Hi Joris, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. First of all, tell us about yourself. How did you get into the video game music business?
I started off in the Atari demoscene in the 90’s, writing chip music for demos on the Atari ST; I was already an avid gamer back then as well. This got me interested in composing and I started a study in Music Technology in Utrecht. After six months, friends who had been in the demoscene but were now working as game programmers asked me to write some music for their games. I figured I’d do that for a year and return to study, but instead ended up in London working for the Bitmap Brothers, among other developers.
You’re most famous for your work on the Killzone series. When and how did you first get involved in scoring the original Killzone?
After working in London for a few years I returned to Amsterdam and joined a startup company called Lost Boys Games. They later became Guerrilla Games and started the highly successful Killzone series. I worked there as a Musical Director for around 6 years before going freelance, and so was involved with the game from its inception.
How did you approach the score musically and how much creative freedom were you given by the developers to find a unique and creative soundscape for the game?
Well, when the company was still called Lost Boys Games they had 3 titles in development; one platform game, one 3rd person stealth/adventure game and a 1st person shooter, which at the time was called Marines. These were being shopped around to various developers, and I suggested to my manager that one way to really make them stand out of the crowd was for them to have a live orchestral theme tune. So that was how the Helghast March was born. I wanted something that was thematic, epic and memorable and didn’t think a more modern approach with guitars or drums was the way to go for this game.
The other part was underscoring the characters and their story arcs; something that I think is easier and better to achieve with a more traditional sense of scoring.
Are there any cues or musical passages that are stand-outs for you?
The introduction track ‘Birth of War’ is a favorite, as is the end piece where the 4 main characters escape from a space station.
You’ve also scored Killzone: Liberation, a spin-off of the series for Sony’s Playstation Portable. Could you talk about how you connected this score with the original Killzone and elaborate on the differences between the two?
Killzone Liberation was a sort of ‘in-between’ game that was quite different, also due to its 3 rd person perspective. Though the music (like KZ1) mainly underscored the cutscenes, it was all done with midi and samples as it was a slightly smaller title. I did however start experimenting by fusing some more modern sounds with the traditional orchestra, a sound that would serve me well on the next title in the franchise, Killzone 2.
You latest project is Killzone 2. What are the particular challenges for you when scoring a sequel?
To try and create something original whilst still retaining a sense of continuity. One of the ways I did that was by re-using some themes but have them return in a different way. One example is in the track ‘Birth of War – Retribution’; it uses the first four bars of the original, orchestrated in a slightly different way, but then segues into a completely different piece.
What were your particular goals with the score? Are you pleased with the end result?
One of the goals was to update the Killzone sound and at the same time make a memorable score. I was very pleased with the outcome; we had a better orchestra, and thematically I was able to retain a much more coherent form than I did on KZ1; a few pieces in there felt like they could have come from a different game altogether. With KZ2, I felt all the music was much more consistent and worked really well with the cutscenes, providing an emotional backbone to the story.
Your score is very dynamic in-game. Could you describe the process of writing an interactive score and implementing it in the game?
It is quite a tricky process; we decided on a system that would rate the current intensity level in-game; how many enemies are attacking the player, how is he doing etc. The music was then composed in different intensity levels; low, medium and high, and sometimes a few transition pieces. Each piece should be able to transition into the other, and that makes it a bit more challenging composition-wise. Lucas van der Tol (in-house sound designer) did an excellent job implementing the music though, as good implementation and triggering is incredibly important as to how well the music works and reacts in-game.
Your Killzone scores are rich on themes. How important are themes for you? Could you expand a bit on the thematic material of Killzone and how you incorporated it into the franchise?
Themes to me are incredibly important; they can become the signature for the game and some of its characters, so I always spend a fair bit of time working out themes for important protagonists and events in the game. The main themes and motifs I ended up re-using over the entire franchise is the Helghast March, heard on the menu of both KZ1 and 2; the Birth of War motif, also used in both games, and the theme I refer to as ‘Visari’s Theme’; it is used both as a short solo in the first Birth Of War track of KZ1 and re-used in Visari’s Death scene in Killzone 2. Often parts of these themes were re-used during KZ2 during the in-game and cutscene sections.
Many of your works feature a wide array of real instruments or live orchestra. Did you enjoy working with live musicians? How much does the overall composing process differ when using live recordings as opposed to a sampled score?
Working with live musicians, and a live orchestra in particular, is an awesome experience!!! I’m always humbled by the opportunity to work with them, and they bring a wealth of experience and musicianship to the table that elevates the music to a different level. There is a level of intricacy and sound quality that I would never be able to achieve with samples alone.
The main difference is that when I’m composing for live musicians, I have to keep the size of the orchestra and instrument ranges more in mind, but these days, my composing template for both in-game and live orchestra is the same really.
Are you pleased that your scores are being discussed / compared with film scores? For many years the direction for "crossing over" has been from game scores to movie scores (e.g., Giacchino), but more recently movie composers have gone the other way (e.g., Schifrin, Elfman & Shore). Any thoughts as to why this latter flow is happening?
Yes, I am pleased, because it means people are taking it more seriously. As for more film composers turning to games, I guess part of the reason is money, and the other is an alternative way to expressing their creativity. Unless you are in the upper echelons of film scoring, music budgets for films aren’t always as good as those in games.
Where do you see game music in five to ten years from now?
I think quality-wise we can’t really go that much further than where we are; I think the main change will be in how games are scored and the level of interactivity of game scores.
In general I think the games industry still needs to do a fair bit of maturing; we haven’t had a truly experimental period like cinema had in the 70’s, where people were really trying to move the boundaries of convention and try something different. That way of thinking to me would be more revolutionary than any technical development.
What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a video game?
Staying original and creative for the length of a project. If you look at a film, even in an action film perhaps only 40% of the film is truly action sequences; the rest will be character building and story development. In games it seems like we’ve taken all the action sequences and strung them together for the majority of the game, so as a composer you end up writing 3 films worth of action music for one title. That is truly challenging.
Most enjoyable is seeing the music inside of the game and hopefully complementing a cutscene or in-game section really well; if it works and makes the game more engaging to play, it is a truly wonderful feeling.
What other composers / musical styles have had the greatest influences on you? What is in your CD-player / on your mp3 player right now?
Despite my interest in orchestral music, I take a lot of inspiration from industrial bands like NiN, Front 242 and Front Line Assembly, as well as other pop music from the likes of Depeche Mode, Peter Gabriel and most stuff produced by Trevor Horn. In terms of orchestral music, people like Stravinsky, Penderecki, John Adams, Alan Silvestri, John Williams and Elliot Goldenthal really speak to me.
What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on?
Killzone 2 without a doubt! :)
What would be your dream project?
I would love to work on a feature film or an AD&D type project…
What are you currently working on?
Killzone 3, which is looking fabulous!
Do you play PC or console games yourself?
Yes, I’m quite an avid gamer though I get less time for it these days. I recently finished Batman - Arkham Asylum which I thought was fantastic, still trying to finish GTA4 and love a spot of Left4Dead 2 with some friends. In addition I’m obsessed with the first two Fallouts!!!
Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.