Interview with Jason Graves

By • March 10, 2015

Since his 2005 video game scoring debuts with “Rise of the Kasai” and “Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows,” Jason Graves has played faithful service to a genre that’s continually evolved in terms of its striking visuals and bold storytelling as the genre has done its damnedest to shirk the mantle of being kid’s stuff, no more so than in the quality of its music. Action has been a particular forte for Graves, who’s proved that one could indeed hear a terrifying orchestra shriek in the void with the “Dead Space” franchise. He’s given the stuff of soaring fantasy to “Dungeon Siege III,” sent Lara Croft’s arrows heroically flying with “Tomb Raider,” rocked with the tricked-out cars driven by the “Wheelman,” and delivered righteous ghostly payback in “Murdered: Soul Suspect.” Yet among Graves’ numerously exciting scores, perhaps none have been as grippingly downbeat, or as elegantly sad as the centuries-old code of honor that binds “The Order: 1886.” It’s a classically-themed soundtrack that puts Graves at the center of the round table of an Arthurian-esque police force out to preserve the peace in a steampunk England, its Knights of the Realm beset by werewolves, rebels and a growing conspiracy within their ranks.

From airship to Lycan-infested hospital and the hallowed halls of his fellow Knights, “The Order” the noble Galahad finds his sense of righteousness crumbling with each new discovery. Given the thematic heavy heart of a cello and viola driving its tragically noble orchestra, Graves conveys an ever-darkening sense of betrayal to match a Knight seeing his band of brothers in a monstrous new light. Even with its rhythmic werewolf battles, moaning voices and tearfully aching strings, “The Order: 1886” maintains a real melodic sense of class (and dare say decorum) that one could imagine being heard in “Downtown Abbey.” It’s music that’s all about stiff upper lip honor a life sacrificed to duty, even as these warriors festooned in pomp and circumstance throw down with the ultra-violent action gaming demands. And given its lengthy and gorgeously moody cinematics, “The Order: 1886” allows Graves the opportunity to write a game score with the development, and depth of a feature film, an arena that the composer has recently been exploring with “Adrenaline” and “Unknown Caller.”

For a game full of armor-weighted characters, the composer has created a score that’s even stronger for its emotional weight as it is its percussive action, elaborating on the price of duty with refined, truly grave soulfulness that levels up just how dramatic game scoring can be within its shoot-‘em up, franchise-launching expectations. On that, Jason Graves can proudly be knighted amongst “The Order: 1886.”

Could you talk about the road that led you to specialize in video game scoring?

I cut my teeth on film and television music in the mid ‘90s. I attended USC’s Film/TV Scoring program and found myself working halfway through my first semester. I did lots of agency work for commercials and trailers plus plenty of reality television and film. My time in LA taught me to work very quickly under tight deadlines. Most importantly, I learned how to listen to the client and deliver what they need – as opposed to simply giving them what I wanted to do.

I eventually worked my way back to my home state of North Carolina and spent five years working on independent films and corporate accounts before I landed my first game. It was definitely a “knowing someone who knew a guy who knew someone that needed music” situation. The developer was in Australia and needed forty minutes of music in four weeks. Fortunately, I had been working on my studio and honing my orchestra chops for five years, so I jumped in headfirst and ended up having more fun in those four weeks than I had the entire time in LA. It wasn’t just the creative freedom – the sheer amount of music needed was the opposite of the “revising thirty seconds of music for six weeks” experience I had with advertising. It was a very liberating experience and I definitely set my sights on games since that first title in 2001.

How long was “The Order: 1886” in development, and did your music for it evolve along with it during that time?

I’ve been attached to The Order since 2012 and I know they were working in earnest on it for a few years before that. The first two years were definitely touch and go – there wasn’t a lot that needed music then. We still kept in touch and had an evolving idea of what the music could contribute. There were a few test levels and experiments I scored during that time, but they were really more surface/scary/single dimension kinds of cues. Everything revolves around Lycan encounters, so the music was very scary…but that was about it. Nothing of substance yet – none of us yet knew what kind of game we were making.

By late 2013 things were beginning to take shape. We knew that, yes, there were going to be gothic horror aspects to the game, but I didn’t want to score the whole thing as an outright horror title. I was particularly interested in our lead protagonist and what the game developer, Ready At Dawn, called “a burden of responsibility and honor” that he and his fellow Knights carried. The idea of a burden, or weight, was very intriguing from a musical standpoint and gave me a unique perspective towards the game. I wanted the score to feel more personal, introspective and mournful, rather than the usual drum-riddled, combat-driven loops that permeate so many blockbuster combat games. “The Knight’s Theme” and “Galahad’s Theme” were born out of this idea in early 2014. There had been plenty of experimenting for the previous years and I essentially wiped the creative slate clean with my eyes fixed on an April recording session at Abbey Road. We planned two sessions total to cover the in-game music and cinematics.

The first session went very well. So well, in fact, that I expanded some ideas and pushed the interesting sounds – male choir and solo strings – even more to the forefront, which yielded cues such as “The Knighthood” and “Last Man Standing” on the second session.

Like “Beyond: Two Souls,” “The Order: 1886” is a “hybrid” game that’s almost a movie as it is a game. Did you look forward to that approach?

I definitely enjoyed the story-driven plot and character development, which is a result of RAD’s overall approach to the gameplay. In many ways, I was able to score a good bit of the game as if it were a film. Any large game has many hours of cinematics – Tomb Raider had over two hours and Dead Space 3 was about the same. We had music in more than two hours of cinematics for The Order, but there was also an additional two hours of in-game music, so it really ends up balancing itself out.

The cello and viola are especially evocative instruments in “The Order: 1886.” What made you decide to feature them, and what did you want them to express about the characters and the story?

I seem to be on the eternal search for unique ways to approach each new score. Small, personal ideas are always more interesting to me and I’ve always approached music for a game the same way I would a film. What emotions are we trying to convey to the player? What are the character’s motivations? The Knights of the Order are solitary and lonely, having sacrificed normal lives for the greater good and leaving behind their family and loved ones. How could I express this, also immediately, in music?
Solo cello and solo viola was featured quite a bit. In fact, there are no violins in the entire score! I’ve always loved solo strings, especially for their personal, mournful quality – so introspective and solitary. Those emotions aligned with my musical idea of the Knights of The Order.

Could you talk about the religious aspect of the score, especially in how you use the choir? How did you want to play the “Arthurian” aspect of characters that likely started off at the Round Table?

The choir really serves two purposes. It functions as both the Knights and Lycans depending on the musical context. The human voice is the oldest instrument in the world. I wanted to lean on that idea and use that specific texture to full effect. There is a woman in The Order, but our story is centered around Galahad so I chose a male choir. And not just any men – only the low voices were used. We had twenty-four men made up of baritones, basses and contrabasses. And they were usually singing in their lowest registers. In fact, when we recorded the win themes they dropped their parts by an entire octave. Not only did it sound fantastic, but it wasn’t muddy or blurry – you could still hear every note in the chord, even that low. The effect was surprisingly immediate, especially when taken in context with the visuals. You see these Knights on screen in their amazing surroundings and hear the low male choir – it’s one of those infrequent but lovely “well, obviously that’s how the music is supposed to sound” moments.

Could you talk about the approach you wanted to take for the Lycans?

The entire ensemble really gets corrupted for the Lycans. The choir sings really, really low clusters – they actually had the most fun singing all that really low, dissonant stuff. Lycans are essentially humans that have been twisted into another form. The idea was to portray a mangled, twisted version of the “Arthurian” men’s choir while simultaneously providing a recognizable contrast in terms of texture and harmony. Even though the exact same group of men is singing, you should immediately recognize the difference between the choral music for the Knights and the Lycans.

The woodwinds were an unusual lineup to begin with. We had three bassoons and three bass clarinets, plus another three contrabassoons and three contrabass clarinets. They mostly played simple but effective low textures and clusters, quite literally scoring the Lycans and their monstrous appearance. They almost sound like they are sputtering and growling, with plenty of low trills and clustery swells. In cues like “The Hidden Enemy” you can really hear the low woodwinds moving in and out of the string quartet music, as if they are chasing and fighting with the Knights. There’s also plenty of low register breathing and growling in “The Enduring Pride,” which is the main theme for the half-breeds.

The strings were also treated very differently for the Lycan cues. It’s fair to say that all sense of melody or harmony was pretty much thrown out the window. What remained was very primitive and rhythmic. The strings are essentially the instinctual side of the Lycans. Heartbeats, blood rushing, fight or flight – I tried to make the music as primal and driving as possible, especially for the Lycan combat scenes.

Is it more pleasant for you to do a game score with more melodic content as such than the all out musical assault of a game like “Dead Space?”

Honestly, both are really a lot of fun! But that’s the key – being able to work with different styles of music from project to project. I honestly prefer to bounce back and forth from orchestral to other styles. Variety, as they say, is indeed the spice of life.

“The Order: 1886” is one of the most visually beautiful games I’ve played. How did that level of artistic design figure into the score?

I wish I could talk about how inspirational and amazing it was scoring such a gorgeous game. The reality is everything I saw, beyond concept art, was unlit polygon blocks and pre-vis renderings. It’s very typical in games and one of the few disadvantages of the music production schedule running parallel to the game production. So, basically I had to use my imagination and assume the visuals would end up looking fantastic, which, of course they did!

Did you want the score to reflect the “steampunk” aspects of the game, especially when it comes to the setting of an alternate, Victorian-Edwardian England? On that note, was it tricky balancing the many game genres that “The Order: 1886” fits into, from science fiction to fantasy and horror?

No matter how complicated story elements seem to get, for me as a composer it always comes down to what the gameplay needs. A lot of times there are distinctive aspects of a project that don’t need additional musical commentary. My approach for The Order was definitely more introspective than anything else, and in many ways limiting myself to the instruments I chose was the ultimate customization. I’m not really thinking of genre or period-specific requirements. I’m almost fanatically focused on the emotional connection between the player and the game. If I can forge and continually strengthen that connection, the rest will fall into place on its own.

What do you think is key to a franchise-launching game, especially when it comes to the music?

The hardest part would certainly be creating something original that is also both recognizable and memorable. Simplicity is an absolute must, but it can also be the most challenging and elusive goal.

When doing more of an “authentic” score like “The Order,” how do you keep the music fresh and contemporary?

I was very wary of stepping on too many musical toes, so to speak. We have a very specific time period the game takes place in and I wanted the music to seem like a natural extension of the era. At the same time, we all knew we wanted the score to have a unique sound, which meant things needed to be tweaked somehow. So I went back to the overall sense of weight and introspection. What is the simplest, most straightforward way to musically illustrate weight? Obviously, the easiest answer is to use an orchestra that could’ve existed in 1886 and write music with lots of low notes. And it is very possible that kind of score would work for a project like this. However, I love the idea of a musical challenge and really enjoy trying new things. I decided the most efficient way to compose a “heavy” score was to simply eliminate any instruments that would not contribute to that sense of weight. What I ended up with was a string-based score without any violins. Instead, I doubled up on the violas and cellos. The same idea applied to the woodwinds – only the low, beefy instruments were allowed.

In addition, most of the score is performed with string mutes, lending a veiled sensibility to the music. And, as luck would have it, almost every instrument bottomed out on a low C (including woodwinds), so most of the score is written in those very low keys of C, D or E. There were also instructions as to which specific strings the players were to use. We focused on the two lowest strings of each instrument, which have a thicker, darker sound to them. All of these examples are really more shading techniques than obvious, over-the-top extremes. But the idea of having them all combined together would definitely contribute to the overall sense of weight for the entire score.

How did you want to apply “period” strings to the game’s action mechanics?

It simply came down to a matter of energy. I was essentially limited to only violas and cellos for the action writing, since the choir, woodwinds, and contrabasses really just provide support more than anything else. Most of the score is actually three-part writing, especially the action cues. It was basically like writing action music for a string trio – it had to be simple but effective. That meant driving rhythms and plenty of forward motion.

Could you talk about your other projects this year, “Evolve” and the feature film “Adrenaline?”

“Evolve” was the exact opposite of The Order, musically speaking. It’s an online co-op shooter with extremely fast-paced gameplay. I performed and recorded the entire score in my studio and had a lot of fun experimenting with sound sources – everything from razor blades inside a piano and external synthesizers to found sounds and electric guitars. Most notably, every cue in the score has something run through my external guitar setup, which has twenty+ pedals, three cabinets and seven different microphones on it. “Re-amping” so many already unusual sounds gave the score an interesting twist, hopefully sounding modern yet organic at the same time.

“Adrenaline” was a wonderful throwback score for me. It’s a racing movie starring John Schneider. The entire film was scored with nothing but guitars and drums. Basically if you hired a rock band to score your film this is the kind of music you would get. Except in this case, it’s just a one-man rock band. I played and recorded all the instruments myself, which was an absolute blast. It has a very no-holds-barred classic rock sound and was a wonderful palette cleanser.

Do you think video game scoring affords you more creative opportunities than feature scoring would?

It really depends on the kind of people you are working with and how much trust you have between you. Game developers seem to desire more inventive and creative scores for their project. They want music that’s going to distinguish their game from the competitors. And I feel like the more original and interesting I can make that music, the happier they are with the end result. But originality is definitely risky!

Film, on the other hand, can fall into the temp track trap and want the new score to be as close to a previous, “successful” score as possible. Of course, if you’re an experienced film composer with an established track record you will have more leeway to be creative. Of course, it comes down to relationships and trust in film as well. The two films I’ve done in the last year were both very creatively satisfying because I knew the filmmakers and they trusted me with their projects. A lot of it is simply experience and relationships, which go hand-in-hand. The longer you work, the more people you know, the more music you write, the more opportunities you receive.

Play “The Order: 1886” on Playstation 4 HERE, and listen to Jason Graves’ score on Sony Classical HERE

Visit Jason Graves’ website HERE

Leave a Comment