Recently I got to speak with composer Chris Rickwood about his busy career and about some of his recent game compositions such as the soundtrack for Orcs Must Die and many other amazing games.
What lead you to composing for video games?
In the mid nineties I was studying for my Masters degree in music composition. My
original aspiration was to become a film composer but I had no real idea how to
write music for film nor where to even begin looking for work in that space. So I
spent most of my time devouring as many books, magazines, interviews, whatever I
could get my hands on about working film composers. I eventually stumbled on an
article highlighting the interactive music system, iMuse, created by the audio team
at LucasArts. These guys wrote the music for games I had already played and loved
like Grim Fandango, The Secret of Monkey Island, and Full Throttle. In the sidebar
of that article there was a blurb about how publishers were looking for composers
and it gave the names and addresses of several of the biggest video game companies
asking for demos. Seriously? It was like a giant open door waiting for me to walk
though. So I did.
Where do you find your inspiration when composing?
What’s really unique about the video game industry is how it is a collaboration of
brilliant technical minds and highly creative minds using cutting technology that in
most cases has not been fully developed. What a wonderful playground to play in!
Couple that with the fact that I love playing games and it shouldn’t be a surprise
that most of my inspiration comes from the game itself. Just looking at the concept
art or testing a new game mechanic or flying around a level is about all the
inspiration I need. And then I get to talk to the people who created all of this?
However I do spend an irresponsible amount of time consuming movies, tv shows,
books, art, and music. Lately I’ve been enjoying Ronnie Del Carmen’s
(@ronniedelcarmen) twitter feed where he posts pencil tests, model sheets, and
concepts from old Disney films.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in creating the score?
Orcs Must Die Unchained is the third game in the series which of course presents its
own set of challenges. On one hand things are easier because the style, themes, and
instrumentation have already been decided. On the other hand I wanted the scored to
have its own identity and create something new. In the back of my mind there was
this little nagging voice saying, “You’ve already written your best stuff for the
first two games. How are you going to top that!” It is really hard to stay
creative in that state of mind so you have to suppress it and carry on. You just
show up and do the work and eventually the ideas start coming.
What’s your favorite video game that you did not work on?
Well I was a gamer before I was a composer so it’s hard for me to pick a favorite.
I love the stealth spy games like Splinter Cell. The Uncharted series is definitely
at the top of my list along with The Last of Us. Inside was a brilliant game as was
Limbo before that. And then there are the single player open worlds that I get lost
in for months like Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto 5, Skyrim, and most
recently Horizon Zero Dawn. But what about the smaller games like Joe Danger, Mark
of the Ninja, The Witness, Invisible Inc., Transistor, and Peggle 2? Or the classic
LucasArts games like Grim Fandango… or the old Sierra games like Space Quest and
Police Quest. I beat the original Tony Hawk Pro Skater which was amazing at the
time and the original Crash Bandicoot which had the best Nintendo trolling
commercials. If I really go back to when I fell in love with games it would have to
be in the arcade playing Joust. Think about it, you’re riding an ostrich (which
don’t fly) and make precise movements by flapping the wings of the ostrich by
mashing one button. That’s pretty innovative.
What do you like to do when you’re not composing?
Learning new skills and creating new things. Photography, programming, woodworking,
drawing, soldering, painting, sculpting, making. My current obsessions include
learning to play bass guitar, digital landscape painting with the Procreate app on
the iPad, and growing bonsai trees starting from the seed. Oh and of course I like
How long was the scoring process as I am sure you went through numerous
Because the music from the previous two games was used this score kind of trickled
in as they needed it so it is really hard to determine how much time was actually
spent creating new stuff. I was on and off the project for about a year.
What was the process like working with the game studio?
I worked in partnership with by pals at GL33K who are always a blast to work with.
And working with Robot Entertainment is a treat because it is a small studio made up
of veterans that know how to make a good game. They know exactly what they want,
how to communicate what they want, and then just let us do our job. We were free to
experiment on all three games but then they would reign us back in when things got
out of hand. It’s honestly one of the best ways to work. In the beginning we would
say things like “wouldn’t it be funny if…” and see where that led. One of those
ideas was to have the band tuning up during the setup portion of the game. So
instead of music we’d have musicians unpacking cases, tuning up guitars, testing the
mic, smoking a joint, whatever it is that musicians do before a gig. Then when the
player was ready for the wave the drummer would yell out “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR” and
the proper score would begin. Another idea was that if a player took too long to
finish a level the musicians would drop out one by one as if they were too tired to
go on. Neither one of those features made it past the prototype stage but the point
is we got to try them.
How does scoring games compare and contrast to scoring a film or
I haven’t really done much film or television work outside of licensing production
music. However I can say that I love scoring games because there aren’t many rules
out there. For years this industry was always trying to mimic what was coming out
of Hollywood but we eventually figured out that we are our own thing and it is good
and it is creative and it is cutting edge. Video game scores are different because
the drama comes from the player. Even if you’re playing a story driven game about a
specific character like Uncharted the player is still hands on with the avatar.
It’s a different sensation than passively watching a movie and the music needs to
heighten that experience.
You can learn more about Chris and his work at his website.