One of the many things we loved about Ori and the Blind Forest was the lovely musical score. The audio was so well implemented that in the many emotional segments of the game, it ended up being just as crucial to the atmosphere as what was happening on the screen. We recently had a chance to speak with the man responsible for one of the best video game soundtracks of recent memory, so let’s see what he had to say about the experience of working on Ori and the Blind Forest.
TSA: I understand Ori and the Blind Forest isn’t the first game you’ve worked on, so can you tell us what other games you’ve been involved with and how they’ve prepared you for something like Ori?
Gareth: I’ve worked on a couple of games, Inmomentum and Primal Carnage, and a handful of mods before those. Both those games were predominantly multiplayer experiences, which obviously differs from Ori, but in terms of the nuts and bolts of game scoring, any time you finish a project you’re going to learn something new.
Whereas in film you’re responding to the narrative and the process for each film is generally quite similar, with games there are so many different kinds of them, and within each game, different sets of circumstances, so from project to project there is almost always going to be a new issue within music that needs to be tackled and dealt with.
TSA: How closely did you work with the team at MOON Studios during development? At what point did they bring you in and have you start working on the soundtrack?
Gareth: I actually wrote the music for the prototype that was pitched to Microsoft, so I have been part of the project from its conception, which would be 4 years. Now that doesn’t mean I have been actively writing music for that whole time, but I have been around the project for that long, while becoming ‘full-time’ for the last 6-8 months.
Moon gave me access to every build and all the development tools so I could play the game and constantly get a feel for it. They did this with all the departments as early as possible. I think this is one of the greatest strengths of the studio. Most game composers are avid gamers too, and from a personal standpoint it was nice to be able to give feedback on design and pacing throughout the development process.
Traditionally, composers come in quite often towards the end of the project, but if that happens in a game that features a large open world like Ori, there’s just no way that music can be adequately tested in game beyond the usual, which is checking loops, transitions, etc… A lot of the reason that Ori feels the way it does is due to pacing, both in the story and gameplay, and the music.
Most testers are looking for technical problems with music, and really, the composer needs to be playing the game frequently to see how it feels while also taking into account the big picture. As a result, I’ve put at least 1000 hours into playing the game, which seems like a lot, but actually over 4 years is nothing compared to some of the level designers!
TSA: How much do you think that affects how you approach each scenario and track you composed?
Gareth: Having the constant access to every single build and the Unity engine meant I could immediately test tracks that I’d composed in-game. Two of our programmers – Willem Vos and David Clark – implemented tools that made it very easy for me to plug and play the music assets and tweak fade-in and fade-out values.
Most composers want to spend their time composing, so having a direct line to the programmers really sped up things on the implementation side. Being able to test constantly meant I could find out what ‘worked’ and what didn’t. The game was fun to play even before any of the visuals and music were in the game. If the core mechanics are there, it makes it much easier to add the music on top. There’s a saying that “good music can’t make a bad film good, but it can make a good film great.” I think this applies to games as well, if the game is fundamentally sound from a mechanical standpoint and fun, engaging and interesting to play, you’ll have a much easier time holding the players attention.
Immersion doesn’t just come from visuals and music, it comes from mechanics and gameplay that makes you want to keep playing. Then once that’s combined with visuals and music, and in our case, no loading screens, it’s tough to break immersion and that can be very alluring for the player.
TSA: The visuals and audio pair together so well in Ori. How closely did you have to work with the writers to create this kind of harmony between what the gamer sees and what the gamer hears?
Gareth: Thank you! This is something that we worked very hard to achieve, and the answer here kind of follows on from the previous question. A lot of the compositions were informed by the game’s visuals. For example, the Ginso Tree takes place inside of a tree, so I’d use a lot of wooden percussion sounds (marimba, hollow logs, bamboo, etc..) to emphasize that feeling. Sorrow Pass and Valley Of The Wind make extensive use of the wind mechanic in the gameplay, so I’d focus on more ethereal floaty music that made heavy use of the bansuri (Indian flute). I wouldn’t start writing for the core gameplay sections until the visuals were somewhat established.
Conversely, the cutscenes that we have in the game, were largely driven by music and the visuals/editing/animation reacted to the music. I’d write to rough storyboards, and then the timing would be tweaked. This meant I could focus on creating music with good flow and pacing, which can be really freeing as a composer! Usually, it’s our responsibility to fit the picture no matter what, but every so often this process can be done in reverse. It can only happen if you are brought in early and there is an element of trust between you and the other team members. Fortunately, we had this at Moon.
We also made sure to give the score a point of view. Ori’s never left his home before, so everything in the forest of Nibel is totally new to him. The music tries to communicate Ori’s experience to the audience, but also hopefully give the player something a little extra that they can maybe take with them. That element might not necessarily be on the screen, but hopefully it can be felt.
TSA: You’ve worked on a lot of other non-gaming projects too; how does working on a game compare to working on other sorts of media?
Gareth: Games that focus on narrative and leave that in the hands of the player simply take way more time to complete the score for. A film might have changing edits, but fundamentally, you’re always scoring from A to B. Games have so many different variables to think about which can make establishing good pacing really hard, as opposed to film where you have absolute control about what your viewer is going to experience. Both are really enjoyable processes in totally different ways. Ultimately my role first of all is to help tell a story and bring it to life, and then in an ideal world, the music also stands on its own away from the film or game.
TSA: Do you think video game soundtracks as a whole are more popular now than they were a decade ago?
Gareth: Well, the production value in game scores is exceptionally high now. There are no technological limitations anymore, so composers are free to use their imaginations. There is also incredible variety in game scores. From Rayman to Remember Me, Halo, Dead Space, Bioshock, Super Meat Boy, the great licensed music in games like Hotline Miami and Grand Theft Auto, Dear Esther, Deus Ex, Final Fantasy, there are so many different kinds of game scores, the variety is perhaps even greater than film.
There is so much to listen to, and there’s a lot of really high quality material out there. I still genuinely believe we’re in a fairly early stage of how big the game industry can be, I think the quality of work is only going to get bigger and better. It’s an exciting time to be a composer working in games for sure.
TSA: Should music in games deserves to be viewed in the same light as music in film, alongside household names such as John Williams and Hans Zimmer?
Gareth: Absolutely, but it’s one of those things that takes time. Game music has a lot to offer but it is still a bit of a struggle to be heard at times because I think there is still a widespread perception among those who don’t play games (which is still a lot of people) that game music is bleeps and blops so it can be disregarded. But we will get there eventually.
TSA: At the same time, do you feel we’re at a point where video game music might already be reaching the public consciousness? Several major game series, from Final Fantasy to Banjo-Kazooie and Halo feature in the UK’s Classic FM Hall of Fame, for example.
Gareth: That is fantastic, and a very good sign I think. As for your question, I think it already has reached the public consciousness, but it’s displayed in a different way than it might be for film. Just look at all the fantastic YouTube covers for various games (including Ori!).
Fans of games are generally a very vocal and supportive bunch, which is great, but probably the one thing we need combined with that fanatical support is mainstream awards recognition, like a separate Grammy category for games, and games awards ceremonies being covered more prominently in mainstream media.
Again, I think this is more of a generational thing and I believe it will happen naturally with time. We’ll always have the amazing fans and that much alone means a lot. It never gets old interacting with fans on their Twitch streams, or Twitter or YouTube.
TSA: Ori has been met with overwhelming critical praise; did you have any idea the game would be this well received when you were composing the soundtrack?
Gareth: This comes back to mechanics. The game was fun to play before any of the art was in and Ori was just a rectangle jumping around screens of geometric shapes which served as platforms! Then when the visuals started coming in, it became pretty clear that something special might be happening.
It also helps that Moon Studios has a relentless drive for quality, the philosophy being “let’s try and start at good, and then try to make it great.” I think we knew, especially towards the last 6 months of development, that the game was good, but you never really know how it will all come together until the public get their hands on it and judge the overall experience from an unbiased point of view. We are fortunate that they loved it!
TSA: Finally, have you played the completely finished product? The difficulty gets pretty brutal toward the end, so have you managed to see the credits roll?
Gareth: Well, having put so many hours into it, I am very good at the game. I can comfortably finish it in under 3 hours and if I put my mind to it, I could probably finish it in about 2 – 2.5 hours with under 50 deaths!
I hear you on the difficulty, but I think that’s one of the reasons why the game has satisfied a lot of people. My father, who is 64 and has never played a platformer in his life (he plays turn-based strategy games), has just finished the first escape sequence in the Ginso Tree, with a death count that compares favorably to other players. If he can do it, anyone can!
We’d like to thank Gareth for his time and congratulate him on a very successful effort in Ori and the Blind Forest. If you’d like to know more about Gareth and his work, you can follow him on Twitter, or check out his website.