Every month, we discuss the unique process of making music for video games. This month, we dive into the musical universe of Gareth Coker, who’s behind the soundtracks of Ark: Survival Evolved, Ori and The Blind Forest and Ori and the Will of the Wisps, which will release in February 2020
What would you say are the typical challenges of writing for games as opposed to more linear narrative forms?
Games mix in linear and non-linear writing and it still has to sound like it’s part of a grand cohesive whole. In the opening ten minutes of Ori and the Blind Forest, we switch regularly from linear scenes to non-linear scenes where the player has control, yet it all has to feel seamless and transition as smoothly as possible. And that’s just in a ten minute prologue! This mix of linear/non-linear writing is designed to help the player really feel like the score is being tailored exactly to what they are doing. Sometimes in long segments of non-linear gameplay you don’t actually need to accentuate everything the player is doing because it can feel like a gimmick. But perhaps during a boss fight (which also might be non-linear) the way to dial up the intensity would be to follow everything the player is doing. It greatly depends on the situation in the game, and even more importantly, the context. When do you go big? When do you go interactive? When do you go macro? When do you go micro? These are all questions that have to be asked throughout the process. And then you have to play the game in different ways to make sure that these questions are answered in multiple different ways, as best as possible.
With TV, films, documentaries, you have a fixed length of time, and a fixed outcome. The questions posed are far less numerous. The challenge here is to absolutely maximise what you have been given from the editor.
Does your approach differ between writing for a multiplayer title vs a single player narrative-driven game? (or big triple-A title vs indie)
This is a great question, possibly one of my favourites ever asked to me! The expectations of what music should do and how it should serve the game in a multiplayer title are very tricky. In the case of an MMO, you’re catering to hundreds, thousands, possibly millions of people all with different tastes and you’re dealing with unscripted action. Many will play with the music off. Many will want music to help them get immersed in the game and enhance the feel of (for example) being in combat. Many will listen to their own music! I feel like my job with a multiplayer title is to worry less about the ‘moment to moment’ and make sure that the major events are really captured in a way that provides a memory for the player. You can’t predict every great moment in a multiplayer game but with the help of the designers, you can make an intelligent guess at what will need to be enhanced with music, and that for sure is your starting point.
“My job with a multiplayer title is to make sure that the major events are really captured in a way that provides a memory for the player.”
Examples of types of multiplayer games where you can have a greater deal of control over the experience is where the outcomes are more fixed. In fighting/dueling games like The Unspoken, there are always different stages to the duels that can accurately be predicted by the composer and the design team. For example, when the player’s health gets below 25 per cent, you could increase the intensity of the music for that player. In racing games you can increase the intensity of the music on the final lap.
With a single player game you have a far greater level of control over the player experience. With Ori, I scored the game horizontally, transitioning the music whenever a significant event occurred in the gameplay. For example, the majority of combat in Ori does not have its own combat music because it’s over so quickly after starting. However, when there is a mini-boss or segment where you have to defeat an enemy to continue, the music reflects that. Most people don’t realise that you can actually complete Ori without defeating hardly any enemies at all! The decision of where to transition was made by me, based on several hours testing the game and figuring out the most logical place to transition that didn’t feel gimmicky, wasn’t intrusive, and also matched what the player was doing. I’m adopting the same approach for Will of the Wisps to an even greater degree, while also using some vertical layering systems to enhance certain segments.
Do you feel like your work as a composer can impact a game’s design? If so, can you provide examples?
I think all departments have the capability of influencing each other. Music is a huge part of a game, the very nature of its existence in any form of media means a composer is going to be part of a design team, it’s just that it isn’t our job title! The Inception horns are a big part of that film’s feel. Psycho’s iconic shower music is the key to that famous scene. Additionally, I think these things can happen subconsciously. If the design team has access to music from an early stage, they are probably going to put it in their early builds and use it to design around.
Our approach for cutscenes in Ori, whether they are linear or interactive, depends on a massive back and forth between music, sound, animation and art departments. Instead of me just receiving a video of how the scene plays out, I get storyboards and I can always ask for more or less time based on what I feel is best for the pacing of the music and the pacing for the game. The animation then will adjust to the music, and the back and forth continues until the scene is tightened up. Often, when adding music to scenes, whether they are interactive or non-interactive, we can find out a lot about the pacing. Adding music and sound tends to speed things up, so we are trying to find the right balance. In the case of Ori, adding music also ends up being the first editing pass because we can clearly feel what moments drag and what don’t.
“In the case of Ori, adding music also ends up being the first editing pass because we can clearly feel what moments drag and what don’t.”
A couple of quick examples from the gameplay side of things: there is hardly any percussion in Ori’s core gameplay music because we use the sound effects to act as the percussion section in the music. This makes things feel very tactile and gives a lot of feedback to the player on what they are doing.
How free are you to experiment when you take on a mandate from a studio usually?
It obviously depends on the project and what is required. My work on the mythology series for Minecraft (Greek, Chinese, Norse and Egyptian mythologies) has been very defined for obvious reasons. We are working in a set environment based on ancient history and a specific established sound is required or expected. That said, even with that series, I’m still able to do my own spin on things. Even if the scales and harmony I’m using are correct to the part of the world I’m evoking, the production quality and aesthetic is usually my own.
However on games where the world is ‘new’ such as Ori, The Unspoken, or Ark: Survival Evolved, I’ve been very lucky to be able to do what I want. I’m occasionally given temp tracks but those are a crutch, and last resort. I prefer to write something that the director has not even thought of, whether it’s a melody that they hadn’t imagined, or a sound they haven’t heard, or a composition with all kinds of layers and instruments that shouldn’t work together, but somehow do. This is a benefit of being brought on early: you have time to experiment, and make ‘mistakes’!
Do you feel like game soundtracks get the same recognition as film scores? If not, why this difference?
I regard it as a generational thing. Eventually we’ll live in a world where pretty much everyone will have played a game at some point, and the comparison won’t even need to be made. Films have a long and rich history and legacy. Games do too, but it just doesn’t have that length of time behind it. I don’t ever worry about getting the same kind of recognition as films. We are our own community and I think it’s more important to be able to stand alone and not be compared with anything. The most important thing is that composers working in games keep pushing what they are capable of doing. There’s such a huge amount of variety in what is being created in game music today, if composers keep doing what they are doing, the legacy will naturally take care of itself over time.
What was the most inspiring game world you worked on and which aspect did you most want to bring into your score and how did you reflect that?
Honestly this may seem like a cop-out but they are all inspiring in different ways. The most inspiring game world is the one I’m currently working on. I tend to live ‘in the moment’ with the scores I do and then move on. Currently, I’m working on Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and I think the most exciting thing is getting to revisit a world whose musical language I was able to create in the first game, but now having the resources, experience and knowledge to try and enhance that, give the game something new, but also take something from the original game and try and combine both old and new together. The absolute best part about working on these games is fusing the visual and aural landscapes together to create a cohesive whole, thus I spend an insane amount of time choosing the palette for each level, as the choice of instruments and sounds has, I think, the biggest impact on making a certain environment feel the way it does.