Some scares in Dead Space, and a lot of its atmosphere, can be accredited to this man. Jason Graves is coming on ten years of composing game music, and in this exclusive interview, talks about his work, inspirations and collaborating with some of gaming's best.
It's always best to start at the beginning: what's your background as a composer, and how were you introduced into video games?
Being a teenage boy in the 80's made me a video game fanatic by default. I'm part of the first generation of video game fans and have always loved to play. However, I never really thought about composing music for games until several years after I finished college. I went to school for Music Composition and then Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television in Los Angeles at U.S.C. This was about 15 years ago, and they didn't have anything in the program about scoring video games. Now they have several classes on the subject. In fact, I was just at U.S.C. speaking to the class about composing music for games yesterday!
I've always been a huge classical music fan and assumed that scoring for films would be the only way I could have a career composing music. My first game was really more about someone needing music quickly, which I was happy to do for them. At the time I had no idea it would be so much fun! After that first game, which was the King Arthur video game, based on the movie by the same name, I was hooked. That was ten years ago and I've been focusing on music for games ever since.
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What's your process in scoring game soundtracks? If we take Prey 2 for example: at which point of development are you brought in, and how do you go about envisioning something fitting for the game? Is is a collaborative process, or are you given a rough direction and left to your own devices?
Each game is obviously different, but normally the development team has some sort of general idea for the music in the beginning. I prefer to be brought in early; a year or more in advance for a big game. I won't be composing music that entire time, but simply being involved and included in the creative process as early on as possible really helps me understand the game and deliver the most appropriate score.
The best end result is always a collaborative, long-term relationship. Prey 2 is a perfect example - they brought me in early and we had many face-to-face meetings that allowed me to play the game and hear the music. That really makes all the difference in the world.
How do you discuss potential themes or tracks with non-musicians; is it cuing up brief examples, or finding reference via previous works or thematically similar games/movies?
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I try to avoid direct film or game references if possible, but sometimes that's the easiest way to communicate. If given a choice, I prefer to speak in terms of emotion. Words like "paranoid," "panicked" or "curious" are easy to convey and everyone understands what they feel like on a personal level. My job is to register those same feelings through the music.
You've worked with a range of musicians in creating these scores, but obviously it all starts with you. Do you come to compositions with everything fully formed, or does the multiple layers of pieces allow you to tweak and refine?
Most everything I do now is in multiple layers, at least four and sometimes up to twenty. It's to the point now that I can start with a fully formed idea in my head and break it apart into the layers as I input it into the computer or write it down. It's definitely a faster way to work, but I've only been doing it that way for the last year or so. I think it took a few years plus hours and hours of layered composition for me to be able to deconstruct it all in my head first.
Given your diversity of your musical background, have you a wish to try and give familiar genres a unfamiliar score, either to expand the variation currently seen in the medium, or give audiences a distinctive flavor? Is there any particular instrument, composition or musical style that you're eager to see used in a gaming score?
That thought is always lurking in the back of my head every time I start a new score. I think it's also something the game developers are looking for as well. We both want a unique score that stands out, but we have to walk a fine line and not completely alienate the players with something that is different just to be different. It still needs to resonate on an emotional level with the players and seem like a natural part of the game's universe.
Your biography shows you've worked on sci-fi, fantasy, even world war themes in the past; how do you draw inspiration to conceive music for each style?
The developers are doing such an incredible job with games these days. You can easily imagine yourself in these worlds they're creating. That makes my job so much easier! The game is all the inspiration I need. In contrast, sometimes when I'm brought in early on a project I've heard the level designers are inspired by music that I've already written for the game, so it can really work both ways.
With Dead Space: where do you start in crafting a sequel's score? Do you listen to the previous game's music to ignite ideas, or is there logical themes that you'd want to expand on from the originals? And does that process hold if you're scoring a sequel to a series you're new to?
A lot really depends on what the developer wants. Quite often I'm asked to start from scratch with new themes and ideas, in which case I try not to listen to the previously composed music. There are a few times I have been asked to pick up where a previous score left off, and every time I was the original composer, which can be a lot of fun. It gives me a chance to revisit the old themes and try new things. There's a fine line to walk between creating something that feels fresh and new but still is a logical progression from the previous title.
Dead Space 2 was really wonderful because EA really gave me complete creative control to do whatever I thought was appropriate. I honestly wasn't sure if they would allow string quartet music in a huge horror title, but fortunately they trusted me enough to let me try.
You've been the recipient of many awards for your contributions: do you feel game music is finally being recognized by the wider world as art in itself?
It's definitely getting more attention, which I believe is a direct result of games themselves getting more attention, which of course is a direct result of all the resources that are being put into games these days. I think the technology in games is finally allowing composers to create truly interactive, immersive scores that can react to gameplay in ways that static film or television music could never do. It's still not held in the same regard as film or television music, but I think we're definitely making good progress towards that end.
With Video Games Live! managing to draw crowds the world over, what do you see as the next step in pushing gaming music further?
Live performances are wonderful because they illustrate how immersive and descriptive the music can be outside of the gameplay experience. EA had a live string quartet perform my music from Dead Space 2 at the world premiere in London earlier this year. And the London Philharmonic just released an album called "The Greatest Video Game Music" along with a live concert performance at Royal Festival Hall, which included a track from the original Dead Space score. Live concerts and events promoting music for games as more than just "background ambience" go a long way to educating people.
More game companies are producing behind the scenes "making-of" documentaries about the music as well. This is an excellent way to give people an inside glimpse into everything that goes into completing the score. There are a lot of details and people involved would never get the credit they deserve otherwise.
What's next on the cards for you?
2012 is shaping up to be my busiest year to date. It's also my tenth anniversary in games, which is a proud milestone for me! One of the things I love most about working in games is the variety of music I get to compose, and this coming year is no exception. There's fantasy, horror, mystery, drama and action, just to name a few. It's wonderful to be able to move between so many genres.