If you’ve died in a horror game, Jason Graves was probably right there with you. With Dead Space and The Dark Pictures under his belt, the BAFTA-winning American composer has scored the tracks to accompany an incalculable number of digital demises. But despite the seemingly fate-defining surname, Graves hasn’t only had an urge to handle horror.
This year’s DICE awards saw VR adventure Moss: Book II nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Original Music Composition. Ahead of the awards show, we sat down with the esteemed composer to discuss how his partnership with developer Polyarc came about, and the freedom of trading fear for fairytales.
Grave’s home life couldn’t be further from the traumatic worlds he’s known for scoring. His household is one almost overflowing with adorable animals – hedgehogs, guinea pigs, a tortoise, and even a bearded dragon. And like any good pet owner, Graves has never been shy about sharing photos, even to his agents.
So when Polyarc’s audio director Stephen Hodde got in touch with Graves’ then agent of over eight years, the request for demo pitches based on Moss’ fauna-filled concept brought exactly one person to mind. Graves, though, wasn’t exactly a name that Hodde had expected.
“He laughed a bit to himself,” Graves says. “[He] said something like, ‘Oh Jason’s incredible. I love his work, but this isn’t that kind of game!’”
But Graves’ agent insisted, and before long, music fit for monsters made way for woodland wildlife as Graves prepared his pitch.
“[Polyarc] got together to listen to all of the demos and basically had a blind vote to decide who they thought would be the best composer,” says Graves. “Everyone unanimously picked my demo. Having it be anonymous probably helped. But I would like to think that even if they knew it was mine, they wouldn't let the Graves legacy of horror and tension overshadow their feelings for the music. The demo was supposed to be 60 seconds, and in my usual fervor I wrote an eight or 10-minute demo. I just had all these ideas I had to get out there. It was like ‘Yes! Finally!’
“I felt like I had one of my first opportunities to write fairytale and storybook – without going too cliche – music and harmonies. Most people associate me with the Dead Space titles or Tomb Raider, and then my last name is Graves. So you've got Dead, Tomb, and Graves. Sort of an inevitable association I think!
Even that now-established link to horror music nearly didn't come to pass. Graves' seminal Dead Space score could have sounded very different, based on developer Electronic Arts’ initial directions.
“[The first piece of music] I did was more sci-fi action and heroic because they said they wanted to empower the player to get through the level,” Graves recalls. “And I said, ‘Okay, I'm the composer, I will do that for you. You’re the boss.’ And then they came back a couple months later and said, ‘No, we want the music to completely terrify the player and make them convinced that they’re going to die any second!’ Okay! I can do that too.
“It’s always interesting because it’s a team effort. It's not like a film, where a script is written first and everyone agrees, most of the time, they start filming, and all the logistics work out. Making games is a lot more of a creative community kind of thing. I definitely get the feeling that the audio people I work with, the art departments – everyone is looking to everybody else for inspiration … That's the best result. When everybody's on the same page, everybody's collaborating, and you get your inspiration from other members of the team.”
A cemented connection to horror isn’t something Graves is opposed to, but that doesn’t mean he wants to be pigeonholed. Working with Polyarc on Moss offered the opportunity to let the tension and terror release, at least for a time.
“It's all the things I've yearned to have someone ask me to do in terms of music, only because I hadn't had a chance to do it yet,” says Graves. “It was like a rebirth – like I was back in college getting to write lyrical melodies and hopefully memorable chord progressions and themes.
“And for the first time, probably to this extent in my career, [making] pleasant music that made me feel relaxed and happy at the end of the day. As much as I love doing horror music. I can’t say that I’m relaxed and happy at the end of the day. I'm more frazzled and slightly in need of a glass of wine!”
The differences presented by Moss extended beyond just tonal. Virtual Reality places the player directly inside the game. The medium itself turned out to have little impact on his approach to scoring, but the level of immersion matched Graves’ style perfectly. Prefering to think diegetically, the composer utilizes sounds that you could imagine being played by characters within the world.
“That's actually how I approach a lot of my scores regardless of whether they’re VR,” says Graves. “When I was trying to figure out what instruments to use and what the score needed to feel like, I pictured this tiny mouse village which you see at the beginning of the first game. And the idea of there being a pub in there, and there's a little tiny mouse pub band playing. What kinds of instruments would they be playing?
“That was the impetus behind the instrument decisions. It was less about the VR engine and the way players were experiencing the game in VR, and more about the overall vibe and feeling that we wanted the players to have when they were playing the game.”
While Moss 2 expanded upon the original, both titles remained relatively small in scale. Where Tomb Raider and The Dark Pictures games were full-scale AAA operations, Moss was targeted at a niche market and produced by an indie team with resources as comparatively tiny as its protagonist. Fortunately, the smaller, intimate nature of a game like Moss was perfectly suited to a reduction in production scale. One aspect Graves wasn’t willing to compromise on, though, was the use of real instruments and players.
“I've been a percussionist, and a piano player, and a guitarist, and anything else that I can bang, strike, or strum for a very, very long time,” explains Graves. “So I immediately fell to my strengths: I could play some ukulele; I could play some hammered dulcimer; I could play some small percussion. I would much prefer to have a smaller, intimate ensemble of live musicians than something that I'm using the computer to generate. If I'm using the computer, it's to generate computer keyboard sounds. Not to make it sound like a real flute. I would rather hire a real flute or not use a flute at all.”
“When you want to have that connection to the music – which was important for the developer and for myself before we started the score – you need to have live musicians playing the music. You need to hear the vibrato, and the breaths, and the phrasing, and the emotion that they put behind these phrases when they play. That's what really transports the listener, I believe.”
It’s a philosophy which hasn’t just worked, but excelled. Despite their size and reach, both games, and the music within them, have drawn widespread acclaim. The soundtrack to Moss: Book II now finds itself nominated alongside the behemoths of God of War Ragnarok and Horizon Forbidden West in one of the most prestigious awards ceremonies in the industry.
“It's really quite the privilege because the audience base for Moss and Moss: Book II is so much smaller, because they’re VR games,” Graves says. “The music resources that are available to me working on an indie game like Moss are incredibly different from something like God of War or the Horizon games.
“[For Moss] it was just me playing about 85% of the instruments in my studio, recording everything here, mixing it, mastering it. The whole shebang. And then a few other soloists around the world – woodwinds cello, some bouzouki and oud – contributing incredibly important parts. That’s the whole music team. There was no recording studio. There was no recording session. It was just a bunch of musicians that love music coming together through the power of the internet and assembling the score.
“So it’s wonderful to be able to at least stand toe to toe with such amazing games like that. It is the kind of thing where being nominated is really an amazing honor. And regardless of whether I win, it's just a great ride.”
Our thanks to Jason Graves for taking the time to speak with us about his work. To keep up to date with his latest work, follow him on Twitter or visit his website. Moss: Book II is available now on PS VR, Quest 2, and PC VR. Listen to the Soundtrack on bandcamp or Spotify.