Chris: How was your experience with scoring for video games as compared to your experience with TV and films scores?
Greg: It’s different – and again, mostly because the picture for TV or film is always finished (well, almost always), you spot the film and start writing. The picture tells you what to do, so your job is to try to become a part of the fabric of the storytelling process. The picture dictates to you— sometimes you are inspired by the acting performance, sometimes by the lighting or the way that it is edited, or maybe any combination of the above! In the video game world, it’s not so much that way (for the game-play especially) — reason being that the picture is still under construction at this point. There was certainly a learning curve for me in having to work without picture! You do get to use your imagination a quite lot.
In UNCHARTED 2, I was able to write some music for the game that was emotional in nature. I wasn’t sure that it would find a place in the game but both Amy and Jonathan encouraged me to just write first and worry about where it might go later. They gave me the freedom to fail!! That freedom allows you to take chances that you might not otherwise take. The piece I’m talking about involves a scene where Nathan and Elena meet up with Shaffer before he dies, and we used an ancient Chinese violin called the erhu; it’s a beautifully weird, two-stringed instrument, and it’s incredibly difficult to play. We had the most wonderful musician, Karen Han (Star Trek , The Hurt Locker, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End) who played it. If you hear an erhu being played on a Hollywood soundtrack, chances very good that it’s Karen. So even though this piece wasn’t specifically written for that scene, it ended up providing the emotional tone necessary for Schaffer’s demise. And that’s very different from scoring for film or TV, where you know in advance exactly where the music is going to be used. Another factor is the fact that the music in a video game needs to be stretched over the full running length of the game, maybe 10-14 hours. No one can write that much, which is why great music implementation is so critical.
There are parts of the game, such as the cut-scenes (also called cinematics), that are quite similar to scoring for film and TV. In these scenes the timing is locked so you are writing music to a picture just as you might on a film. Speaking of similarities with film, on UNCHARTED 2, Amy really wanted to start with a great story and a great script. Then cast it with superbly talented actors and mix all of those elements into a game with beautiful graphics, exciting gameplay and superb sound design. I think that she and everyone at Naughty Dog succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. That seems to be the “right” formula for how to make a great video game, film or TV show!
So with Among Thieves, you used a scoring technique called a leitmotif, where a specific theme is attached to a character, plot element or location instead of being used for multiple elements in a soundtrack.
You know, I almost never do that (at least consciously)…When writing with thematic devices, I always seem to gravitate towards writing a theme for the overall situation rather than for the actual character or location. You want the music to tie everything together into one consistent experience. In Drake’s Fortune, a lot of the music was a little more ambient in nature because you spent a lot of time exploring locations like caves and abandoned buildings that were less expansive. So I was a little afraid of writing too many melodies for the first game (which was, of course, the first time I had scored a game as well). I wanted them to be able to loop the music without the melodies becoming too recurrent and therefore irritating. However, on Among Thieves, I threw caution to the wind and wanted to write music for the game just as I might for for a film/TV project. One technique that seems to work for me is this– instead of writing a solid piece of music for 3 minutes, I try to write music that builds to a musical climax every 30-45 seconds and then I leave a slight pause before it starts up again. No only does this allow the SCEA team to easily intercut between musical events, it also manages to accidently catch some action on the screen that makes the player feel as if the music is responding to his or her game-play choices!
Another thing the Sony team fought for is variation. There doesn’t have to be music in every single fight sequence, sometimes it’s about the action, sometimes about the sound design or the sound FX. Let’s make it a cinematic experience where we don’t automatically know what’s coming next. I want to touch on something we talked about before… I had a conversation with a really well-known game composer, and he asked me what the process was on Among Thieves. And I told him that I get up to write, I talk with Amy and I talk with Jonathan and I formulate my plan for the day… and this other composer stopped me and said “Wait… you talk to the game director??” I said, “yeah, I do! Don’t you?” and he said, “No, they never talk to me! I just have to figure it out on my own, and then convince the audio department that the music will work.” From my perspective it is the game director, just like a film director, that can tell you about all the subtleties and details and subtext that define the story and therefore the music. And that’s why I said, that my experience with the UNCHARTED franchise may not be typical in this industry because Amy and Jonathan make themselves readily available to me.
Exactly, and that is the impression I get from Amy, and her passion and dedication to make UNCHARTED that summer blockbuster makes it really shine as a polished product. It seems as if she’s trying so hard to make sure the game is perfect, and that may very well be why you got that extra hand that other composers might not get with their projects.
Definitely. She cares tremendously and she oversees everything that she can. She did the game with Evan [Wells] and Christophe [Balestra], who are the co-presidents of Naughty Dog, and Bruce Straley who was the game director responsible for the game-play. Amy was responsible for all the drama, writing, acting, casting, performances, how it looks and how it sounds etc. But I must note that the whole team at Naughty Dog is responsible for the excellence of UNCHARTED 2. There are too many names to mention (Josh, Taylor, Richard, Bruce etc). But it is first and foremost a team effort and without any ONE of them–it would not be be the same!
As a side note — to show how very far video games have come, Amy recently won the Writers Guild Award for best video game screenplay. And so there she was on stage being acknowledged with all of the great Film and TV writers that won last year. She worked very hard to accomplish that and it was a great moment!
On the next page, we’ll explore Greg’s use of ethnic instruments, his thoughts on [if there is an] UNCHARTED 3 and his latest work. Read on »