Portal 2? It’s only love, and that is all. Following the score in adaptive – and freely-downloadable non-adaptive – form. Photo (CC-BY-ND) _Superbeast_.

Game lovers may lap up anything the title Portal touches as though it’s covered in powdered sugar, but resident Valve Software composer Mike Morasky deserves special mention. His music for Portal, and now Portal 2, is dead-on: chilly, atmospheric, dystopian, but also pulsing with energy and able to capture the gaming blockbuster’s strange combination of diabolical cerebral puzzles with wit. It’s all the more impressive, as Morasky has straight-up parodied musical styles in his whimsical Team Fortress or horror movie-cinematic Left 4 Dead scores.

Developer Valve quietly released 22 instrumental tracks from Portal 2 as “Soundtrack Volume 1: Songs to Test By,” free in 320 kpbs MP3 form. “Music to Code By” could be just as appropriate. Even if you ignore this post, know that this score will be racking up Last.fm playcount as it pipes into the headphones of nerd boys and girls.

GamesRadar published an interview with Morasky. Interestingly, while this is being released in soundtrack form, Portal 2 is in fact adaptive in the game. The system is in the foreground only in a few scenes, but there, multiple layers give a sense of progression. Any musicians who have been … erm … sucked into this game no doubt found these scenes highlights already, but here’s Morasky’s explanation to GamesRadar:

There are several cases where the music adds channels and complexity as you successfully solve portions of the puzzle, with each additional piece of music actually coming from the device that is participating in the activated game play mechanic. Obviously, this can heighten the sense of achievement as one completes the puzzle but also turns the mechanics of the puzzle into a sort of interactive music instrument that you can explore by selectively triggering the different channels of music with differing timings and configurations. Most of the interactive music is also positional so that as you move through the space you also change the mix and volume of the music you are hearing, which invites explorations of the space as well.

Morasky and Valve have been at the forefront of adaptive music in games – an area still left surprisingly unexplored – in particular in Left 4 Dead’s use of cinematic cues to heighten suspense and integrate with actual gameplay.

But that doesn’t make the soundtrack to me any less satisfying. With nods to spooky scifi and electronica convention alike, it nonetheless emerges with a distinctive voice – much like the game itself. In a world of cookie-cutter mainstream gaming, at least in the triple-A territory, the success of the title could be encouraging. Find it here:

Found via the superb gaming blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun; who also note two additional volumes are on the way. Follow CDM’s Twitter feed and we’ll let you know when those hit.

And if you’d like to see more covered than in the interview above, let us know.

  • Actually adaptive soundtracks have been in use at least since early nineties, I remember Wing Commander games and X-Wing having music that adapts to what player is doing. It was simple but still worked pretty well. Also battle themes etc are common thing. But yeah, Portal 2 soundtrack and especially voice work is astounding. Game really inspires me to continue my Masters study in game design.

  • g8bit

    I am very glad CDM covered this soundtrack. I don't know if listening to the soundtrack is more enjoyable if you played the game, but I've listened to it in my car and even the more abstract tracks are just as engrossing. I would love to see a profile of Mike Morasky and his work in this game. The game informer covers the technical aspects pretty well but obviously CDM could do a better job of covering the musical aspects. I'd also like to read about what he did with electronic music and music generally before working at Valve.

  • Peter Kirn

    @dkstr: Yeah, precisely – adaptive soundtracks reached this incredible level of sophistication in the LucasArts years … and then we went from MIDI-controlled live synths to pre-rendered audio, and it hasn't been the same since. Valve has been one of the few developers who have returned to making music not only adaptive, but linked to gameplay (i.e., you might even respond as a player).

  • I'll post these links here if theres some non-gamers:

    I guess this goes more to music game category, but Riff – Everyday Shooter isnt that known game after all, impressive game for being made by one guy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNtpZnRuO4o

    All the music in the levels come from shooting enemies.

    And ff course Rez is an classic.


  • At a certain point in the original Portal game – about halfway through – you realize that you are on your own, that no-one is coming to help you and you really can't trust your "benevolent" host. I remember this because what brought it home for me was the music – one of those moments (for me) that made the game emotionally on par with the greatest of other mediums and not just cheap entertainment. I am downloading as I write and I look forward to hearing more of Morasky's work…

  • Andrew

    One of the earliest examples of adaptive music (albeit very primitive) was in Super Mario World – when you jumped on Yoshi's back a bongo track – clearly preprogrammed but lying in wait, muted – came into the mix. This made playing on Yoshi that little bit more fun.

    Adaptive music continued to be used in Super Mario 64. I struggle to name a specific example from the game but I do remember some of the water levels using different instruments to signal progress through the level, and the contrary change would occur if you went back through the level. A really nice touch and a clear aid to immersion.

  • Andrew

    Dammit…I meant to say "One of the earliest examples of adaptive music *that I remember*…" – hate to appear to be an authority on this! 🙂

  • I notice they have Portal2 ringtones as well for the iphone and droid. Well, I have a blackberry and wanted the ringtones for my bb. The iphone and droid file ringtone formats are not compatible with the bb. BB uses mp3's. So I looked at the linkspaths of where the files were stored for the iphone and droid and noticed they were uniform so I decided to try the path using the mp3 format which is what the bb needs. And voila, ringtone for my bb. here is and example – http://media.steampowered.com/apps/portal2/soundt…. Enjoy!

  • J

    Love it. Would be great to see more coverage!