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Meet The Game Composer: James Hannigan

NAME: UK-based James Hannigan (http://www.jameshannigan.com, @James_Hannigan)

TITLE: Game composer.

HOW DID YOU GET INTO COMPOSING FOR VIDEOGAMES?
It was almost by accident… but in retrospect a happy one. I liked early game music and recognized its uniqueness but didn’t actually envision myself becoming a game composer.

When I started composing professionally, I had my sights more on film and television. This was in the early ‘90s, before games had become so equated with the language of cinema.

When I was offered a job at EA in 1994, there was a massive paradigm shift underway in the means of delivering sound and music in games, which primarily had to do with a move towards streaming content from hard disk or CD-ROM.

It’s something taken for granted today, but at the time it largely wiped away the skill set of the game composer by making it possible for any recorded music to be placed in games, and it paved the way for a new generation of composers to come in from other industries. It also allowed for more acoustic music in games, which just happens to be something that suited me very well.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST PROJECT?
My first involving live recording was for EA around 1995, for a little-known game called ‘Beasts and Bumpkins.” I got to record a small ensemble of medieval instrumentalists for it. Overall, it was interesting working at EA as I’d find myself on something like a FIFA game one week and then a title like Privateer: The Darkening the next. But eventually I returned to freelance work as I felt a little boxed in being in-house. I continued working with EA but also sparked up working relationships with the likes of Digital Anvil, Elixir Studios and others. My first foray into recording fully orchestral music for games came with Republic in 2002, and then Evil Genius shortly afterwards, which were both BAFTA-nominated.

DO YOU TACKLE GAMES DIFFERENTLY THAN YOU WOULD ANOTHER TYPE OF PROJECT, LIKE A FILM? DOES THE PROCESS DIFFER?
Practically speaking, the biggest variable the composer has to contend with in games is time, which can be indeterminable for many in-game situations. By that I mean, it’s not always possible to know how long a given sequence will last in games or how long players will take to complete any given task. So, music, if any, needs to stay flexible and elastic enough to correspond with events in these unpredictable and often even open-ended situations.

As things have become more filmic in games, difficult questions have arisen about the fundamental role of music in them. In accordance with the film model, there’s been this notion that the soundtrack of a game must be divided into music, dialogue and sound effects, which is a convention that’s been carried over into games. This is a result of looking at them as little interactive movies. It relies somewhat on the idea that the diegetic and non-diegetic in games are as easy to separate as they are for film though, which I take issue with a bit.

I wouldn’t deny that there are many occasions when this model works, perhaps within games that are particularly filmic or with a linear narrative, or full of cut scenes, but it can also be inhibiting in instances when you find yourself wanting to bring sound and music together as one or to support the idea of the player as an actual participant in a game. After all, if the player is supposed to be there in this reality, what message does music actually send to them? If you’re not careful, it can be like telling them they are watching a movie, which is hardly conducive to a sense of immersion or involvement.

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HOW DOES THE PROCESS DIFFER DEPENDING ON THE TYPE OF GAME – BASED ON A FILM OR A PROJECT THAT WAS ALWAYS A GAME?
I think that films and games differ because of the player’s involvement in games. For example, if a game is in the first person and you are led to believe you are experiencing the world around you through your avatar’s senses, what role does music actually have? Is it supposed to be in your head? A game in the third person implies more of a “player as audience” type role for me, where you get to be the spectator of your own adventure. Essentially, you are “watching yourself playing a role.”

But to answer the question, genre matters a lot. If we’re talking about a movie license, then there’s clearly a need to be on the same page as the film, stylistically speaking. More open-ended games, such as those belonging to the strategy genre or sims, are different. If players are creating their own stories through actions and decisions in games such as those, why would this information need to be relayed back to them using music?

That question highlights another difference between games and films, with the latter often featuring music for narrative support. In games, the player often creates their own, and that’s an important difference. I feel it’s far more appropriate in games to look at ways music can actually support the role players adopt, and to add a dimension to that rather than to simply echo what they are doing. And it’s really a question of deciding how powerful a role the player has in terms of manipulating the game world around them. Conversely, deciding how manipulative the world is on an emotional level. That determines how much of an influence music should have on them, or vice versa.

Stating the obvious with music in games has been a big problem over the years. If music actually adds important information and functions well, then you should really have a situation where it is actually required to be heard in order to play the game properly. I tend to feel sound and music should be an integral part of a game’s design if they’re going to be there at all.

WHAT IS THE FIRST STEP IN YOUR PROCESS? CAN YOU ALSO WALK US THROUGH HOW YOU WORK? DO YOU START AT THE PIANO FOR INSTANCE?
I try to immerse myself in as much material as I can relating to the game, and I tend to walk a lot to find inspiration. Strangely, it’s when I’m out and about that I get most of my ideas. If writing for the orchestra, I’ll generally sit at the piano to work through ideas. But for more sound-based and “textural” music, I tend to go into the studio and play about with synths, processors and so on from the outset.

WHAT TYPES OF MUSIC DO YOU LISTEN TO FOR FUN AND OR INSPIRATION?
Just lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Arvo Pärt and Aaron Copland, but don’t ask me why because I really couldn’t tell you! I’ve also been re-visiting all the old Bond movies of late and have lots of love for John Barry’s music at the moment. There’s a great example of music playing a significant role in giving a series an identity, if ever there was one. The James Bond experience without its music would be a very sterile one indeed.

IF YOU HAD TO PICK YOUR FAVORITE SCORE EVER, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Possibly Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho. A great deal of information is delivered to the audience about the inner state of characters and the music succeeds very well in bringing about feelings of anxiety in the viewer. Just as John Barry’s sound defines Bond for me, I feel Bernard Herrmann’s sound is a crucial part of what is generally described as being “Hitchcockian.”

NAME YOUR FAVORITE INSTRUMENT?
I like the instrument I’m writing for, since that’s the one required at that moment — so it’s all about context. But if really pushed, I’d pick the piano as a favorite. I’ve always been in love with it and I couldn’t remove it from my musical imagination if I tried. As a tool for working through ideas of a certain kind it’s also invaluable, but by no means the definitive instrument for doing so. A keyboard-centric view of music can be a hindrance at times, so I try not to get too hung up on individual instruments and their musical parameters.

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CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT GAMES YOU WORKED ON? 
Recent and ongoing projects include Transformers Universe and RuneScape. Previous work includes Dead Space 3, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and 2.

 



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