I recently had the opportunity to speak with composer Jason Graves about his work on The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes, the third game in The Dark Pictures anthology (the previous entries are Little Hope and Man of Medan). His works include (but are far from limited to): Dead Space, Alpha Protocol, Tomb Raider, The Order: 1886, Until Dawn, Evolve, Dungeon Siege and Far Cry Primal.
The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes was released in October 2021 and sees five characters having to make their way out of a subterranean Akkadian temple crawling with vampiric entities.
Enjoy our conversation about House of Ashes below!
As you composed the other games in The Dark Pictures Anthology, how does House of Ashes compare to its predecessors? What served as your inspiration as you created the music for House of Ashes?
Each game in The Dark Pictures Anthology has its own stand-alone story and characters. House of Ashes takes place in a few different time periods in Iraq. I’m a big fan of the game and its music being as closely linked as possible, so the score for House of Ashes is very “desert-y,” for lack of a better word. I tried to keep things as simple as possible and strip everything back in terms of instrumentation for the different time periods. So things would feel a lot more pure and classic in the Mesopotamian time period and more filled out and complicated for the current 1990s.
I’m really curious about the Akkadian Temple the characters find themselves in. How did you create music to reflect the atmosphere of the temple ruins? How did you come up with the sound for that environment, in other words?
That was actually the base for the entire score – it’s where everything started and how I tied the entire score together. I literally began with the Prologue – the very first scene in the game. I had an idea to use these bending string sounds, like classical strings but moving around a lot more. I own a bunch of string instruments – violins, viola, a cello and a contrabass. So I tried some experiments recording myself playing all the string instruments multiple times, as if I were moving from seat to seat in a classical string section. Only I was playing every part so many different times it would take 20-25 takes of multiple “me’s” to complete a short phrase on all the instruments.
How much access did you have to early builds of the game as you created the music? I know other video game composers I’ve talked to have mentioned playing through early builds of the game and I was wondering if you did anything similar. Were you given any specific directions for what the game’s music needed to sound like?
I worked very closely with Supermassive Games Audio Director Barney Pratt throughout the entire process. We’ve been working together for more than 10 years now. There’s a lot of conversation that happens before anything is actually written and Barney shares everything that Supermassive works on, whether it’s just prototype animation, scripts, storyboards or initial ideas.
I don’t technically play through the game for The Dark Pictures – honestly it’s more because of all the different story and character branches that these games have. It would be a full time job just playing through them! I prefer to have gameplay captures that I loop in the background as I compose. It gives me the best of both worlds – I can hear how the music is working against a specific scene as I compose and also turn the gameplay off if I want to be more thematically focused and concentrate on just the music.
What kinds of instruments are included in the mix for House of Ashes? Any notable or unusual instruments? Did the pandemic affect the recording process at all?
Most of the score is live and I performed all the instruments myself. There’s a lot of string-based writing in this score that simply couldn’t have been properly reproduced with MIDI. Barney and I floated options of recording professional musicians but honestly, a large part of this score was based around experiments I made while recording myself (x24) and trying different things.
The score definitely would have had a completely different sound if I were to approach “just another live string recording.” Part of that was a result of the pandemic – there simply weren’t musicians or recording studios available at the time. But I would like to think we would have opted for the same option we chose, regardless of the pandemic, just because it felt like that was the direction the score needed to go in.
How much time did you have to score the game? How did composing for House of Ashes compare to other projects you’ve worked on?
It was actually a fairly compressed schedule, for video games, at least. If memory serves, there were about 2 months to compose the entire score. But it was definitely one of the more challenging scores I’ve worked on, mostly because it was essentially three different scores in one, all broken up evenly into thirds.
As soon as I had finished the Prologue, which was the more ancient, Mesopotamia-era version, all with its own very specific instruments and sounds, it was time to write the music for the 1990’s-era Iraq, which was a completely different set of instruments and sounds. And as soon as that was completed, it was another completely different direction for the music (story/plot spoilers aside). The final third of the score needed to sound different and unique yet somehow related to the music that preceded it.
Usually I can “hit my stride” about halfway through the production of a score, when the unique combination of sounds and textures have solidified and I find my musical footing. Everything comes much easier then – all the creative hard work has been completed! But House of Ashes was a bit of a different beast. As soon as I started getting comfortable it was time to change everything up and rewrite the script. But, honestly, I think that kind of push is the very reason the score sounds the way it does.
I wanted to give a big thank you to Jason Graves for taking the time to speak with me about The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes. I hope you enjoyed the interview!
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