With dozens of projects behind his name, Jason Graves is a composer of many talents. He won two BAFTA awards for his work on Dead Space and a BAFTA nomination for Tomb Raider, composed the highly unconventional score for Far Cry Primal, and recorded The Order: 1886’s majestic music at the legendary Abbey Road Studios.
His recent endeavors have taken him into virtual reality with his recent project composing Polyarc Games’ Moss for PlayStation VR. He happened to swing by the office to chat about his music career, using tiny instruments for Moss, and Aztec death whistles.
How did you get into composing video games?
I can’t believe it’s been 10 years since Dead Space came out. That came out in 2008, and I’d been working in games for almost 10 years at that point, so it’s been almost 20 years. I originally wanted to do film or TV music, which is why I went to Los Angeles to attend USC because they had a program devoted to that. There was a composer I worked for as an assistant. I also had a chance to work on a game in the early 2000s based on the King Arthur movie.
I’d been working in the industry behind the scenes for about two years, but this was the first time I had a game that was officially released that I’d written all the music for. The experience of writing 40 minutes of music in three weeks where the only feedback was “Great, when are you sending the next piece?” was completely different than what I did in LA for the 2+ years before then, when I worked on 30 seconds of music for 8 or 10 weeks for a commercial or trailer, which involved a lot of rewriting. It was decision by committee with no creative input.
When the call came in to do the Dead Space demo, they didn’t know what the game was going to be yet, but they wanted scary music. I could do that because that’s where my background was. I just hadn’t done it for 10 years. I submitted some things I’d already written, did a quick demo, and the audio director almost called me immediately and said that’s what they needed for the game. I fell back into what I was doing in college with aleatoric music, crazy, scary kinds of things.
I thought this would be another game that came and went, but it ended up getting a lot of attention, even the music, which I wasn’t really expecting, so then I became the scary music guy! It was my first major milestone career-wise. Everyone was convinced I had a fake name, too… “Graves” and Dead Space. Then the next well-known game I did was [the 2013 reboot of] Tomb Raider.
You’ve worked on a lot of AAA releases and smaller indie projects. Does the latter excite you because the indie space has creativity that’s lacking from AAA?
There can be more restriction with bigger games. As Dead Space went on, I’d never written music for sequels. I think it was more personal restrictions because I wanted to be true to the established music of the franchise. Even though Crystal Dynamics wanted something different from the original games, I wanted to be true to the franchise in spirit while trying to be original. What I love about indie games is that I can sit in a room with 10 people and that’s the whole company. It’s a truly collaborative thing where everyone’s informing each other.
When you started working with Polyarc on Moss, what did they want initially?
From a music standpoint, it didn’t shift dramatically. It was more about how the music was going to be implemented into the game. We were planning to have more of a Nintendo approach with more interactivity. You die, there’s a death stinger. You get a treasure, there’s an unlock stinger. Music stingers define certain actions and we did that for E3. I was sort of reluctant because the game was so amazing that we didn’t need that crutch of forcibly telling players through music, “Aren’t you having fun? Oh, congratulations! You got a token!” With Moss, everything stood on its own.
I recommended writing big parts of music and asking them to see if they could work with that alone. The audio director is amazing, and he was always open to collaboration. There’s no death stinger in the game, for example, so the music just goes on as is and only changes from scene-to-scene; it’s more about broad strokes, rather than precise “this happens when this happens” music. Any interactive music is subtle in the game.
Video games can afford dynamic interaction between the music and gameplay. How does that happen in subtle ways throughout Moss?
There are these enemy towers in the game that look like the Eye of Sauron that can spot and hurt you. The first piece I did had this middle section that was out of tempo and out of scale with this violin repetition. The harp and dulcimer picked up as well and served as warning music. Stephen [Hodde, the audio director] picked that up immediately to have it filter in gradually as you got closer to the towers. Only those instruments fade in with the normal music still going on, which acts as a natural stinger that ebbs and flows. He did stuff like that all the time in the game with how he singled out instruments with the music I provided.
Moss’ music has a whimsical, welcoming vibe, almost like something you’d hear in a tavern or the streets of a fantastical medieval world. Could you describe the style you went with for Moss?
For me, the inspiration always comes from the game itself. The first Dead Space was the first time I looked for inspiration from within, as opposed to what films have been that are like this game that I can make sound the same. That only happened because EA gave me the freedom. Polyarc was similar. You have these teeny characters in the VR world, and it makes a huge impression because you can sit down and you get a true sense of scale with Quill.
You can pick her up and look around, so I wanted to convey the sense of the tiny setting of a sprawling, epic world. With the forest setting, I love the idea of dulcimers, guitars, and ukuleles because they’re small instruments. Celtic harp is also one because you can set it in your lap. Things that sound “woodsy,” partly because they’re made of wood.
I was looking for things that gave the music a unique sound with small instruments, which I mostly happened to own and play with only violin and woodwind players, so the score is 90 percent live. I’ve been trying to do that ever since Dead Space because it makes such a difference. With Moss feeling so intimate, live music would convey its world in a heartbeat. The plucking of guitars; the hammer dulcimer has a mountainy, woodsy sort of vibe – that was the plan.
There is some string and brass, but I used the soloists to play on top of them, so I hope the score comes across as organic. That’s the word I was looking for, like with a band that’s in the corner of a bar, which is why I like how you mentioned pub music. Even the combat music is fun in its own way. Not menacing or threatening, but empowering.
You mentioned your instrument collection. What’s the weirdest or most obscure instrument you’ve put in a game?
Two Aztec death whistles that I used with Far Cry Primal. It looks like a human skull and you blow into it, which sounds like someone screeching their death. I wanted to use interesting instruments. Nothing with metal or plastic, and when you start thinking about instruments that don’t have these things, you’re not left with a whole left, so you’re left with rocks, stones, and other stuff like that.
One of the people on the team suggested that I check out Aztec death whistles, which the warriors wore around their necks when they decimated nearby villages and blow their whistles. You could hear it from miles away, which was meant to inspire fear. There was a guy in Arizona that makes them out of resin and hand paints them. It’s the most unique instrument I used besides hitting on bushes or banging pots together.
Virtual reality brings up a lot of interesting opportunities for composition. Combined with the interactivity of video games, so is there potential for innovative scores for this developing space?
There are several schools of thought on music for VR. One is that you shouldn’t have any music in VR because it will take you out of the experience. The second one is with ambisonic, 3D sound, where you can take advantage of that and make the music feel around you as well. However, I would say it really depends on the context and genre of a virtual reality game. In Farlands, the whole score was ambisonic. It was mono stems without any reverb or anything like that.
The VR engine placed all the instruments in different places. Let’s say you’re in a big room with an orchestra. It’s not the same way in Farlands, but you can walk right up to instruments and they sound closer and drier, and it would sound like the violins are behind you. Very immersive in 3D, and I think there’s places for that where it will totally work. We didn’t use that idea for Moss because there’s no source music in-game. It’s more of a special-case scenario like working on a 3D film. Maybe there’s some subtle 3D, but there’s only two or three times where something jumps out at you.
It’s good in that sense when it’s appropriate for gameplay. As a composer, I like the idea of the music functioning as it would in a non-VR game. The VR is its own cool thing; we don’t need to do more bells and whistles. But if there’s an arcade-y kind of game with fun effects, absolutely. But if it’s a story-based game like Moss, it needs to enhance the story. It’s not the attention-grabber.
There are some unique things you could do, like having a certain instrument come in as an enemy gets closer.
Ah, we did some stuff like that! But here’s the trick: as the Reader, you’re overlooking the mouse and your auditory perspective is not like Quill’s perspective, so it’s like the tower with how the music comes in, but you can do that in a non-VR game. And since you’re not in first-person with Quill, there’d be no use to it being in 3D unless you’re hearing from her perspective. You’re present in the game but controlling another character. It’s like first- and third-person at the same time in some ways.