(Interview originally published in the March 2006 issue.)
How important is it for a composer of game scores to be an enthusiastic gamer?
Very important. Can you imagine a person who wants to score films but has never seen a film? You have to know your medium, which is just as true when writing for videogames as it is for the concert hall, the stage, or the cinema.
Do you play the games that you've written music for? Or are you like those actors who can't bear to watch their own movies?
Well, the period of a composer's contact with a game is much longer than in film, and the task of integrating the music is usually much more complex than playing along to picture. So usually I play the game an awful lot while working on it, and, to be honest, once the game is done, I'm not so interested in going through it again.
What are some of your favourite games from the past couple of years? What about game soundtracks?
Maybe I'm too biased, but my favorite games tend to be the ones with the best soundtracks; bad audio really hinders my enjoyment of a game. My favorite games include Halo, Ico, and Frequency, all of which had great sound. Rez was another game that had a great soundtrack and used it in a really interesting way. And I thought Elektro Plankton on the Nintendo DS took a really fresh approach to audio.
Probably the games I've had the most fun playing recently are Dawn of War and Shadow of the Colossus. To extend the list to all-time favorites, I'd probably have to add MarioKart 64. I'd say Frequency and MarioKart are the two games at which I'm willing to take anyone on.
The soundbites on your website run the gamut of musical styles, from ambient electronica to classical to loungey jazz. Do you have an eclectic taste in music? Is it important for your job?
Yes, on both counts. I think musical excellence transcends style, and if someone's deciding the musical direction for a videogame, that person should be able to reference a large library, including popular styles and the music of different cultures and historical periods, to find something appropriate.
I think my perspective comes from my background in classical music, which has a long history of assimilation, from folk dances in the Baroque era and the exotic Turkish cymbals that Mozart was among the first to exploit, to the present day, when electronic sounds and pop elements are commonplace. For example, check out William Bolcolm's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, a gargantuan work that just won the Grammy for best classical composition last week and incorporates elements of country and ragtime into a large-scale orchestral composition.
You're best known for your work on Sierra's popular role-playing game, Arcanum. What do you attribute the success of the score to?
I think the main reason was that the score was unique, and it wasn't what people were expecting. Because of that, it got mentioned in all of the reviews. The first thing a lot of people consider for a fantasy game is a big, Romantic-era orchestra, but I think Arcanum demonstrates that a direction other than the most obvious solution can help differentiate a game from its competitors.
I can still recite the main theme song from games of my youth - like Moon Patrol and Elevator Action. How important is it to come up with a "catchy" theme for a game? And how far can you deviate from that over the course of a composition?
That's actually something I've worked to avoid, especially if there's the possibility that a piece of music may continue to play for a long time and drive people crazy. If something is easy to fully understand and quantify, it ceases to engage people and quickly becomes dull or annoying.
I think there's kind of a tyranny of melody in game scoring (and film scoring); there are so many other musical parameters to consider. One of my favorite movie themes is Don Davis' Matrix theme, which is not melodic at all. It's all about the shift in timbre and register between the horns and trumpets, and the result is really iconic and totally fits the film, as it reflects the pull of two opposing realities, the blue pill versus the red pill.
I don't believe that the measure of a work's beauty or impact is its humability, as people like to say, whether or not it leaves you whistling a tune.
Over the next 10 years, what will be the most interesting developments in terms of how a game sounds?
Well, for the most part, games have overcome the obstacle of production values; many games are recording acoustic ensembles and releasing soundtrack albums. Even though you still hear some electronically emulated orchestras, developers are increasingly realizing that their games have to stand up to the level of polish that gamers expect from the DVD's that they're playing over the same speakers in their home theaters.
So the next hurdle is integration; as I mentioned earlier, it's a lot trickier to integrate music into a game than it is to play a soundtrack along with a film. Everything's got to get hooked up to be triggered by the right events in the game engine, and composers are still inventing techniques to create the same kind of intuitive, responsive underscore for games that filmgoers take for granted.
An even more exciting prospect is the idea that as the number of gamers increases and new genres emerge, we'll see new kinds of game-like experiences that encourage people to interact with sound, perhaps as a kind of virtual sound installation in their living room. I think there's a huge potential for this kind of thing, especially with on-line distribution models and the next generation of game consoles coming out (Xbox 360, PS3, Nintendo Revolution).
How do you see the development of the local gaming industry, particularly in your field? For instance, are there many successful Chinese composers?
Gaming in China is huge and getting huger. More multinational offices are opening offices here, and existing ones, like the one I work for (the French company Ubisoft, which has been here over nine years now) are expanding. There are also plenty of Chinese companies, but they're not really known abroad (yet).
The formation of game audio designers is usually kind of haphazard. I've heard of college programs that specialize in it, but most people come from a more general background in music or audio design and learn the ropes on the job. It's important for universities to teach basic skills, not only the breadth of music history (see question one), but synthesis and acoustics as elements of music theory. Knowing about the spectra of sounds is as important as knowing what a Neapolitan sixth chord is for contemporary composers (actually, probably more important).
So for Chinese game composers, the only one I can name is He Xuntian (何训田), and he's a bit of an anomaly; his background is in classical composition as well, and I believe he teaches at the Shanghai Conservatory, but lately he's done a lot of pop and new age stuff, like the Sister Drum album from a few years ago. He recently scored a game called Shen Ji (神迹).
You've worked on the sound effects for many games. Is this entirely different from composing music for a game? Are sound effects all digital now, or do you still need to spend time in the field (like in a jungle in Ghana)?
These days my work is to ensure the overall quality of the entire audio experience in a game, which includes voiceover and sound effects as well as music, making sure everything fits together and supports the design and visual elements. This means that usually someone else will write the music, but I need to provide the musical direction to make sure what we commission fits. I actually consider this overarching sonic balancing act to essentially be a kind of composition in and of itself.
Sound effects come from all kinds of sources; some things can be recorded in a studio, like walking on different surfaces, handling weapons, or taking a sledgehammer to a pumpkin (something all game audio designers must do at one point or another). Other sounds need to be recorded out in the field; I've recorded gun sounds on a ranch in Idaho and forest sounds in Washington State, and, as you mention, I've packed my recording gear along on trips to Africa. Other types of sounds can be synthesized, especially high tech or magical kinds of sounds, and all sounds get manipulated to some extent, using any of a huge array of digital signal processing techniques available.
What instruments do you play? Do you play any of these for your soundtracks?
I studied piano for a long time, and I'm currently renting one, but I'm very, very rusty. These days I mostly work with electronics, and my recent work has employed the Max/MSP programming environment. I've also done a fair amount of singing, in the Seattle-based a cappella chorus The Esoterics and most recently in the International Festival Chorus Shanghai's performance of Handel's Messiah last December.
Early on, I performed a lot of game music myself on electronic instruments, but most recently I've enjoyed writing for other ensembles and recording them in the studio. I've used my voice a lot as a source for sound effects, and once or twice in a piece of music.
You're an experienced and accomplished composer of sacred choral pieces. How different is it to compose an ecclesiastical piece than, say, something for Leisure Suit Larry?
I used to think of them as totally different pursuits, but lately the strands have been converging. Early music, predominantly sacred, was a primary inspiration for my Arcanum score, and I recently finished a Psalm setting that incorporates random elements and electronics, ideas lifted directly from my videogame work. I've found a surprising commonality between sacred music and videogame music, which is that both tend to be oriented around static musical states.
What's in the pipeline?
I'm currently working on an exciting new, top secret game for the next generation of game technology, about which I can tell you just about nothing, other than that we've got a fantastic team of top talent from four continents, with a brilliant designer and a whip-smart producer. I'm really excited about it; I've been making games for almost 10 years, and this production is one of the smoothest and most rewarding I've yet experienced.