Hi Olivier, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. First of all, tell us about yourself. How did you get started in the video game music business?
That was years ago, when I was 14 (I'm now 29). Actually, it wasn't for games but for what was called demos. It was a piece of code and art that would show the potential of a group of passionate people. What's surprising is that at that time it was much more creative that nowadays in programming, art and music for games. Later, my friends started to work in the video games industry and one day they contacted me.
Let’s talk about Obscure 1 and 2. How and when did you first get involved in the franchise?
Obscure was my very first commercial game. I was 23 and honestly I was very scared. I met Hydravision once and Pierre Leroux (Executive producer) told me he had to have the green light from MC2 (Microids, the publisher). I finally met Samuel Gatté (from MC2) and he agreed to take the risk of hiring me. I have to say, in 2003 when I first saw Obscure run, I thought ‘Man, this is the game you have to work on!' because it was beautiful, quite new and the first game for Hydravision, so it was a great opportunity to try things out.
Could you talk a bit about your general approach to the genre of horror? What musical devices did you develop to send shivers down player’s spine?
I have to confess I'm not really into scary music. The first reason is that music for the genre is much more about textures than melodies and I'm better at writing melodies. The second reason is: if you want to make scary music with an orchestra you need a real one, not samples. Because the spectrum of possibilities using instrumental effects is missing in samples so it would be terrible to use samples for this. You just have to listen to Jason Graves's score for Dead Space, because it is real orchestral textures and VERY scary. This doesn't mean the Obscure soundtrack is not scary. I'd say it is disturbing mostly because of the use of a boys choir. The horror of the game and the beauty of innocent voices match exactly what I was looking for: contrast.
How important is the seamless integration of sound effects and music into horror games? Were there ever any issues in terms of music versus sound effect placement in the games you’ve worked on? If so, which part would you consider more valuable?
As I was alone on Obscure 1 for audio I can really tell how important sound is for horror games. Music and sound effects are always completing each other for any kind of game (or movie) but what is very critical for horror games is rhythm within the gameplay. To be more efficient I started to be very close to the team of any game I've worked for. This gives me the opportunity to interact with the game director or designers directly and understand what they need. By being this present, they understand how much music and sound can add to the experience. I would never think music is "better" than sounds but I would say music is not only sound. It can tell a story, change the mood of any type of situation, help to understand the gameplay...in the end if well employed music brings an additional dimension to the gaming experience.
One of your latest projects is Alone in the Dark. How did you first start out writing the music? How much creative freedom were you given? Was the idea of using voices as a central texture in your score apparent from the beginning?
I met David Nadal (game director) and we talked about games we liked, movies, music, books but not the game itself. Nothing is more important than sharing the same sensibilities when it comes to creation. Then as David insisted a lot on the fact Alone in the Dark was not a survival horror game I starting to get very interested! I didn't want to make another survival horror game because people started to think I compose only for this genre. So the game is a mix of horror, action and adventure. Great! As the discussion went on David told me he thought using an orchestra would be necessary since the game will be very close to a movie blockbuster and I got even more excited until he begun to talk about the mystical part. Alone in the Dark hides a mystery and is interesting mostly because of it: the hero doesn’t remember who he is and Central Park is hiding a secret. I had to capture this in the choice of instruments and I felt that we had better use the money to get a choir than to get an actual orchestra. And naturally, because I knew the choir from my childhood, I told David about the "Mystery of Bulgarian voices". At first it was very abstract and many people thought it was Japanese as Kenji Kawai used Bulgarian textures for Ghost in the Shell. But they trusted me and when you listen to the final score you know the choir makes the difference.
You’ve worked together with the Mystery of Bulgarian Voices on the project. Could you tell us about your work with the choir? How does the overall composing process differ when using live choir as opposed to a sampled database?
Working with such choir was a blessing. The first thing I needed was lyrics because I wanted to compose songs that will be used as themes for the game. I thought I would write the text in French and a Bulgarian translator would put it into Bulgarian. But, with a lot of luck, I met Irina Zhekova, a great author. I understood that if I let her come up with her own interpretation of my ideas the lyrics would be great. When I finally got the texts that are very connected to the game but not as a description but much more as an extension, I started to compose the song a cappella. I wanted the choir to feel everything just by singing without any help of instruments. Moreover, they usually don't sing with instruments. Concerning the sampled database, I'm used to work with sampled orchestra (mostly because of budget) but I will never work with sampled voices, to me it's pointless unless you just want them to sing AAA or OOO in the background of your music. If I use a choir it is to get the best of it and to do so you need them to sing words. It's a great feeling to watch the singers perform your music as they understand what they are singing.
What aspect of composing for Alone in the Dark did you find most rewarding? Are there any cues/musical passages that you are especially proud of?
What may be surprising is that I'm most proud of the integration. Alone in the Dark may be one of the few games where music is a score, not a background illustration. First of all, the overall score is about 5 hours long with no repetition (except during the free roaming) and it is constructed around the game structure, the story, the characters just like for any movies in the 80's. This work was maybe crazy and surely too much but I did want to make a videogame score. Then, the music is very reactive to any action or situation in the game. The music contains tons of little cues that are launched depending on the action but without any feeling of montage but a full musical meaning. Some reviewers noticed this so I felt it wasn't useless! Lucky me!
What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a strategy game?
Music for games is not music...it is music FOR games meaning we have to think music depending on the game needs. For a STR I would say the most difficult part is to make the music be present when it has to but low key most of the time. This may sound very trivial but the way to do it is very difficult. Today's technology permits us to obtain such connections between a game and its music that you have to take advantage of it. Also, STR may be quite repetitive so you have to figure how to add some excitement just with music. Anyways when it comes to STR you can't avoid thinking about Jeremy Soule’s incredible score for Total Annihilation, a masterpiece. The connection with the game was very simple but extra-powerful. I think great music will never be replaced by a great integration but do both and you will have a great experience.
What other composers / musical styles have had the greatest influences on you? What is in your CD-player right now?
Right now I'm listening to Board of Canada (Zoetrope); Electronica is just a complete new world and I'm now working hard on systems to integrate some sounds from electronica to my music. Sometimes I wish I knew Aphex Twin to ask him tons of questions! My parents are music lovers and since a very young age I was exposed to many styles of music but for instance I think one composer made a big difference for many of us: Peter Gabriel and his score for The Last Temptation of the Christ which is not a real score but music that has been composed and used for the movie. He made this in 1988, I was 10 and I think it changed my way of thinking music because the mix between culture was so complete, so full of meaning and of spirituality.
What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on?
I don't have a favorite project since each one was unique. I'm not being politically correct. I just think Obscure 2 score is my most personal music for games.
What would be your dream project?
I wish I would work with a team that would make a project full of meaning with something more to say than just kill the bad guys! I love games. I'm a big gamer and I'm asking as a consumer when I will get another Shenmue (Yu Suzuki) experience. This game is one of the best achievements in the art of making videogames and the best experience I've ever had (with Another World from Eric Chahi)
What are you currently working on?
I'm now finishing my mass (it takes so much time!!!) and I'm working on games but not AAA. I think I have to stay connected with young creators and small teams to explore new ways of composing for games.
Do you play PC or console games, yourself? If so, what’s your favourite one and why?
I was very much a PC lover but when Shenmue came out about 10 years ago I've switched to consoles. I enjoy games that give you more than just a bad story and fantastic graphics (but honestly, Gears of War 2 is an amazing piece of art!!!) I like games that make me feel something else than happiness to kill. So besides Shenmue I loved Breakdown (Capcom) a sort of Mirror's Edge with great ideas and a fantastic immersion. Oblivion (Bethesda) is an amazing game because of the freedom and possibilities. Still Life (Microids) is quite incredible to me, very smart and totally unexpected. Deus Ex (Eidos, Warren Spector) is also very clever. I will end with Lost Odyssey (on XBox360) and the incredible approach to death. I have so much more to say!
Is there anything you’d like to say that I didn’t cover?
I'm going to every convention and exhibition for games since 2004 and it is amazing how games evolved. What's surprising is that music has never been a priority for videogame makers and it is only thanks to websites like yours that I feel it is not useless. I really want to thank you for your interest and your passion that I share completely!
Thanks again and good luck on your coming endeavours.