'Ode to Joysticks' excerpts part 2: How game composers create other worlds

Part 2 of our edited quotes from the Ode to Joysticks podcasts features Austin Wintory, Jesper Kyd, Eímear Noone and others musing on the value of game music in immersing players in otherworldly settings.

By Thomas Quillfeldt and Ben Eshmade

The Barbican Contemporary Music podcast (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Acast) recently published a three episode run of video game music shows called Ode to Joysticks, which aired between 28th February and 13th March 2018. Producer Ben Eshmade lined up an enviable list of interviewees who spoke about the past, present and future of video game music. With his blessing, we teased out some choice quotes and edited them together with relevant musical examples.

In part 2, Ode to Joysticks explores how various composers perceive the value and function of music in video games and how they approached particular projects. Interviewees include Winifred Phillips, Nitin Sawhney, Richard Jacques, Austin Wintory, Eímear Noone, Inon Zur, Jesper Kyd and Penka Kouneva.

If you haven’t already, do check out part 1 — “The early pioneers of video game music” — focusing on the work of legendary chiptune composers like Koji Kondo and Rob Hubbard.

Winifred Phillips: Player immersion is the name of the game

Winifred Phillips

Winifred Phillips is an award-winning composer who has worked on God of War (2005), the LittleBigPlanet series and Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, among others; she’s also an author on the topic of composition for games. As an ambassador for game musics, Phillips explains: “Music makes a profound contribution to player immersion. It can essentially get in your head and change the way in which you experience events; and the way in which your mind processes new information.”

“As game composers, we’re thinking about music as a component of what’s essentially an intellectual exercise on the part of the player. They’re interacting with the game in order to challenge their minds, to experience something that’s both in their inner world and also in the world that the game is presenting. The way the music can interact with the way the human mind works is fascinating to me — it’s something that I always love learning more about that’s such an intriguing part about what we do. [It’s also] something that makes what we do special and different from music creation for any other form of entertainment.”

Nitin Sawhney: Is this just fantasy?

Nitin Sawhney

The multi-talented Nitin Sawhney — solo artist, media composer, theatre director etc. — was engaged to produce the score for Ninja Theory’s late noughties cinematic action games Heavenly Sword and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

Speaking about those projects, Sawhney found that, compared to film, “there’s more melodrama. We’re dealing a lot with archetypal characterisation [in games]. It’s almost more [akin] to working on a silent movie or an old movie because there’s a lot more melodrama in interactive gaming than there is in [modern] films. You’re creating alternative realities that aren’t necessarily running by the same rules [as the real world]. In order to get across [what are] quite often battles between good and evil — which is what is going on [with Heavenly Sword and Enslaved] — there’s more likely to be archetypal characterisation involved.”

Sawhney’s particular favourite from his time working with Ninja Theory was the track he recorded with singer Tina Grace for Enslaved:

You may be forgiven for assuming that a classy musician like Sawhney, whose output often sees him moving in ‘high culture’ circles, wasn’t a gamer — but you’d be dead wrong. “I’ve been playing games since ‘tennis’ was just rectangular objects on the screen;” he’s also a big GTA fan. “All of that has influenced me through my whole life — the whole idea of how you interact with computers.

“What I love is that gaming has grown at an exponential rate so that it’s now making us look at how we consider reality and the nature of reality, and whether we’re in a simulation ourselves. It raises a lot of philosophical questions that you wouldn’t really have thought of in the days of Pac-Man. Now we’re looking at creating characters that really feel like they’re alive, that have their own identity. We can look at living our lives… through surrogate avatars. It’s challenged us so much in the way we think — I think that goes across the board. Not just how I write music as a composer, but how I think as a human being and how I perceive everything.”

Richard Jacques: What’s in a theme?

Richard Jacques

Richard Jacques is a veteran composer most closely associated with Sega games including various Sonic titles, Metropolis Street Racer and the Jet Set Radio series; he also scored 2010’s 007: Blood Stone.

Jacques has worked across many different titles, consoles and console generations, allowing him a broad perspective: “Every console generation [sees] the goalposts move a bit… although where we are now, they don’t move too much for music — more so for sound designers, especially with VR and AR etc. For music, it means that I have more channels to play with [or] multi-channel audio like Dolby Atmos — whereas before I might have been limited to stereo audio files. [These days] I might be able to play 20 music streams at the same time and then fade between them, and do lots of interactive music things.

He finds that the actual musical content of a soundtrack is shifting subtly: “The use of themes in games is certainly not a new thing now, like it’s not in film, but the language we use to identify with characters or certain elements of the story is constantly evolving. It’s not necessarily ‘one-size-fits-all’ [in terms of everything having its own theme]. [Speaking for] myself, I’d never use more than three or four main themes… because otherwise it dilutes what the purpose of the theme is. A good theme should have a lot of longevity in it.

“When I was working on 007: Blood Stone, I started off the project thinking that I had to write a killer main theme. I was sitting on a bus — I wasn’t even trying to compose! — and scribbled [the idea] down on the back of a bank statement in rough shorthand. It had a really nice shape and scope; I tried it out in the studio the next day and I realised it would work in an action sequence, a love sequence, a stealth sequence. I thought: ‘This is the one!’”

“Sometimes when I’m composing I do use a lot of layers. In Blood Stone, there were sometimes 12 layers of music. That doesn’t mean it’s just one instrument on one channel — it means I have recomposed that piece 12 times so that it can ebb and flow seamlessly throughout a level. We could go from a stealth sequence right up to an action sequence in, say, four seconds and it will sound perfectly musical. It’s like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. That’s one of the challenges I relish — I think it’s important for any composer working in the medium to really concentrate on that.”

This is my serious face

Jacques has been around long enough to see the gradual acceptance of video games — and the accompanying music — as a serious medium. “[It’s good that] that’s finally happened. Video game music used to be looked down on by non-gamers (high brow music critics etc.); we have [since] seen various groundbreaking soundtracks. People are pushing the barriers in the games industry, working with live orchestras and [having their works played in] live concert series; [organisations like] BAFTA and the IVOR Novello awards are recognising [good work].

“These kind of things are important to garner the respect that video game music deserves. We’ve had various well known film composers working in games and cross-over with big electronica artists. This is a medium that people want to work in now. I think we’ve really come of age as an industry.”

Austin Wintory: Life’s a journey

Austin Wintory

Austin Wintory must surely be the busiest person in music for media, best known for the Grammy award-nominated score for Journey, as well as notching up numerous credits including ABZÛ, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Absolver and the Banner Saga series.

Wintory speaks to the involved nature of his work: “[Some projects take years...] the work ends up reflecting the ebbs and flows of your actual life during that span.

“For example, I was very fortunate to be hired for Journey by Sony and thatgamecompany when I was about 24 years old — the game shipped when I was 27. It dawned on me afterwards... well over 10% of my entire life had been spent on that one project. That blew my mind when I realised it. I thought: ‘I’ve changed a lot over that period of time.’ It had such a profound impact on me that working on the game partly drove the changes in who I [became].”

“That’s one of the things I love because not only is it impacting my writing (as I grow and evolve, or devolve and regress as the case may be) but you also go through all that with your team. Major life milestones (e.g. marriages, divorces, children) will happen amongst members of the team during that timespan [leading to bonding, which] makes it more than just a purely professional relationship — I absolutely love that.”

Change the process, change the outcome

For Wintory, there is always more than one way to skin a cat: “I try to make every project have some kind of unusual twist or some X factor that helps tweak my creative process, because I believe that when you vary your approach, you will inevitably vary the outcome.” He gives the example of Luna, an ‘interactive fairytale’ for PC and VR: “I worked for several years on Luna… It’s a very personal, introspective and reflective game about the grieving process and dealing with loss through visual metaphors. I’ve had to deal with a lot of loss in my life [including] during the course of the game.

“After several years on the project, I decided to throw out all the music I had written. I went into a studio that had a little upright piano in it; I set up the microphones with the engineer and then I told her to leave the building for two hours so that I was completely alone; I put a bunch of photos up on this piano of the people I had lost and some artwork from the game; and then I sat and improvised for 95-100 minutes straight. Over the course of eight or so months, I extracted material from that improvisation [session] to create the score from — in some cases I was literally able to use excerpts from this piano recording.”

“It was a way to let myself sink into an emotional place through physical action that got me somewhere emotionally that I [couldn’t have reached] through a more intellectualised process, the slower process of composing. It totally altered what Luna ended up being as a result.”

Eímear Noone: Creating worlds

Eímear Noone

Another heavyweight of the video game music world, Eímear Noone is a conductor and composer best known for work across multiple massive Blizzard titles (including Overwatch, Hearthstone, Diablo III, Starcraft II and World of Warcraft), as well as various official The Legend of Zelda live concerts.

‘[In building game worlds] there are things that we do — for instance with language. When you have a choir, you have to be really careful with language because it has baggage. If you’re using “Agnus Dei”, the ‘Lamb of God’, that’s religious text — that’s got connotations. Then you’ve got things like orcish and made up languages that are fun. Oftentimes we’ll create these hybrid languages so as not to influence the player.

“...it’s [also] so much fun to use instruments from all over the world, especially for me since I’m Irish [and] my husband is Jewish, so I bring in some old Hebraic stuff mixed with Irish, with Persian — it’s so cool. The more we mix world instruments with the orchestra in a fantastical way, the more we can help create another world; another nation [entirely].

“Take Azeroth [the world in which the Warcraft series is set]… We need to find the ‘real’ sound of this place. You have to be careful because marimbas can straight away put you in the jungle… Or a duduk can put you in the middle east depending on how you use it. It’s really fun for us — like kids in a candy store — to create a whole [fantastical] world and its traditional music.”

Noone sometimes has trouble switching between her roles as conductor and composer: “It’s like two separate brains — they each argue with, and inform each other. I often picture the musicians playing what I’m writing, and that definitely influences me; just seeing the bows moving, seeing the brass playing riffs or watching the percussion in my imagination. I really do visualise like that.

“I hear orchestration in different colour palettes based on what I’m looking at... If it’s lots of brownish, reddish russet-type colours, to me that’s a very particular string sound (in my imagination)... Lots of blues and colder colours [make me] think of specific woodwind voicing in my mind’s ear. That’s really helpful actually.”

Perfection isn’t just a side quest

Noone recognises that video game music has to stand the test of multiple listens over time: “I know that gamers live with this music for a long time, it’s not just like watching a movie where it’s over [in two hours]. And, if you really like the score, maybe you buy the CD… For game music, it’s complete immersion for quite a long period of time and people get deeply acquainted with the music, so you want every detail [to be perfect]. We obsess over ever articulation mark — everything. A [long-time] resident engineer at Abbey Road for 30 years [and I] would literally sit down and debate for 20 minutes where to move the tuba player within a foot. It’s ridiculous nerdiness.

“That makes me feel good. It makes me feel less anxious about putting the work out there because I feel gamers are very discerning, they’re very detail-oriented. If I’m that obsessive and that nerdy about it, I’ll probably cover most of the bases for the audience.”

Inon Zur: Sounds of the Wasteland

Inon Zur

As well as a fair amount of film and TV work, Inon Zur has scored a boat-load of games, including Fallout 3, New Vegas and Fallout 4; Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2; and various Prince of Persia and Lord of the Rings titles (to name a few).

Zur points out that being a media composer is all about handling rejection: “The Fallout 4 theme, which is famous today, is version #29. You are facing rejections on a daily basis…”

As mentioned by other composers above, experimentation is part of the fun: “When I worked on Fallout 4: Far Harbor, we thought about having the music grow from nature, grow from the sounds we hear. We started to listen to the sound of the waves, the sound of the wind, fog horns; lots of sounds that basically have nothing to do with music. I tried mimicking these sounds, so the wind was being emulated by bowed guitars and bowed vases; water was always mimicked by a synth combined with some kind of weird piano sound. You’ve got this detuned thing going on like you’ve got an instrument being played underwater… All these things were ideas that were thrown on the table. You take them and try to make sense out of them. It’s a beautiful process.”

Jesper Kyd: Assassin’s origins

Jesper Kyd

Jesper Kyd also has a looooooooong credits list across many series including Hitman, Assassin’s Creed, Borderlands, State of Decay, Warhammer and more.

Kyd: “If you compose combat or suspense [music], it needs to work in a specific way. It needs to [maintain] a certain dynamic and a certain intensity within a certain amount of time. As far as my music [for] exploring the world... Open-world games are my favourite to work on and to play — those are the games where I feel I’ve put a lot of detail in there.”

“[The track “Ezio’s Family” from Assassin’s Creed II] was something I thought we needed for that game — we needed a theme for Ezio, but it wasn’t a detail that the team had asked me to provide. [They] didn’t have use for that music. [Whereas] I needed this music to come out and express Ezio’s journey.”

“That could very much be called a detail because it was something extra that I wrote that wasn’t even supposed to be in there. I did several different versions; some of it we recorded with orchestra and choir and everything. I was [considering admitting to the developer/publisher] Ubisoft: ‘Listen we don’t have anywhere to put this music, we’re spending all this money recording this stuff.’ Then Ubisoft decided to put it in the opening of the game, and it also became the end credits. I was adding all this detail into all this music and it’s not even supposed to be there! [But it worked out.]”

Penka Kouneva: Sonic signatures

Penka Kouneva

Penka Kouneva is a composer, orchestrator and soundtrack producer who also sits on the advisory board of Game Developers Conference. As well as composing for games, film and TV, she has orchestrated music for Bloodborne, the Gears of War series and various Blizzard titles (World of Warcraft, Starcraft II, Diablo III and Overwatch).

Kouneva: “Smart developers use their score and their sound as a tool to really brand the game; they make that sonic signature [to help] the game stand apart from the competition. Music is… a very powerful tool in game scoring. One thing I learned in games, that I didn’t know before from scoring films, is that each game score is very specific because they try to use the music as a signature for the game.

“[The size and composition of] the orchestra ensemble is defined by these conceptual conversations, and it’s also defined by the budget. My job is to work within these limitations and deliver the best possible score within the budget to fulfil the vision of my collaborators.

Kouneva hasn’t just worked on huge AAA titles: “Scoring mobile games becomes like scoring jingles — you have to create a sonic signature, a style and a motif or theme that becomes so much associated with the game that it becomes like the jingle of the game. I composed music for Cookie Jam [and the brief was that it was to sound like] French music: waltzes with accordion; enough orchestral flavour [including] guitars harps, strings and horns. So that, overall, it’s instrumental orchestral music, but not heavy orchestra.”

“In mobile games the score becomes more of a signature; in that sense it’s similar to TV jingles. Creating an earworm isn’t easy — think how iconic the Mario theme is. The purpose is to make you remember how the music made you feel, a memory of playing the game. Because there’s such competition and each game maker wants their game to be remembered, music [becomes] a very powerful tool.”


Part 3: Why transpose video games music into the concert hall?

Don’t forget to check out part 1: “The early pioneers of video game music”, focusing on the work of legendary chiptune composers like Koji Kondo and Rob Hubbard.