Jason Graves

Credits:
- Dead Space
- Silent Hunter 5
- C&C 4: Tiberian Twilight


Official website

 

Jason Graves has composed music for a great variety of game genres including strategy, horror and adventure. In this interview, we talk with the composer about his most popular game music works, the implementation of his music into games as well as his perspective on the future of the gaming industry.

Hi Jason, thank you 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?

My pleasure! I was approached to work on my first title about eight years ago, mostly due to my background in composing and conducting for live orchestras. At the time I was concentrating on getting film and television work, but I had so much fun working on the game. After that first job I was hooked! I moved my focus from film and television to games.

 

Let’s start out by talking about Dead Space. When and how did you get involved in that project?

Dead Space was quite the ride! Don Veca, the audio director for the first Dead Space, heard the demo music I submitted. The demo request was very specific, with lots of references to Christopher Young and his thriller scores. The music I submitted was mostly custom stuff I composed just for Dead Space. Don was really keen on the specific direction of the pieces I sent in. One of those pieces ended up being the theme we recorded live for the game’s credits, note-for-note the way it was originally submitted in my demo.

I spent two years working on Dead Space and composed more than three hours of music. However, about thirty minutes of that music was when the game was still in the prototype phase and it never made it into the final release. I think one of the reasons the final music worked so well in the game was EA took extra steps to bring me in early on. I had a chance to experiment and find the right kind of sound.

 

How did you first start out writing the music and how much creative freedom were you given by the developers in order to find a unique and creative soundscape for the game?

The prototype score for Dead Space had a more direct, predictable sci-fi sound, with tonal melodies and electronics ticking in the background; something you might hear under a summer sci-fi blockbuster with giant robots. Once EA decided the music needed to be more horror and less action, I was given a lot of room to creatively stretch out and try new things. And let’s face it, when you’re talking about horror music the only rule is that there are no rules! So I had a lot of fun experimenting, especially with a big orchestra onstage playing anything I could think of.

The only real direction I had was for the music to be “as scary as possible”.  EA had some general guidelines, like something should be “creepy” sounding versus “tense” sounding, but outside of that I was given enough creative rope to hang myself, which is truly a double-edged sword! Thankfully, everything ended up working and everyone was happy with the score.

 

Your score is very dynamic in-game. Could you talk a bit about the process of writing an interactive score and implementing it in the game?

A large part of truly adaptive and interactive game music is dependent on technology - RAM available, storage capacity, etc. However, the most important part of an adaptive score is the people who develop the games and HOW they implement the music. For Dead Space, Don invented a “Fear Emitter” that the music reacts to on a scale, from levels 1 to 4. I then composed all of my pieces with that four layer system and split each cue into four different layers of intensity. The game engine does the rest by interpreting the player's actions and fading up or down the different music layers accordingly.

There’s an Easter-egg-type hidden feature that makes it easy to hear the adaptive score: Hold down the joystick/arrow key on the main menu for three or four seconds. The longer you hold it down, the higher the level of intensity music that’s playing (five seconds or so should get you up to the highest level). It’s the perfect place to experiment and hear how the music changes intensity levels.

 

In Silent Hunter 5 the player takes on the role of a German submarine commander. How did the slow, static and tactical gameplay influence the nature of your score?

Submarine combat is all about tactics and patience. The score echoed that through slow, steady chord progressions and slowly evolving melodies. A lot of the music in Silent Hunter 5 has low instruments (the depths of the ocean) and slow pacing (decisive submarine warfare tactics). There’s also male choir (the sailors on the submarine) and some solo trumpet (the player as the Captain). 

The whole idea behind Silent Hunter 5 is commanding a German submarine and potentially changing the course of the war. I wanted the music to have a unique sound that mirrored this gameplay approach. I approached the score the way a classical German composer might have and used operatic harmonies and choir to give the whole experience a sense of drama. What would Mozart or Wagner do if they were scoring this game? Now, since I’m obviously not Mozart or Wagner, how would I interpret my own idea of how they would score it?

 

Are there any cues/musical passages that you are especially proud of?

The Silent Hunter series is one of my favorites to work on (I composed the score for Silent Hunter 4 as well) because the music has a chance to sit back and relax a little bit. Most games have so much combat music there’s hardly room for anything else. With the Silent Hunter series I can compose and experiment with different themes with a much slower, more deliberate pace, so obviously some of my favorite tracks are the ones that can breathe a little more than a conventional combat track. Truthfully, my favorite ones are the pieces that don’t sound like “video game music.” Some from the official soundtrack release would be track one “Into the Atlantic” and track three “No Survivors”.

 

Your latest score is Command & Conquer 4, a game series with a rich musical legacy. How did that influence your approach?  Overall, how would you describe your score and what aspect of it are you most thrilled about?

Not to sound too corny, but it really was an honor to get asked to work on C&C4: Tiberian Twilight! I’ve always been a big fan of the franchise and was thrilled to be included in the final chapter of the saga. EA wanted Tiberian Twilight to take it up another dramatic notch, both in production value and composition. This score is also a lot darker and more cinematic than previous scores. There’s a lot of drama and desperation in the music, which makes sense given the epic storyline and characters involved in the gameplay. I recorded it with the London Philharmonia at Air Studios, which was definitely the highlight of the project for me.

 

You’ve also scored a great variety of movie and TV spots. How would you compare movie and game scoring?

My short, non-diplomatic answer would be, “Games are more fun to score!”  I’m kind of half-joking, because I do have a lot of fun working in the linear world of television and film. Games simply have more creative freedom simply because I’m not concerned with a linear scene from a film or stepping on any dialog. I also get a lot more opportunities to score big, epic themes in games. A film may have a main title or end credits and that’s about it. I think the word “linear” pretty much defines the world of film and television and “creative” is the word I think of with games.

 

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?

Being compared with film scores is a really great compliment for me, personally.  As a game composer, I get about 10% of the budget that an A-list film composer would have on film. That usually means it’s me and maybe a copyist working on the entire score. Film scores can have teams of ten or twelve people working on them. Even if I have a live orchestra, it’s for a fraction of the time a film composer would have because it’s expensive to hire live players (maybe one day for a game versus four or five days for a film). To have ANYTHING I do for a game compared to a film score means you’re really comparing apples to oranges.  Hopefully my stuff is standing up on its own fairly well, but the reality is I’ve got a tenth of the budget and have to produce the same quality music, which can be a challenge!

I spent my life growing up listening to film scores and am an avid collector as well. There are those certain “goose bump” moments in film scores that I just love. I used to spend a lot of time deconstructing those moments and trying to figure out why they had such an effect on me. Whenever I’m working on a score I’m always trying to repeat those same kinds of moments in my own music.

I think the creative possibilities composers have in games is luring more and more film composers into this world. Game music is becoming much more interactive now and publishers are sometimes willing to spend more on the music budget if they can get a “name” composer on their game.

 

Where do you see game music in five to ten years from now?

I think everything is going to continue to get more and more interactive, and not just the way the music plays in the game. I’m currently working on two titles that are using new types of “decision engines” that will vary the gameplay each time you play, so if you die and have to restart a level there are different enemies coming at you in different places or even different events that take place.

Games are finally starting to catch up a little bit with film and there’s an amazing immersive, cinematic experience a few titles offer. Now they need to emphasize the biggest advantage games have over film - interactivity. Branching storylines, different plots or completely different endings based on the decisions the player made through the game. I hope in five years that’s simply what’s expected in any decent title.

 

What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a video game?

It’s always an interesting challenge to think of my music in the context of the gameplay and predict how it’s going to sound. Will that idea I had really work out in the final version? It’s pretty tricky when I’m composing an interactive score because the whole idea is the music should sound different every time. When it works out, though, it really feels good!

 

What other composers / musical styles have had the greatest influences on you? What is in your CD-player / on your mp3-player right now?

Since I’m focused on mostly orchestral music I listen to a lot of classical music and film scores, specifically Richard Wagner, Bernard Herrmann, Pytor Tchaikovsky, Jerry Goldsmith, Krzysztof Penderecki and John Williams. I’m also a big fan of West Coast jazz, including Miles Davis and Chet Baker. Plus anything Frank Sinatra or Count Basie recorded. Jazz is definitely my “relaxation” genre of choice after a busy day. I just checked my latest iTunes playlist: The Beatles, James Newton Howard, Lady Gaga, Chet Baker and music from Glee.  Go figure.

 

What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on?

The Dead Space franchise is at the top of my list, only because it has offered me such creative freedom and has provided such rewarding feedback from the fans.

 

What would be your dream project?

I can’t help but feel like each new job I get is my next “dream project.” Just the simply fact that people are willing to pay me to do what I love doing seems like a dream come true! I know it sounds a little cheesy, but it’s the honest truth.

 

What are you currently working on?

Oh, the pitfalls of unreleased games and their ironclad non-disclosure agreements!  Unfortunately, I can’t mention any titles, but I’m right in the middle of a few big horror/suspense games and just started working on the next release of a well-known fantasy franchise. I haven’t had the chance to do a lot of fantasy in the past, so I’m really looking forward to that release.

I’ve also got a superhero/comicbook style score coming out this summer for the City of Heroes franchise, called Going Rogue, plus a really cool espionage/spy score for Obsidian Entertainment’s Alpha Protocol.

 

Do you play PC or console games yourself?

I’m much more of a console guy. I’ve got a little but of everything sitting around, from a PS3 and Xbox 360 to a Wii and DS. I honestly prefer the PS3 when I have a choice, but the Wii is a lot of fun to play with my kids, especially the titles I have the chance to score myself. I’ll play PC titles occasionally, but it’s usually more for research purposes than anything else.

 

Is there anything you’d like to say that I didn’t cover?

I’d just like to say “thanks” to all the fans of game music. I love hearing from folks who have noticed my music while they were playing a game. Don’t be strangers and thanks for the kind words!

 

Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.

You’re totally welcome. Thanks for the chance to talk. Cheers!