Composer Jason Graves’s frenetic, experimental compositions can be heard in games like Murdered: Soul Suspect and the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider. In 2009, his work on the original Dead Space earned him two BAFTA awards — Best Original Score and Best Use of Audio. Not only that, he is a classically-trained musician, which most definitely accounts for the wide array of sounds and instrumentation featured on his soundtracks.
Most recently, he has received acclaim for his scores of 2K’s Evolve and Ready at Dawn’s The Order: 1886, and he was kind enough to answer some questions about scoring games, working at Abbey Road Studios, and approaching a game’s musical direction. Examples of his work can be found at JasonGraves.com.
BD: So many high profile games have bombastic, cinematic scores these days. How did you come to decide to do a non-orchestral score for Evolve? Was there something in the project itself that caused you to go that route?
That was the mandate from the beginning from Turtle Rock (the developer). They did have some orchestral mood examples in the pitch but we all agreed fairly quickly that a non-orchestral score was the way to go.
BD: You use a lot of found noises and sounds for this project. What’s the most nontraditional instrument you managed to use to get productive sound?
I think that would be a toss up between the rolling chair and the pizza box. Both were recorded through a series of guitar pedals and amps, so the final sounds are quite a bit different from the originals!
BD: How is writing music for such an online-focused, co-op heavy game like Evolve with high replayability different from, say, The Order: 1886, a primarily single player experience? In what ways do you have to approach songwriting differently?
It all comes down to how the music is implemented into the game. Going in, we knew Evolve was going to be extremely interactive. As a result, the score was crafted from hundreds of shorter pieces of music. The Order was a much more linear experience, so the score consists of longer, more traditional cues. So it’s really not a matter of replayability as it is interactivity.
BD: I saw that you recorded music for The Order: 1886 at Abbey Road. What sort of significance does that hold for you?
The fact that the game takes place in London is just the icing on the cake. I choose London for its amazingly deep bench of players – music speak for “they have a lot of great players. Even if I need something crazy like three times as many violas I know every one will be top notch.”
BD: Does the vibe created by such an iconic environment provide you with a different creative spark?
How can it not? The Beatles, Pink Floyd, John Williams – the history and legacy of Abbey Road is undeniable. I just wanted to make sure I did my best to live up to the legacy!
BD: Beyond that, what was working at Abbey Road, specifically, like?
I’ve been there before (for Dead Space 3) but this was my first time in Studio 2, which we deliberately chose for its warm, punchy sound. Needless to say, the experience was a joy. The engineers and equipment were phenomenal. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a choir sound quite as good as the one we recorded in Studio Two!
BD: When developing leitmotifs and other thematic pieces, what are your inspirational triggers? Do you value environment, story, mood, or character most?
Story, absolutely, above all. It’s all about the story and how the music can emotionally connect the player to the characters in the story.
BD: I’m sure it’s relative to the game and the situation, but what is likely to give you the sort of push in the right direction, creatively?
Everything and anything I can learn about the game. A common phrase I say to developers all the time is “send me more than you think I would ever need.” The more I know about the game, the better informed I am to craft an immersive and emotional score.
BD: At what point do you enter into the game development process? How close to being done are the developers before you start composing?
Every game is different. Evolve and The Order were both more long term projects – I was involved in both for several years before their official releases. Other games have had significantly shorter music development times. For example, I had a little less than two weeks to compose over an hour of music for Devil May Cry.
BD: What sort of input do game devs usually offer in terms of musical direction, or is the decision left mostly up to you?
The developer always has input. It is, after all, a team effort and musical collaboration! Most of my projects definitely have a “what do you think you can bring that’s unique” kind of vibe to them, but of course I’m operating completely within the world the developer has already built. So it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t suggest banjos and harmonicas for a game like The Order. I knew Ready At Dawn wanted a score with lots of weight to it and I framed my musical expectations round that tiny bit of direction.
BD: When scouting out projects to work on, is there anything in particular you’re looking for? Do you have a specific genre you’re most passionate about, or are you just looking for a new and interesting challenge?
What really piques my interest is something different from what I’ve tried before. It’s all about moving forward and trying new things. I definitely wouldn’t want to rehash old ground and compose a score that sounded just like a previous one, but that’s the great thing about music – there are so many different styles and influences out there. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of musical potential in the world of games.
BD: What makes you really excited about working in the industry right now?
I feel like it’s really hit its stride in the last year or so with the release of the new consoles. Developers seem keen to take more risks and try new things with their music. Indie games are also on the rise in popularity and with them a whole other aspect of game music is coming into focus. I really enjoy working on AAA and Indie titles at the same time. Sometimes there can be even more creative freedom with smaller titles because everyone making and publishing the game is sitting in the room at the same time, having a discussion.
BD: Do you play the games you score, or are you driven more by the visual feel and pacing than the actual gameplay? Does that even make a difference?
I have to use my imagination quite a bit, since the game is being developed as I’m working. Most of the time it’s not in a very polished mode, but even then I rely more on gameplay capture than actually playing the game, which can often times be very broken or unstable and not even in a playable state. I can import the game movies into the computer and play them in sync with my music as it comes online. I’d never be able to do that with live gameplay! And it gives me a different perspective, being able to listen to how the music functions as opposed to focusing on playing the game.
BD: What projects are you working on right now? What is on the horizon for you?
Many wonderfully diverse projects that I’m sworn to secrecy about, unfortunately! I can say I have two more big titles coming out later this year, with more on the horizon for 2016 and beyond.