Talking to Ori composer Gareth Coker on storytelling, success and soundtracks

While visuals and gameplay are core components for any game, a perfectly weighted soundtrack can elevate the excellent to the extraordinary. Gareth Coker, composer of soundtracks for Darksiders Genesis, Ark: Survival Evolved, and both Ori and the Blind Forest and its sequel, is one of modern gaming’s most important composers. His unique ability to wring out every ounce of emotional resonance, through a musical phrase or carefully chosen instrumentation, adds nuance and depth to everything he’s involved with. We were lucky enough to catch up with Gareth recently, to talk about success, storytelling and soundtracks.

TSA: Fresh from your work on Darksiders Genesis and Ori and the Will of the Wisps, it feels as though you’re something of a storyteller. Is that your aim when you set to work on a score?

Gareth: If the game I’m working on has a story that ebbs and flows and is dynamic, it is usually reflected in the music. My job is to aid the story being told, so the better the material is to work with, the easier it is to write music that reflects that. Music shouldn’t be telling the story for the actual narrative, but in an ideal world, you could hear it in isolation and get a good idea of what the story might be.

Darksiders Genesis was extremely appealing on a fundamental level (demons, guns, hell, and a fun over-the-top narrative!) that combined with being given carte blanche in terms of palette really gave me total freedom when crafting the score.

With Ori and the Will of the Wisps, the DNA was already defined, but this game’s story was much darker in tone, and more grown-up. This was a reflection not just of Ori himself, but perhaps also of the studio making it, and myself as a composer. The aim is always to try and match as best as possible what the game is giving me to work with.

TSA: There’s certainly a fantastical, mysterious edge to much of your work, is that personal preference, or more to do with the projects you’ve worked on?

Gareth: I think it’s mostly due to the projects I’ve been working on, but that said, I think my production style and aesthetic choices tend to lean towards the fantastical and mysterious. A lot of it has to do with the layering of sounds and dense arrangements, but also the amount of reverb I use (and what type of reverb). I can of course change things up if I need to, but my natural style definitely identifies with the adjectives you’ve suggested in the question!

TSA: What are you most interested in when someone approaches you about a project?

Gareth: There’s two things: the gameplay has to be compelling and – where appropriate – the story has to be engaging. I can get by even on one of those things, but when you have both, it’s almost always a very enticing proposition. I’ve been a gamer a long time, and I’d like to think I have a pretty good feel for what makes a game feel good, at least to me. If a game is already fun to play without any story or art, it’s in a good spot. Now add those two other elements on top and then you’re really in business.

TSA: What in particular drew you to the world of Ori?

Gareth: Ori was a very different game when I first saw it. The art style was totally different, and the main character looked and moved differently. But, even at its earliest stages it always had the tight controls and the fun gameplay. The rest grew over time into what we see today. I imagine a lot of people would expect me to say ‘the artwork’, but it really did look so different back then. It’s always been the gameplay, and then the characters.

TSA: After the success of Ori and the Blind Forest, and its numerous awards, did you feel any extra pressure going into the sequel?

Gareth: I think I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. The whole studio had the same pressure and we wanted to make sure that we really delivered a true sequel. One of the major battles was simply defining “what does ‘better’ mean?” How does one make the music for the second game ‘better’? But of course, you can’t change things too much for fear of changing the core DNA that made the original so well-received.

One thing I am proud of is that once we defined what we wanted to do and took all the feedback from the first game into account, we did make the game that we wanted to make. We took some risks, and I’m sure for a few people, Will of the Wisps isn’t exactly what they expected, they might have been expecting more of the same. But viewed without preconceptions and bias, it’s very clear to me that Will of the Wisps is a superior game, even if it is different. It is a continuation of Blind Forest, but a major expansion. As I said in an earlier answer, Ori grew up and so did the studio!

TSA: What’s your workflow like? Does it differ from game to game? Where do you even start?!

Gareth: I’ll usually start with throwing together a few concept tracks. These might not make it into the game, or they might end up being the basis from which everything is formed. For Darksiders Genesis I wrote an 8 minute epic track with no real structure, just a mass of ideas, but from that epic, the main theme was born and then I had the framework from which to draw the rest of the soundtrack. The large scale concept pieces also allow me to experiment with different sounds/palettes/instrumentation. This is the longest part of the process for me, finding the right sounds to work with. That initial groundwork allows me to write quicker later.

Following instrumentation choices usually comes themes, and this is largely dictated by how well I know the characters and their storylines, the sooner I know them and how they fit into the game, the easier it is for me to get the melodies down.

Beyond that, the process is random and honestly is matched to whatever the developer is needing from me at the time. Over the years I’ve been able to become more flexible, and one thing I have found is that not getting into the same workflow on every project can actually yield interesting results. Changing things up always helps.

TSA: You use a lot of piano and choral orchestration, particularly in your latest work on Ori and the Will of the Wisps. Is there something they offer that other instruments don’t?

Gareth: The choral work on Will of the Wisps was a result of the heavier, darker tone of the game. There is a weight to the human voice – especially in groups – that simply can’t be achieved by a single singer or actual instruments. The weight and extra intimacy carried by a choir can really bring a player closer to the experience and story we’re trying to tell. We’ve all been in a sports arena when everyone sings the anthem, or at a funeral when everyone sings and it can be immensely powerful. Live choir was something particularly suited for this soundtrack, especially in the dramatic moments.

As for the piano, it’s my main instrument so naturally I tend to lean on it, but also it’s a core part of Ori’s sound. It can be used both as a solo instrument or an accompanying instrument so it has incredible flexibility.

TSA: What do you think personifies your sound? Where does that come from?

Gareth: I wouldn’t narrow it down to anything in particular, but I do work as hard as I can to make sure my work is tightly attuned to the project I am writing for and I’d like to think that is something the players can hear and feel. I’ve spent a lot of time playing games, and I spend time playing the games that I work on. Anything to help bring me closer to the game usually bleeds into the music and hopefully that reaches the player.

TSA: There are moments in Will of the Wisps where some phrases reminded me of composers like John Williams. Who are your musical heroes?

Gareth: In no particular order: Mychael Danna, Yoko Kanno, Maurice Ravel, Beethoven, Hybrid (band), Thomas Newman.

TSA: You’ve also worked on platformers, MMOs and in VR. Are there any genres you haven’t had the opportunity to work on that you’d like to?

Gareth: I’m waiting for that call to do a horror game, something narrative. Thing is, there are a lot of great composers out there already who can do horror extremely well, so I suspect I will be waiting in line. I feel like horror music in film and games is enjoying something of a renaissance currently. There are terrific scores coming left, right, and center and it would be fun to have a go. The closest I’ve been able to come is with the track Shadows of Mouldwood from Ori, but that’s really just one track out of my entire output!

TSA: Finally, what’s next for you?

Gareth: I can’t currently say, other than it will be revealed before the end of the year!

Thanks again to Gareth for taking the time to catch up with us. You can check out his latest work in Ori and the Will of the Wisps and Darksiders Genesis, both of which are available now.

Written by
TSA's Reviews Editor - a hoarder of headsets who regularly argues that the Sega Saturn was the best console ever released.