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Jason Graves, Composer for Dead Space 2

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Posted by: Ben PerLee

People like to know the big names behind a game. Cliff Bleszinski, Shigeru Miyamoto, Will Wright - these are guys who deserve some major respect for the things they have done for games. However, for every fantastic title, there are often hundreds of people who helped make those games what they are. One area often overlooked is the soundtrack, the musical backing behind any strong title.

Jason Graves is one man used to creating music for games. Having worked on over ninety titles over the last eight years, Graves is most known for his creepy and distressing soundtrack for the original Dead Space. He's back again for the upcoming Dead Space 2, and we had a chance to chat with Graves about working with one of the scariest game franchises ever. From the creative process to the musical differences between Dead Space 2 and its predecessor, Graves has a lot to say. Read it out below, and hear samples of his work in Dead Space 2 here.

GameZone: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Jason Graves: I've been doing music for games, TV, film, whatever, for about fifteen years now. But I really started doing games wholeheartedly about eight years ago. I'm kinda obsessed with the orchestra, orchestration, melody, harmony and stuff like that, but ironically enough I started out as a drummer. I think that might be one of the reasons I'm so particular about orchestra stuff. There was probably this subconscious deficiency growing up in the music world as a drummer or a classical percussionist. Everyone else played instruments or played jazz, I felt like I was left out a little bit.

As an end result, I ended up diving face first into orchestration and harmony. That's been my thing. I do hybrid scores. I am a drummer, I am a synth guy, I can work on that, but [what] I really love doing is when I get to use the orchestra. It's my pallet. That's really why I love Dead Space. There really isn't any electronic elements, it's au naturale. It's all the organic acoustic instruments you get from an orchestra, which is what I love to do.

GZ: So how did you make the decision to use strictly real instruments instead of synthesizers and computers for Dead Space? It's ironic as Dead Space does take place in the future, it does take place in space. How did everything pan out?

JG: Originally I did about thirty minutes of music for the first game that had a slightly similar feel with the orchestra, but it also had this layer of electronics on top of it. The whole idea was for the usual thing that people do where it's in space. It's sci-fi, it's in the future, so lets have some electronics percolating in the background. Let's have that represent the technology of the ship and everything else.

We all watched the music play as we are going through the game. It was too confident. It sounded more like something from a summer blockbuster movie, with Will Smith. It just wasn't scary enough. We decided that instead of the music providing this kind of generic sci-fi wallpaper going on in the background, let's just scare the pants off everybody instead. I stripped away all of the electronics, which was fine with me as I didn't necessarily enjoy doing them anyway, especially with this score. We went in the complete opposite direction and went totally experimental orchestra, with everything that you cannot do with sample libraries, and in the end we asked ourselves "is this going to work?"

I sat down for the first playthrough after our first recording session. I didn't even recognize the music as music because they had kind of picked it apart. They were using stuff straight from the recording sessions. These first necromorphs were coming from the dark, and the music bubbled up and the strings were gurgling. It was goosebump city. I was like, "that's what the score needs to sound like. We've hit something here!" We just took off with it and ran.

GZ: One thing integral to horror movies and horror games is the usage of screeching strings and deep bass tones. When you are making music for a horror game or film, what are some of the necessary elements to keep that creepiness going?

JG: Dead Space was the first horror score for any genre that I had ever done. While obviously there are cliches that need to be utilized, I was trying to be as original as I could. I was approaching it from "what is it that makes you scared? Why do these clusters of sound, or these high screeching strings, why do they put you on edge?" Well, they put me on edge because it is an uncomfortable sound. It's unpleasant to listen to. You're not exactly sure what it is. I went in full-bore into the unknown music territory. The more crazy out-there sounds I could get the orchestra to play, the scarier the music ended up sounding. Part of it was the texture, but part of it was the non-musicality of it.

I think this is where part of being a drummer actually helped me a lot. There were no themes, no melodies except for one. Most of the score was completely anti-music, but there was a lot of rhythm, lots of jumping, downbeat rhythm. That came from my experiences as a drummer. I could sit there and bang it out; I could figure out what the rhythms are going to be. That unpredictability really lends itself to the horror genre.

GZ: The Dead Space franchise is well known for having some of the best audio in a game, not just the music, but with the foley effects. Did you interact with them when they were recording the sound clips, with the jumping and the shooting? And what is your opinion in games with the union between the backing soundtrack and the sound effects?

JG: I definitely spent a lot of time talking with the lead sound designer in both games to try to get a sense of what the specific creatures were going to sound like for each encounter, so that the music wasn't covering up the monster or vice versa. There was a lot of work to get everything integrated properly, where it was pretty well balanced. You asked about music versus sound effects, with the Dead Space franchise, it is the first set of titles I've worked on where, usually it's all about making sure everything is separate but equal. Usually, you try to make sure it doesn't sound alike, where something sounds too much like a monster in the music, or if that sound effect sounds too musical.

This time we tried to blur the line between them, especially with the music. The whole entire purpose with the score is to make it sound like a part of the sound design of the ship. There is music playing, except for a couple of places where it drops out, in the first Dead Space, practically the whole time. You just don't recognize that it's music. We just went one step further for Dead Space 2. I think we have a few more places where there is no music, but most of the time, it's so organic and non-specific music, that you don't think “oh, listen to that music.” It's more “what's that creepy sound, I better get out of here!” [laughs].

GZ: You touched upon some of the audio from Dead Space 1 and Dead Space 2. What can we expect as differences between the two?

JG: In my mind, as the composer, I was trying to do music for Dead Space 1 that musically illustrated Issac's mental point of view for the the ship. He was on the ship for the first time, he was encountering these monsters for the first time, there was a lot of panic. The gameplay helped that tremendously, but from a musical standpoint, it was chaos, especially when it would get really intense and the whole orchestra would just...there's not even a beat. It's just a complete sound mass of chaos.

I do that a little bit for Dead Space 2. It's like “been there, done that.” He knows what he's doing, he knows how to take care of [the necromophs] he knows what he has to do. Even from the beginning of the game, there's a point that he has to reach, and he knows the path that he has to take. From a musical standpoint, we've got the same monsters, we've got scarier monsters, bigger monsters, smaller monsters, more variety. But the music, it has a more specific direction to it. It's not as chaotic and crazy. It's more "dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun." There is more steady pulses, it's got more of a direction to it, there is more of a point. In a way, being able to do that allowed me to make it scarier because it is less total chaos and more controlled chaos. I can pull back for a second and really reach up and punch you in the face really hard as opposed to doing body blows the whole time, musically speaking, of course. That's how I thought of it.

GZ: One of the biggest challenges working with videogames as opposed to working with a movie or a TV show is that at any time the player can change what they are doing, meaning the audio has to change at any given time. For the most part, most games are successful creating a fluid transition between music?

JG: Every game does it differently, but there is a basic building block scheme for interactive music. What the composer has to do is take the music cue and deconstruct it into smaller puzzle pieces. Then they give these smaller puzzle pieces to the developer, and the developer has control over how those pieces are coming in and out of the gameplay.

There's two different ways to either horizontally, which is how I do it for Dead Space. This means there [are] four, six, and sometimes eight streams of music all playing at the same time, but the game engine is deciding what to turn on and off, or to turn up and down. That's a horizontal approach, and you've got these eight lines running from left to right.

The other way you can do it is vertically, where the puzzle pieces are just two second snippets of totally complete music, but they are cut up into little tiny pieces, and the game engine is just arranging them and deciding which piece is going to come next when it plays. That can be fairly effective, but I've always done the horizontal, left to right, multiple streams [method of] playing. It makes it easier on the composer because they can say "I'm going to have the violins separate from the choir, which is going to be separate from the drums, and when a monster attacks, the drums come in." It's a very simplified way of doing it, but essentially that's how it works.

GZ: What do you do to become inspired for working on games?

JG: The first thing I do is visit the developer, and spend a couple days completely immersed in the game. For me, it's about providing a satisfactory experience to the player. I love listening to soundtracks, so I like having completed music that can stand on its own. I'd like to have something that contributes a little something that you haven't heard before. That's kind of tricky, for me personally, it's about doing something I haven't done before.

A lot of times, it comes down to the main theme. I'm actually working on one today. I just started one for a new title. The main theme is like the main title from a film, especially the old films with credits that played during the beginning. There's two minutes of music and two minutes of credits, and the only thing you know about the movie is the title and the music that you are listening to. I like to have a theme in place before starting a score, even if it's in a rough version. It is because then you have the rhythms and the harmonies, and you've got the theme there, obviously and it gives everybody working on the game a direction that the music is going to go including myself, and if we all like it, then 90 percent of my work is finished. We've established the atmosphere of what the music is supposed to sound like, and then I go play in that world, coming up with variations on things. From there it's all about figuring out the recipe, what elements we are putting in this game. From there, just having fun with it.

GZ: What other titles have you worked on?

JG: I did three or four Star Trek titles a few years ago. That was a lot of fun. Obviously space and science fiction, but the antithesis of Dead Space. I've done a lot of WWII titles like Blazing Angels or Silent Hunter. I love doing those two, as it's WWII, so it's all orchestral. I've done everything from a Jaws game to a Pac-Man game. There's some notable titles.

GZ: Is there anything else you'd like to say?

JG: I definitely love the fact that these video games are getting some attention. As I've said, I've been doing this for about eight years, and the first six or maybe even seven years, if I told someone I did music for games, if it was someone who plays games, they thought that was totally cool. If it was somebody who doesn't play games, they'd be like, "Oh, hey, that's cool, I guess..." In the last year or so, I've noticed that while I still have the twenty to forty year old guy who think it's all awesome, but now I've got people completely outside the video game world who are like, "Oh videogames?! Really?! They've got all kinds of cool music for games! That's like the new frontier for composers now!"

People have become a lot more aware of how much time and effort gets put into doing these game soundtracks. Especially now with digital releases, a lot more games are getting soundtrack releases on iTunes or Amazon than have ever been before.

I would say thanks for the support, and for everyone to keep playing and to keep listening! As far as Dead Space 2 goes, it's definitely one of the most challenging and most rewarding thing I have worked on, and I've worked on close to ninety games in the past eight years. EA let me do anything I wanted to do. I'd be like, "How about this?" and they would be like, "Sure, lets try it." I had a lot of fun working on this one. I think it's a lot more exciting and scary from a musical standpoint, and there is some great quiet stuff with a quartet that I got to do. Which to me is a kinda counter balancing all of the huge visceral violent stuff. In some regards, it's even scarier and over the top than the first one. In other ways it's also a lot more melodic and reflective and introverted than the first one. For me, having those two extremes is, that's what makes music in the first place. It's tension and release. I'm really excited, and I can't wait to hear what people think. I do have a Facebook page for Jason Graves music, and anyone who wants to can write up on my wall, tell me how the score scared them [laughs]!

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