Ben Houge

Credits:
- Leisure Suit Larry 7
King's Quest VIII
- Arcanum
- Half-Life (PS2)

Official website

 

Ben Houge is a composer and audio designer for games and interactive media. He talks with us about his game scores to Arcanum and King's Quest VIII as well as composing music in general.

Hi Ben, 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?

Like a lot of life’s opportunities, this one came about through a personal connection. Through a little nepotism, I was hired for peanuts to help out on Leisure Suit Larry 7 for Sierra, then asked to stay on to work on King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity. About halfway through that production, as I recall, everyone was convinced that I was doing quality work, so they offered me a full time job. In total I was at Sierra for 7 years.

BTW, this shouldn’t discourage composers or audio designers trying to break into the biz; you just need to do your best to develop those connections. Composer organizations, like the Seattle Composer Alliance, with which I was heavily involved while living in Seattle, can be great for this. Of course, you also need to make sure you know your stuff; my contact told me to get a music degree first, then give him a call.

 

You are most famous for your score to Arcanum. How did you get involved in that project?

After their first published game, Half-Life, was a huge hit, Sierra set about signing up other developers to diversify their portfolio, and Troika was among the first. Many smaller developers, like Troika, had no in-house audio department, so as a staff audio designer at Sierra, I was often asked to help out. That’s how I got to work on such a range of projects, including Half-Life: Opposing Force, Ground Control, and Arcanum. Arcanum was a big project, and I ended up spending over a year on it, including composing the score and designing most of the sound effects.

 

The whole score of Arcanum was performed by a string quartet. Why did you choose this approach?

There were a lot of reasons. Since the central conflict of Arcanum is the anachronism of an industrial revolution in a Tolkienesque fantasy world, I wanted to reflect that in the music. To accomplish this, I tried to write music that was influenced by Renaissance and early music to represent the mystical fantasy element, but then performed by a string quartet, an ensemble that came into its own during the Enlightment, which was an era of reason and science. In addition, folks at Sierra were hesitant to spend a lot of money on a large acoustic ensemble, and a string quartet turned out to be quite economical.

 

How would you describe the score overall and what aspect of it are you most proud of?

Maybe “ambiguous” is the best word to describe it. It doesn’t hit you over the head with a point or an interpretation, which was especially important, since the player can choose a path of good or evil. I think ambiguity is a desirable quality in art, since it engages people and encourages them to fill in the gaps and make up their minds.

 

Did you enjoy working with live players? How much does the overall composing process differ when using a live ensemble as opposed to a sampled score?

Yes, working with the live players was a real thrill, and the players we hired were top notch. There’s a lot of valuable feedback in working with professional performers, and I learned a lot in the process. The sound quality and expressiveness were exceptional.

I’m a big fan of electronically generated or manipulated sound, but only when it’s used to create something new that can’t be achieved by acoustic means. If a sampler is just masquerading as an acoustic string section, it’s an abomination. It’s also inefficient; you have to spend a lot more time massaging samples to get them to sound realistic than if you just write the music out and hand it to a pro.

 

One of your first projects was King’s Quest 8. What can you tell us about that score?

There were three composers on King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity. Kevin Manthei wrote the main theme for the game and a theme for each level, and his music is the most iconic. I wrote a bunch of the little, secondary themes, probably about 40-50% of the soundtrack, concentrated in the first few levels. Game music legend (and KQ:MOE producer and de facto designer) Mark Seibert wrote the rest, really putting his classical guitar skills to effective use, especially in the later levels (at a time when I was scrambling to get all the dialog and sound effects implemented). I was very fortunate to have Mark’s guidance on my music as well, and he performed guitar on a few of my pieces.

Someday I’m going to finish a longstanding project of arranging my three best KQ pieces into a short concert suite for flute and guitar, at which point I plan to release a CD of game music. No date set yet, though!

 

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?

I think it makes a lot of sense that film composers are paying attention to games these days. It’s natural, since games are where the interesting challenges are. Film has levelled off; the techniques are established, it’s easy to go to school and learn how to score a film, and the competition has grown fierce. In games, it’s still the Wild West; everyone’s coming up with different solutions, some more successful than others, and it’s just big, messy fun.

The only thing that bugs me about this is when people (producers or the film composers themselves) get the notion that involving a film composer in a game project will imbue it with an air of legitimacy that would otherwise be lacking. Scoring a game is fundamentally different from scoring a film. Of course there are a lot of overlapping skills, but it’s a different task, so film composers who want to get into games still need to do their homework, in addition to actually playing games.

 

Have you ever thought about scoring movies or television series?

Yes, but not lately. Games are a really stimulating place to be these days, for the reasons listed above. If something came along I might consider it, but I’m not seeking it out.

 

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

Well, it will be really diverse. Games are a burgeoning industry, and we’re seeing a proliferation of genres. Developers will increasingly understand that game music isn’t something you can shoehorn in at the last minute, which you can more or less get away with in films. I don’t think anyone will ever be able to come up with an all-in-one solution for game music; there really needs to be someone involved up front, working with the design and determining the needs for the game on an individual basis. So some games will have great orchestral soundtracks, but they’ll be really responsive to what’s going on; those are not mutually exclusive goals. I hope we’ll also see some really interesting stuff synthesized in real time, some really wacky electronic stuff bouncing all over your 5.1 or more speakers. Playing back sampled sound is easy, but synthesizing and manipulating sound in real time is where we’ll see some new opportunities in the next generation.

 

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

Lately my work has been more related to designing the overall audio experience for a project, not just writing the music. On some projects this means that I don’t actually write the music myself, but I have to work with an outside composer to ensure that he or she delivers what the game needs.

The overall audio design for a game is an interdependent network of audio systems, and I’ve found that defining these systems is essentially a kind of composition in and of itself. It’s a big task, truly symphonic in scope, since I’m basically describing how lots of different kinds of audio will behave during the many hours that a gamer may play a game. I have to make sure that the music system works well by itself, but also in conjunction with the dialog system and all of the other various sound effects deployment mechanisms. So that’s the biggest challenge, and figuring it all out is the biggest reward.

 

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

At home I’ve got Ikue Mori in my CD player, and at work it’s Glenn Branca. I just got back from a big buying spree in Hong Kong, where I found some great stuff, particularly at a fantastic little shop called White Noise Records (http://www.whitenoiserecords.org/). I picked up a recording of Morton Feldman’s early graphic scores, Hong Kong ambient composer Simon Ho’s Signal album, the Free Touching album of live free improvisation in Beijing on Noise Asia records, some old albums by Bowie and Eno, and DVD’s of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande and John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer.

I’ve been boning up on Chinese music since moving to Shanghai a little over a year ago, listening to composers like He Xuntian, Liu Tianhua, Tan Dun, and local Shanghai noise band Torturing Nurse (I just saw them live last Saturday, which was nuts!).

I recently moved to a new place and got a great new surround system, so I’ve been enjoying the 5.1 mix of the Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the Peter Gabriel video compilation, some Bjork videos mixed in 5.1, and the Immersion compilation on Starkland, featuring folks like Pauline Oliveros and Carl Stone.

I’ve also been listening to Brian Wilson’s Smile and John Zorn’s game piece Xu Feng (a kung fu-inspired follow up to Cobra). In the mornings I often find myself drawn to Ustad Rashid Khan’s Morning Mantra CD of classical Hindustani music and the Hilliard Ensemble’s recent CD of motets by Guillaume de Machaut.

 

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

Well, Arcanum was really musically satisfying, but I learned firsthand the frustrations of being far from the development team, so in the end the audio wasn’t very well-integrated. In some ways the most fun was my first project, Leisure Suit Larry 7, since it was the kind of 2D adventure game Sierra could make in its sleep; it was a lot of goofy fun, and I got to work with a lot of game biz veterans, so I was learning all the time.

Honestly, my current project, about which I can tell you absolutely nothing, is shaping up to be my most satisfying yet. During my last few years at Sierra, the company was really scrambling, trying to figure out how to get into the console market, and a lot of projects were scrapped, until they finally closed their doors. Ubisoft is really good with establishing processes to manage a long-term development cycle, and we’ve got the resources we need to make something really exceptional, including an amazing team with a crack designer and a whipsmart producer. And that’s all I can say about it for now, other than that I’m having a great time!

 

What would be your dream project?

Well, if it wasn’t my current project, it would probably be something aimed at cultivating kind of an “art-house” niche for games. I think that’s absolutely coming, and we’ve seen some early examples with games like Ico (an all-time favorite of mine) or Katamari Damacy. I’d like to push beyond things that are generally considered games to new kinds of interactive environments or virtual art installations you can inexpensively download to play on your Xbox 360 and enjoy in your living room.

 

Do you play PC or console games yourself?

Absolutely! We play a lot of Dawn of War at work, and I recently finished the single player campaign. At home I’m playing God of War and coming back to Halo 2 (in 5.1, which rules!).

 

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

If anyone’s in Shanghai on Nov. 19, come and check out my show! I’m reviving the Sound Currents concert series that I started in Seattle in 2003, and the first concert features me opening for the East Coast-based Nakatani-Chen Duo. They do kind of experimental free improvisation, and I’ll be playing with my laptop (using software I developed using Max/MSP), doing pieces that incorporate real time random processes, similar to some of the game audio systems I’ve designed. In Seattle we presented, in addition to other things, works from games and by game composers, and eventually I hope to present some of that music here, too, like my music from Arcanum and pieces by Nathan Grigg and Scott Selfon. For more information, check out www.soundcurrents.org.

 

Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.

Thanks to you!