Interview: Talking Tomb Raider's Soundtrack With Jason Graves

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With the arrival of the Tomb Raider prequel now in stores, players everywhere will now be able to see Lara Croft's upbringing, and how she transforms from innocent little girl to all-out badass.

Part of the experience also involves a great new soundtrack for the game, one that was put together by Jason Graves, the composer behind the Dead Space series. We recently had a chance to sit down with Jason to talk about the motivation of Tomb Raider, among other things…

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GameZone: First off, how thrilled were you to be working with Crystal Dynamics on this, the biggest entry in its Tomb Raider franchise?

Jason Graves: I’m not sure I could express how exciting it has been, from the moment I got the call up to the launch of the game at midnight. Crystal Dynamics has really gone out of their way to include me in as much as possible, whether it’s the unbelievable amount of creative freedom to compose the score, or the incredible, detailed attention with which they’ve documented my work throughout the game.

GZ: How did you get in touch with them? Did they reach out to you and say, "Hey, we loved your stuff in Dead Space" or something along those lines?

JG: Well, actually that was pretty close to what happened. But what they loved about the music from the Dead Space series was the originality of the score and the unique stamp it put on the game. They were looking for that same kind of unique quality, just with less of the horror and more of the emotion. But they were also quick to mention they also wanted something “gritty” that portrayed Lara’s struggles on the island.

GZ: What tone were you going for? Did you research by listening to prior Tomb Raider soundtracks and deciding what direction worked best for it, or just start from scratch?

JG: Oh, no, no... going back and listening to what previous composers had done on an existing franchise is the LAST thing I would ever want to do. I’m sure they did an amazing job, but it’s always better for me to start fresh, unless there’s specific direction from the developer to hint at previous themes or ideas. Crystal was very specific about starting everything from scratch, including a new main theme.

JasonGZ: What would you say was the trickiest part in putting together this particular soundtrack? The most challenging?

JG: I knew from the beginning that I wanted to include some completely unique and original sounds for the game, but the process of actually finding those sounds was a bit laborious. Fun, but laborious! I started with things I could find in my backyard, like spare fencing and metal garbage cans. But I quickly realized I needed someone else’s help, preferably a metal smith of some kind.

Matt McConnell is just that, and his studio is right around the corner from mine. We spent a little more than a year developing a custom instrument-sculpture that I incorporated throughout the score. “The Instrument,” as we call it, is literally the voice of the island itself.

That process -- experimenting, prototyping, recording various items and going back to the drawing board -- was definitely the most challenging, but also the most rewarding. I think that’s usually the case with things that put you outside your comfort zone, trying something new and different you haven’t done before. For me, those kinds of things are what get me excited about music in the first place. I’m always trying new things and hoping to push myself and learn something with each score.

GZ: How closely did you work with Crystal Dynamics in getting the tone of the soundtrack just right?

JG: They gave me all the information I needed to know up front, starting with a two hour pitch for the entire game including characters, major plot points, overall story arc, game design, maps, color charts... you name it. From there, it was really up to me to decide what was the best tone for the music. Now, I’m sure if I came back with something inappropriate they would have quickly corrected me. But as it happened, the only thing they kept saying was, “We love it, sounds great. When can we hear more?” So there was a lot of trust and a lot of creative freedom on my part, which is always wonderful for a composer. And definitely not something that you would expect from a franchise with such a legacy.

GZ: Is there a particular track in the score that stands out for you? A "Lara's Theme," perhaps?

JG: I really enjoyed composing “A Survivor Is Born.” It utilizes all four of the main themes from the game and especially puts Lara’s theme through its paces. It starts sorrowful and introspective, builds to a heroic climax and concludes with a simple, quiet piano. Much like the way it was at the beginning of the game -- bookended. I like it when things like that can happen for good reason.

GZ: Have you played the game at all yet? If so, what do you think?

JG: I’ve been playing it for more than two years! And this may sound cliché, but even after all that time, I can pick up the controller and I’m still drawn in and want to keep playing. I think that speaks to the creativity and dedication of the team at Crystal Dynamics. They’ve literally created a new Lara and a new world for her to explore and find herself in, down to the last detail. Longtime fans and newcomers alike are in for a real treat.

LaraGZ: Do you have a particular instrument that you favor when you put together your soundtracks?

JG: I usually prefer starting with some sort of orchestral base. There’s just something timeless about an orchestra -- all the sounds and emotions it can reproduce. However, most projects require a bit more identity beyond that of the standard orchestra, so I find myself constantly looking for other new, interesting sounds to augment my orchestral palette.

GZ: Finally, what's next? Or can’t you say just yet?

JG: Lots of irons in the fire, but as usual, I’m sworn to secrecy. I’ve just about wrapped up a new IP that should be coming out later this year. Lots of fun, textural writing and live musicians involved in that one. And I recently scored the new DLC content for Devil May Cry, entitled Virgil’s Downfall. Currently, I’m working on four other games in various stages of development, plus a few films. The wonderful thing is all of them are completely different styles of music, which keeps me creative. And that makes me very happy!

Tomb Raider is available now for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

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Robert Workman
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