In Dead Space, what you hear is as important as what you see. The floor creaking, a pipe hissing, a violin scraping out a note to near-agonizing levels. Central to this is Jason Graves, the composer for Dead Space 1 and 2. Having won a BAFTA for his work on the first game, Graves has quite the mountain ahead of him for the second.
At a recent Dead Space 2 event hosted by EA, we had a chance to sit down with Graves and discuss what sort of challenges arise when approaching a sequel, and what we can expect to hear come January 25th.
Jason Graves: We need to have the noise-reduction system in here!
Felix Kemp: (Laughs) So first off, would you mind introducing yourself and your role on Dead Space 2?
Jason Graves: Who am I? That's a good question. My name is Jason Graves, and I'm the composer for the Dead Space franchise. Oh, but do you want me to say Dead Space 2? I have a habit of referring to it as a franchise.
Felix Kemp: It's all good. So the phone rings, it's EA, they're doing a sequel to a big hit of a game and they want you to compose the soundtrack again. What goes through your mind first?
Jason Graves: Panic (Laughs) I think panic would be an appropriate word. Especially after something like the first Dead Space which, for me personally, was surprising to get such attention. And it was so kind of new and different, at least for games and for me, definitely, as a composer. It's sort of like, OK... so what am I supposed to do? Because you don't want to do the same thing.
Felix Kemp: No...
Jason Graves: But you don't want to make it too different. And you need to improve on it. And that was actually my mantra with the audio director the first time we met. I said, it needs to be the same, but different, and better. And I actually printed that out over my monitor, 'The Same. But Different. Yet Better'. And, you know, fortunately they bring me in really early. So it wasn't like they said, we need new music and... go, ten minutes by next week. It was more, we're starting, we're gonna' need some ideas in three months. And that gestation period is really important for something like this, both to have perspective on if I'm doing something really scary. And, you know, just to rest my mind. It's pretty intense stuff!
Felix Kemp: It's clear that Dead Space 2 is looking to shake things up a bit with mixtures of action and horror. How do you go about composing for action in comparison to horror?
Jason Graves: Dead Space 1 was all about horror. It was completely frenetic, like out of control orchestra sounds. All this chaos, that was what I equated musically to horror. So with the action, it's more of a controlled chaos. There's a little bit more of a driving rhythm behind it, but it's barely self-contained. And, of course, at many points in time it breaks back to what the first Dead Space was; it's completely chaotic. But it's just having a little bit of restraitn there, compared to the first one, I think it makes a big difference. It just works.
Felix Kemp: And do you see the script first? Or do you see the game and decide how you want the music to react?
Jason Graves: Yes, and they're very specific. I think I had 39 drafts of the script. They were continually keeping me updated on the storyline, because EA understood that the more information they gave me, the more I could do. I mean, I would never have done the string-quartet thing if I hadn't read the script and see, oh there are some really cool opportunities to do some more sensitive music in there. Every scene is specifically scored. There might be some generic exploration tracks, but I'm generally working from QuickTime movies, heavily involved with the script. I went to EA... jeez, 8 times? In eighteen months. And we'd spend the whole day playing through the game, checking out all the new developments and seeing if we needed music. If you don't do that with a game like this, it just doesn't work as well.
Matt Gardner: You talked a lot about classical theory and cacophonous composition in your presentation, not to mention a little bit about modified notation. How did you go about getting the best from the instruments and from the orchestra?
Jason Graves: That's a really good question. Because, the really 'out-there' 20th century music that's classical, that was written back in the 30s, the 40s, they even invented their own music notations. You'd have to spend an hour explaining to the orchestra how to read the music, because it looked nothing like standard music. So what I had to do was take some of those sounds, those techniques and write them in such a way that a piano player, whoever, could sit down and immediately know what I wanted. Without having to spend an hour explaining it. Because an hour on a sound-stage with musicians... it adds up really, really quickly! But as with anything, within the first couple of minutes everyone understood what was going on. If it says play high as possible note as fast as you can, they stop asking. They're like, oh I understand; you want it to sound really bad? I actually said, 'the worse it sounds, the happier I am.'
Felix Kemp: There's something of a cinematic legacy evident in Dead Space. Were there any films in particular that you drew on when composing for the franchise?
Jason Graves: The Shining. Which actually isn't a scored film. They use 20th century classical music. If you think of the scene, 'All Work And No Play Make Jack A Dull Boy', with the type-writer? That's Penderecki. He's a classical composer. This crazy string stuff? It makes the scene seem completely unhinged, right? Because that's Jack Nicholson's character, he's losing his sanity. I actually saw it on TV, before doing most of the principal music on the first Dead Space, and I thought, 'I've got to call the audio director tomorrow,' and he sent me an email the next morning and said, 'Go rent The Shining and watch it right now, that's what we need for the game'. I was going to say the exact same thing! So that was kind of the impetus behind it.
Matt Gardner: You spoke in your presentation about your background in classical 20th century music - rather aptly a period associated with dissonance . Did you find much inspiration there?
Jason Graves: So with Dead Space, especially with the string-quartet stuff, Bartok. Stravinsky. They're very ahead of their time, and they tried some really cool stuff. It still sounded classical but not quite right. Penderecki - the Polish composer who's music was in The Shining - overall, if you listen to any of his stuff, in about thirty seconds you'd say, this reminds me of Dead Space a little bit. But my intention wasn't to retread old ground from what they had already done. It was like, pick and choose what I'd thought would work for the game, and then do what I wanted to do with it. I also had a very intentional aversion to any sort of film music influence. I didn't want to sound like Alien or Event Horizon or any of that. But the game is obviously influenced by lots of different films, but the music kind of sets itself apart. And shades the whole game, the whole experience in a way that makes it seem original. And my music isn't necessarily the most original, because these 20th century guys already did it. But put it together with a videogame, you get this cool new combination of stuff.
Matt Gardner: You also mentioned in your presentation that a rather melodic sequence of notes, spelled out D-E-A-D. Which is rather fitting, actually, yet something one might not realise. Was that pre-determined? An easter egg of sorts for music fans?
Jason Graves: Most definitely. And, especially, the way it plays in the cinematic. The first time Isaac thinks of Nicole, and it kind of shows her in his subconscious. The cello plays D-E-A-D. Because, well, she's dead. And there's a Marker theme. Where with the D-E-A-D stuff it plays very slow, with the Marker theme there's four chromatic notes that play down. And those constantly musically battle, if you will, throughout the entire game. At times they're completely dissonant and cacophonous, and at other times, as certain things in the game resolve, they kind of come into harmony with each other. They get stacked on top of each other, because it's just four notes. Very simple, but easy to move around and do different things with, without calling a lot of attention to itself. It needs to be fairly minimalistic. That's why I went with four notes.
Felix Kemp: With games being so reactive do you have to adjust your compositions for length? How long they will go on for and how they have to stop?
Jason Graves: Absolutely. The in-game music, the length is usually three minutes. Because we determined that was long enough to not make it sound like it was repeating, but short enough where I wasn't writing ten minute pieces of music. Every piece I wrote was broken down into four or six or eight different streams of music. So stream number 6 would be really intense and crazy horror music, whereas stream number 1 would be the quiet, spooky music. And then there were gradations with everything in-between. And the idea is that all six of these streams are playing as you're walking through the game, but the engine is turning them up and down independently. So it's almost like a conductor, he turns the strings up, then he turns them off and has the clarinets play something else.
Felix Kemp: You've got an impressive CV, having worked on over 100 games. How did composing for Dead Space 2 compare to any of your other games?
Jason Graves: The Dead Space stuff doesn't compare. First of all, the genre of horror music is just so much fun to work in. Because the only rule for music is there are no rules! You can do anything you want. And like I told the orchestra, the worst it sounds, the better it is. So it's really liberating to do that. But also, with the developers, they brought me 18 months before the game shipped. Usually, coming in on a game, what I consider to be early is 4 months. This was a year and a half. They didn't even have the green-light to make the game yet, and we were at a recording session with an orchestra! Because they understood they wanted to get it right from the beginning. And not, try something out, have an hour of music, and then try something else. We had time to experiment early on, and I think that works. Like the sound-effects and everything are such an integral part of the game, because they spent the time doing it right. And, I mean, so many games are rushed. They're concerned about when they're coming out, not how good it is. Oh, marketing says we have to have the game ready by whenever, and I think the game suffers.
Matt Gardner: I absolutely agree with you. Did you feel a certain amount of pressure coming into the Dead Space franchise, knowing that the sound, unlike so many other games, is so integral to the atmosphere? And, considering the deadline-heavy nature of the industry in many cases, did you find yourself under pressure from EA?
Jason Graves: It was, definitely, on Dead Space 2. Just because the first one got so much attention. I'm a classically trained composer, so in a way for the first one I had a lot of pressure on myself to do something cool and interesting. But there wasn't any pressure from EA. I was just having fun, and I hoped everyone else would dig it once it was in the game. But then all these awards and BAFTAs and attention and they bring out the second one, then the pressure was on. And EA didn't apply it so much as I did myself. It was like, now I've got to work twice as hard. And last time I worked twice as hard! I definitely feel like... you mention how a lot of other games have take-it-or-leave-it soundtracks. And, for this one, I just went back and had a listen to what I did for the first one as if some other composer did it, and then took my own bend on it. You see, EA wanted it to be completely original. Which is another thing I love about games. The more original it is, the more they like it. Which is why they ate up the string-quartet. Who's ever heard of a string-quartet in a game? Let alone a horror game! That's the beauty of games, and why I love the genre so much.
Felix Kemp: In your opinion, what role does music play within a game? Just how big an effect can the difference between a good score and a great score have?
Jason Graves: Well, it's not a band-aid. But that's how people use it a lot. This scene isn't working, oh let's wait until we put the music in. I mean, if it doesn't play well without the music, it's not going to play any better with the music. What I think is, it should be like that top current of paint. It's basically what seals the deal. Let's face it, you take all the music out of Dead Space, it's still scary. It's just not quite as scary. My job is to build up the tension before you actually get scared. That's what music really does well. The groundwork's already been laid, and I'm kind of following through. Everything's got to be done really well for it to come together. That's what I think.
Felix Kemp: Finally, do you have a favourite theme or movement from Dead Space 2?
Jason Graves: Anything involving the string-quartet. A lot of the time, composers do mock-ups on the piano to see what stuff sounded like. And I didn't do any of that for the string-quartet. EA, they didn't hear any of the music until we get there. And usually it's the exact opposite. You've got to make the whole thing on synthesizers before they approve it. I wanted to do the same thing, but with big orchestra sessions. EA came in, completely blind, and were like, that's so cool! And I'd show them an effect, and they'd come out and say, I've got the perfect creature for that sound! That's what I wanted to do with the string-quartet, have them here in the studio, with the real musicians. And I did the same thing with myself, so I didn't necessarily know what it was going to sound like until we got into it. It's a palette-cleanser. Off the album, people wouldn't think its videogame music and that's what I love about it. It's the antithesis of videogame music. It's a little high-brow. Especially the pretty stuff, like are we at a wedding? But in the game, it actually works really, really well!!!
Felix Kemp: Brilliant.
Matt Gardner: Thank you so much for talking to us.
Jason Graves: I feel like I'm yelling at you! (Laughs)
Massive thanks to Jason for taking the time to chat to us. Did Dead Space's eerily atmospheric music leave you nervously gibbering in a corner like it did us? Any unconventional gaming soundtracks you've found work really well? Let us know what you thought in the box below.