Bloody-Disgusting is excited to bring you an exclusive interview with Dead Space 3 composer James Hannigan. Below you can read about Hannigan’s work with Jason Graves (who also composed for the game), how the planet of Tau Volantis changed the scoring approach, Hannigan’s thoughts on sci-fi and horror, and much more. You can also hear nearly 45 minutes of Hannigan’s Dead Space compositions.
Bloody-Disgusting: Tell me a bit about how you got to work on Dead Space 3.
James Hannigan: I simply got asked to create some test music for the game, which I then did, and I found myself on board a number of months later.
BD: Jason Graves’ work on the Dead Space series thus so far has been lauded. Did that affect your compositional approach and mindset?
JH: I was of course aware of Jason’s work, and we had a similar scenario on a title called Command and Conquer: Tiberium Twilight a couple of years ago, which resulted in a good soundtrack, I feel. My overriding hope was that there’d be something of myself that I could add in there without detracting the great work Jason does for the series. The game is quite broad in scope, both in terms of scale and the kind of experiences it offers, and there’s a slightly broader emotional palette at work in the music as a result. We worked on different aspects of the game most of the time, and I feel that what we ended up with is complementary, really.
BD: In Dead Space 1, there was a brief sequence that took place out of the Ishimura at the end of the game. In the sequel, the entirety of the game was in the Sprawl. Both of these settings were very industrial, mechanical, and manmade. In Dead Space 3, Tau Volantis is the setting and there is a great deal of nature and the impact of the elements. Did this change from “artificial” to “organic” bear any sort of influence on your compositions?
JH: That’s a very interesting question, and is exactly the kind of thing I’d ask myself. Sometimes, I do feel that a dichotomy between music and visuals can work well – for instance, very organic music set against a high-tech environment, but ultimately I think it comes down to something deeper than just the environments and setting, but also about what the music actually exists to say. Star Wars is a classic example of this sort of dichotomy (I’ve often heard it said) in that it presented a very high-tech and somewhat alienating visual experience to audiences when it came out, but this experience was somewhat grounded and humanized by John Williams’ rather romantic score, which spoke to audiences about the characters, their hopes and dreams, more than it did about the high-tech nature of the world they occupy. It’s Luke’s journey we’re emotionally invested in, and the eternal fight between good and evil, and that is what informs the music. Similarly, in Dead Space 3, there are times when the music is somewhat organic and personal – perhaps when it is trying to comment on the feelings of characters and the situations they are in, and at other times is a little more ‘literal’ in terms of how it relates to your environment. And it’s with the latter where I think you may hear something a little more high-tech, for instance, to evoke the feeling of a bustling, futuristic cityscape or a speeding train. Similarly, some of the music may almost try to describe the hostility of the Tau Volantis setting and what it would feel like to physically trudge through snow in such a harsh environment. The focus of the music can change depending on the situation you are in. And I dare say that the approach to these things varies between films and games as well, because games often try to immerse you in the reality of a game and convince you that you are ‘there’ whereas films often stand back and take more of a sweeping view of events, treating you as a passive audience. A game like Dead Space 3 does a little of both, I feel. Sometimes it’s personal, sometimes it’s interactive cinematic spectacle, and the music I hope reflects that.
BD: Dead Space 3 marks the first time that you can do co-op with another character, John Carver. Dead Space 3 is also the first entry into the Dead Space series where you, another composer, teamed up with Jason. Did this strange coincidence come up between the two of you at all?
JH: I hadn’t thought about that, but I guess you’re right and we ended up composing in co-op mode for Dead Space 3!
BD: What was the process like with the two of you working on the music for the game? Did you work together or separately and what were the benefits and challenges of each of these situations?
JH: You just have to go with the flow when it comes to these things, and stay flexible and ready for anything. Games development is an iterative and dynamic process, and things are rarely absolutely set in stone in terms of exactly what is needed for any given area of the game. Things change day by day. What you’re trying to do (in conjunction with the development team of course) is create a synergy between the music and other elements of the game and not be working against the goals of the design or what kind of emotional message the team want conveyed at any given moment. Along with that, you keep things stylistically appropriate when you can, and try to keep music on the same page in the hope that it will eventually be integrated into a seamless whole. Dead Space 3 is a pretty vast game so we were working on different areas of it or aspects of the story, but there are chapters that include music from both of us.
BD: What are some tones and instruments that have the ability to send shivers up and down your spine?
JH: I’m quite a sound-based composer at times, and I was acutely aware of how well Jason’s existing Dead Space music and the underlying techniques he used work in the context of the series. So, apart from a few cases, I didn’t go into his territory very much at all, as that would have been pretty pointless, but looked instead for a way to complement it and add something of myself. With the music being a little more high-tech than it has been in the past, I looked for various electronic sounds and textures to up the fear a little, but in a new way perhaps. For instance, there are various otherworldy ‘growls’ in the soundtrack that somewhat blur the lines a little between literal sound effects and music, and I think those can be quite effective. They’re sort of musical ‘monster effects’ you could say, but embedded in the music itself with a gestural quality to them. They also hint at some kind of alien intelligence and culture, but I don’t want to give anything away.
BD: This isn’t music related, but I’d like to know your thoughts. Horror and sci-fi have long gone very well together, from Shelley’s Frankenstein to the tongue-in-cheek sci-fi/horror films of the Cold War era. Why do you think that the vast majority of sci-fi games/media see a future that is fraught with terrifying possibilities rather than something to look forward to and aspire towards?
JH: That’s another very interesting question, and possibly something linked in with our own views of where we’re heading as a species, and it’s a culturally specific phenomenon as well, I expect, as each culture seems to envision the future in its own unique way. Ironically, at times of great difficulty for instance, during world wars, I think entertainment industries, writers etc… have looked to give us all hope, and it’s during those times of uncertainty we see a lot of ‘positive’ and Utopian views of the future emerging or more in the way of fantasy art and uplifting works. There are obviously exceptions though. It’s a little difficult to square all that with now, I must say, when we appear to be living through a difficult economic era presenting us all with a lot of uncertainty, but still appear to enjoy reveling in visions of a somewhat dystopian future! Having said that, a lot of these stories, although very dark in essence, do seem to involve good or moral people overcoming difficult circumstances which may have some meaning and put this in context. Batman and even Dead Space’s Isaac are good examples of what I mean! As a society, it seems as though many of us are resigned to the idea that things could be ‘getting worse’ in many ways but we’re interested in knowing how people can contend with change, and how they will cope in future and, above all, stay human in difficult circumstances.