PAX Online 2020: Pandemic Composing for the Next Generation

Some of the biggest composers of this generation of video games gathered for the first ever online  PAX to discuss various topics around the composition of video game music, including how the coronavirus pandemic has affected their work. The Next Gen Composers Arise! panel was hosted by Daniel James, who has worked on Metal Gear Solid 5 and Maneater.

James was joined by Sarah Schachner (Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Call of Duty Modern Warfare), Gareth Coker (Ori and the Will of the Wisps and Halo Infinite), Wilbert Roget (Mortal Kombat 11 and Call of Duty: World War II), Ludvig Forssell (Death Stranding and Metal Gear Solid 5), and Mick Gordon (Doom and Doom Eternal). All of these artists came together to share their own expertise on the industry and compared their different work techniques.

One of the big conversations was how COVID-19 has changed video game music production. The video game industry has been affected in many different ways, from offices closing to production lines being disrupted. One important aspect of composing which has faced change is collaboration composers have with other composers and musicians. Schachner pointed out how difficult it is to record different sections of a single piece with collaborators when they cannot meet in the same room.

But the pandemic has also opened up new collaboration opportunities; Gordon spoke about his new project with Bring me to the Horizon lead vocalist Ollie Sykes, pointing out that more music is being written now due to musicians being unable to tour.

He described the process of collaboration on the new project: “He [Sykes] sent me what I would call a ‘design document’ for the song – a 10 page document which talked about the ideas behind it, the meaning behind the lyrics, films and images and books that had inspired the music – and this was a method of collaboration which I love because it’s not so much speaking on musical terms… It’s more like a higher level creative conversation based around concepts… And then it’s my job to interpret those concepts. To me, that’s a proper collaboration.”

He told James how he is enjoying his new producing projects with bands: “The biggest difference is this strive for perfection, there’s a real thing when working on a deadline that you get it [music piece] to a state and then sometimes when the deadlines hit you just have to relinquish it – just let it go and move onto the next thing… I’m enjoying that level of perfectionism and it’s just that itch I haven’t been able to scratch for a while.”

Coker also faced a positive change. He announced that the music for Halo Infinite has been completed; however, the last two stages of recording with a live orchestra had to be completed during the pandemic. The recording was done in London where the musicians had to abide by social distancing regulations and a limit was put on how many players could be in the orchestra. Whereas a string section would usually sit close together so they can hear each other play, they had to be spaced out and a new mic setup was needed. However this alternative setup actually ended up sounding better, something Coker had not expected to take away from the pandemic: “It’s a mic setup we’d have never discovered were it not for the virus.”

What all the composers had in common was a point in their career where they joined an already-established franchise – something which can be daunting as well as exciting, especially when working on a reboot. James summed up the process of composing for a franchise like Call of Duty whilst facing nostalgia pressure as: “Finding out what it was about those scores from the past that people loved and trying to tap into that and keep that happiness trail going.”

Whilst the process of creating video games is constantly changing as new technology develops, this can also be said for music development. The panel discussed how implementing music into a game is becoming a skill in itself and how the industry is growing more towards a composer creating the music as a separate art piece which then gets edited and put into the game by someone else. Roget, who has worked a lot on implementation, believes the way the industry is going is a positive thing – especially since it takes a lot of knowledge of the tech to know what you’re doing.

The composers also talked about wanting more music ‘moments’ in games, with James using the opening scene of Ghost of Tsushima as an example. With a long drawn out scene and little to do, the player’s attention is entirely drawn to the music as the theme tune plays. A similar scene plays out in Death Stranding towards the end of the game when Sam makes his way from one destination to another with no in between events as Ludvig’s music drowns out all other sound. They discussed the struggle for players to form a connection to their composed tracks when there is not an opportunity to delve deep within the music. Moments like these give the music the chance to explain its context to people so that when it’s heard later on in the game, there is an emotional connection.

You can watch the whole panel on Pax’s official Twitch at 2 hours and 30 minutes into the Day 7 stream.

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