Michael Land

- Monkey Island series
- The Dig
- Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis



Michael Land is one of the pioneers of game music. Starting out with the Monkey Island series, he has enriched many Lucas Arts adventure games with colorful and evocative scores. In this interview, he talks about composing in the early days of video game music, working on Monkey Island as well as his interactive score system called iMuse.

Hi Michael, 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?

I got started through a newspaper ad...it turned out to be for the position of sound and music creator at Lucafilm Games, which eventually turned into LucasArts.... very lucky.


Let’s talk about The Secret of Monkey Island, the first entry in LucasArts’ Monkey Island series. How and when did you get involved in that project?

When I first started working at LucasArts, the Monkey Island project was in full swing, and it needed music, so I just jumped right in.


How did you first start out writing the music? How much creative freedom were you given from the developers to find a unique sound for the game?

I was given a lot of creative freedom within the broad contraints of "pirate reggae". There's a lot you can do with that.


The main theme of Monkey Island is a classic. Do you remember how you came up with that melody?

I was at home one evening noodling around on an organ sound on my keyboard, and I just started playing that tune out of the blue...it came out all at once, and I knew right away that it would be the game's main theme. Then I had to work really hard to figure out the ending...those last few seconds took much more time to write than the entire rest of the tune.


You’ve scored all the other three entries in the Monkey Island series as well. How would you describe the particular challenges in scoring sequels? How did the sound of Monkey Island change over the years?

In a lot of ways, scoring sequels is easier than the first time around, since the themes and arrangements are already done, so you just have to expand and adjust them to fit the new situations. Over the course of the four Monkey Island games during ten years, the nature of computer game music changed a lot, so the Monkey Island music did too. The first one was all MIDI, just a few tunes, no interactivity, and a lot of silence. The second had wall-to-wall music and a lot of musical interactivity, but still all MIDI. The third one was the first to do the music entirely in digital audio, so it had really great live musicians on the score. And the fourth one had even more advanced production on it, as well as a lot of collaboration between myself, Clint Bajakian and Peter McConnell.


To deal with the interactive side of the games, you developed a music system called iMuse. Can you tell us a bit how that system works and what its particular advantages are over looped background music?

The goal behind iMuse was to make the music respond to the unpredictable interactive changes in the game as if the music had been composed with advance knowledge about what was going to happen. It was really hard to do that convincingly. The system was designed to allow the composer to write music with lots of layers and lots of paths, and then during the gameplay the system would choose the layers and paths that worked best for the situation.


Do you think that the iMuse system could be applied to modern video games using live orchestras?

Yes definitely. It would require a lot of recording to get all the different options recorded, but with the quality and budget of today's games, that's becoming more and more practical.


Many gamers and fans of classic adventure games know your name in connection with two other composers: Peter McConnell and Clint Bajakian. Do you still have contact with them? Are there any plans to join up with them again for a future game project?

Yes, we're still in contact, and still good friends. Peter and I are working on a software project together, and Clint and I are playing in a band.


Back then, the three of you have written music for many LucasArts adventure games. How does composing in a team work?

It works really well when your styles are compatible among the composing partners, as the three of us were. We all had different styles, but our styles fit together and complemented each other really well. Sometimes one of us would finish a piece that another had started, or we'd each write different parts of the same piece, and you wouldn't be able to tell.


You’ve been composing music for games since the early days. How do you think composing for video games has changed since then?

It's gotten a lot more sophisticated from a production standpoint. The quality of the synths and musicians and studios keeps going up, to the point where now a lot of games are scored by the same composers and orchestras that score films. But games are still games, and there are factors and issues having to do with gameplay and interactivity that carry across all the different generations of games, and these distinguish game music from other kinds of music for picture.


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'm really happy about the response my music has gotten, and that people still mention it so many years after it was written. I think the reason film composers are moving into games is because games have grown up in terms of the quality of video and audio, to the point where top production talent can work in the medium without having to compromise due to bandwidth or budget.


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

I hope that more sophisticated interactivity will come into the music, like it did in the early days of MIDI. I think the production quality today is great, but making the music respond naturally to interactive gameplay is still a frontier where a lot of progress can still be made.


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

For me the answer is clear: harmonic structure. Because of the way the different parts of a game can connect, the harmonic key areas that the different tunes are in don't always happen in a set order... it's more like an interlocking set of possibilities. A simple way to deal with that is to keep things in more or less the same key, but then you miss out on one of the most powerful expressive tools in music, which is harmonic modulation, or key changes. So if you want to be daring and exploratory in terms of changing keys, but still have all the key changes make sense and feel good, then you have to fit together the different key areas almost like solving a puzzle. And when you solve it and it all works, it's a beautiful thing.


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

I'm a big fan of Beethoven, the Grateful Dead, Hendrix, Wagner, and Renaissance Music. I also really like lots of different kinds of rock and pop. What's in my CD player right now is a few mix CD's with different rock tunes on them.


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

The Dig. The story for that game (being lost on a distant planet) required music that had a lot in common with the music I feel most connected to inside of myself, so the score to that game was very personal for me.


What would be your dream project?

My dream project would be to have a great studio and a couple of years to compose whatever I felt, and then record it with a great orchestra and great solo players.


What are you currently working on?

I'm working on a piano piece.


Do you play PC or console games yourself?

Not very often, but I check them out once in a while to see how the industry is evolving.


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

My ten years at LucasArts was a wonderful creative challenge and opportunity, and I highly recommend to anyone who loves composing to find ways of working with other creative people, because being part of a project makes you rise to your best levels and do your best work.


Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.