the music and play their own songs if they want. This music feature is designed for players who don't feel like curating their own music.

Seamless Themes

Something I've thought of recently is the idea of Seamless Themes. This is where a simple melody and chord progression is orchestrated for several different themes - one song, many moods and feelings for that song. What would be a calm, pleasant song in the Calm mood would be a driving, triumphant song in the Travel mood and a minor-key, threatening song in the Battle mood. It would still be the same song though, making it possible to perfectly cross-fade between the tracks as the mood changes. You can hear this effect in the game FTL, which has tracks for both normal gameplay and battle - it's a cool effect!

Of course, this would require some specially-composed songs for the game, but I think it would totally be worth it. Maybe I'll try my hand at composition and see what happens...