Jason Graves

“Music can be a very lonely and isolating experience, but that doesn’t mean the creative process needs to exist in a vacuum” – Jason Graves on composing for video games

Every month, we discuss the unique process of making music for video games. This month, we explore the musical universe of Jason Graves, who’s behind games such as Tomb Raider, Far Cry Primal, Until Dawn, The Order: 1886 and Dead Space

How early in a game’s development process do you usually start working on the score?

As early as I can! I’m a true believer when it comes to being a team player. Music can be a very lonely and isolating experience, but that doesn’t mean the creative process needs to exist in a vacuum, with the composer all by themselves. I very much enjoy collaborating with the developer and having them as involved as they possibly can be with musical choices.

Quite often this means bringing me on board before there is even any gameplay to see, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to talk about music. I really do enjoy getting in on the ground floor and having the chance to craft the basic tenants of the score while the game is also coming together for the first time. In fact, some of my more unique scores started very early in the game’s development – Dead Space, Tomb Raider, Far Cry: Primal and The Order: 1886 were all conceived very early in the development process of the game.

What type of material do you request from a studio before starting to write the score?

I honestly try and get my hands on anything and everything the developer will let me have. A lot of times there are, of course, certain things that have to remain in-house. But I can usually get my hands on concept art, scripts and sometimes even rough level playthroughs. I’m often treated to early builds and get to play through as the music is being implemented. Really, the more the merrier when it comes to information about the game. I’m crafting every aspect of the music around their world, so every little bit makes a difference.

Do you work closely with the sound designer(s) of the game, to ensure there’s cohesion between the score and the sound effects?

If there is time, absolutely. Many of my favorite projects have been a result of that marriage of music and sound design – Moss, Dead Space, Tomb Raider, just to name a few. Of course, sometimes schedules do not permit as much collaboration. But when they do it’s definitely a win-win for the audio in general!

What are the typical challenges of writing for games as opposed to more linear narrative forms?

I’ve been working on three different TV shows and even more games this year, and the most obvious difference is the sheer number of minutes that are required. A TV show can have up to 35 minutes of music per episode, but it’s the episode schedule that really makes a difference. If they are posting a show a week that means you need to deliver 35 minutes a week! And in my case for DC’s Swamp Thing, I had nine episodes over the span of about 11 weeks. So something like 28 minutes a week on average needs to be written. But you’re finished with the whole show in two months. So it’s a lot of music in a short period of time, it’s a lot like
a musical sprint.

Games, on the other hand, can have a much longer production cycle as well as a lot more music. My experience on most game titles has been measured in years rather than months. If I can get involved early on I could be on a game for 2-3 years, which is an absolute joy. And the total number of minutes is counted in hours, with upwards of 3-4 hours on the bigger titles. But, again, it’s spread out over a much longer time.

The other significant difference is the interactive aspect of game music. A cue for a game may need to be quiet, tense, stealthy and energetic all at the same time. Or, at least within the same boundaries of a single cue that is written. On top of that, it needs to be varied enough as not to sound repetitive on multiple listenings or loops. TV or film music is linear and therefore much more straightforward.

Does your approach differ between writing for a multiplayer title vs a single player game?

Multiplayer is a completely different animal from single player. Most of my experience with multiplayer has been more of the intro/outro or transitional kinds of ideas with the score. Player to player communication is key, so the music takes a back seat. Single player mode is the bread and butter of game music. It’s all about the story and the arc of the main protagonist so the music gets a chance to really spread its wings and help communicate the emotional journey the player is taking.

And budget or medium makes no difference. Music is music, whether it’s TV or games, indie or triple-A. It all comes down to musically capturing the moment and supporting the scene.

How has the role of the composer evolved in games over the past years in your experience?

Over the years I’ve definitely become more involved in the implementation of the music. At first, I was more of the instigator, making suggestions and asking how I could help. But the last five years or so have been the opposite – the developer is the first one to ask for suggestions and ideas about music implementation. There are several games now that I have been directly involved with implementing the music in the game, including one I am currently working on. Music implementation is a craft in and of itself. I’ve often said that the most amazing piece of music, let’s say by Mozart or Beethoven, could easily be completely ruined in-game with poor music implementation!

How free are you to experiment when you take on a mandate from a studio?

Very free! I often joke with the developer that my goal is to push the musical boundaries so far that they finally yield and say, “Ok, that’s a bit TOO much…” I feel like I push and push more on every game and, ironically, the developer has never pulled me back! My biggest request for music in a game is “make it as original as possible.” I feel privileged to have the opportunity to translate worlds, that have been years in the making, into music.

Do you have any tips on how developers can best help composers make music for their game?

My first suggestion would be to bring the composer in as soon as you can. Actually, sooner than you even think you should! The longer the composer can live in that world, the better. And don’t worry about whether the composer has anything to do in those early stages. Or if the gameplay changes over time, or the scope of the game being different in the end. It’s all about the journey together!

About Chris Wallace

Chris is a freelancer writer and was MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer from November 2019 until May 2022. He joined the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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