Behind so many great video games, you’ll find a composer working feverishly in the shadows to capture and augment a game’s atmosphere. Whether it’s a soaring score that seeks to amplify a heart-wrenching emotional moment, something to get your heart racing during the eerie quiet of a horror game or, in the case of Evil Genius 2, music to build a kitschy 1960s spy villain lair to.
The long awaited Evil Genius 2 is coming out for PC on 30th March – check out our hands on Evil Genius 2 preview while you patiently wait for our review – but one of the highlights for fans of the original is sure to be that multi-award winning composer James Hannigan has returned to score the new game. You might know his work from RuneScape, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, Dead Space 3 and plenty more besides, and his soundtrack for the original game is a fan favourite.
We caught up with James to chat about returning to Evil Genius after 15 years, how soundtracks transform for different genres, and why he looked so menacing in the announcement of his return!
TSA – So, the big question is, did you buy those sunglasses especially for the reveal that you were coming back to score this game, or did you have them already?
James Hannigan – My game room has a lot of flashing lights, so I find it absolutely necessary to wear sunglasses most of the time. That’s my excuse, anyway. Showering in shades and going for a walk after 9pm can be challenging, but I find that this is a small price to pay in order to protect my eyes from the glare of arcade machines.
OK… the truth is they are my free ‘prescription sunglasses’ – kindly provided by my fashionable local SpecSavers.
TSA – What’s it like revisiting a game that you composed for over 15 years ago? It’s the kind of opportunity that’s rare in so many films, TV shows, video games. It’s pretty much just John Williams and Star Wars or Randy Newman and Toy Story, from what my research has gathered!
James – It’s great having a chance to do this, partly because some of the brainwork has already been done in terms of establishing a style and approach, but also because the premise of the whole series is so much fun! I’m a huge fan of the ‘spy-fi’ genre, particular from the 1960s. But you’re right – it is fairly rare in games to find that sort of continuity. Less so in film though, I believe. My favourite examples of creative partnerships in film are probably Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann; Steven Spielberg and John Williams; Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. In games, I guess it’s hard not to mention the likes of Mario and Koji Kondo!
Just lately, in all forms of media, there’s been the trend of ‘rebooting’ and ‘reinventing’ franchises, so I’m not sure if that kind of consistent or ‘symphonic’ take on things is likely to continue for much longer. I hope it does though, if I’m honest. I’m a huge fan of the leitmotif – which is a recurring theme you might associate with a certain game, film or TV show, for example.
TSA – What’s the process you went through for remastering/remaking/rescoring the original theme? The snippet I’ve heard certainly sound a little richer and fleshed out.
James – What I did there was quite simple, really, which was to develop the main melody from Evil Genius a little to form an alternative – but familiar – intro, before transitioning headlong into the original theme at a juicy moment. There are a couple of versions: one with a top line for French horns and Violins, and one for twangy surf guitar – but it’s fair to say these are essentially the original theme on steroids, rather than something entirely new. But that was the intention, of course.
Orchestrating and producing this sort of thing can be quite interesting, as you’re essentially blending together elements that are separately recorded, and trying to homogenise afterwards – sonically and in terms of the space everything sits in. So, it becomes as much of a production issue as it does simply one of composing. In this case, you have an orchestral rendition of the theme as the basis – with the top line as a separately recorded stem (for those occasions when the melody is carried by guitar) and you have some additional, separately recorded percussion to blend in later, too. It’s fun to piece these things together, but it can take as long doing this as it does writing the music in the first place.
TSA – For the rest of the soundtrack, are you sticking with the swinging 60s spy era and big band jazz? Or are there perhaps some more modern spy thriller influences?
James – It’s mostly 1960s in essence, but there a few 1970s-style moments thrown in there. When it comes to orchestration, there are certain giveaway colours and textures that date music like that. For example: vibes and xylophone. Not the instruments themselves (which are widely used today as well) but I mean in a certain context they can scream ‘spy music!’ It’s a trope, but in a parodic game like Evil Genius 2, I think it makes perfect sense to tap into that existing, familiar language. My only regret now is not adding a bit of dulcimer, as that used in a certain way can also evoke a feeling of the 1960s spy genre… with a stereotypically ‘European’ twist. Maybe next time? If there is a next time… and if I’m still alive by then.
In some old spy films and TV shows, squealy trumpets and spikey orchestral stings – often doubled with timpani, snare hits and xylophone – can make me chuckle for some reason. Used in a certain way, they seem to hark back to an era when being overtly melodramatic with epic musical gestures was taken deadly seriously by audiences. But now, for some reason, that effect has worn off a bit, and has almost become funny – in an ironic sort of way. It’s the musical equivalent of yelling ‘OH NO!!!!’ in the cheesiest way imaginable. What’s that glaring squirrel meme on YouTube? Dun Dun DUUUUUH!!!…
Maybe cheesy isn’t the best word for it, as it can actually be quite cool. Smooth cheese?
TSA – Have you done anything to incorporate the passage of time from the first game to Evil Genius 2? There’s some older heads in the group of Geniuses this time, with Maximillian a bit older, the ageing Soviet Red Ivan coming back and the embittered spymaster Emma.
James – It’s funny you should say that because some of the music is a bit more sympathetic to the different Evil Geniuses this time, taking their worldview into account a little rather than only being ‘baddie’ music. For instance, Max has a track entitled “From Max With Love” which will tell you everything you need to know about his romantic attachment to World Domination and the subjugation of minions. And Emma has a theme that is very stately and majestic. I mean, we can all see how deranged she is, but in her own megalomaniacal mind she probably considers herself to be an important establishment figure… royalty, even?
TSA – Speaking of Red Ivan, one way gamers might know your work is from the Red Alert 3 Soviet March. Are you breaking out the Red Army Choir vibe for Evil Genius 2?
James – There’s an aspect of that. I mean, how could that be resisted?
TSA – You’ve worked on all sorts of video games from Harry Potter to EA Sports, Dead Space, etc. etc. How different is the approach for you between composing for something tighter and more linear vs. the open-ended, endless music of an Evil Genius?
James – That’s a great question, and it highlights just how different games can be in terms of what they need, musically. Not only in terms of style, but function. The questions I always ask myself at the beginning of a project are: what is the intent of the game and what role does the player take in it? For example, how you treat a linear cinematic game – with lots of cutscenes and exposition – with music isn’t necessarily going to be the same as in, say, a simulation or strategy game. And I don’t just mean in terms of style, but from the perspective of the player. If the player gets to drive the narrative and basically decides what happens next – or at least what motivates them to do stuff – you can find that music for narrative support is a little redundant there, and something more supportive of gameplay is required, lending atmosphere.
Whether you play in first or third person can be a factor, too, because that perspective on everything goes some way towards defining the game’s reality. If it’s your ‘own eyes’ in the game, then the game world is perhaps a little more internalised than it might be in a third person game where you get a godlike view of everything with complete camera control. The latter, I think, seems to need more of a filmic approach to music, as there’s some sense you are an audience to the game as well as a character in it. Essentially, there are no rules, I believe, but you’re seeking to go with the overall intentions of the game design, rather than work against it with music. That’s why I think it’s always good to factor music into the game design, and not see it as an afterthought.
Evil Genius gives you that godlike overview, even though you are playing as one of the central characters. It feels kind of fitting having music add a sense of place and scale in this game, or for heightening excitement when things ramp up, rather than getting too personal all of the time, or trying to imply that’s it’s actually ‘you’ down there in the base! It’s subtle, I guess, the role music can play. Here, it’s more as though you are in control of the Evil Genius within this cool spy-fi reality, rather than only being that person on the ground! There’s a big difference at times, I believe.
TSA – Are there any genres and mediums you haven’t had the opportunity to work on that you’d like to?
James – Actually, no, I’ve been quite fortunate in that my output has been pretty diverse so far. I’m a huge sci-fi fan though. I’d like to do more sci-fi, as I can get really excited about that sort of thing. It’s probably because it’s all rooted in reality a bit – or at least I what is scientifically feasible, now or in future. But I like silly, comedic things as well.
TSA – What’s the ultimate test for you to see if a particular composition can survive being played countless times in the background of a long lair-building session?
James – I suppose it’s whether it starts to annoy me or not! It’s funny, but repetition can sometimes work well in a game because it can come to signify a certain act or event, almost welcome in context again and again. I think it depends on its meaning. For example: if you consider the ‘safe room’ music in Resident Evil – where you get to save your position in the game in the knowledge you’re completely out of danger – the music there takes on a special kind of meaning – in this case representing relief. So, the question becomes less about how annoying it can be over time and instead what it signifies, if you get my drift. You expect that music in that situation every time and it’s a great example of how it can provide important information to players, rather than simply following or reflecting some action or another after it has happened.
I think in some filmic adventure games, you try to avoid any sense of looping or repetition that take you out of the narrative in some way or remind you it’s only a game. But I personally believe that, with games like Evil Genius 2, there’s almost an expectation that music will be heard several times over, and it can clearly be part of the game, or triggered by certain screens, menus, operations, mechanics and so on. Within reason, of course.
There’s also the car test, and I know loads of other composers do this as well. Sometimes it can help to listen to things inside the car (if you have one!) to get a fresh take on them. If I can tolerate that for a while, I think of it as a good sign. There are times, however, when I become so annoyed with what I’m hearing that I want to literally tear out the stereo and spit on it… before proceeding to flog myself with a stick (after I get home – not when driving, you understand).
TSA – Video game development has transformed over the last year, everyone shifting to working from home, but I’m wondering, has it actually changed all that much for your work and routine?
James – Aside from the need to record musicians – sometimes on a large scale with orchestras and so on – it has made very little difference to me overall. There’s been less happening out there, that’s for sure, but in a day-to-day work sense it’s all the same, really. Most composers are quite lucky there, although I do think we all need things to get back to normal – for musicians who rely on session work and, of course, developers in general. I suspect the trend for increased communication via video chat and so on will continue though even when restrictions are lifted.
TSA – Finally, to come full circle to your evil genius-esque appearance in the trailer, which character do you most identify with and what would be the goal of your attempted world domination?
James – I saw someone mention in a YouTube comment mention that I looked like a bit of a Dr. Strangelove type character there, which is extremely disturbing to know. But also gratifying, for some reason. Being a huge fan of Kubrick, I’m naturally touched to have been likened to such a terrifically evil, psychopathic character.
In reality, I couldn’t be further from Dr. Strangelove though. (I’m the kind of person who leaves food out for lost squirrels before bedtime). But if I had to dream up a character or persona for myself to adopt in a game like Evil Genius, I think it’d be along the lines of Dr. Strangelove. Quietly menacing, highly manipulative and prone to frightening outbursts… combined with an uncontrollable limb or two (as it happens, I have a trapped nerve in my neck so I’m halfway there already). If the hat fits, then wear it? Although, I suspect any likeness that actually exist only extends to my greying hair and inappropriate use of sunglasses…
Thanks to James for taking the time to answer our questions. You’ll be able to hear his latest work in Evil Genius 2 when it launches for PC this coming week on 30th March. Keep an eye out for our review as well!