If you play video games, odds are you’ve heard of celebrated composer Jason Graves, who has written the score for dozens of games including popular franchises like Dead Space, Star Trek, and Tomb Raider.
Lab Notes: In Tomb Raider, what techniques did you use to make the music less repetitive and more dynamic than an average game?
Jason Graves (JG): There were two major ways I composed and delivered the music to Crystal Dynamics [the studio that developed Tomb Raider]: as musical suites or microscored compositions.
The suites were three-minute, overscored pieces that I delivered in multiple tracks—anywhere from 15 to 20 individual stems. But only three to five of these stems were intended to be playing at the same time in the game. So a three-minute piece of music could be stretched out to three or four times its original length without repeating any material.
That kind of delivery method worked very well for long, drawn-out battles or slow-paced exploration, but there were many other parts of the game that had very specific, event-by-event scoring requirements. That’s where the microscoring came in.
I would literally score the scene as if it were a film, but give an extra eight to 10 seconds at the beginning and end of the music to allow for extra time, due to the interactive nature of the game.
The result is a score that is very closely tied to the action of the game without being too in-your-face or predictive in its implementation. Probably my favorite thing about this method is [that] you literally never hear the same music twice.
Lab Notes: When did you first notice sound as a dramatic device? When did music become a storytelling tool for you?
JG: My first eye-opening—or should I say “ear-opening”—experience was when I saw the movie E.T., the Extraterrestrial. The first and last 10 minutes of the film were completely dialogue-free—the John Williams score carried those scenes all by itself.
I started composing small pieces in high school. First it was just on piano—whatever I could jot down and try to imagine what the music would accompany if it were a film.
By my senior year, I had bought a keyboard and drum machine. I could play my keyboard in real-time, the accompaniment part, to the beats on the drum machine and record it with my portable cassette deck.
I would then play the recording back and perform the melody on the keyboard live, usually to an audience consisting of my parents and/or siblings—whoever was around and willing to sit and listen.
[Editor’s Note: You can hear Graves’s work in Dolby® Digital on the latest installment of Tomb Raider, available now for PC, Xbox 360®, PlayStation®3, where the dramatic score blends with intense gameplay to create what Wired calls a soundtrack “worthy of praise.”]
What is your favorite musical track in a game?