Interview with Jason Graves
If you’ve played a video game over the past twenty years, odds are that you’ve heard a number of composer Jason Graves‘ scores. He’s a prolific composer, but more than that, his music has underscored some popular and critically respected games. A very partial list would include Command and Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight, Tomb Raider (2013), Devil May Cry, The Order 1886, Far Cry Primal, Until Dawn and The Dark Pictures Anthology,
The man has range.
Jason’s back in the spotlight thanks to the just-released remake of Dead Space. Graves scored the original in 2008, as well as the game’s two sequels. I had the opportunity to chat with Jason about his scores for Dead Space, which preserves the original’s outstanding and innovative music.
That big sound-making factory known as an orchestra has changed and evolved over the centuries. Starting with a handful of instruments in some rich patron’s parlor, by the late 19th century, the typical orchestra had dozens of musicians. It became capable of an immense range of sounds. But the orchestra wasn’t done evolving. In the 20th century, composers began to ask musicians to do some innovative things. In the service of telling a story, movie — and later, video game — composers started mixing and matching styles. Traditional sounds blended with the weird.
The scores Dead Space and its sequel are great examples. Both the tension-filled sections and more traditional orchestra sounds come from the same collection of musicians. “It really was a 100% orchestral score from the very start. I liked the idea of using the orchestra as a “musical necromorph.” The Necromorphs in the game were originally the human crew, transformed by the Marker. It’s all very gross but also very organic,” Graves said. “There are no additional effects or computer edits to the orchestra sounds. That’s just how the instruments sounded when the players performed! It’s the rather unusual techniques they were asked to play that made their instruments sound unnatural and spooky.”
Composers have a name for those “different” ways of playing: extended techniques. Graves said “One of my favorites was, of course, one of the most simple, but it just worked so well. The instructions on the sheet music were for all the string players to perform ‘any random note as soft as possible’ and we held that “chord” for about 30 seconds. It was this beautiful, lush, sixty-note chord that sounded like something out of a Cole Porter songbook, but with something not quite right. Those chords make up all of the “safe music” you hear in the game whenever you are upgrading your RIG or going through your inventory.”
Telling the Tale
Composers for film and games never have the musicians make sounds just because they’re interesting, but because those sounds help tell the story. Sometimes the narrative is best served by traditional, tonal music. Sometimes, by more unsettling textures. Graves said that “ it was more about having a few “normal,” tonal cues in the very beginning of the game. Like, “everything is seemingly ok, maybe just some mechanical malfunctions.” As we delve further into the interiors of the ship and discover more and more horrors, the music never looks back. The rest of the score is essentially “everything is definitely NOT ok, in fact, it seems to keep getting worse and worse!”
The score for Dead Space 2 was more of the same, except when it wasn’t. “I wanted everything to be bigger and even scarier than the original. But how could I make the music feel even bigger than the biggest, ugliest score I had ever composed?” The solution was to focus on one character’s storyline. Graves said “There’s a storyline through the entire game about Nicole, Isaac’s dead girlfriend, and how’s he emotionally coping with his guilt.
‘I thought, what if I used something very, very quiet and comforting, like a string quartet, that’s recorded very up close and personal, to underscore all the scenes with Nicole? That would be quite the contrast to the huge, angry assault on our ears of the full orchestra. So the intimate string quartet makes the full orchestra feel even bigger in contrast.”
Jason Graves in VR
For us mere mortals, pivoting between the horror of Dead Space and the gentle world of Moss would be whiplash-inducing. For Jason Graves, the musical challenges of those two scores make the job interesting. And to Graves, they share some similarities. “Both Moss scores are grounded in the fantasy setting of their games. Our hero, Quill, is a very tiny but equally brave and agile little mouse. I liked the idea of a tiny band in a little pub in the mouse village. If we were to walk in there and see them, what instruments would they be playing? I assembled a band of “mouse-sized” instruments, or, at least, the smallest ones I could find around my studio – Celtic harp, ukulele, dulcimer, and smaller hand percussion were all recruited.”
The pandemic lockdowns impacted many games in development, including Moss 2. For Graves, the task of recording remotely was entirely familiar. “For Moss 2 all of the musicians recorded themselves at home and I produced the entire score in my studio. Most of it was done during lockdown, so there weren’t many options. But that’s the same way I wrote the original Moss, so really I would have made this score the same way, regardless.”
The Risk/Reward Equation
Like any creative endeavor, writing music for film or videogames brings a unique set of puzzles to be solved. Game composers have the opportunity to approach every project a little differently. Graves’ appreciation for his profession comes through loud and clear. “Being able to genre-jump, from one day to the next, is definitely the most fun part about music for games. Game developers are fearless and courageous with their creativity and they prefer their musical scores to be equally unique. It’s very refreshing to have permission to be completely free, creatively-speaking.”
Of course, meeting each game’s requirements and solving its musical puzzles can be challenging. For Graves, the problems are as engaging as their solutions, “It’s a challenge I embrace every morning with child-like glee. I’m quite literally a kid in a candy store – my studio is the candy store and I’m paid to eat all the candy and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Special thanks to Jason Graves.