'No one wants a safe score any more': The changing tune of video game music

'No one wants a safe score any more': The changing tune of video game music
Matthew Jarvis

By Matthew Jarvis

March 24th 2016 at 10:54AM

Jason Graves, composer for Tomb Raider, Until Dawn and Dead Space, reveals his ‘blood and sweat’ approach to scoring Far Cry Primal, explores why studios aren’t satisfied with ripping off Star Wars and argues why budget shouldn’t stop indies having a killer soundtrack

You've worked on a huge number of projects across TV, film and games – your latest is Far Cry Primal. What attracts you to certain titles? 

Most of the time, I'm sought out by a developer who is looking for some sort of either specific or non-specific general creative approach.

Sometimes I do hear about games and I might say to my agent: 'What is this? It sounds really interesting. Check it out and see what's going on.'

But the trick is, with games, most of the time I get involved years before they're actually public knowledge, so there's actually no way of doing the detective work because they're so secretive about that stuff.

Did you look back at the past Far Cry games before coming to Primal? What was your approach to scoring the new game like?

Definitely fresh. I try not to look back, really for anything, unless it's something that's required of me and usually they don't have any specifics.

I did play Far Cry 3 a lot and I played Far Cry 4 a little bit – I was familiar with the music for Far Cry 4 a lot more than I was the game. But being set in the Stone Age and a completely different type of Far Cry, it was easy to not worry about looking backwards.

Really the only times it was even brought up, you've got your usual psychedelic Far Cry moments and they wanted to make sure we weren't going too much towards Far Cry 3 or 4, because some of the psychedelic stuff has some effects and things on it.

But that was really the only reference. It was very much: 'How can we make it sound like it belongs with the game? How can I make it primitive and natural and really fit in with the environment?'

How did you go about scoring Far Cry Primal, given that we have no idea what the music of the period sounded like?

It was kind of a two-pronged approach. The first one was the very psychological 'What is music?' question – how did it start? There aren't a whole lot of writings or anything. Obviously – we're talking about thousands of years ago. But really, everyone would probably agree that the voice was the first real instrument and that singing was the first music, so I wanted to incorporate vocals and breaths and things like that as much as I could.

I got three different vocalists – myself, a musician in town called Alan Atkinson and Malukah, who's a fantastic female vocalist. The three of us each sang on one of the three tribes. That's one way we helped differentiate the tribes.

Then there were also lots of whistles and horns and things like that that were assigned to each tribe. That was "the beginning of music" bit.

The second prong was that I literally looked at the game and saw people building a fire and rubbing sticks together and people walking around with these really cool costumes and jangly kinds of things. I thought: 'I'll collect as much of what I see in the game as I can and see what kind of music I can make out of that.' It was quite literally a trip to the store to get bushes, plants, bamboo, tiki torches, stones and everything that looked like it could've been around back then and just put some microphones in front of everything and see what I could do. It was very much a hands-on method.

I'm a drummer so it was not too far of a stretch to think about how I could bang or rub these things, but I actually didn't realise that you need to water plants and give them sunlight, or they'll die. There was not a lot of sunlight or water in the studio, so I killed my first batch of planets accidentally. Secondly, you really need to wear gloves when you're playing these things. I got blisters and splinters and sweat and blood all over the place. Which actually was kind of fitting.

"Everyone used to want a safe score that sounded like Star Wars or 'fill in the blank'. Now, I'm asked for the exact opposite of that; they want to take risks, they want to be daring and they want to be original-sounding."

Jason Graves

How much freedom did Ubisoft give you when working on the score?

They were so wonderful. The only thing they really did for chiming in was that the feedback for every cue would be: 'This sounds great, keep going.'

They would push– I used a couple of Aztec Death Whistles for the Izila tribe. It's this very specific kind of sound – it sounds like someone screaming in a tunnel or something. Ubisoft were the ones that had researched that beforehand as part of the research for the game. They just mentioned: 'Oh, maybe something like an Aztec Death Whistle.' I'd heard of them, but hadn't done a lot of research, so I got a couple made and used those in the game.

It was just another one of those things that the collaborative experience really, really works. Ideas going back and forth and talking about things and trying new stuff, all the time.

Speaking more generally, how has composing for games changed over the last few years?

Of course, my answer is from my point of view. I only know about writing my own music so I can't really comment on anyone else, but personally it seems that the soundtracks to games like Far Cry Primal are becoming very much the norm.

Whereas, for me personally, it used to be the opposite: everyone wanted a safe score that sounded like Star Wars or 'fill in the blank'. Now, I'm asked for the exact opposite of that; they want to take risks, they want to be daring and they want to be original-sounding. That's really been the case for the last six or eight years.

Honestly, part of that might be more of my personal journey and the jobs I've worked on. A small portion of it is the industry in general opening up. We're all maturing a little bit more and have been around the block a couple of times, and everyone's willing to take some chances and play the unsafe card every now and then. Usually, it ends up working.

The new generation of consoles has changed the face of games development, opening up dynamic storytelling, emergent gameplay and expansive environments. Have those trends affected the way you compose music?

Absolutely. In the past, it's always been either a very linear game or sort of an open-world sandbox title.

Far Cry was the first time I did both: you have missions and specific things you can do, and those are all scored, but then we also had the open-world cues, which was basically the second half of the soundtrack that I worked on. It was a little bit of both: getting the linear aspect nailed – so that when certain things happen, certain music plays – but then also working on the open-world aspect and having a deconstructed soundtrack that could then get triggered by the player's actions, and in not the same way every time. Even if you play the same open-world event you've been through before, the music's going to play a little differently because it might be triggering a different song or a slightly different part depending on the gameplay.

It's all about subtlety, really, with video game music. You don't want to hear it being interactive in the background. That's what's so great about Austin Wintory's score for Journey; when you play it, you don't think that it's interactive music, it just sounds like that's the way the music should play, and that's the way the music does play. Then when you play the same part again, it's different, but you don't hear the gears. That's what I like about doing interactive.

A number of game soundtracks have recently come to vinyl, while others have been performed in live concerts. How has appreciation of game music among players and developers changed?

Well, it's gone up, that's for sure.

I'm not sure when Video Games Live started, six or seven years ago – it's been a while. They were sort of the only gig in town in terms of being able to hear video game music performed live. It was great when they started, but now there's many, many, many different opportunities.

The Kickstarter funding for specific game concerts or tours is really great, because, just like with film, the fans that love the films or games end up falling in love with the music – or vice-versa, they love the music and they fall in love with the game. It's just a great way to experience everything that you remember about your favourite game, listening to that music.

People are becoming more and more aware, with the internet and Kickstarter and things like that, that they can put their money where their mouth is. I love going to concerts like that, it's just there wasn't a lot of opportunity before and people weren't as aware.

Last year, the score to Everybody's Gone to the Rapture was removed from the UK Classical Artist Albums Chart after The Official Charts Company refused to classify it as classical music. What are your thoughts on the perception of game soundtracks among fellow music professionals and enthusiasts?

I only deal with the musicians, and they're wonderful. One of my favourite places to record is in London. I've been there five or six times, and use the folks from St Martin-in-the-Fields or the London Symphony Orchestra – all those musicians, legitimate, professional musicians, enjoy playing game music as much as they enjoy classical stuff. Because music is music, as far as us inside this music sphere are concerned.

It gets a little less manageable when you start talking about "fans" of classical music versus fans of video game music. I love listening to all kinds of music, especially orchestral, but there is something to be said for the 'classics'.

I know that Jess Curry had a decent amount of time for her Rapture score, but it was nothing along the lines of being commissioned for a ballet or a symphony and the amount of years that these classic composers would be able to spend on stuff.

As composers writing music for games, film or TV, the music comes second. We're on a really, really tight schedule, so the fact that anything sounds great is kind of a miracle, because of all the other things that we're juggling – 'Oh, maybe it will be a decent tune' or 'Maybe it'll be something that people will like to listen to outside of the game.'

Most of the composers that I know are happy to get any sort of recognition from the fans, because, ultimately, that's the biggest reason that we're doing this. We want to entertain, we want to elevate the game and if the people want to listen to the music on its own, that's just the icing on the cake.

We spoke to Rhianna Pratchett recently, who discussed the changing role of writers in the development process. She argued that writers should be brought in much earlier during the creation of a game. Is that a similar situation to that of games composers?

I prefer to be brought in early. There's a difference, though, between being involved with the team early on in a project and having to write a lot of music really fast. Inevitably, you're always going to have to write a lot of music really fast. It's just the way it happens, it's the way game development works.

Most of the time, they do a small portion of the game, that gets approved and they get their budget, and then they sort of hire more people and widen the scope and make the rest of the game. Sometimes five or six levels all being made at the same time, running concurrently with each other.

As the composer, I have to keep up with them. I can do the first small level, and have some time, and that's why it's nice to be brought in early. But then when things start coming online and you've got three, four, five months out before we need to finish the game, you're going to be writing a lot of music in short amount of time. It's inevitable.

I know Austin Wintory had more, a lot more, time for Journey because it was not the usual game cycle for development. Indie games, and I've worked on a couple in the last few weeks, do have different schedules because they can – because they're smaller. But the big triple-A games that need five hours of music, there's no way around it.

That's not really something I'm complaining about. Sometimes it's fun – a week's gone by and I've written 20 minutes of music and I don't even really remember most of it. So I have an interesting perspective the following week when I hear it in the game: 'Who wrote that? That sounds kinda interesting.'

When you approach composing for a game, is your mind-set different to when you are working on a TV or film project?

Probably. Every game is so different and I think music, depending on the game, has different needs and needs to do different things for the game.

The general idea is it's there to help the player emotionally connect to the gameplay. But that can be done in lots of different ways depending on the perspective that you're playing – can you see yourself or is it first-person? – and what kind of gameplay it is.

All that stuff boils down to a completely different scenario for every project. We're not even talking about location or time or the language or anything like that. It all has granular influence over how I like to approach things and what the music really ends up doing. Sometimes it's very melodic, sometimes it's very rhythmic.

For Far Cry, there were no keys and no melodies, it's just people screaming and singing and grunting and flutes and horns blowing. The rhythm is really the only thing that holds it all together. But I didn't want it to be scary, the way Dead Space has no keys and no melody and the rhythm is what holds it together, so it needed to have different instruments and textures and timbres. Because it wasn't a scary game, it was a very primitive-sounding game. 

What technology and tools do you use? Does that differ from your work on TV and film?

Same technology. It's really just a matter of the software that I want to use. I might have more interactive software if it's something for a game and I might use a more linear pro tools thing if it's for a commercial or for a film.

It also depends on, again, what the project needs; a lot of the time, for Far Cry, it was me doing everything myself besides what the vocalists sang for me – recording and performing and doing everything here in my studio.

But then, for The Order: 1886 last year, that was all recorded at Abbey Road, so I had a team of people helping with the sheet music and the copying and the conducting and the recording and the mixing. Sony was there doing a lot of stuff. There were probably 15 of us, which is quite different from a team of one, which is just me. It's all really project-specific.

A lot of indie developers might consider audio and music as a secondary concern because of their tighter budgets. What would you say to those studios to convince them that sound is as vital a factor as gameplay and visuals?

It's sort of the age-old problem. When I was working with an ad agency doing lots of commercials, music libraries had just started coming around. It was tricky trying to convince ad agencies that they should pay me to write original music for them so that the song they're paying next-to-nothing for, they wouldn't hear on the next baby wipes commercial when they're trying to sell business infrastructure for Google or whatever.

It always comes down to priorities. Sometimes developers have their priorities in a different order than other ones. I think that an indie developer that's not thinking about music yet is the perfect example for students still in school or people that have been out of school for a while – music students, composers and sound designers and things – to meet them and give them an interesting argument as to why they should start. Because the earlier you get it involved, the better-suited it ends up being for the game. You get in with those developers, maybe they need some footsteps and some of this, and you start learning Wwise and then you need to do a little bit of music here and a stinger there and you can kind of be a jack-of-all-trades. You can just be audio, in general, for whatever they need.

"You don't need to worry about what an instrument is called and what its range is, and what the difference is between mezzo forte versus fortissimo – you just need to say: 'I want something to feel kind of lonely right here.'"

Jason Graves

Have you worked with any indie developers?

Absolutely. Especially here, around town, in North Carolina. There are two different game studios that I worked on some things for the March Humble Bundle. I worked with those same companies in the past on some of their smaller games, just Steam things and stuff like that.

It's a breath of fresh air next to the big titles, merely because usually it's not action music. It's not a shooter, it's something different, which means the music, of course, is really different. It's nice having the people – one time I had the entire game company, all four of them, sitting in my studio while we were recording some stuff. That was literally everyone. It's a different mentality to visiting Ubisoft where everyone is fantastic and wonderful, of course, but it's a floor of people.

What's the best way for smaller developers to approach working with composers such as yourself?

The biggest challenge for anyone – honestly, I've had this happen with triple-A games and indie games – is that people who don't necessarily know the technical points of music feel like they should still be talking technically or speaking "musically". No-one really needs to do that. Even when musicians are talking, they rarely use technical terms, unless they're referring to a specific piece of music.

It really comes down to emotion and it's almost like the most general you can be and the more room you can give your composer, the more interesting your results will be. You don't need to worry about what an instrument is called and what its range is, and what the difference is between mezzo forte versus fortissimo – you just need to say: 'I want something to feel kind of lonely right here.' The composer's already going to start picturing things in their head about what instruments or sounds they could use to make that happen emotionally speaking. That would probably be the biggest thing.

The second one is having any sort of an idea of how much music you need in your game. Obviously, the more music you can get, the better, but even if the game's not finished yet, just an overall idea of 'Well, it's going to be about an hour's worth of gameplay total and it's split into these four levels and there's two different styles of gameplay' or whatever – anything to give the composer an idea, because they have no clue. Then they can start talking about how many minutes of music need to be written and how it's going to be implemented. It's a really nice jumping-off point.

What's next for you?

Oh, a little bit of everything. I'm working on a film at the moment. I also wrapped up another game that I'm not allowed to talk about yet, but that's coming out sometime. Of course, other games that I'm working on that I can't talk about either. It's always such a great question and always such a boring answer.

Are there any franchises you'd like to work on?

I used to be genre-motivated, because I wanted to try something different. I did a bunch of World War II games for a long time, and then– it's turned really more to the specific developers. I would love to do something with Naughty Dog sometime. I really love their storytelling and the arcs that they have, it just appeals to what I enjoy about games: character development and all that great stuff.