Music and adventure games! Interviewing Robert Holmes, Thomas Regin, Nikolas Sideris & Chris Christodoulou - Part 2
Who is your favorite composer in any music genre and which is your favorite piece of music again in any genre?
Thomas Regin: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s an easy question... This is really difficult for me to answer. It depends on my mood and everything. I am a huge fan of Billy Joel, so everything he does I pretty much love. Some days I choose to listen to game music like the Gabriel Knight theme or the music from Monkey Island and I love that too. So it changes. I don’t think I want to mention favorite composers, because they change daily.
Chris Christodoulou: As Thomas already said this is a difficult question to answer. It depends on the mood. Generally looking at pop music (and I include everything except classical music under this umbrella of “pop” music), I would probably say The Beatles. More specifically I tend to like Paul McCartney’s songs as a composer within the Beatles a bit more. Among classical composers, Prokofiev and Shostakovich are my two favorites. Regarding favorite pieces, I actually have a favorite work of music, again under the umbrella of pop music. It is the Daft Punk “Discovery” album. It is an outstanding body of work, it has been very influential to me and my own music.
Nikolas Sideris: What about top 20 or something? Just one? OK, I will go for different terrains. For classical music, I would say Stravinsky, Messiaen, Ligeti, Schnittke, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Favorite work may be “The Rite of Spring”. For bands, I would say Radiohead, Deus, Diablo Swing Orchestra. That’s about it.
Should a composer imbue the music of a game with a particular signature style or should he adapt chameleon-like to the feel of the game?
Nikolas Sideris: A composer needs to be diverse, but without necessarily sacrificing the tone color of his own voice. Otherwise why chose me, instead of Chris or Thomas or Robert or anybody else? So there should be some kind of personal voice in everything we do. But it doesn’t mean that whatever they give us, we are going to compose the same kind of music, like country music for instance. You have to be diverse.
Thomas Regin: I agree to a certain extent with Nikolas. It’s impossible to be chameleon-like. You would have to sacrifice your own style to be a chameleon. I think it’s really important that the composer keeps his style of music, because that’s what makes him special. Like Nik said, why should they hire me instead of Nik? If you look back on all the composers who have made a name of themselves, it’s the ones that have kept true to their own style. That’s my opinion. So you should not be a chameleon. You should be able to write different styles, but you should be able to maintain your own personal style in those other styles.
Chris Christodoulou: Honestly, I have very little to add to what’s already been said. I completely agree with both Thomas and Nikolas. You should definitely do your own thing and that’s why somebody will pick you. Otherwise you can just be some minion in a major composer’s studio, writing the same music over and over, ghost-writing stuff.
(Legend of Kyrandia - Intro Theme - music by Frank Klepacki, music director Paul Mudra)
Another question about music styles. Should a game's music be based on variations of a few distinctive leitmotifs or do you prefer a variety of different tunes? How important do you think is thematic consistence in game music?
Nikolas Sideris: It depends on the game really. There have been instances where I had to follow the narrative and the scenario of the game and there are instances where I had to follow the characters. I can’t say that there is a definitive answer to that.
Thomas Regin: I agree with Nik. It really depends on the game. For the Blackwell series, for example, I have reused the main theme in a thousand different variations, which worked pretty well. Other times I have decided on a specific key or a parallel key to maintain throughout the game, just to bring some kind of familiarity with the kind of vibe I am trying to create. It really depends on the game and how much music I am going to deliver. It doesn’t make sense to reuse whatever theme if you are only writing like only 30 seconds of music. So it’s very specific to the game. But in general, I enjoy listening to the soundtrack of a game that has thematic consistence. It shows that the composer has actually thought it through. He has created a full picture or image in his head, before or while writing and I really love that when it’s done right.
Chris Christodoulou: To me thematic consistency is definitely something that I am always aware of and try to include. Of course you need to keep in mind what you are writing for and adapt. You don’t need to be obsessed. However I would say that some sort of consistency is needed within a soundtrack, be that a common theme or, as Thomas said, a common key or key signature or a common instrumentation. It is something I am usually looking for in my music and trying to stick with. I think of it as trying to establish a set of rules. That might not necessarily be having one or two themes or ascribing leitmotifs to characters. It is something that I am holding on to, that is one step beyond the actual music of this particular piece and connects it to the whole a bit like glue. To be honest, I am a bit obsessed with thematic consistency. On occasion I have returned to previous compositions and added in what has later become the main theme of the game, so that they have this consistency, even if it was not necessarily needed and didn’t really indicate anything within the game at that point. So my answer is, yes, to a degree.
Should music in an adventure game be prominent and call attention to itself or should it merge imperceptibly into the background of the game's soundscape?
Thomas Regin: Absolutely it should be prominent and call attention to itself, the game should be secondary. So yes to the first. No, just kidding. Again it depends on the game. There is no correct answer to this question. As some of you mentioned, “Hotline Miami”, which is sort of based around the soundtrack, wouldn’t be right if the soundtrack was completely in the background. So it very much depends on the game itself, it wouldn’t make sense for a music game to have the music in the background. In the Blackwell series there were some chances to bring out the music and I treasured these moments where I could make the music blossom, in lack of a better word. It’s a fine mixture between not bringing too much attention to itself and not staying completely in the background. I guess from a composer’s perspective that’s the most difficult thing about writing music for games in the first place. To find that fine balance between not destroying the game for the players and not being completely insignificant by making music that stays in the background all the time. Does that make sense?
Chris Christodoulou: I am always looking for game developers that will make a game to accompany my music. (laughs) No... Like Thomas said, you need to tread that fine line and find a balance. Obviously you will have the opportunity to stand out a bit more if you are dealing with something scripted like a cut-scene, but in general you don’t want to break the immersion. You want people to remember your melodies but not above the game, not as something separate. So you must try to get the balance right.
Nikolas Sideris: I find that an adventure game, because of the scenario and the storyline, usually offers itself to having at least a few moments of important music. So 90% of the game may have music that’s a bit in the background and doesn’t set up anything, but that last 10% of the game may have music that will excel and give meaning to what’s happening in the story, when it shows up. So it can be both ways.
(King's Quest VI - Introduction Theme: Thinking about Cassima - Chris Braymen)
Game music has evolved a lot since the 80s. From the blip-blip we used to have, we have come to fully orchestrated complex soundtracks. Do you think a composer today can live off writing game music and can that be artistically fulfilling?
Thomas Regin: Yes and yes! I think you can live off writing game music. You probably won’t be rich, but you can live off it. I have done so myself in long periods of my life, at least in my active music life for the past 10 years. Will it be artistically fulfilling? Yes, sometimes. If you want to live off you music, you cannot be picky in terms of which projects you are going to accept unless your name is Hans Zimmer. So you have to take on some gigs that aren’t as artistically fulfilling as others. But if you are willing to pay the price for not always being presented with the most awesome and amazing projects, you can have a pretty good life as a game composer. I am not doing this full-time anymore, because I just couldn’t do all the self-promotion stuff all the time. It was really tiring to be both a composer and a businessman at the same time and I guess that’s the hardest part. But if you find a way to mix the two, you can have a good life as a game composer, I’m sure..
Nikolas Sideris: I agree with Thomas. Yes and yes, for all the reasons that Thomas listed. I don’t have anything to add.
Chris Christodoulou: Definitely yes and yes for me too. You can live off it. Don’t expect to become a rich man, but you can make a decent living, if you get enough jobs. I would just like to add that if you are planning to live off game music, you should probably study music. I have met enough people who wanted to become game musicians by watching a couple of youtube videos on how to write game music and become famous. It doesn’t work like that. None of us are here just on a whim or because we randomly decided one day that we are going to be game musicians thinking it’s easy. It’s not just about buying some software and starting writing stuff. So if you are willing to work for it, you can probably live off it. Is it artistically fulfilling? Mostly. There are definitely projects that might be a bit less artistic or somewhat boring, but working is never pure fun. I would argue that even the very artistically fulfilling projects that I have had, were a nightmare while working on them. They became artistically fulfilling after being finished. Because during the actual writing, it was still a job that needed to be done. It was fulfilling, but at the same time I had to deal with stress and deadlines and things like that.
Have you ever felt that a game's music is wrong for that particular game? You don’t have to mention the game. In cases like this who in your opinion is mostly to blame? Did the composer not "get" the game or did the designer ask for the wrong kind of music?
Nikolas Sideris: I don’t think that I have seen a game that had too unfitting a soundtrack. However if I may draw a parallel, every single time that I have created music for an ad, the temp track that I was given and the specifications were completely wrong. I was given examples of what my music should be like and then the client would change their minds and ask me to compose something completely different. So in that case I was just following orders. They might give me a Coltrane track, a jazz track, and then they would change it to a swing track, which has nothing to do with Coltrane. Or they would give me a temp track from the Titanic for an ad and then they would change to another temp track and then another temp track. So they really had no idea what they wanted.
So it is mostly the designer who may ask for something that is not proper for the game?
Nikolas Sideris: In my experience yes. Especially if they give you temporary tracks. Then they know what they are doing…
Chris Christodoulou: Thomas has made a really interesting point about how music sounds to people that are not musicians. I am sure Thomas and Nikolas have come across people comparing their music to others’ work. Somebody might comment on one of my tracks and say that it reminds him of an “x” piece of music. However when I actually listen to “x”, it sounds absolutely nothing like what I have written, at least to my ears. So sometimes there is a certain vagueness, a discrepancy between what a developer wants, what he actually has in his mind, and how he will end up describing it to you, how he will decide on what sort of temp track to give you. I don’t know if I have heard wrong game music. Maybe I have heard wrong music for very specific small segments in a game, but it is kind of rare. Maybe because like I said before, and so did Robert I think, the player adapts to what he listens to, taking it for granted. I know that I have seen many films that I felt had the wrong music, that happens often. Maybe games are a more controlled environment, or maybe game developers, at least indie developers, are more flexible, because they are aware that they don’t know everything. They don’t feel omnipotent, they don’t dictate what you should do. Usually they tend to let you pitch ideas and bring in your own input. So mostly there is not much wrong music in games, at least on my experience.
Thomas Regin: I would rather say that the designer is making the wrong game for my music…(laughs) Νο, I agree with Chris and Nik, I have never really heard wrong music for a particular game. There are times when I feel that it wasn’t implemented well, that the music was right, but the spot was wrong. Sometimes something can be not wrong, but wrongly implemented. I know from experience that it can be hard to work with designers because they have this very specific sound in their heads, especially when they do music themselves. These are the hardest designers to work with, because they have a very very strict idea on what kind of music they want for their games and if they don’t get it, they feel almost hurt. Those are difficult to work with, because they actually want to write the music themselves. Unfortunately they don’t have the time or the talent, but they have a very strong opinion on the music. And that makes it really hard for a composer to deliver the music that they are asking for, simply because he doesn’t know what it is they want. I wouldn’t always blame the composer, it’s really a process. You don’t tell the composer to write the music and then just let him work for 6 months and then he comes back with all the finished music. It is a dialogue, you work pretty closely with the people that design the game and then there will be a lot of trial and error until you get whatever works for the game. So the wrong tracks are picked up long before the game is finished and delivered.
(Blackwell Deception - Music Theme - Thomas Regin)
A quicky question: Do you believe there is a specific style of music that suits adventure games the best or does anything go?
Chris Christodoulou: No. Depending on the game, you have to adapt. Adventure games, basically all games, can be very diverse in setting. Could you imagine games like Larry and Monkey Island having the same music? Probably not. So I think I should answer with a quick no.
Nikolas Sideris: I will have to answer no. It depends on the aesthetics of the game rather than the genre. So anything goes.
Thomas Regin: I agree!
Told you it was a fast one! Regarding the AGGIE awards: It has been noted that there is usually a discrepancy between critics and audience in the best music and sound effects awards. Do you think there is a specific cause for this?
Thomas Regin: I didn’t even know that, so I have nothing to say. This is the first time I hear of this, so excuse my ignorance.
Nikolas Sideris: I think that professional reviewers will look for things that the casual gamer won’t notice. So a professional reviewer may look on the practical side of things, how the music works and how it adds to the game, whereas these things tend to be transparent for the casual gamer. The gamer just thinks: “This music is nice, I like it”. On the other hand the reviewer will examine if the music works, if it suits the game, if it is well implemented, if the system works, and so on. That’s what’s causing the difference of opinion, I think.
Chris Christodoulou: What Nikolas just said is very important. I need to add something here. Indeed the professional reviewer will look for these finer details and how the music works within the game instead of if it is simply good or bad music. Now, following what i said earlier about reviews not mentioning music enough, I feel we should educate to player to listen for that stuff, by writing more about game music in reviews. Maybe the discrepancy is there, because the player hasn’t been taught to pay attention to the music and how it works, instead of muting it and opening spotify and listening to his thing or simply enjoying it, if it happens to be catchy, like a fancy tune. I don’t know... By the way is music and sound effects one category in the AGGIEs or is it two different categories?
Nikolas Sideris: It’s two different categories.
Chris Christodoulou: OK, because I was about to go on a rant. You are spared!
Silence in a specific part of a game: Is it as important as the music? And a sub-question: What do you think of some modern games, like "The Witness", that have no music at all in their soundtracks?
Nikolas Sideris: I think it can work extremely well. As I noted in a previous answer, you can fine-tune the attention the music will get, especially if you add silence. There are various games, adventures or other, like “Limbo” which is a platformer, that use no music at all, but are extremely successful in setting up the ambience. So yes, silence can be very important.
Chris Christodoulou: I agree. Silence can work really well. A pause is part of the music too, like the silence is also a part of the music. It can work in contrast, it can work by complete absence, like in “Limbo” or “The Witness”. You can really accentuate the moment, if you have music throughout the game and then take it out or vice versa. I can’t remember the game right now, but I am sure I have played a game that had no music at all for the entirety of the game and, when it came up at the end, it was so surprising and intense that I really enjoyed it. I am blacking out on the game right now.
Thomas Regin: Was it “Gone Home”?
Chris Christodoulou: It might have been, yes. So yes for silence.
Thomas Regin: I agree. I think that as composers this is what we fear the most. Not silence as such, but when to use it. This is where the developers of the games need to be able to overrule us, when it comes to implementing sound, and say here there is going to be complete silence. Personally I think it’s very difficult for us as composers to go for complete silence in a game. I want to write the music and I am thinking out themes and stuff to add, so someone will have to stop me. If it works better with silence, then so be it. Silence can be so effective that it’s more effective than the actual music when it’s used correctly.
(Machinarium - The Bottom - Thomas Dvorak)
Let’s talk about player and professional reviews. What is your response to them? How hard do you take a negative review by a professional critic or by a player? Do you ever get annoyed by them? How important is it to you when you get positive feedback for your work?
Chris Christodoulou: That’s an interesting question. I definitely get annoyed. I can pretend that I don’t care, but I do care. I do mind getting a negative review. The amount of annoyance and the attention I give it, depends on how strong the arguments of the reviewer are and not so much on whether he is a professional, a player or a casual listener. However I would like to think that most of the time I get positive reviews. No, just kidding here. Most of the times I will take it seriously, I will take it into consideration, as long as it is not offensive or a non-argument. Many times, we know ourselves the flaws of our music. Sometimes it has to do with not having enough time, sometimes it has to do with the fact that a piece would not fit otherwise. For instance, if somebody comments that a piece or a loop that we used for a transition is stupid, I may not mind too much in the sense that it is just a utility track and not something that I poured my soul into. I hope that a negative review will be thoughtful and not just mean. I definitely enjoy positive feedback and I try my best to communicate with the people who give it. If someone has something nice to say, I do my best to reply to them and say thank you or something like that. It definitely gives me a boost to keep on doing this.
Nikolas Sideris: Obviously I love positive feedback. When I read a review, regardless who it is written by, I will just grab the points that make sense and hold on to them. Regardless if it is positive or negative, if it is written by a player or a professional critic. I do get annoyed by stupidity in general, so sometimes I get annoyed by stupid reviews, but that’s part of the game I guess.
Thomas Regin: I love reading reviews. Whenever a new game comes out that I’ve done the music for, I check forums and I read reviews. I never leave a comment, I am just lurking in the background. Obviously I love getting positive feedback. I have had a lot of positive feedback on my music over the years. Unfortunately sometimes I drive my wife crazy, because I can get 100 positive reviews, but if some guy somewhere says that the music is bland, I go completely crazy, I’m not able to sleep for a week. So I do not get annoyed, I just lose all self-respect, and I am like crying myself to sleep.(laughs) I use the reviews to improve my work, because it’s really important to me that people like what I do. I think I have a very healthy look on reviews, because I use all the negative well. All the negative stuff I get, I will use it for my next project. I will go: “Players wanted more of this and that” and I will try to implement it if possible. I take everything I read seriously. Even the good reviews, what I take from them is if there is something that I need to keep doing. The feedback is our connection to the players, whether it’s professional or player reviews. I do like the players’ feedback the most, because that’s my direct connection. Professional reviewers have played the game once and have probably no real background on it. They have not played the previous games, they just came in and reviewed this game and they don’t always know what it’s about. On the other hand, the players that have been following the series for a long time, know exactly what they want and exactly what to expect. It’s just awesome to be able to read the player reviews.
Another quicky and somewhat more light-hearted question. Both Thomas and Nikolas have composed songs for games. Is there is a singer you would like to write a song for in a game?
Thomas Regin: I am writing a song for Adele, so I’m hoping that she asks… (laughs) No, there is no specific singer at the moment, that I would like to work with. Sure, it would be a dream to work with Adele, but I think she is busy with other projects at the moment, so there is none else.
Nikolas Sideris: Since Freddy Mercury is dead, I don’t think I have anybody else to use really.
Chris Christodoulou: No.
That was direct! The last question will be more serious that this one. Yes, good news, finally last question! Traditonally we think of composers writing down notes or striking them out on music sheets in a room full of musical instruments. However today most of the job can be done in an ordinary office on a PC or a laptop. Has the traditional process become completely extinct in the modern computer age or is there still room for the old-school way?
Nikolas Sideris: Can I go first? No, not at all. Considering I have a music publishing house, I write music, I annotate music, I play music, and I am doing so with computer game music too, I have to say it’s not gone extinct and I don’t think it will ever be extinct. There is a link between playing an instrument and composing. I am pretty sure that both Chris and Thomas play an instrument, probably keyboards or piano or something. Everything is linked to that.
Thomas Regin: I totally disagree! (laughs) No, I agree. The thing that I enjoy the most when writing music, is when I write for real players. Unfortunately, when working on a budget for indie games, we can’t always afford to use live players, but the greatest satisfaction you get as a composer is hearing your music being performed by a live player. So definitely we need to keep the traditional way of working. Otherwise our whole industry will become extinct eventually, if we don’t keep it up.
(Grim Fandango - Temple Gate - Peter McConnell)
Chris Christodoulou: Yes, I definitely agree. I think that most composers know how to play an instrument really well. For example, if you see John Williams playing the piano, he is what many would call a professional pianist, but I’m sure he doesn’t think of himself that way ever. Also regarding what Thomas said about having your music played by actual people, that is definitely the most rewarding thing, However even when the composer is writing for an electronic ensemble, like a virtual ensemble, not electronic instruments, a composer’s ear can tell the difference between someone who knows how to write music and someone that is just fooling around with these instruments based on what he has heard instead of what he has studied. For example, a composer that is not very familiar with classical music might write a piece with virtual instruments for 200 strings and 20 contrabases, 30 tubas or cymbals, layering them all on top of each other, just to make the sound bigger. To me that is something that makes a composer stand out from the rest. Even if he is writing for a virtual orchestra or a virtual ensemble or a big band or a rock ensemble, somebody who knows how to traditionally approach music will probably do a better job. So I definitely think this is not going to go away any time soon.
Thomas Regin: I just have one small comment. I never studied composition and I never took a degree in anything, when it comes to music. I studied piano, but I never studied at university level. People can think what they want of my orchestrating skills, but my lack of knowledge is actually sometimes helpful. I am not limited to the traditional way of doing things, because I don’t know any better. Sometimes not having these boundaries, can be helpful. If I want to write for 200 violins and 20 contrabases and whatever, I can do that in my vsc, with my vsc instruments, and I can make it sound huge and something that would never be playable in a real life scenario, but if it works for the game, why not?
Chris Christodoulou: Definitely, that’s true. That’s a good point.
Thomas Regin: I mean, that’s one of the advantages of working on a PC. You can do things that it is physically impossible to do in real life, unless you are willing to pay for 2000 people and a concert hall to play at the same time. We can do that at home and, if it sounds great, then I am all in, just go for it!
You will be very happy to hear we are finally out of questions! So let’s end the interview with the official closing statement we have prepared: Once more we would like to thank you for this wonderful interview. We are looking forward to travelling again to magical adventurelands through the soundscapes of your music!
As an epilogue, enjoy two pieces of music by Thomas Regin and Nikolas Sideris, picked by the composers themselves to accompany this interview, complemented with pics of the composers and scenes of games that they have worked on.
And yet this is still not the end! We promised a surprise in the first part of the interview. Here it is: the full recording of the interview. Enjoy listening "live" to the voices of the 4 composers and check out all the funny little moments that had to be edited out of the written version.