Recently I spoke with 2-time BAFTA award-winning composer Jason Graves (Moss, Tomb Raider, Far Cry Primal, Until Dawn, The Order: 1886, Dead Space series) on his music for the episodic horror series The Dark Pictures Anthology from Supermassive Games
How did you get into composing?
We had an upright piano in the house growing up. I used to put on these absolutely GIANT avocado green headphones (it was the 70’s, after all) and bang on the keys. Of course, the headphones weren’t actually plugged in to anything…I guess I was going for the visual aesthetic. What can I say? I was probably 4 or 5.
As I got older my interests branched out to other instruments, but I started with proper piano lessons, thankfully without the headphones, in middle school. The only real issue is I spent too much time making things up myself, and not enough time practicing the actual lessons! I also took on drum lessons and started learning guitar on my own. Voice and acting lessons were also going full swing and I did a lot of musical theater and commercials.
By high school I was in every band, playing drums or percussion. Piano lessons continued, along with Snare drum, timpani and mallet lessons. But it was really my band director, Alan Atkinson, who kick started my composing. I was writing piano pieces since middle school, but Alan featured an original piece of mine for percussion ensemble at one of our high school band concerts.
I studied music composition in undergrad and grad school and am proud to say I’ve never had a real job!
How does scoring a game compare and differ with other forms of composing and which do you prefer?
Music for film, television or trailers is always linear. If you watch a scene four times, the same thing happens the exact same way every time. But it’s the exact opposite in games. The dialog and action of the scene will depend on the player’s choices. They can play through the same scene over and over again, triggering different outcomes each time. The music needs to be composed and put into the game in such a way that allows the scene to play out a multitude of ways and twist and turn with the action and dialog.
Where do you find your inspiration when composing?
Inspiration comes in spades when you’re working on an entertaining and exciting project. When I’m working, there is always a direct creative line, from game or TV show, to the music. There’s been a team of people dedicating months, if not years, to creating a universe for us to experience. Something as simple as the location goes a long way – outer space (Dead Space), a tropical island (Tomb Raider), snow-covered mountains (Until Dawn) or a lush, magical forest (Moss) all conjure very specific musical sounds in my head.
Of course there’s so much more to pull from. Plot, character arcs, time period and all the concept art and storyboards I can get my hands on are equally influential. And I’m a strong believer in communication with the developer and including them in the creative process.
What sorts of composers inspire you? Are there any composers in particular you listen to when preparing for a project?
I definitely stay away from listening to other music for inspiration, even if there are specific examples from the developer. 99% of the time I am already familiar with the references, so it’s not like I am intentionally ignoring them. If “Lord of the Rings” or “boss music from Final Fantasy IV” is brought up I can easily enough understand what they are talking about.
This is especially true with like-minded titles. For example, if I’m working on a game about vampires the last thing I would want to do is go listen to all the existing music written for vampire films and games. I much prefer to create my own musical interpretation without prejudice.
How much leeway do you have with the creation of the score or did the game’s producers give you the framework that you had to work in or was it more of a collaboration?
The beginning of my career was more of a “here’s what we want” kind of approach to the music. The last 12 years or so have definitely become more of a conversation about the music, and I think that’s simply the result of slowly becoming an established composer with more credits. Of course, the developer always has ideas, and I welcome them, but we use them as a springboard rather than something definitive.
I’ve found the more I push creative boundaries, the more unique and recognizable the final result is. And developers are always looking for original, creative scores to help their game stand out from the crowded marketplace.
What do you like to do when you’re not composing?
Spare time is spent with my girls. I have a wife and two teenage daughters. We are the epitome of the family that “enjoys spending so much time together it will make you sick.” We hang out pretty much all the time, playing games, watching movies, cooking or just sitting in the same room (with all 7 dogs and 5 cats) reading or talking. The girls are home schooled, so we really do spend all day at home!
We also have quite the menagerie of animals that keep us busy, including parrots, doves, chickens, geese, turkeys, rabbits, a python, a tortoise and a bearded dragon. So there are plenty of distractions to go around for everyone.
What else do you have coming up that the readers can look forward to?
I’ve been working on a game called Warframe for a few months now. The first round of music I did for it was for Deadlock Protocol, which was released a few weeks ago. Digital Extremes is constantly releasing new content. In fact, I’m currently working on another set of cues for an upcoming release. It’s quite fun because it’s sci-fantasy type stuff, which I really enjoy writing but rarely am afforded the opportunity.
What can you tell us about composing for The Dark Pictures Anthology in terms of the challenges you faced and the approach you took?
It’s wonderful being a part of the Dark Pictures team with Supermassive Games. I feel like we’ve all been going on this incredible journey together since Until Dawn. Every new title is a new adventure! The music for Man of Medan reflected the setting and story – modern day on the ocean with bits of WWII ghosts thrown in for good measure. Little Hope is a completely different game with a completely different setting and time period – we actually flash back and forth between the late 1970s and the late 1600s.
So my approach, which is usually the same for every new project, is to examine the setting and story to figure out what music from that time would have possibly sounded like. The 1970s is fairly obvious, but I was definitely attracted towards the idea of music from the 1600s. So the score is very antiquated and live sounding. It can be out of tune and rhythmically imperfect to the point of almost sounding like a mistake! I was going for the idea of a “modern yet obsolescent” sound for the music. Like something that would not sound out of place being performed as source music inside the game.
It must have been tough with multiple outcomes for each character so how did you resolve that challenge?
My scores for all of Supermassive’s games are much more complex and granular than any others, due mostly to the branching narrative and multiple outcomes. But that’s one of the many exciting things about music for games! It all comes down to systematic planning and communication with Barney Pratt, the Audio Director at Supermassive. First, we’ll get as much broad stroke coverage of the different gameplay options as possible. Then we start breaking things up into even smaller pieces, sometimes as granular as single instruments.
Looking back on your first game score until now; what would you say is the biggest thing you have learned about scoring games?
Interactivity and implementation is everything! Of course, when I was first in the industry there wasn’t really much control over the interactivity of the music in games – more like “start music” and “stop music.” But as the tech grew, all of us in the trenches of music for games kept pushing and trying new things. Every new title was a new opportunity. Every year brought more options and choices.
Does scoring a game change much from studio to studio or is the process fairly consistent?
The size and scope of each score is obviously different, but the overall mechanics and requirements of the music, regardless of genre or design, remain the same. The music should be emotionally supporting the gameplay as it evolves. And I always try to use new sounds and instruments for every new project. It keeps things interesting for me and developers love the idea of their scores sounding fresh and original.
Your resume is like a Gaming favorites list, what can you tell us about scoring Dead Space as that is one of my favorite series of all time.
You’re too kind, thank you! That was quite the trial by fire as we were such a small team when we first started working on the first Dead Space. It was definitely a passion project for everyone involved. Ironically, the recording sessions I conducted with the live musicians were quite funny. We had a few ruined takes from musicians laughing out loud before the take was officially finished! I was asking them to perform the kinds of things they had spent their entire careers learning “not to do,” like play out of time, pick whatever notes they choose and play them as loud as possible, or play completely random notes as quietly as they could. So they were literally being asked to play like 5 year olds, and I think they really enjoyed it!
That last “play random notes as quietly as possible” was one of my favorite techniques, and it was used quite a bit in the game. It actually sounds a lot like room tone, or maybe the ship’s engine. It’s very static and is playing pretty much all the time, but really functions more on a subliminal level to put listeners in a slightly uncomfortable, anxious mood. It’s funny to think such light-hearted, laughter-filled recording sessions ended up producing such terrifying sounds!