Recently I spoke with Composer Edward Patrick White about his career and his work on the upcoming Gears Tactics.
How did you get into composing and what are some of the past games and
projects you have done?
My father has a musical background. When I was small, he would play piano and I would sit next to him and just be delighted that he knew where to put his hands on the piano keys to produce a consonant sound. Music runs on my mother’s side too – my great grandmother played piano for silent movies. My maternal grandmother was a piano teacher. My mum swears she’s not musical but she has grade eight piano. So, I grew up in an environment where music was just something you did. And, inevitably, at some point I got interested in making my own music. I played guitar and keyboards in various bands; played session guitar for a bunch of different acts – Boyzone, Dame Kiri Tekanewa, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber – and I studied music at college and university.
Straight out of university, I managed to get myself on to a British feature film. Over the years, I did more features (“Beautiful Wave”, “Listening”, “The Sky In Bloom”), more TV (“Mankind: The Story of All of Us”, “Railroad Alaska”, lots of “Bear Grylls”), theatre, movie trailers, TV commercials for blue-chip brands like Toshiba, Volkswagen, etc. It’s a panoply of work across a variety of media.
How does scoring a game compare and differ with other forms of composing and which do you prefer?
Writing music to any kind of picture requires a very specific discipline. I’m not writing my symphony. We’re storytelling and the music is defined by the requirements of the story and the structural parameters of the medium. With linear media – film, TV, etc. – to a degree you’re dealing with known values. For example, the guy always walks through the door at a particular moment in time and shoots the other guy at another specific moment in time. But, for non-linear media – video games – known values don’t exist (beyond in-game cinematics which are really little movies). In-game, it’s that interactivity that requires the music to be able to branch, narratively speaking, at any moment in time. So the requirement that the music tells the story remains, but the medium requires a completely different structural approach.
I love all of it. For me, it’s a virtuous circle. One informs the other.
What led you to composing for video games?
In the early eighties, as a kid, I used to write music in BASIC on the family BBC microcomputer. You had to load video games, Asteroid and the like, off of cassette tapes back then. It would take ages. But the delayed gratification was amazing. It was the same with the music. You had to write all this code just to hear a simple melody in beeps and boops. So video games and music are “baked in” together in my mind. Both taught me that value is earned and lost most often in time. For years, well-meaning friends and family would say, “why don’t you do a video game”?
It was one of my early musical collaborators that got me into games after we’d been close friends for literally decades. “Angels Fall First” is a first-person combined-arms sci-fi wargame available for PC on Steam, and I wrote some music for that. I played in bands and briefly lived with Josh Grafton who was one of the developers. He very kindly let me into that world. And it was also Josh who championed my music to get me through the door when he started working on “Gears Tactics” at Splash Damage. Of course, I still had to prove myself to Splash Damage and The Coalition.
Where do you find your inspiration when composing?
The brief. The deadline. Whatever it takes to start getting the music down. In my line of work, I don’t have the luxury of waiting for the muse to strike. So I ask lots of questions and I throw a lot of spaghetti at the wall hoping something will stick. I fail a lot, but I try to fail often and upwards. And over time you develop pretty good muscles for discerning what works and what doesn’t.
I think, in the main, that what I’m trying to do is find a way “in” to the story and characters; to find something that resonates as truthful for me that I can build upon musically. It’s different every time.
What can you tell us about composing for Gears Tactics in terms of the challenges you faced and the approach you took?
There were really two principal challenges for “Gears Tactics.” Firstly, the “Gears” franchise had, until our game, been a third-person shooter. “Gears Tactics” is a turn-based strategy game. This difference has profound implications for the way that the music functions within the game. And yet it still had to feel like an authentic “Gears” experience. The second challenge was in trying to unify the musical language of the game in a way that encompassed the musical legacy of the original trilogy but which also honours how “Gears” 4 and 5 have evolved the palette and harmonic language. “Gears” is now a multigenerational saga seen from different character perspectives; so of course that range is going to be reflected across the scores.
These challenges were ultimately met through iteration and team work. The audio team, including Augie Restivo and Tazio Schiersari at Splash Damage and Johnny Morgan at The Coalition, helped me keep the vision pure.
How did you prepare for scoring the game and how long was the scoring process?
My preparation included playing other tactics video games to see what worked musically for that genre… and what didn’t. I also listened to, and spent time musically analysing, the legacy “Gears” scores to try to discern what makes music “Gears-y”. I was on the game for two years so there was a lot of music written, and that music was iterated on a lot, specifically because we wanted the musical experience to have a distilled authenticity to it.
How much leeway did you have with the creation of the score or did the games producers give you the framework that you had to work in or was it more of a collaboration?
The score was a complete collaboration. We would all get together in a room every week or so and try to imagine we were in a band – so all voices had equal weight. There was a recognition that, whilst it was me writing every single note, I was a conduit for a collective vision. In my work, I’m always trying to avoid the feeling of “me versus them.” The more and more I do this job, the more I realise that it’s critical to bring people on the creative journey with you. And the way to do that is to make everyone equally and collectively responsible for successes and failures. And look, there were a couple of points where I really didn’t want to start over from scratch, but I’m also really glad that I was encouraged to try something different than what I had initially delivered. I think we found new music which still really feels uniquely like “Gears.” That was always the mission.
How many hours of music did you compose for the game and how much made it into the final build?
What’s an interactive minute of music look like? If you take all of the layers and squish them down – and you would never want to listen to game music this way – it’s a minute of the most grotesquely over-written, over-orchestrated mayhem, but encountered within the game that same minute of music could support up to 5 minutes of really nuanced gameplay. “Gears Tactics” is a brutally violent but ultimately cerebral experience, and the music had to feel like it was closely scoring every decision the player makes at the pace the player makes those decisions. It’s part of what makes the gameplay feel so kinetic. So, there’s a lot of music in the game to support that vision and there’s lots of stuff that didn’t make it on to the soundtrack release which focuses predominantly on the music from the cinematics.
How has the current situation changed the scoring and recording process?
COVID-19 has, like so many other businesses, really decimated the scoring community. Wherever you want to record, whether it’s in London, Los Angeles, or Eastern Europe – everything is closed up. So that is very worrying for traditional orchestral players and large format studio owners. There are literally no large format recording rooms open. There are no concert halls open. There is really no way for these people to make a living in the way that they were used to.
But, you know, there’s that line in “Jurassic Park” about how “nature finds a way.” I think… at least I hope, the same is true of music. I’ve had more than one world-class musician from the concert hall reach out to me to find out what they would need to do to set-up a home/remote recording space. And the need for great musicianship is still there and never goes away. Video games are still going. The big developers have everybody working from home. Animation is still going. Audio and picture post is still happening although a lot of that is being done by people at home. So these phenomenal players really need to figure out how to continue by offering remote recording services. There’s still a market, and we composers – we love our samples, our synths and our studios – but we love great musicians more and we want those people to be playing our music.
What are some of your favorite games?
I thought “Red Dead Redemption 2” was one of the most amazing games ever. “Uncharted 2” also felt like a landmark.
But, the first “Gears of War” game will always have a special place in my heart. I had just bought my first apartment and moved in. I had no furniture really, but I had a TV, an Xbox, and a deckchair to sit in… and that first “Gears of War” game. That was basically it. But there was nobody to interrupt me. So I burned serious hours on that game.
Any other projects we can look forward to?
I just finished working, through lockdown, on an experimental short film with a very talented director called Haz Dulull. The film is called “BattleSuit” and it’s the pilot for an animated series which is in development with publisher TPub based on the graphic novel, “Theory.” The film is notable because it was created entirely within the Unreal Engine which is traditionally used for building video games. But, increasingly, Unreal is being seen as a viable environment for filmmakers to work within. Nature finds a way.