Music and adventure games! Interviewing Robert Holmes, Thomas Regin, Nikolas Sideris & Chris Christodoulou - Part 1
Instead of prologue: Adventure Advocate sat down with four musicians who have given us some fine music in old and recent adventure games. The questions were many, the mood was good!
We are very happy and honored to have you all here. We should start with the necessary introductions. Could each of you please tell us a few things about yourselves and your work?
Robert Holmes: Hi, I’m Robert and I’ve been accused of doing adventure games mainly for SIERRA and I do some other music projects with my daughter Raleigh, and I guess that’s about it.
Thomas Regin: My name is Thomas Regin and I have done the music for the Blackwell series and the last 7 or 8 installments of the Nancy Drew franchise. I’ve composed music for video games for the past 10 years. Something like that. That’s about it.
Nikolas Sideris: Hi I’m Nikolas Sideris. I’ve done music for a few computer games, mainly independent games, like “Resonance” and the recently released “Nelly Cootalot”. Other than that, because I’m a classically educated musician with a PhD and all that, I run a music publishing house, do concerts around the world and so on. So music is my life.
Chris Christodoulou: Hello everybody. I am Chris Christodoulou and I am relatively new in this video gaming composing thing. I haven’t done as many adventure games as I would have liked, but I hope I will in the future. I’ve been writing for video games since 2012 or so. I guess most people know me from “Risk of Rain”. I am also classically trained like Nikolas, so I also write music outside the video game world, but I mainly do this thing now.
OK, our next question is a bit more tricky and you may need some time to answer it. Would you like to help us make a playlist to accompany this interview? Tell us your 5 favorite adventure game music themes.
Thomas Regin: OK. Well the one that’s inspired me the most throughout the years has been the Monkey Island theme. Actually the entire soundtrack for the Monkey Island series has been a great inspiration and such a great soundtrack overall. I guess that’s one of my favorite pieces of music from adventure games. Also Leon WIllet’s score for “Dreamfall” is such a great great soundtrack. Of course the Gabriel Knight series, you cannot not mention that, it’s such a great great soundtrack. And the Leisure Suit Larry soundtrack and pretty much everything that SIERRA and LUCASARTS ever did. I mean they invented the adventure game music style. That’s such a great gift to the players.
Robert Holmes: Well, I think for me a lot of the favorites go back as well to the early SIERRA days and some of the things that were done by Mark Seibert and Neal Grandstaff, Dan Kehler and some of the other guys at SIERRA. Some actually lesser known games still had wonderful scores, things like “Ecoquest” and “Freddy Pharkas”. Of course I’m also a big fan of the Gabriel Knight stuff, not so much because it’s my music, but because I’m incredibly happy with the way that series came out. But in general for me, guys like Mark Seibert, Chris Braymenand some of the early SIERRA composers can do no wrong.
Nikolas Sideris: One of the first games I’d have to mention would be “Legend of Kyrandia”, which was done by Paul Mudra. I’ve been following this guy, he’s also done the Eye of the Beholder series and many newer games, as well as the Lands of Lore, and I’ve always loved his music. Then there are games like “King’s Quest VI”, you know specific games that I really adore their music, and to be honest I’ve grown quite fond of the Blackwell music that Thomas is working on, so…(laughs)
Robert Holmes: You don’t have to laugh after saying that…
Nikolas Sideris: I’m kissing his ass, that’s fine.
Thoas Regin: Thanks Nik!
Nikolas Sideris: Yeah… Just 3, but that’s enough I guess.
(**Instead of the usual pics, we have decided to complement this interview with the beautiful music chosen by the 4 composers**)
(Escape From Monkey Island - The International House of Mojo - Michael Land)
Chris Christodoulou: Actually I have 5 pieces selected. For me the Monkey Island soundtrack is definitely the first thing that comes to mind when talking about adventure game music. As a specific piece I have selected one that has always stayed with me, which is the music that plays when you go into the swamp to talk with the voodoo lady. In the new soundtrack this track is called “The International House of Mojo”. That one has always stood out for me. Also, because of the way the track is implemented into the gameplay with iMuse, as you move into the swamp new elements of music come in and that always fascinated me as a kid. The theme from Larry is one of my favorites too, and if I had to choose a version of it, I would pick the one from “Larry 7” which is fully orchestrated, with all those jazz elements and with Al Lowe on the saxophone. I definitely include all the games of the Gabriel Knight series in my best-of list. Since Robert is here, I would like to ask him a question about a track in “Gabriel Knight 3”. There is a theme for Grace in the hotel, I don’t know if the track has a specific title. Now there are 2 composer credits for Gabriel Knight 3, Robert Holmes and David Henry. I was always wondering who did what, and have tried to see if I could figure it out. I feel that he is the one who did this one for Grace and maybe he can confirm it.
Robert Holmes: You know the funny thing is, David and I have made passes in other interviews trying to remember who did what and neither one of us seems to be able to. Most of our stuff was actually a combination where I had come up with a small collection of extendable themes that I knew he would take to interesting places because of his training and the beautiful differences in his style, which he definitely did. So, many of the things including that piece are kind of a combination of preexisting theme bases that came from me and an extension that came from David. And then of course there are pieces in the game that are purely David as well and they are all wonderful.
Chris Christodoulou: Thank you very much for the clarification. It’s very nice to know. Now the other 2 pieces I have picked: Well, the entire soundtrack of “Machinarium”, but specifically the opening track, which is really wonderful. It’s called “The Bottom” and it is composed by Tomáš Dvořák. And my favorite soundtrack of all time is “Grim Fandango”. It’s really hard for me to pick a specific tune, but maybe I place slightly above the others the track called “Temple Gate”, which we hear near the end of the game. It is very different from all the other tracks. It is a transcendent type of piece with ambience and all that stuff that poses a striking difference compared to the jazzy feel of the rest of the soundtrack. OK, that would be it.
Next question: Music and sound effects are very important in a game. They contribute considerably to the atmosphere whether it is fear, suspense, comedy. Yet most people do not seem to notice the composers. Do you have an explanation for this?
Nikolas Sideris: I’m not sure. I mean, it definitely happens and it is a bit of a paradox. I was in the EGX a few weeks ago presenting the “Nelly Cootalot” game and you could listen to the trailer happening even though you couldn’t see anything. So the first thing you notice is actually the music and all the sound effects. This is a paradox with the audio in a game, it’s something that is supposed to serve the media, so we tend to forget afterwards that it’s happening. It becomes second nature to listen to the music and to hear the sound effects, because they are part of our lives, whereas the visuals most of the times are completely unrealistic. I don’t know if this makes any sense... The thing is, when riding the tube today, everybody is listening to their music. We are very accustomed to listening to music, while we do something else, so we tend to disregard that. And the same goes with sound effects, it’s part of our lives. Whereas when you see a dragon flying or whatever is happening on the screen, that’s completely new, that’s out of this world.
Chris Christodoulou: That’s a good point actually.
Rober Holmes: I think he had a good point that the music is there to serve the rest of the media. And at least for me, when it adds into the overall emotional experience, I’d rather have that recognition than necessarily have the music thought of separately. And hopefully that happens occasionally.
(Dreamfall - The Lpngest Journey - Main Theme - Leon Willet)
Thomas Regin: But how do you explain… People know Hans Zimmer and John Williams. So why don’t they know any game composers? Because they are pretty much doing the same thing. It’s hard to explain the difference between a video game composer and a film composer in terms of publicity and what we do. So, you know, Hans Zimmer and John Williams should get the same amount of attention that we do as game composers or the other way around of course.
Robert Holmes: They have quite better publicists. (laughs)
Nikolas Sideris: I don’t think it’s the same though. With film you can synch the music with the image, you can use the drama and you can create much more dramatic and much more active music, whereas in games you have to find a way to actually not augment anything. If the player goes on walking and suddenly the music changes, then you actually destroy the game, you are not helping the game. So it’s not the same thing exactly.
Thomas Regin: I think it’s a mix of certain things here. When I tell people that I compose music for video games, they go like : “Oh, there is music in video games? We didn’t even notice.” They are used to the 8 bit music from back when, so they never really notice the music in video games, but they notice the music in films. I think we as game composers haven’t been very good at promoting ourselves and telling people what we do and if we had a stronger union, people then would probably notice us more.
Robert Holmes: I think there is some awareness within the gaming world. The problem is that compared to the people who are exposed to film, gamers are still a relatively small audience. When I talk to people who are not gamers and they ask me what I do, they ask: “Did you do Doom?” or “Did you do Call of Duty?” They are only aware of three games and that’s the extent of their awareness. So hopefully there is plenty of room for newer composers to do just that, not only to cross over into film, but to get better recognition for their contribution.
Chris Christodoulou: However only yesterday I was reading an article about a new game that has been released. I will not mention the game and the composer, but to me it’s one of the most talented composers working in video games right now. This game is a sequel and the soundtrack for the previous game in the series is one of the best video game soundtracks I have ever heard. It’s not an adventure game. I read the reviews in two major online magazines and there was not one single word about the music. I mean you can see entire paragraphs about the game running in 60FPS, or being HD or about the tactics and the gameplay, but there was not a single word about the soundtrack. To me that is a bit disappointing. I don’t expect people I meet in the streets to know what game composing is, but the press should be more aware. We need a bit more of critical reviewing of video game music, especially in major sites, such as the ones I just mentioned.
Nikolas Sideris: In terms of numbers, if we take for instance the subscriptions for World of Warcraft, it’s reached 12.5 million members. I don’t think the people who play computer games are a small number. Almost everybody is playing computer games now in mobile phones or tablets, regardless of the size of these games. One of the differences with games is that films have live actors and this gives some familiarity to the audience. Maybe that plays an important part. There are not many computer games with major AAA actors. I don’t think Robert Redford has ever done voice acting for a game.
Thomas Regin: “Gabriel Knight” is an example of a game with a Hollywood actor.
Nikolas Sideris: Fair enough.
Robert Holmes: But that was back when we could afford to hire them, because they thought it would be hip to do a video game. I have worked in post-production in the film industry before I got into games and things really are not all that different in terms of awareness. You have maybe ten guys who are branded and marketed well and there is awareness of who they are as composers. But then you have another 200 who are doing really good work and nobody knows their name.
(Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers - Main Theme - Robert Holmes)
Following what you just said, our next question is most opportune and has already been answered by half of you. You have all composed music for adventure games. Is it any different to writing music for a movie or another purpose? What are the specific challenges you face when writing adventure game music?
Chris Christodoulou: Well, I have only written music for 2 adventure games and one of them is not published yet, so I don’t know if I have a lot to offer in this question. And both of them were rather peculiar, because they were borderline interactive fiction games, so my music was more of a general background rather than following specific scenes. I don’t know. Obviously if you follow the game’s narrative and you write music for a specific scene or a cutscene then it’s closer to writing film music. But sometimes in adventure games, a bit more than in other games, you have to write music that is just something in the background. Because, as Nikolas said before, sometimes the player is just walking or maybe not even that. We have all paused, while playing an adventure game, waiting for the idle animation to come up, just thinking of what to do next. So sometimes you just need to have a piece of loop music playing that is not distracting. This is something that does not happen in film, you are always in synch with something. Maybe it happens in other games too. My answer is really a non-answer. Yes and no, it depends.
Thomas Regin: I can’t contribute much in terms of film music because I’ve never written for film. However when you write non-linear music for a game, especially an adventure game, where you can go back and forth to the same scenes, you need to hold back when you write music. You cannot write music that evolves over time, because the player will probably go back where he was before and, if you are in the middle of a dramatic crescendo, people will think that something is about to happen. So when you write for non-linear stuff like games, you need to hold back as a composer all the time and to stop yourself from going all in with the full orchestra and all the instruments. I guess that’s the biggest difference. In film you know exactly where you are, it doesn’t change. You don’t suddenly go back five minute unless you rewind, so you can evolve the music with the film. I guess that’s the main difference between writing for the two mediums.
Robert Holmes: I’m probably exactly the wrong person to speak about this, because my style was always really sort of a poor man’s film style, trying to do very emotional motif-driven traditional style kinds of scores. In those days, especially in the early days of SIERRA, before we even had the capabilities to do any kind of layering or interactivity in terms of the music, for me there really wasn’t a lot of difference. In my more recent stuff, even now, I still prefer that kind of approach, because of the way I like to write. That definitely throws me into an extremely old-school corner.
Nikolas Sideris: I have nothing to add in terms of comparing film to computer game music. The one thing I want to add is that the only reason I had any tracks rejected for computer games or documentaries was that it was too complicated. I was getting carried away and I was creating this wonderfully beautiful music and all this excitement. The developers would come back and say this is not suitable, this is too much. This is the hard way to learn that you have to actually follow and serve the medium you are working for. Just that.
Robert Holmes: I guess this has changed over time as well, because in the old days, back with Gabriel Knight and those old SIERRA games, they couldn’t really brag about the extremely good graphics and the awesome voice-overs. So the music had more of a centerpiece purpose. But today with the beautiful graphics and the awesome voice overs, a lot of the producers that I’ve worked with want the music to stay in the background.
Chris Christodoulou: I want to add a counterpoint to this one. Not to say that things aren’t like that, but to show that there is also the other side. A game like “Bastion” for example, that has only songs as a soundtrack or “Hotline Miami”. In the case of “Hotline Miami”, the songs are not even composed for the game, they are just licensed pieces of music. Yet it’s obviously very successful and people seem to like it a lot, because it sets the atmosphere that the game needs. And it’s a case where the composers had never thought about all this, because they weren’t actually writing the music for a game. So either way of writing music can work, because the audience will take the music for granted. They will think: “This is the music that we are given, how does it fit in the experience?” and they will find a way to fit into the experience themselves. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Robert Holmes: It’s interesting that in “Grey Matter” we included a set of songs by the Scarlet Furies (Editor's note: Robert Holmes' band with his daughter Raleigh as lead singer) and both of these had actually been recorded prior with no consideration that they would ever show up in a game and at the end of the day we didn’t even have any input about which song would be used where. However the fans reacted very specifically as if those particular tunes had a lot of power for them, a lot of value. I guess my point is that to some extent the players help create that relativity and that value as much as we think we are.
(Leisure Suit Larry 7 - Love for Sail - Theme Song - Al Lowe)
Let’s proceed to our next question. This one is aimed at each of you individually. So Robert, as we all know, you have composed the music for the Gabriel Knight series. Of course it’s been a long time since then, but would you like to share with us a few things about the creative process? Was it a rewarding experience for you? How was the collaboration with the designers and what was the biggest challenge? How was it working on the remastered music for the recent remake?
Robert Holmes: I’ve always been happy and honored to have been involved with Gabriel Knight and Jane’s games. I was honored to be a part of the SIERRA composers group. With "Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers” one of the luxuries I had was that Jane and I partnered on the concept. We would walk around Bass Lake every day and work through the plot and the design, even on our lunch break. We would talk about what was possible and even imagine what the reviews would be like. So that gave me a real luxury of understanding the concept from very early on and how the music might contribute to that. In terms of the series and “Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within” and Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned”, I was actually already working in other areas, I was working with Sting for a few years, so I was travelling a lot during those times. It was challenging. Basically for “Gabriel Knight 2” I had about two weeks to write that score and write that opera. So that was a good challenge! As for the recent remake, one of the real interesting differences was the communication capability with the audience as we went through development, the amount of connection between our fans and the development team. As we worked on it and as I worked on the music, we were getting feedback constantly and that was both good and bad There were points when we would have loved to shut off communication and have gotten no more feedback, but you can’t do that. Also when you go back to redo a game like that, you have to find that sweet spot between honoring what people already love about it and trying to somehow extend and improve it. That’s a good challenge.
Nikolas you have composed the music for “Resonance”. How was that experience?
Nikolas Sideris: It was a brilliant experience. We are good friends with Vince Twelve, the designer of “Resonance” though we have never met. At some point I plan on visiting him in Japan. I like working on indie titles, because there is less pressure in terms of deadlines and milestones. On the other hand, this game specifically was in development for 5 years, which means that I was on a sort of open contract. I was composing on and off, like half a minute of music per month. It was difficult, because I was trying to stay focused on the style of the game and on what the game was about. In the meantime, I was moving from London to Greece and Greece to London and I was still composing for the same game. So the difficult part was to stay focused on the aesthetics of the game that I had set up myself. Otherwise it was a very rewarding experience that I really enjoyed and I still enjoy listening to my music for the game.
Thomas, you have composed the music for most of the Blackwell games. Would you like to share something about your experiences and the challenges you faced? How was your collaboration with Dave Gilbert?
Thomas Regin: Sure! Composing for the Blackwell series has been amazing. It was a stepping stone into this wonderful game industry. Dave taking a chance on me was a really huge honor. I grew as a composer with every installment of the Blackwell series. I think I may be able to compare it to what Robert said about the GK series. He was there from the beginning of the project and grew with it over time. He knew the games so well that he knew what to do. I guess I feel the same way about the Blackwell series. It’s my music now and I can do with it what I want. I can sort of experiment when I want to and I can hold back when I want to. It’s a great collaboration between Dave and me. It’s very open, I can pretty much choose whatever I want to write for specific scenes. I have a very close relationship with Dave so there is a lot of discussion when we work together. It’s been rewarding and I have learned so much about game music over the years with the Blackwell series.
Chris, you have written the music for “The Sea Will Claim Everything”. Would you like to share a few things about your experience working with Jonas Kyratzes and the challenges you had to face when composing the music?
Chris Christodoulou: Certainly! For me it was very exciting, because it was my very first game project, so I was really happy to step into the world of video game music. It is a really special game and Jonas pretty much gave me the opportunity to write what I wanted. Of course there was a certain style that I had to adhere to, but he didn’t dictate anything. He just said this is how the game looks and how the game feels. It’s been interesting, because this game is a part of a series and the previous games were done by another composer, who was unavailable at the time. So I was lucky to get that gig. I didn’t feel the responsibility to carry on from the previous games, I just did my own thing. Also it was a delight working on that game, because I got feedback from Jonas and he liked the things I sent him. It’s very special to me, because it is an adventure game which is something I have wanted to do for a long time and because it was my very first project. It was challenging in the sense that, being my first project, I went kind of blindly into it, I didn’t really know what to do. Listening to it now, the production is a bit messy. However at the time I wasn’t thinking about all that, I was thinking: “How amazing! I’m doing a game!” Looking back at it now, I don’t even remember the hardships, they didn’t register in my mind.
(Ecoquest - Introduction Music Theme - Chris Braymen)
Robert, let’s go back to the Gabriel Knight series. How do you feel when a piece you have composed, like the theme for Gabriel Knight, is still remembered years afterwards and is considered a classic? Does it ever feel like an impediment on trying out something different? Is there an element of stress that you have to outdo yourself?
Robert Holmes: I really appreciate and have enjoyed seeing the music carry on on its own, especially now that we have venues like youtube and soundcloud and other places where people share things. I have never felt constrained by anything in the past from these games. Working with Jane specifically, she has always given me wonderful freedom to define the musical universe. If there is a downside with being considered associated with something classic, it is that people tend to think of you as just that. They think you don’t or can’t do other things, so they are hesitant to pick up the phone and see if you are interested in working on something. That’s probably the only challenge, but in general it’s very rewarding to know that the fans still respond to some of the music.
Now a general question for all of you. Who do you prefer to work with: indie developers or big developers that make AAA titles? How important is creative freedom in the process of creating music?
Chris Christodoulou: I haven’t had a chance to work with a AAA developer yet. Working with indies has been really easy for me, I really enjoy the creative freedom. I like something that Thomas said before that despite all the creative freedom you need to reign in yourself. It may be more oppressive than working on a AAA title, because you have very specific things to do. Otherwise with indies you definitely get that creative freedom, at least that has been my experience up to this point. I have been very lucky doing really different stuff on each game that I have worked on, so that’s been nice. Maybe in 10 years time I will return to reply to the other half of the question.
Thomas Regin: I have never worked on a AAA title, so it’s hard to say anything about that. I have worked with some pretty big developers over the years, but fortunately, most of them being sort of indie, they have been really easy to work with in terms of creative freedom and the creative process. I really don’t have anything to complain about. I was working for Somatone, which is an american sound developer/music composing agency, and I got very specific instructions on how to write the music and that was completely different. I guess that’s kind of like what it would be to work on a AAA game, with the clan requesting something really specific and often attaching a temp track to whatever instructions they would give me and saying: “we need something that sounds almost like this, except you need to change the chord progression because otherwise we would be sued”. Even though you get really specific instructions, I personally feel it’s fun. It’s still music and even though you are pretty restricted it can still be fun to do this kind of music. So I wouldn’t mind working on a AAA title. So far I haven’t seen the big difference between the two.
Nikolas Sideris: I also don’t have any experience working on a AAA title, but I think that I value my creative freedom a lot. That’s why I continue to be a freelancer. Then again the money would be much better for a AAA game than an indie game, so maybe I would reconsider.
Robert Holmes: The funny thing is that at SIERRA, though we felt we were doing great work, we didn’t think at the time of ourselves as being a large element or AAA developer. In recent years with some of the recent games, I have been associated with some of those larger developers and I wouldn’t necessarily always have wonderful things to say. Like any large organization, they get very bureaucratic, you start to get marketers and lawyers involved in all kinds of things and to me that never helps creativity.
(Freddy Pharkas Frontier Pharmacist - Main Theme - Aubrey Hodges)
Which is your favorite among your works of music in adventure games?
Thomas Regin: That’s a good question. I am really proud of a song that I wrote for the latest Nancy Drew installment (Editor’s note: “The Word I Couldn’t Keep” for “Nancy Drew: Sea of Darkness”). It is a musical sea shanty, which was recorded by a lady called Billie Wildrick who is a Broadway singer. I spent a lot of time producing that song. I didn’t spend a lot of time writing it, but the whole creative process starts when you have finished composing, at least to me. I mean the whole mixing and getting everything to sound the way you want it to sound. I spent a lot of time on that particular song and am really proud of how it turned out.
Chris Christodoulou: “The Sea will Claim Everything” is the only adventure game I have done. I think the final piece, the part 2 of the main theme, is my favorite. It is very special to me, because it was written under rather special circumstances. It’s a bit of a dedication, so it has a special emotional significance to me. I have also written for another game by Jonas Kyratzes, the sequel to “The Sea will Claim Everything", the “Council of Crows”. I am not going to say that this soundtrack is better than the one for “The Sea will Claim Everything”, but there is a piece there that I really feel is one of the best that I have composed. Obviously that’s a personal opinion. However it has not been published yet, so I can’t say too much about it.
Robert Holmes: There are pieces for me that definitely stand out and that I have a lot of love for. For most of us, at least from my experience, the better the story, the better the world that we are trying to be a part of, in terms of the creator and the fiction, the more inspiring that can be and that tends to have an effect on the work that we do. ...Unfortunately at this point I have to leave because of a prior commitment. I did want to join you for a while and thank you very much for including me. It’s been great joining all you talented folks! I look forward to hearing your music!
Nikolas Sideris: I can’t separate between the last two games for different reasons. For “Resonance” I was able to produce a large amount of music and I also did the finale song which Louisa Sofianopoulou sung and it’s a beautiful song. For “Nelly Cootalot”, which is in a completely different style, I managed to transcribe the whole soundtrack into a piano version that I have now published. It is a completely different take on a computer game soundtrack, because now anyone who plays the piano can take the soundtrack and play bits of it. I am actually quite proud of that and I hope I will be able to continue doing that and expand the catalogue.
Chris Christodoulou: I was actually watching that on youtube earlier. That’s a really beautiful thing. I am a big fan of written music, it’s really admirable.
Nikolas Sideris: Thanks!
You think this is it? Wrong... Where other intrerviews end, ours has only just started! The second part of the interview, along with a nifty little surprise at the end, is HERE!
But before you go, enjoy a video with two beautiful pieces of music by Robert Holmes and Chris Christodoulou, picked by the composers themselves to accompany this interview, complemented with pics of the composers and scenes of games that they have worked on. See you all again very soon with the second part of the interview!