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Interview: UNTIL DAWN Composer Jason Graves Talks Horror, Games, and the Butterfly Effect

Usually around this time of year, gamers are looking for something terrifying to play. Although I enjoyed Dying Light, Resident Evil: Revelations 2, and Outlast, the game I’ve found myself constantly recommending lately is Supermassive Games’ PS4 exclusive Until Dawn. On top of successfully drawing from the teen slasher genre, and featuring complex choice-driven gameplay, one of my favorite things about the game was the implementation of the butterfly effect and how the score worked in tandem with it.

To get a better understanding of where the idea for the title’s music came from, and learn more about the person behind it all, we decided to sit down and chat with Until Dawn’s two-time BAFTA Award-winning composer, Jason Graves (Dead Space, Tomb Raider, The Order: 1886).

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Nerdist: How did you get into scoring music for games?

Jason Graves: I actually stumbled across my first game by accident. It was in 2000 and it was someone that I knew that knew someone else in Australia, of all places. They were doing a game called King Arthur that was based on a movie. I was more of an orchestral composer and they wanted an orchestral score. It just happened to be for a game. Little did I know that the world of game music was so creatively inspiring. So, after that first game came out, I really started making a point of trying to get work in games, but the first one was just a lucky coincidence really.

N: Do you play games?

JG: I used to play games a lot more than I do now. I do enjoy playing games with my kids from time to time, but most of the day–just like right before you called–I’m playing a test kit of the title that I’m working on right now. Between that, watching movies of the game, and writing music, I’m usually all gamed out by the end of the day. That’s why it’s fun to play with my kids. Playing something that’s not a first person shooter or something like that is a bit of a refresh for me.

N: When you were composing Until Dawn’s score, did you get to play any of the game?

JG: I was brought in pretty early for Until Dawn. I think I might have done the first third of the music without getting to play a lot of it. I did get to see the guys quite a few times, both in London and in New York, and we played through the game every time we met. The last two thirds of the game were done more with specific ideas, and with being able to see gameplay. I never had the dev version of the game, so I never got to play through it specifically, but I did watch lots of gameplay movies, which honestly is probably better for me as a composer because I’m a terrible gamer. I’ll actually start playing and lose myself and remember, “Oh Yeah. I’m supposed to be writing music that I’m delivering at the end of the day. Maybe I should focus a little more on that.” That’s why the QuickTime movies are really great, because I can watch them, put them in my music sequencing program, and line them up with what I’m working on. It’s more of an interactive thing. For Until Dawn, it was a very cinematic, story-driven score so it made even more sense to approach it that way with the music.

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N: How did you get involved with Until Dawn? What was it that drew you to the project?

JG: I got involved just like most other jobs. Someone made a phone call. In this case, it was Barney Pratt, the audio director at Supermassive Games. It started out as an email, but within an hour we were on the phone. The phone call was actually what got me really excited about the game. Barney is fantastic, and knows exactly what he needs, but he’s willing to leave a lot of creativity in my hands, which is really the best thing that any composer could ever ask for. So, Barney sought me out to see if I was available, and we had something like a 2-hour phone conversation talking about all of the potential for the score. It was really exciting.

They didn’t necessarily want to do anything completely new, but wanted to break new ground, while paying homage to all of the old horror stuff. In a way, it was kind of what the Scream franchise did in film. They were really smart about horror, acknowledged everything that came before it, and took the next step. That’s what the guys at Supermassive wanted to do with Until Dawn. They weren’t just looking for a scary score. They wanted personality and character in the score. A lot of times with horror, it’s just all scary all the time and I love the idea of having shades of gray in there.

N: Were there any film scores that inspired your work?

JG: I wouldn’t say there are any specific films that I went and listened to. A lot of the times when I’m working on things that have a well-known background, like a horror movie, the last thing I want to do is go listen to horror music, because as a creative person, no matter what you’re doing, you’d like to think that you’re trying to be as original as possible. Knowing that pretty much everything has already been done, it makes it even harder to be original if you’ve got the theme from [fill in the blank] stuck in your head. So, usually I run the opposite direction from listening to anything that has reference to what I’m working on, for fear of somehow subconsciously assimilating.

Instead of talking about what influenced Until Dawn, let’s just talk about what influenced me. In general, some of my favorite horror scores are actually based on pieces of music from the classical repertoire, most notably a Polish composer named Penderecki. If you’ve seen The Shining or the The Exorcist–which in my opinion are two of the scariest movies ever made–you would have heard Penderecki’s work, because the directors of those films used his classical music. It’s just brilliant orchestral work. But even outside the classical realm, I love Alien, Planet of the Apes, or Poltergeist. I’m mentioning a bunch of Jerry Goldsmith scores, but he is really great at that scary film stuff as well.

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N: It’s interesting that you mentioned The Shining, because I remember looking up some of your music on YouTube, and seeing several people in the comment section referencing the film.

JG: It’s something that I embrace. Every other composer who’s done anything and wants to sound scary using an orchestra, they’re using something that this composer came up with. He wrote the book on horror orchestral music back in the ’60s. In a way, it’s inescapable, but it works so well. There’s no better way to freak anybody out than to do stuff like that, because there are all these sounds you’re just not used to hearing from the orchestra. Your brain can’t figure out where they’re coming from. It’s this creepy sound and all of a sudden, maybe you think it sounds like a rat scurrying around, and it starts freaking you out. But, maybe somebody else hears the same sound and thinks it sounds like giant bugs creeping up their way. Your subconscious fills in whatever you’re really scared of, and makes it think that that’s what the sound is.

N: Were there any specific things you did that are considered odd in terms of mixing different sounds that don’t usually go together? Or playing a particular instrument in an unconventional way?

JG: I definitely did some interesting stuff with a piano. Well, actually, it was more just the intestines of the piano–essentially the soundboard with all the strings on it. It’s like the size of a small bookcase and it was under the stairs outside the hallway in the studio. It’s got a couple of microphones on it. That piano was an unending sound source of unsettling noise. It made all kinds of sounds. There’s hundreds of strings that just resonate because there’s no dampening on them now. It’s just the strings. It looks like a really messed up harp or something. I got lots of really great sounds from that. Barney loved them so much that we did a lot of one-shots of just piano strikes, strums, and creepy effects. I sent those to him, not even as music, but just as piano sounds. He dropped those into the game in different places. I guess technically it’s still music, but it’s almost more like sound design. That’s where your mind needs to be with this stuff, to come up with these sounds that are as abstract as you can get. I don’t want to say disturbing because honestly they don’t disturb me. I’m more forensic about it. I’m like “Oh wait. What was that sound I just heard that I recorded yesterday? I think it was when I was doing this on the piano.” I’m always thinking about how it was done so it doesn’t really scare me anymore, which is probably a good thing.

N: How difficult was it scoring a game that features the butterfly effect?

JG: Fortunately, it wasn’t as hard as it could have been, because we’re talking about scary music. A lot of the time with scary music, I could have a texture from one piece of music that I wrote with the strings doing some crazy effect and then I could have some piano sounds that I recorded here in the studio from another piece, and then I could have some brass, maybe some french horns, making some sound effect from another piece. You can take those three separate sounds from three different pieces of music and thrown them all on top of each other and it’s going to sound kind of cool, because it doesn’t have to go together. It’s better if it doesn’t go together. We’re not trying to make things pretty. So, it’s almost like the more chaotic and crazy, the better.

That helped us a lot, but it still meant that we had something like 15 hours of gameplay that needed music. I don’t know anyone who’s recorded 15 hours of music. So the real question was: how could we record with an orchestra? I could record here in the studio and then turn around as gameplay came online, score those scenes and get essentially fifteen hours of material out of the 3 or 4 hours of stuff that we actually recorded. So that was the real trick. It was almost like farming for sounds, then putting them in buckets, and then just having them sit there and wait. The team would come in and we’d get a little out of this bucket, and a little out of that bucket and put it all together.

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N: Do you have a favorite game score that you worked on?

JG: That’s tough. From a purely reasonable standpoint, I would probably say The Order: 1886. I think it was the nearest and dearest to my heart, just because I had so much creative freedom to try different things with the instrumentation, and with the music. I got to write some stuff that wasn’t what I’d normally consider video game music. It was a little more sad and had some longing to it. There was another emotion in there besides fear, which is what I get asked to write a lot of. So I liked that there was some pretty music in there, and some stuff that I hope was emotionally moving.

N: You’re pegged as a horror composer a lot. Do you like the genre?

JG: I do like horror. Especially now. But, I wouldn’t want to score horror all the time anymore than I’d want to do seven scores like The Order. Really what I enjoy–and this is what’s fantastic about games–is the variety of music that they need. So one day I’m working on something like The Order with the low string ensemble and we’re recording it at Abbey Road; and the next day I’m working on something like Evolve which is more electronic and sound design-y, and I’m doing that in the studio; and the next day it’s Until Dawn and I’m messing around with the piano. Variety is what I really love. But, I’ve definitely gotten a lot of enjoyment out of doing scary stuff. Ever since the first Dead Space, I’ve gotten a really thick skin which I think is part of it, because you think, “that’s not really that scary. I need to make it scarier”, and then fast forward another year and you’re trying to make it scarier again, so you keep upping the ante on yourself, which hopefully keeps people on their toes.

Image Credit: PlayStation

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