Interview: Jason Graves
Having begun his career in the early 1990s, composer Jason Graves has spent the past two decades amassing an impressive list of credits across multiple disciplines. With a CV that boasts the likes of EA’s Dead Space franchise, Prince of Persia, Murdered: Soul Suspect and 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot, it’s fair to say that his output is nothing short of prolific.
This year alone has seen the release of multiple titles featuring his work, including steampunk actioner The Order: 1886, multiplayer shooter Evolve and, most recently, the terrifying interactive slasher Until Dawn - a seemingly perfect fit for a man whose name has come to be synonymous with the horror genre in recent years. Paul Weedon sat down for a chat.
Paul Weedon: As a composer, you’ve worked in many genres, yet it’s horror that seems to be the one that you return to most frequently. What is it that you find particularly appealing or challenging about the genre?
Jason Graves: It just keeps coming back and demanding my attention! I’m actually more of a melodic, tonal kind of guy if I had my druthers. Many times we, as composers, don't have a lot of flexibility in either our schedules and our projects. I'm definitely happy with the variety of projects I get to work on, but there is an obvious darker shade to most of them.
I think that's an extension of both my past catalogue and, I don't know, maybe my last name? I've heard many people hear some of my darker tracks and read "Graves" in the credit line and conjure images of a leather-clad, tattooed biker with piercings, long, grungy hair and a sour disposition. That’s the funny thing about any kind of creative business - a lot of times you don’t have complete control over that “thing” people come to associate your name with.
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy working on the darker scores. They are definitely a blast to do. I really appreciate a balance. It just so happens that most of my well-known work has been for darker, more serious projects.
PW: When composing for horror titles, do you find there’s a sense of pressure to steer clear of certain genre tropes, like jump scares and ominous strings, for example? How do you go about finding a fresh approach to a genre like this where audiences have become accustomed to the tropes?
JG: Depends on the game, of course. With Until Dawn, I really wanted to embrace all the past horror work and kind of pay homage to them, while simultaneously moving forward and trying some new things. Every game is different, every situation is different - hopefully that makes it a little easier to create a score that’s also unique.
PW: You’ve had an exceptionally busy year with the release of The Order, Evolve and now Until Dawn. Talk me through the scoring process on The Order. How did it compare to working on a game like Evolve?
JG: Funny thing is Evolve and The Order were running in tandem for almost two years. I was involved with both early on - starting in 2012 for The Order and 2013 for Evolve. The biggest difference was The Order was completely live, recorded at Abbey Road with a very specific ensemble of low instruments - low strings, low woodwinds and low choir. It has a very orchestral, organic, living quality to it. The pieces were also written in two or three minute lengths, resulting in much more lyrical, dynamic, standalone pieces from the orchestra. There were probably fifteen different people involved in the preparation, recording and mixing of the score. Not to mention the 70+ musicians involved, who were most definitely the heart and soul of the score.
Evolve was created solely in my studio with me performing everything - experimental sound design with razor blades and nails on the inside of my piano, mutated percussion sounds running through my guitar pedals, and gurgling synthesizers, to name just a few. It was also a score for a solely multiplayer game and made up entirely of short loops and many, many stingers. Hundreds of them! The final score is really performed by the players as they progress through the game - all those short loops and stingers are triggered and come together to create an evolving, dynamic score.
PW: And how would you sum up your work on Until Dawn compared to the others?
JG: Until Dawn is definitely its own beast. Everything really comes down to supporting the gameplay, and in this case we have eight characters stranded on a remote mountain with a killer on the loose. You also have the chance to play as any of the characters and the gameplay is extremely varied, depending on the choices you make, so the music follows suit. While it has its fair share of horror aspects, they are much more modern and sophisticated than the music in, say, Dead Space or Murdered: Soul Suspect, which were much more visceral, animalistic scores. We’ve got character themes, melodic sensibility and a much more sophisticated way of approaching the horror in Until Dawn.
PW: Until Dawn had quite a lengthy production process. At what stage did you come to be involved in the project? I’m guessing you were able to compose a lot of it to picture?
JG: I was brought in very early - something I really prefer when given the choice. I was hired in 2011 and had three different recording sessions over a year or so. The goal of these recordings wasn’t to record final, scored-to-picture music. I was basically sound mining - looking for unique, interesting and, most importantly, original sounds that could eventually be incorporated into the game.
So really the first year was experimenting and trying different things, with a full orchestra and almost twenty hours of recording sessions. The next few years were spent composing and implementing the music to picture, which was no small task!
PW: Tonally, the game sees you returning to familiar horror roots. With Until Dawn’s uniquely cinematic gameplay, how has your approach varied compared to working on something like The Order or Dead Space?
JG: The approach, in terms of how the music was composed and implemented into the game, was a complete departure from anything I’ve done before. Dead Space sort of scratched the surface, but even then we were still implementing looped layers of music that played back in various combinations according to the the gameplay.
Until Dawn had completely different requirements - everything was scored to picture with the custom set of sounds I had recorded over the course of that previous year. I also added a substantial amount of recording from my own studio on various solo instruments - mostly my piano soundboard and bowing/scraping various things around my studio.
PW: The game is also far from linear, with the potential for each player to experience the story in wildly different ways. How challenging was this aspect of the game when it came to constructing a score that changes a lot based on a player’s individual choices?
JG: It was really based on the needs of the game - there’s more than fifteen hours of unique music, which is a lot, even by video game standards. And the player’s choices, and subsequent gameplay, are the reason so much music was needed. There simply wasn’t a way to layer music interactively or let the game engine mix different aspects of the score. It’s a very cinematic playing experience, and the music needed to be equally cinematic, especially when things really get going for the big action/chase sequences!
PW: Generally speaking, what are some of the biggest challenges you face when composing for a game?
JG: Most of the time it's simply the number of minutes needed. Gameplay needs alone can require hours of music. Cinematics for bigger titles rival the length of feature films on their own. Most projects I work on start at two or three hours of music and only go up from there.
My biggest internal challenge is finding a unique sound for that particular project. Many times this is also a request from the developer, but it’s something I’m very conscious of from the beginning, regardless. Part of it stems from a personal desire to keep trying new things, experimenting, and learning. But the biggest motivation is giving the game its own unique identity through music.
PW: You were solely responsible for developing the sound of the Dead Space franchise. When you started work on the first game, am I right in thinking that you weren’t initially asked to pursue a particular sound? Has this been the case with many of the projects you’ve worked on since?
JG: The only real direction for Dead Space was “compose the scariest music anyone has ever heard.” The instruments, genre and overall sound were totally left to me. There were rumblings of heavy metal guitars or distorted synth soundscapes coming from the higher ups, but the audio director shielded me from all of that and left me to my own devices to come up with what I thought would work the best. There has definitely been a change in direction from developers over the years, and I’m sure Dead Space was behind a bit of the beginning of that change. Most projects in the past six or seven years have been very open ended, creatively speaking, with the music. It’s more of a “what kind of music do you think would work with our project?” dialogue, which is a wonderful place to be in.
PW: The rise of systemic gameplay in video games means that players repeat a lot of their actions over the course of a playthrough and as a result many musical cues are often repeated themselves too. How does this affect your approach to scoring?
JG: It really boils down to the interactivity, and even more importantly, how the music is implemented into the game. The music can only be as interactive as the developer will allow. This may sound redundant, but a lot of work goes into proper, tasteful music implementation. It takes time. But knowing we have a system and team in place, I always tailor the interactive aspect of the score to each game.
There are literally unlimited ways music could be delivered for playback, so it's important to have some kind of plan before you start. On Tomb Raider, Alex Wilmer and I both realized we wanted to keep the music as fresh as possible without reverting to loops and repeated phrases, so I scored every enemy encounter separately. That gave us a lot of music to work with - over three hours. I then delivered granular stems and alternate mixes of those pieces, which Alex broke out into more than nine hours of unique, non-looped music cues.
PW: At Game Music Connect last year I was quite taken by something you said about coming to a game initially. You said that reading about the idea and themes of the game on paper can actually be a lot more inspiring than the end visuals themselves. Can you expand on this a little?
JG: A great analogy is reading a book versus watching a film. Words on a page or concept art can sometimes inspire and trigger the imagination a lot more than the final product. There's a limitless aspect to those early, formative times early in the production cycle. Everyone's working towards making the best game possible. I feel like part of that includes transcending the boundaries of what seems possible for a final product and simply being as creative as you can, regardless of what may or may not seem possible or even probable for the end product.
PW: Another thing that struck a chord were your comments about budget and how, as a composer, you prefer not to be involved with the financial aspects of composing. Do you feel that working on a tighter budget helps boost your creativity?
JG: Every project has a defined budget and every project's budget is different. I don't really feel a connection between the budget and creative opportunity. One definitely does not inform the other. I would feel just as creatively liberated working on my own in my studio as I would at Abbey Road with a live orchestra. The creative aspect comes into play collaborating with the developer and brainstorming different ideas for sounds and implementation.
I actually prefer to be heavily involved in selecting the musicians, scheduling dates, working with final mixes, etc. But as a freelancer it's always nice to not have to add "getting everyone paid on time" to that list. The developer usually has teams of people responsible for those kind of bookkeeping tasks and they are better suited for it.
PW: What is it about working in games that you find particularly compelling over working in film or television?
JG: Part of it is the interactive nature of the music. Each game has a completely different method of implementing music and I love digging in with the developer to find new and creative methods. Another aspect is the simple nature of composing music for games, in that most of the time the music production is running parallel with the game production. That means I have more time to spend on the music - sometimes spanning over a few years of on and off work. And, more importantly, I have time away from the project to get some perspective and attack it with a fresh ear. Another wonderful thing about games is the sheer number of minutes that are required. A feature film may have ninety or one hundred minutes of music. I’ve worked on games with easily twice as much.
Also, games are still in their infancy compared to film or television. Most have yet to succumb to the "copy something else that was successful" paradigm concerning music. Hopefully they will retain that enthusiasm because that is by far my favorite thing about composing for games - the creative collaboration.
They both have their merits. I still love the challenge and rewards of composing to picture with film - it’s a completely different way of approaching music. Ideally, I get to keep my feet in both worlds at the same time.
The Order: 1886 and Evolve are available now, as are Jason Graves’ accompanying soundtracks. Until Dawn is out now, exclusively for PlayStation 4.