Since the advent of video games, music has always played a key role in heightening the sense of immersion players feel as the action plays out on-screen. Over the years we’ve seen video game music evolve and branch in myriad directions, ranging from epic sweeping scores and chip-tune tributes to reiterations of those timeless, nostalgia-inducing classics.
With The Order: 1886, developer Ready At Dawn Studios wanted a score to perfectly anchor the game’s Victorian setting as well as its dark thematic focus. The result is a soundtrack both grounded and impactful, adding another layer of authenticity on top of The Order’s jaw-dropping visuals. We recently had the chance to speak with the game’s composer, Jason Graves, who has worked on acclaimed franchises that range from Tomb Raider and Dead Space to Devil May Cry and Evolve.
TSA: I suppose the first question is how did you come to start working in the video game industry? Was it largely through networking and happenstance or did you always intend to compose for games?
Jason: I started in film and TV when I was living in Los Angeles. Also lots of advertising and movie trailers. I eventually moved back home to Raleigh, NC to pursue what was, at the time, a burgeoning film scene. That work spilled into more advertising and corporate work, including radio and more trailer music.
After five or so years of that I happened across my first game, which was more of a “right place at the right time” kind of thing. It was a film-based game and they needed music immediately. I had been spending a great deal of time and effort networking with local contacts for almost six years and, ironically, someone local knew someone in Australia who worked at a game company and needed 45 minutes of music in about three weeks.
I think networking and happenstance are really the two key ingredients to getting started in this industry. Everyone has different stories, of course, and there are a thousand ways to go about making a name for yourself.
TSA: How important are soundtracks when it comes to anchoring the action on-screen? What subtleties do they offer in contrast to a game’s visual elements?
Jason: The wonderful thing about music is its power and simplicity when it comes to establishing a mood. The music nails the emotion immediately. It’s more powerful than any lighting, wall textures or character dialog could ever be. It’s really the heart and soul of the gameplay.
TSA: Have you noticed a broader recognition of video game soundtracks since working in the game industry? Do you think their popularity will rise to match movie soundtracks?
Jason: Slowly but surely, yes. More and more recording artists and film composers are making their way into games, which causes more people to notice. Of course, the music isn’t necessarily getting better – it’s just getting more recognition.
Games have been slowly accepted in awards around the world, which I suppose to many people is the equivalent of “official recognition.” I’m honestly a lot more interested in other forms of recognition, such as the live performances and alternate arrangements that regularly occur all over the world. Game music has a huge, voracious fan base that is amazingly loyal and hardcore. The fans are the ultimate form of recognition for me. After all, they are the number one reason I work so hard at what I do!
I don’t really compare game music and movie music, just like I don’t compare movie music with popular music. They are all so different in terms of medium and intent – in my mind they exist in different musical universes. Of course, I’ve been in games for fifteen years and composed music for half that time without a single official soundtrack release. Today we see almost weekly releases of new game scores, which is fantastic.
TSA: Are there any current issues that specifically affect composers and musicians within our industry (tighter budgets, less support from developers/publishers)?
Jason: Honestly, nothing that we haven’t been dealing with from the beginning. As composers in film, television or games, we’re used to being at the end of the line – always the last thing considered, often without enough time or budget to do our jobs to their fullest. Fortunately, I experience that less in games. Many times it’s the exact opposite.
For example, I was brought in more than three years before The Order: 1886 shipped. And Sony was very supportive with the live budget, which was not my responsibility (another benefit of working in games). They allowed me to pick the recording studio and instrumentation without concerning myself about how much it all costed. They even suggested adding another eight men to the choir, which we did. It’s wonderfully liberating because everyone is working in tandem to achieve the best music possible for the game.
TSA: How does working on a video game soundtrack compare to making music for film and other media? Does it allow more creative freedom?
Jason: It’s all very project specific, but in general, yes, I feel like game developers are looking for the most creative, original approaches when it comes to music. Many times, film and television can fall into the temp score trap. Ultimately the composer can get painted into a corner and has to get as close to the temp score as possible, because the temp score has been market tested and is from a previous, successful release. I’ve never had that happen in games. The more original and creative the music is, the happier the developer is with the score.
TSA: Given the amount of interaction between video games and players, would you say this heightens the sense of emotion/feeling in their soundtracks?
Jason: Definitely. The players get to completely immerse themselves in the game, including a very unique, identifiable music score. Most games offer at least ten or twelve hours of interactive gameplay, compared to the short hour or so of music in a film. If you include DLC content, replay value and branching stories you’re looking at upwards of twenty hours of gameplay content, all of which have music. That’s a lot of time to spend with a score, so it makes sense that gamers are so adamant in their love for game music.
TSA: How supportive are developers and publishers when it comes to producing a soundtrack?
Jason: As with many things, it completely depends on the publisher. Sony is amazingly supportive and wanted a release for The Order: 1886 from the beginning. It makes sense – so much work has gone into the music and fans are going to make their own bootlegs if they want to, so why not create a win/win scenario and give them the opportunity to purchase an official release and support the game?
On the other hand, 2K had no interest in a soundtrack release for EVOLVE. I’m a freelance composer and my music is classified as “work for hire,” so I don’t have any rights to it and therefore no control or say over whether a soundtrack is released. Many times it simply comes down to a specific person who ultimately makes the decision and whether they are interested in music in the first place.