It's not every day you get to sit down with a seasoned composer of the industry, and it was with great pleasure I got the chance to talk to Jason Graves, the man behind Far Cry Primal's composition, as well as many other prolific games such as Dead Space, Tomb Raider's 2013 reboot and Until Dawn, to name but three.
Primal itself is Ubisoft's prominent left-turn from the otherwise modern setting the franchise had been routed in to this point. By literally having the game with an onscreen graphic rewinding time from 2016 all the way back to 10,000 BC, it required the team to reevaluate every game mechanic and ability, reworking them for an entirely new time period.
Honestly, whilst the game itself seems to be coming under fire for reusing too many of the same aspects as Far Cry 4, it's become a personal early highlight of the year, and it was under the proviso of delving into its creation and production, that I got the opportunity to talk to Jason.
WhatCulture: I thought we could start out talking about how you got involved with the project itself. Looking at your past games it's been quite some time since you worked with Ubisoft, I think it would've been 2007's Blazing Angels? I was wondering if Ubi got in touch, or just how you the collaboration came about?
Jason Graves: Wow, y'know I haven't thought about like that, it has been a while! Well, there was a particular audio director in Paris that I became really good friends with. I did pretty much everything he was working on, and then he was no longer an audio director so I had a bit of a hiatus. Far Cry Primal is Ubisoft Montreal, and they had heard some previous music that I had done on Youtube, of all places, where their Music Supervisor later told me that he was scouring Youtube and came across a score that I'd done last year for a game called Evolve. It was a very textural, kinda abstract sort of rhythm-based game.
This is what I love about gaming, they didn't think "Oh, he can write a score like that for us!", they heard it and thought "Wow! This is like a cool, electronic, textural rhythmic thing. Maybe he could do something that's textural and rhythmic, but in the world of our game."
WC: The score itself is immediately very tribal and connotative of what we'd associate with primitive or ancient man, or primitive species'. What sort of instrumentation did you use, and what were your main influences going in? Was Evolve something of a jumping-off point at all?
JG: Well, not really (laughs). Evolve was so, well it was electronic. The game takes place in the future and it's all about soldiers and technology and everything else, where as this is kind of the antithesis of that. But, the jumping-off point was very similar to the way I began Evolve, which was learning as much as I could about the game and really looking at the game itself. Since we're talking about caveman, pre-Bronze Age kinds of stuff; the costumes that everybody wears, the armour and the way that they make fire and the way that they build their houses - there was just a lot of visual imagery there that was a great place to start.
It's similar with Evolve, they've got all this gear and spaceships and so it's very electronic and digital and metal, was very natural and organic, and the score is split into thirds between the three tribes in the game. So, one tribe, the big, large-sized enemy, the Udam, it's all literally plants and dirt and bones and stone, and all these natural-occurring things that actually aren't musical instruments, but I played them like a primitive orchestra, if you will.
WC: That's an interesting point, because in terms of foley (ways of creating particular sound effects using various physical means) more orthodox ways of recording and specific musical instruments, I'm guessing there would've been things you had to adapt to work for the time period?
JG: Exactly! I mean when growing up, my first instrument was drums, so it's real easy to take that leap of faith, from playing a drum with some sticks, to playing a drum with my hands, to playing something else that's not a drum, still with my hands. And this literally, for the Udam specifically, it was like a drum set, a primitive drum set with lots of bushes and dirt and bamboo and, I just kind of wrote for it like I was writing for an orchestral percussion section, it was just... dirty! (laughs)
WC: So what state was the game in when you first came on board? Did Ubisoft give you a lot of concept art and initial renders of what they thought the pieces of the world were going to look like? Were there any parts that you had to assume ahead of time?
JG: Oh no, I was brought in- I mean in my experience I've been brought in two or three years before a game comes out, so this was maybe less than a year before the game was going to come out. So fairly in the latter part of production, and they already had a lot together in terms of the world. The characters weren't quite as fleshed out yet, but the world was there, so you could walk around and see everything, it just wasn't interactive yet. And then, as things came online they kept sending me updates of pictures and screenshots, storylines and quick-time movie/gameplay capture and all that stuff, so I was in the loop.
WC: In terms of how music gets composed for a video game, on the tracklist there are specific pieces written for specific creatures such as the Bloodfang Sabretooth or the Great Scar Bear. Did you write the music with those creatures in mind, or did Ubisoft have certain enemies or encounters they wanted to highlight, which your music then became associated with?
JG: For the most part, it was all done intentionally. It's kinda like, there were three sections of the game, there was the mission-side of the game where you have specific things to do and I wrote specific music, then you had the hunting part again where you're hunting specific animals and I wrote specific music for that as well, and then the third one is just the open-world area, and the music was still specific, but it was also open-ended.
So, we'd have say three or four cues that were written when you're venturing into the Izila territory, maybe some other cues being written if you were venturing into the Udam territory. So, I was geographically specific, but not really, y'know, 'combat by combat'. Each equals a specific piece, I don't know if they chose to have a particular piece play, or I think it might even be a little random to keep the open-world feel of the game. Say when you're fighting and you're in the Udam territory and they're playing the music I wrote for that territory, there's kind of a 'bank' of pieces that it picks from depending on a bunch of different factors, to keep it fresh.
WC: That factors into another point about video game music in general. What is it like writing something for a medium where the player or recipient is going to dictate how they're exploring the world, and thereby the mood of the game at that time? In terms of Primal, you can go from hunting an animal very slowly, to suddenly a combat scenario or interacting with something - what is it like to write music that can change on the fly in such a way, and how easy is that?
JG: It's as easy as the developer can make it, really. When you have so many different factors that determine what's happening in the game, there are only so many - we call them 'hooks', meaning 'a bit of gameplay that's going to trigger something specific in the music' - so there's only really a certain number of hooks that the developer has time to put into the game, unless it's a completely interactive music system. In my opinion, most of them, they're not 100% randomly interactive, it's more like you choose where you want the game to determine what to play, and at other points you craft and have very specific music things that you want to go with certain events.
It's like, the balance - I think - a balance of all those things, a little bit of everything really goes a long way, but it is very much in the hands of the developer, because they're the ones who are doing the implementation. With a big game like Far Cry, Jerome (Angelot, Music Designer at Ubisoft) was full time doing music implementation, the whole time I was writing music, and I think right at the end, they had two more people come on so they had three people implementing music full time for the last couple of weeks on the game. That's how big of a job it is.
WC: In terms of your wider work and past scores including things like Evolve and Dead Space, do you have any personal favourites, and were there any past techniques or ideas that you brought across onto Primal?
J.G: Hmm, well probably my favourite thing about working in music - and this applies to video games, advertising or television etc., is the variety of styles I get to work in. So in many ways, working on something like Evolve that's very electronic and textural, and then working on something like The Order: 1886 which was recording musicians at Abbey Road, orchestral, for a week for the game, doing something like Until Dawn which was also orchestral but very, very, very tightly integrated and included a lot of stuff of me here, playing things that I recorded at Ocean Way, here in the States - every one is completely different.
So, when the caveman game came up, it was sort of like "Well, maybe I can do something like I did on Evolve, except organic instead of electronic, and maybe I can make it interactive the way I did with Until Dawn except it's going to be for this caveman sort of time, and then maybe I can take some of the ideas from The Order of having really unique sounds by exclusion of so many instruments. How about we just do drums for this, and no metal, and no plastic, only the primitive sorts of materials things would've been made of, y'know, nothing's directly related, but it all snowballs and informs later projects, if that makes sense!
WC: Absolutely, I think the element of stripping things back comes across very well in both the game and its ideology, and immediately from the score itself. Just speaking to more of your work, you played at the Joystick 5 concert in Sweden, what was it like taking music that was written for a game or a very specific context, and changing it to being in front of a live audience?
JG: Really, really rewarding. Being able to meet eye-to-eye with all those folks and hopefully have them appreciate the music, it feels like they appreciated the music. That sort of connection is priceless, because really as composers we're sitting by ourselves in dark rooms all day (laughs) so, when you can make a connection with someone that you can physically experience yourself, it's really really great. As far as composing, making it work on the stage was really a matter of building a suite. So let's see, I think that was Dead Space and Tomb Raider, so that was maybe 15 or 18 minutes of music in total, but the challenge was just getting the music to flow from piece to piece, because a number of video game pieces are two or three minutes long, so I built suites out of everything. That was really the only task.
When I write for orchestra I'm really writing as if there's an orchestra on the stage, so even though both of those games, Dead Space and Tomb Raider, did not have live orchestra, it was me using my orchestra sounds here in the studio, it was a direct apples-to-apples comparison, to get the live orchestra to play the Tomb Raider pieces, and it sounded pretty much the same as it did in the game because they were the same arrangements. There really wasn't anything to change other than y'know, transitioning between pieces and things.
WC: Having people sit there and really take in the music they're presented with, as opposed to it being factored into a number of contextual factors, really makes them appreciate it more than they would otherwise.
JG: And it's so fun to conduct that stuff. The sessions that I have done live, because of the interactive requirements, we usually end up recording small sections at a time, like half the strings and the other half and then the brass. You never really get that super high-octane, 'full', 70-piece orchestra in the room, which I miss, but I appreciate the music once it's implemented into the game, so these concert pieces are like the best of both worlds. I've got the whole orchestra in front of me playing the whole piece all the way through - and I'm conducting - so it's just, all those live musicians, it really is the best place in the world to be; up on stage in front of a big orchestra like that.
WC: Do you think we'd ever see more live elements incorporated into a game's score? That feeling of elation and playing live, could that come across in an actual score?
JG: That's what I try to do with the orchestra. As a matter of fact that's how I ended up using a lot of my own sounds, I got frustrated. I was doing live recordings on some games, and then studio recordings, and then other games I was using the canned sounds that everybody has, and there was just no comparison in my head, so I started making my own sounds, which is what you hear on all the Dead Space games and Tomb Raider, those are my own orchestra sounds, and nobody else has them, so in a way, a lot of people think that they are live, because they don't recognise them as a certain library or a certain orchestra playing. I've fooled a lot of people just because they don't recognise the sounds, and it's kind of the best of both worlds.
WC: Looking back over your back catalogue of work, there is a thread between something like Tomb Raider and its primitive, survival aspects, and then Evolve and now Primal - I think there are qualities in your music that I absolutely love, and you can pick them out in the different games that you've done.
JG: That's cool! That's always unintentional (laughs), but I think it's neat that there's a thread.
WC: Speaking to the industry overall, I was wondering if there were any composers, scores, audio teams etc. that have become your personal favourites? Darren Korb sticks out for me thanks to his work on Bastion and Transistor, and most recently, Chris Remo's work on Firewatch is really great. Are there any you've been checking out?
JG: Lately, in games specifically, all my favourite composers and all my favourite work are pretty much all of my good friends, and I don't think that's a coincidence, I think whether it's subconscious or not, I've sought out friendships with people that I respect and admire. Lately, just because of the games that have come out recently, Jessica Curry for Everybody's Gone to the Rapture; just an amazing score and she's a wonderful human being. Austin Wintory who's been a friend for a long time, I really loved what he did for the last Assassin's Creed (Syndicate), and I know it's been a year or so now, but Garry Schyman's score for Bioshock: Infinite was just amazing. Those are the three that jump to the forefront of my mind.
WC: Absolutely, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture in particular, the music is such a huge and important part of that. Well, I'd like to thank you very much for your time, and I hope to be able to do it again some day, thank you.
JG: That sounds perfect! See you later.
There you have it. Let us know in the comments if you're playing through Far Cry Primal, and what you think of Jason's past work!