I recently had the opportunity to chat with one of my all-time favorite video game composers, the truly one-of-a-kind Jason Graves. He’s the man behind the amazing Dead Space soundtracks, and his latest project is the Tomb Raider reboot, due March 5th. After the break Graves talks about designing a brand new instrument for the soundtrack, the benefits of scoring a reboot, and more.
BD: How did you get started composing for video games? Was it something you always wanted to do?
I actually started in film and TV – scoring games never really occurred to me until someone who knew someone who knew me needed music for a game. It was a fairly quick turnaround and I quickly discovered the creative possibilities inherent in the world of games. After that first title I never looked back!
BD: Because Tomb Raider is a reboot, developer Crystal Dynamics is essentially starting with a fresh slate. Anything is possible. Did this make composing for the game more attractive, more intimidating, or both?
Most definitely more attractive. When you’re talking about a series as iconic as Tomb Raider, a clean slate for a composer is literally a dream come true. I get the legacy and history of the series along with the freedom to truly make it my own, themes and all. It’s the best of both worlds!
BD: You’re perhaps best known for your incredible work on the soundtracks for the Dead Space franchise. What is it like transitioning from the haunting, strings-heavy style that series is known for to something like Tomb Raider?
Each project needs to have its own vibe to it, at least to my ears. The heavy use of strings in the Dead Space games is a result of all the fantastic textures and effects a large string ensemble can provide. It fit the game’s atmosphere and really branded the entire series through music.
The first piece I submitted for Tomb Raider was Lara’s theme on solo piano. I wanted to focus on the melody – I didn’t want orchestral mockups or bombastic percussion distracting from the essential, core elements of the piece. This was, after all, to be the new theme for Lara and any subsequent games! I thought it best to start simple and work my way up from there, especially given Lara’s younger age and inexperience.
BD: Do you have a specific process you go to when composing a soundtrack? Is it better to be really familiar with and have seen or played the game you’re composing for, or can that get in the way?
The more I know the better. I visit the developer on bigger, more long-term projects. Nothing can immerse me in the world of a new game like literally sitting in the middle of the developer’s studio and soaking in the atmosphere. Music is so specific – it immediately generates our primal instincts. The more artwork, story structure and gameplay I see the better idea I have of what would work, and more importantly, what would NOT work, in a new game.
BD: With the help of sculptor Matt McConnell, a new and almost alien-like instrument was created exclusively this game’s soundtrack. Can you tell us a little more about that and how you came up with the idea and how long it took to construct something like that?
I wanted sounds unique to Tomb Raider; the kind of sounds that could be identified immediately and make you think of the game. Matt’s shop is around the corner from my house, so I stopped by to see if he would be interested in helping me out. We ended up spending more than a year designing and planning The Instrument, which is built with glass and metal and can be bowed, rubbed and struck with different materials to provide an amazing variety of sounds. The entire purpose of building a custom instrument was to give the island in the game its own unique voice.
BD: Do you have any other ideas for custom instruments like the one you came up with for Tomb Raider? Is that something you might consider doing again with a future project?
I think this is the beginning of something, yes. I can’t really say exactly what I would come up with in the future – it’s just so project dependent! But I really did enjoy the process of finding those sounds and peppering them throughout the score. I’ve found I’m the most satisfied when I’m trying new things and discovering sounds I haven’t heard before.
BD: In the past you’ve said you enjoy music that tells a story, without the aid of anything visual. What story would you like to tell with your soundtrack for Tomb Raider?
I hope players walk away with Lara’s theme stuck in their heads. Her theme undergoes the same transformation as Lara – from an inexperienced, frightened girl to a hardened warrior protecting her friends. That’s the story I tried to tell through the music. I even wrote a nine minute suite of music with all the character themes illustrating that arc, and this was before I started on any of the music in the actual game.
BD: If you could work on any video game after this, do you have one you’re particularly interested in?
Anything by Naughty Dog. I love their games and really appreciate the way they emphasize story and characters in every aspect of what they do.
Big thanks to Jason Graves for taking the time to chat with us!