Just last week I had the pleasure of speaking with composer Gareth Coker about his work on a number of video games, including Immortals: Fenyx Rising, ARK: Survival Evolved, and the two Ori games: Ori and the Blind Forest and Ori and the Will of the Wisps. Gareth Coker is a British composer and producer working out of Los Angeles. He is known for his melodically driven scores, unique soundscapes, and attention to detail and execution in the application of how music emotionally relates to the gamer as they are playing. His scores have garnered numerous awards, including the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences Award for Outstanding Achievement in Original Music Composition, two SXSW Awards for Excellence in Musical Score, multiple Game Audio Network Guild awards.
I had a lot of fun speaking with Gareth Coker about his work on these video games and I hope you enjoy our conversation about them 🙂
How did you get started as a composer for video games?
My first game projects, they all kind of started when I was a student at the University of Southern California. They have a film scoring and game scoring program that is quite extensive. And they do a really good job of hooking you up with a lot of students, you score a lot of short films, and you end up doing student game projects as well. And that gave me a small experience into what goes into producing a video game.
My first commercially released project was a game that didn’t do very well. And that I did for free called inMomentum, which is this hardcore virtual reality racing game. Even though the game didn’t do very well, it did give me an idea of exactly what was involved in producing and shipping a game soundtrack. My big break came from doing a lot of these student game projects. Eventually, the director of the Ori games found me on a website which I was using, and he listened to one of my tracks and thought it might work for the game. And we ended up connecting. And obviously, here we are two or three games later, and several other things later. But at the beginning, I did a lot of small projects and got as much experience as possible.
In general, what’s your process for scoring a video game? I’m sure it varies from one title to the next, but in general what does the process look like?
Generally speaking, and I’m different from other composers, I like to play the game as much as possible while I’m working on it. I think that’s no different conceptually to a film composer watching the film in an early edit with late writers and how things change, games are built in a similar way. The reason I do that, I need to know exactly what the player is going to be experiencing in terms of the moment to moment gameplay. How can I possibly do my best work if I don’t know exactly what the player is experiencing at that moment, especially if the game is trying to tell a story.
You think about a film. You know how the film is going to play out every single time you watch. But you could play the same game three or four times and it might play out slightly differently. So what I’m looking for, it’s the equivalent of spotting in films. Where does the music start? Where’s the music moment? Games have that too. But the difference with games is that music might not change in exactly the same place each time. So what I’m looking for are the best possible points to change the music in a way that isn’t distracting to the player. Because to me, that would break the immersion of the story. But I can only do that if I’m playing the game and understanding exactly what the the player is going through. And it’s from there that pretty much all of my decisions are made.
There are three aspects to the music production process. For me, playing the game allows me to get a feel for the tempo and rhythm of the game. I believe that every single game has a basic tempo and rhythm. If we compare two shooter games, there’s HALO, one that I’ve worked on, and it’s pretty well-known, and compare it with Doom, which I didn’t work on, but it is also a shooter. However [Doom] has a completely different tempo and speed to [HALO]. If you compare the two games and put them side-by-side, you’d recognize that these are the same genre of game but the tempo and rhythm is completely different. If you listen to the music [for each game], the tempo and rhythm and purpose of the music is also very different. So that’s one of the first things, that’s what playing the game gives me, an idea of the flow, and the rhythm and tempo of the music.
The next part, and this usually happens later on in development, but visuals become more established for me to help define instrumentation, and the palette, what instruments we’re going to use, what’s the orchestration going to be? Do I want to use anything a bit more esoteric or want to use any world instruments. All of that, for me is informed by the visuals.
And then of course, the last part is character themes, or story themes and melodic themes. And ideally, you’ve established these fairly early on, so you have your character themes, the instrumentation, and then the tempo, and combining those three pillars, then you can hopefully produce an effective score.
So you would be scoring to gameplay footage as much as possible, then?
Yes. So my process is that I will play the most recent version of the game that I can get hold of that is stable and record myself playing it. I then import that into my music software and I write to that, and I simply keep going until I feel like I have something that works well for me. I also make sure that I have the sound effects and no music, obviously. But I have the sound effects so I can get an idea of how busy the sound effects might be, so I I’m not competing in certain areas of frequency ranges. If we take Ori as an example, there are several different environments in the game. In the first game [The Blind Forest], there’s the volcano environment, it’s obviously going to sound completely different to the frozen environment. They’ve got different sound effects, ambiences and different monsters, etc. But for each one, I just bring them into my music software, and I write to it, and I just keep going until I feel the music works for me. And then we put it into the game almost immediately, and I can get instant feedback from the team to see how well it’s working with gameplay.
At what point in the game’s development are you usually brought in to create the score?
It depends on the developer. I think the game’s composer needs to be brought on earlier, especially if you’re telling a story. In a game, the gameplay mechanics and the rooms are generally built alongside the story because the story needs to work with gameplay. And so that means the story can be rewritten very, very late [in development]. In the case of the second game, we made some story changes four months before the game released, not huge changes, but still a change which had some impact on on the narrative. And I’m very glad we made the changes. But that means you need to have a little bit of flexibility. The reason why I like being involved early is because sometimes decisions that I make with the music can actually impact the story in small ways, because it affects the storytelling. For example we might do a cutscene really early, and they might like the music for the cutscene.
Or we could use that again, somewhere else in a different emotional scene or something like that. It’s much more freeform than film or television or any any linear format, there’s a lot of back and forth, which can be quite difficult to manage, because things are constantly changing. But the earlier you’re bought on, it means that when you get to the end of a project, you basically know the entire game inside out. When you consider how long games are these days, even a short, triple A game is 10 to 12 hours. Sometimes they last much, much, much longer, like 40-60 hours.
So I think that when it comes time to push the accelerate button at the end, in your last year of development when you just need to write a lot of music, if you know the game inside out, you’ve kind of made all of those decisions in the two or three years prior. In the case of both Ori games, I was working on them for four years each, I wouldn’t say I was working on them full time because they’re broken up to give me the space to come in and out of the project as it was being made. I stayed familiar with it. But then as I needed to accelerate, I knew the game really well by the end, so I could just crank out the keys.
For Immortals Fenyx Rising, excluding the DLC, what was your approach for scoring the world of that game? Was any of it based on what real music from ancient Greece sounded like or were you going for a fantasy version of ancient Greek music?
It’s definitely a fantasy version of that world. When you look at [Immortals: Fenyx Rising], it’s so colorful, it’s very exaggerated, going all-out authentic would not work. It would just be too serious for the game. And if you’ve seen any footage of the game and seeing how the characters interact with each other, it’s not taking itself very seriously. It’s meant to be fun. So that gives me room to have fun with the music. That said, I wanted to make sure there was some aspect of ancient Greece in it.
To that end I had several lyres commissioned and built from scratch for me. I also bought another ancient instrument, an aulos. And that sound [of an aulos], it’s one of the most horrendous sounding instruments I’ve ever heard. It’s a really ugly sound. But it was perfect for this section of the game set in the Underworld. So I wanted to make the aulos work in a setting that sounds like the perfect mystery instrument, but I can’t have it sound like it would be played in ancient Greece. So my philosophy with the aulos was, let’s take these sounds, produce them in a modern way to kind of take the edge off and make them a bit more accessible to an audience that is probably going to be playing this game.
But then the other aspect of Immortals is that this is a fantastical game about gods doing very, very epic stuff. And it’s not taking itself seriously. We’ve got the orchestra element and the style I would say is as if we were doing Greek mythology crossed with Fantasia and maybe a bit of DreamWorks.
For the Myths of the Eastern Realm DLC, what is the big difference between using Qin dynasty instruments as opposed to Tang dynasty instruments for the music, as I see the difference is noted.
I mean, first of all, the two dynasties themselves are completely different time periods. I think there’s about 800 to 900 years between them. The Qin Dynasty was from 221 to 206 B.C.E and the Tang Dynasty was from 618 to 907 CE. So many of those instruments [from the Tang Dynasty] didn’t exist in the Qin Dynasty.
So the most ubiquitous instrument that is heard, in literally every Hollywood Chinese themed soundtrack ever is the Chinese violin, the erhu. It’s completely saying, hey, we’re in China, let’s play the erhu. Though you can’t actually use that because it wasn’t around [in the Qin Dynasty]. So I thought this was great because this means I have to do a bit of research. But honestly, they did the research for me, they gave me this amazing list of instruments to use. This is an instrument that is used commonly in modern media but it didn’t exist in the Qin Dynasty. And this is an instrument that is less common, this instrument is never used in modern media. And this is an instrument that didn’t exist during this time period. So the studio was immensely helpful with doing music research, but honestly, it was a learning experience for me, because I thought, wow, there are actually so many different kinds of Chinese music and traditional Chinese music within. One of the things that Hollywood often does is they really like to pare it down to the bare essentials.
For example, how many times have you seen a movie where we get a panning shot of Paris, and then an accordion plays. I understand why they do that, because of the stereotypes and tropes, it’s a thing. But, it’s kind of what I was talking about, we’re going to make it authentic. Let’s at least get the right instruments, let’s get the authenticity and we can still produce it in a modern way. So it was nice, just going that little bit of an extra mile. And not having the erhu makes it sound like its own thing rather than just every other Chinese soundtrack. And funnily enough, if you compare it to my Minecraft Chinese mythology soundtrack, which is set during the Tang Dynasty, you can literally hear the difference. It’s night and day between the two.
Given the role dinosaurs play in ARK: Survival Evolved, I’m surprised more of the music doesn’t appear to focus on the dinosaurs. Was any of it written specifically with the dinosaurs or other prehistoric beasts specifically in mind?
For the original ARK game, the soundtrack came out in 2017, and most of that is combat music for when you’re facing other humans in your territory. The dinosaurs are a feature of ARK, but you can contain them and make them part of your army. So, [with the game and music] it’s less about discovery and more like you can build your own dinosaur army. It’s less Jurassic Park and more “Oh wow, I can ride my own dinosaur.” That’s the difference.
And you have to remember this is an unscripted multiplayer game, which means any footage you’ve seen is unscripted, which means it can result in some truly wild things happening. There’s no limit to the game, but the music is really designed to not convey the wonder of dinosaurs, but actually the awesomeness of controlling a dinosaur army.
Generally speaking, the music that was done for the early part of the game was really just geared towards combat. Now moving forward, that’s going to change particularly with the animated series (author’s note: ARK: The Animated Series is scheduled to premiere in 2022). And so now it’s like, oh, my goodness, I get to write all of the music that I wanted to write for the base game. Because the game doesn’t need that. Because you start the game and you could literally run into a dinosaur within 20 seconds and be wiped out. So the early focus was on combat and survival.
With the TV show, we’ll definitely be exploring some of the other aspects of dinosaur music and the sense of wonder that one would have when encountering them for the first time. And yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing people’s reactions to the TV show, because it has an unbelievable story, which a lot of people don’t fully uncover, because it’s quite a grind to experience the full story in the game. I think my hope is that the animated series kind of condenses the story into into a format that people can digest that would be a really good companion for the game. But also, I think it will stand alone, because the story is so unique. It’s also a new format for me, because I’ve never done a TV series before. And it’s also one of the rare occasions where the game composer actually gets to do the TV show [adaptation].
I know you can’t discuss anything overly specific but, I do have a general question about ARK II, which I understand you’re working on now. In general, what’s it been like returning to the world of ARK? Will the new game’s score be based on the first game or do you start from scratch?
That’s a really good question. So we’ve already shown one trailer of [ARK II]. And if you watch the trailer, it’s an incredibly primitive setting. And there’s ARK Genesis 2 also, which is the final expansion for the first game. If you compare the two settings, ARK Genesis 2, which is the expansion that came out three weeks ago, it’s very futuristic, very sci-fi, for reasons that the game story will reveal. And then ARK II is completely primitive. So going back to the music, we were building on the ARK world and the ARK universe, but you can take just from the visuals, that it will probably be a very primitive sounding score. And a lot more violent. Whereas ARK I is about, “Where are we, it’s a sense of adventure. Oh, I contain dinosaurs,” ARK II is more, “Oh my goodness, this world is harsh.” And everything is very primitive. So it’s more taking what we have and expanding on it. And also trying to give it a different feel where ARK Genesis 2 gave the ARK world a sci-fi feel, ARK II is going to dive into some very, very primitive sounds. I’m doing research on the oldest sounding instruments that I can possibly find.
So unlike Immortals Fenyx Rising and ARK: Survival Evolved, the Ori games are platformer games. Does that format change how you score the game at all, compared to other open-world games you’ve worked on?
It’s funny because Ori is a platformer, but it is also quite open, you can explore quite extensively. The difference is you’re on a 2D plane as opposed to 3D. So you’re always limited to what you can see on screen. And that actually makes it a bit easier. Remember what I was talking about earlier, I play the game to see how the game flows and where music can change. It’s actually easier because there’s less going on, on the screen. So I can be much more granular and specific about what’s going to happen where, but fundamentally the approach is still the same. I play the game, I figure out the tempo, I figure out the rhythms, then the artwork comes in and I choose all the different instruments. And you have a set of themes, Shriek the villain has a theme, all the peripheral characters have themes, and it still gets put together in the same way. It’s all about just finding what clicks with the game in terms of the music, and the only way I know is just to play the games. But I think Ori was the first game where I figured out that was the approach that worked best to me.
What was the inspiration behind the overall sound of the Ori games? It’s a very different sound from the Immortals game and ARK: Survival Evolved and I was curious how you came up with it.
The game has an incredibly unique art style, it’s hand-painted. There’s also the general tone of the game. Other than the truly epic moments, of which there are a handful in each game, it’s generally quite a soft game in comparison to Immortals and Ark, which are, as you know, blood and thunder all the way. And, one thing I found with the Ori games, is that music gives you a little bit of space. It’s difficult to describe, but there’s got to be space in the music to invite you into the world, there’s always going to be something that keeps you hooked in. So most of the Ori music that you hear when you’re exploring the environment, it’s these soft, beautiful, ethereal beds of sound. There are two constants in the exploration music. One is like a gentle motor or rhythm constantly in the exploration music. The reason for that is it’s a platform, and you’re always constantly moving, those little footsteps are constantly pitter pattering away. And the music is designed to push the player forward, because in a platform game, you really always should be moving, you’re generally not standing still in a platform figuring out where to go next.
Now the other thing that you hear on top of that, there’ll always be some kind of melodic element in the exploration music. But the melodic element comes in and out in an exploration track there. And that kind of draws the ear in. If it’s there for too long, then the ear gets tired of it and it starts to distract from the overall gameplay experience because we’re throwing so much at the audience, it’s sensory overload. With new visuals, you pick up a new ability, and you want to try that out. Or now you’ve got to fight a monster. And I don’t want to be throwing too many things where the melody comes in just often enough to keep the music interesting to listen to, and then it goes away. And then you hear a new texture or a new instrument.
A related question, and similar to the one I asked about ARK II, is the music for Will of the Wisps directly connected to the music you created for The Blind Forest or is this wholly new?
So the main connection was with the main theme. I mean, we learned pretty quickly that the main theme is key. I don’t want to compare myself to the great man [John Williams] but if I didn’t use the main themes of the first game it would be like Star Wars not using the main theme for the title role. You like that the main theme was so popular from the first game, so when you started the second game, it’s a new arrangement of the main theme, but it’s still very definitively the main theme from the first game. But other than that, it still feels like Ori but what the comparison I like to make is in the first game, he’s naive, he’s just being born, he’s discovering this world and everything is brand new to him. So it’s kind of a naive, much more gentle sounding score, and it’s got a unique charm, whereas in the second game, Ori’s grown up, and he’s discovering his true purpose in the world.
And what I like to say about the second game is it’s not just Ori that’s grown up, Moon Studios, the developer has grown up into a more mature studio, the themes of the game are more mature. And honestly, myself, I would say I grew up as a composer too. If you compare the two soundtracks, it’s very clear that one is more mature than the other. That doesn’t mean to say that the first soundtrack is not as good, it’s just very different. And it’s funny because I probably wouldn’t write Ori and the Blind Forest the same way, in 2021 that I did in 2014. I’m a different person now. We’re always developing. I think that was it, because that was my big break. And it was the studio’s big break. And we were just kind of figuring it all out as we went along, much like Ori is in the game. So I think there’s that unique synergy and that same unique synergy happened on the second game, because we knew what we were doing. And that led us to be able to better tell the more mature themes in the game, because we were more confident in our storytelling.
I had a great time during the sequel, because it did allow me to explore some of the things that I’d established in the first game as well, and add a little bit more to them. And also developing the main Ori theme just a couple more times, especially in the final scene. The final key scene of the game is really a recap of all the core themes in the game in the space of about three and a half minutes. It actually kind of wrote itself, because I thought, well, everything’s here, I just need to put it in the right order. So it matches and the end of the game was quite fun. Literally, the last vocal notes are pretty much the exact same ones as “Ori Lost in the Storm” from the very first game.
I had an amazing time speaking with Gareth Coker about his work on these amazing video games and I hope you enjoyed reading this interview. I want to say thank you to Gareth Coker for taking the time to speak with me and I hope everyone has a great day!
Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460
Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)
Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂