Peter McConnell

Credits:
- Monkey Island series
- Grim Fandango
- Sam & Max
- Psychonauts

 

Official website

 

Peter McConnell is a video game music veteran who has composed music for such classics as the Monkey Island series, Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max. In this interview, he talks to us about one his latest projects, Psychonauts, the early days of video game composing as well as the particular challenges of writing music for interactive media.

Hi Peter, 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 had gone to school with Michael Land and worked together with him doing audio engineering at Lexicon, which is a company that makes sound processors for musicians. So when he called me saying he had gotten a job at Lucas and wanted to start a sound department, I was excited. In those days it helped to have both music and engineering experience to work in audio for games, but the music was really where my heart was, so it was a great opportunity to develop that part of myself.

 

Let’s talk about your latest project: Psychonauts. How and when did you get involved in that project?

Actually Psychonauts is far from my latest project, but it’s a favorite for sure. I got involved very early, back in 2000 when Tim had left LucasArts and was just starting Double Fine. The project was several years in the making.

 

How did you first start out writing the music? How much creative freedom were you given to keep up with the many unconventional ideas in the game?

I have always gotten a lot of creative freedom when working with Tim. The process starts with me just singing tunes into a hand-held recorder and sending him mp3 files of these god-awful renditions of me singing and banging away. Somehow he approves these, they develop into rough sketches with sampled instruments, and then finally they become full pieces with as many live players as time and budget can afford.

 

What were you specific goals with the score? How did you deal with the interactive side of the game? Are there any cues/musical passages that you’re especially proud of?

I wanted to evoke the world of the game, which is a world like no other. The biggest challenge for the music was to convey the sense that not everything is “real” (in the way that Raz and Lily are “real”) – a lot of it is in your mind. My favourite cues from Psychonauts are the paranoid music for the milkman and his FBI-infiltrated suburbia, and the main tune in the campground. The funny thing about that campground music is that Tim hated the first version of it, and I just kept re-working it and re-working it until eventually everyone liked it, including me. And I especially like the work of the baritone guitar player and harmonica player in the final version.

 

Many gamers and fans of classic adventure games know your name in connection with two other composers: Michael Land 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?

We are still good friends and hand out together whenever we can. We have pretty demanding and different endeavors, though. Clint is a senior music director at Sony, and I am involved with Michael in a user-generated media site called SmashMash.tv where you make your own video and photo animations with a built-in tool and post them. And I have a bunch of music projects going on that are pretty demanding. But there is always the chance of doing another project together, and I’m sure we’d all enjoy the opportunity under the right circumstances.

 

Back then, the three of you have written music for many LucasArts adventure games. How does composing in a team work? Where do you see the particular challenge when scoring an adventure game?

In those days we would collaborate pretty completely, sometimes doing different sections of the same piece – The Largo theme in Monkey Island II is an example. We did tend to have spheres of influence in the game, and eventually things evolved so that one of us would have complete responsibility for an entire game score. In general the challenge of doing game music is to create something that enhances the mood of a particular situation in the game without becoming overpowering. You could even say that the biggest goal is not to be annoying. For adventure games this means creating music that people will want to think and solve puzzles by -- as well as evoking the scenes they encounter. So it’s important to find ways not to make the music sound too repetitive. A composer tends to develop a bag of tricks for doing this.

 

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

In three ways: bigger budgets, more attention and more competition. It’s all good.

 

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 composers cross over in both directions because as a composer you want to take advantage of every opportunity to work at music that a lot of people will hear. I think the cross-over from film music to game music is partly because the budgets and resources are getting bigger, but also because interactive entertainment is becoming an increasingly important cultural statement. Walter Murch wrote a great article some years ago about how the first movies were just little nickel-operated crank machines you would play on a boardwalk or a carnival, not unlike a modern video arcade. These humble machines evolved into the Big Screen, arguably the culture’s central artistic statement. Murch’s point is that we are watching games go through the same process movies did. So it’s no surprise that more people want to be involved.

 

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

Less imitative of Hollywood. It’s happening already. Not everything has to sound like a blockbuster action score anymore. I think music for games is starting to get its own identity – and a much greater degree of variety. Look at Bioshock. And have you checked out “Flow?”

 

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

The most difficult part is imagining what the gameplay will be like before you can really see it happening. The most enjoyable parts are recording musicians – bringing the score to life – and getting an email from someone saying how much they like what you’ve done.

 

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

The influences are many and it’s hard to rank them. Duke Ellington, Bernard Hermann, Raymond Scott, Danny Elfman, Ennio Morricone all come quickly to mind. My iPod has everything from Hariprasaad Churasia to Wiener Sangerknaben to Cradle of Filth. It’s pretty hard to characterize.

 

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

The ones I’m working on now!

 

What would be your dream project?

I’d like to do a live opera or musical someday. There is nothing like live musical drama.

 

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on Tim Schafer’s new game Brutal Legend and a couple of other titles that haven’t been announced yet. It’s very exciting. I’m getting some opportunities to expand my musical direction.

 

Do you play PC or console games yourself?

Mostly console games these days and mostly for testing my own work. I wish I had time to play more. Maybe when my kids get older I’ll be able to play with them.

 

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

In the end the most important thing is to do something you love.

 

 

Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.

Thanks, and best of luck to you as well.