Without exaggeration, the Halo franchise has been one of Xbox’s biggest system sellers. After the announcement that Bungie Studios would be hanging up their green power armor, many gamers have been left wondering what’s in store for the Halo universe. We got our answer last E3 with a short debut trailer showing off a newly awakened Master Chief answering a call to action against an unknown and imposing enemy. Since then 343 has taken up the mantle for the next proper franchise entry, ‘Halo 4’, and news has been slowly trickling out as it nears its fall launch. We got our quick look at the Chief but one of the best things about Halo, and its sequels, was its amazing sound and score.
News broke this morning, via HaloWaypoint, that Neil Davidge is scoring ‘Halo 4′. You probably know Mr. Davidge best as producing and co-writing several albums for Massive Attack, but he’s also worked on several high profile television shows and movies such as ‘Clash of the Titans’, although this will be his first video game entry. Recently, Mr. Davidge took a few moments out of his busy schedule to talk to Multiplayer about his love for Halo and how you’ll experience the game through your ears. We also have a couple of behind the scenes clips that show a bit of the work that goes into scoring a game of this magnitude. Check out the full interview and clips after the jump.
MP- How did you approach music for a video game differently than an album?
ND- It’s a very different process working on an album. You gotta say everything with that song; with that piece of music. It doesn’t have to work with anything else. With a game, my process is to enhance what is visually there. I’m trying to tell the story through the medium of music. I’m attempting to find an underscore that puts that song in the best context possible- the most surprising, the most beautiful, the most dynamic. From that point of view it’s similar to writing for a film. For games in particular, you need to very strongly underscore the emotional context of that scene. The music needs to be fairly graphic because there’s a lot going on in screen, a lot of action that competes with the music. It’s easy to lose track of what your purpose is, what your motivation is, and what emotional perspective is, and the music is the main device to keep you connected to the storyline. From that point of view when I’m reading the script, I’m looking at where emotionally I need to be. I’m also checking what the environment would feel like, what would it feel to be looking at an alien planet, and how I would feel in that situation so I can create a sonic palate that captures that feeling.
Halo 4 Neil Davidge Interview
MP- Would you say creating game music is more dynamic than an album as the game has player agency?
ND- Absolutely. When you write a piece for an album it’s typically three to five minutes long and it has a definite thread that runs through it. With a video game, you aren’t writing with traditional structures. Pieces of music must give you a sense of the environment, a sense of your emotional perspective of that time, but must also allow the game player to be heroic one moment and the next moment finding safety or running away. I’ve got to write music that can underscore- not just the primary emotional perspective- but also all of the other possible eventualities that may occur in that particular scene. The pieces of music often don’t run in a song-like form. There will be an essential introduction and build up to a main thematic section. Then you do lots and lots of variations of that, playing around with melodies, rhythms, sonics, and you keep adapting the piece and evolving as you go through- sometimes breaking down into a very melodic, atmospheric phase then building up to a big, percussive phase. As a listener it might actually sound pretty schizophrenic if you listen to it end to end. But when you implement that music into the game, it very much underscores what the player is doing. It’s linked, or it should feel like it’s linked to what the player is doing at that point in time.
MP- Sounds pretty tough actually to try to get that working together.
ND- It’s taken awhile to kind of get my head around it at the beginning. It was a bit of a struggle chatting to the guys at 343 in Seattle- they were saying, ‘Yeah, we love this piece but we need more variation’. For me, with more of an album and film score background, of variation I was putting in was more vertical adaptation and building on a particular structure. So, I would be adding more instrumentation in and what they wanted is something they called ‘horizontal variation’ which is where you keep the fundamental pieces and you keep evolving them. You keep changing them as time goes one- changing the emotional perspective, rhythmic perspective, atmosphere, textures and keep evolving that to create a mood board of a piece of music. They can edit it so that one section will flow to the other but don’t have to put into that order. They can move things around. It’s a bit of headache.
MP- Is there a lot of push and pull with the developers as they’re creating these scenes? Do you play the game first or are you playing and composing?
ND- As it works out, they’re still building a lot of the missions and graphics. When I began writing the music, all I would have would be an artist’s impression of the scene, some key characters, and maybe a paragraph or two description. Also, if we’re talking about certain characters, I would have a bit of a character description and some history behind that character to fuel me. A lot of the time, I didn’t have any moving visual inspiration. I had to create, in my mind, the scene from these artist’s impressions and small amount of copy. And consequently the music, because it was coming together before they had fully built the mission, it’s kind of gone back and inspired them and inform them of how the environment should feel and how it should look. Which is pretty cool, actually to know that my music has been influencing the game. It feels like it’s the wrong way. From doing film school, generally, you’d see a rough cut of the movie before you would even start composing anything. Where this is almost coming in at the script stage and writing the music, and then shooting the film. It’s tricky but it’s a lot of fun. It’s a huge challenge. The beginning was a bit awkward. Not only was I learning on the game, so were they. They were sort of in the dark into what they wanted musically. So we kinda evolved this score together but a lot of the time, they’re trusting me that I understand the game, I understand Halo, and I understand the score. They come to me because I have a certain angle that they like and think fits with they’re vision of the game. So there’s been a lot of trust involved. I would think they say that’s paid off all round.
MP- Have you spent much time playing the other Halo games- 1, 2, 3 in particular because it’s the return of Master Chief?
ND- I’ve been playing the game for years. I began playing it whilst I was working with Massive Attack on the album Hundredth Window. The band is fairly well renowned for taking a long time to make albums and part of that was due to the fact that they’re irregular hours, to be a bit diplomatic. Of course there was plenty of time I was in the studio and be working while the guys weren’t around but there also be times when I needed them in the studio and they wouldn’t turn up 7 o’clock or something. So I would while away the hours playing Halo and that’s when I became hooked on the game. I’ve avidly played it ever since. It has been one of those, when I’m frustrated in the studio or programming for many hours, and I want some escapism often I’ll jump on the Xbox and would play. The guys I work with in the studio, I’ve introduced them to the game over the last several years. So we would have battles between each other.
MP- how did you get this opportunity to work on Halo 4?
ND- Initially, I think all the approaching was masterminded through my management company. They were having conversations behind the scenes. They didn’t actually tell me, I was told that they were talking about a potential Xbox game score and I didn’t actually find out it was Halo until the week before I went out to Seattle to meet everyone at 343. I was interested scoring for a videogame. It’s not something I’ve done before and I’m always up for doing something new. But it wasn’t until that it was Halo that I thought I really want to do this. I literally found out the week before. My management company came down to Bristol saying ‘tell me about it’ and really did knock me off my feet. A big thank you to Massive Attack for introducing me to the game many, many years before. I feel like I’ve been training for the last, eight, nine years for this opportunity. Makes you want to believe in powers unseen.
Halo 4 Behind the Music Orchestrial Symphony Interview
MP- Going back to game, what’s the most interesting part of Halo that you’ve had to score?
ND- I’ve really enjoyed trying to get my head into the various characters and trying to understand them, and understand their motivations, and not just see them as black and white figures. The Master Chief, he’s a hero. I’m trying to get my head into who he really is and how he must feel. Of course he’s a hero but he’s kind of out there on his own these days. The only person he’s spent any decent amount of time with and experienced all these situations with is Cortana. That she’s his only friend in this universe. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the characters and kind of delve into they’re past. I’ve read a lot of the books that have come out and have gone back and played the all of the games over again. I’ve really enjoyed that, really enjoyed trying to flesh out these personalities through music. The biggest challenge for me on the game has been doing the battle pieces to keep the energy up. And to take the music in a slightly different direction as previous Halo scores and evolving it sonically, textually, rhythmically, and update it and bring a slightly more modern approach to scoring for a videogame. There’ve been a lot of aspects I’ve enjoyed. I’ve loved working with these guys in Seattle. They’re all on top of their game, very passionate people. That always inspires me. I love working with very talented, driven people. It would be very difficult to pinpoint one thing that has been the most enjoyable aspect to the project. I’ve enjoyed a lot of it. It’ll be big hole in my life when I’ve finished. I’ll probably go into a sort of depression for a week or so. Actually, I think I’m going on holiday. So if I do, I’ll be somewhere very sunny.
MP- Outside Halo, what sort of other experiences have you had? Did you play video games when you were younger?
ND- Not really. The first time I really started playing videogames was in the studio while working Massive Attack projects. Robert from the band loves gadgets and has pretty much everything going when it first comes out. He had a Nintendo, Playstation, Xbox. I think the very first video game I actually played was Dead or Alive on the Playstation. We used to have little battles between the guys while working on the album. But, really, Halo is the only one I’ve stuck with. I’ve played a bit of Grand Theft Auto, some Call of Duty. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of either of those games, really, it’s only Halo that’s captured me and kept me engaged all this time.
MP- Any final thoughts about Halo?
ND- I know things have kind of moved to 343. I’m a new composer. I really hope fans of Halo are going to enjoy this game as much as they’ve enjoyed previous games. I want this to be the best video game ever. I really people have fun playing it.
It sounds like Neil is a big fan of the series and has a clear vision for what’s aurally in store for the iconic super-soldier. We can look forward to hearing Neil’s music of ‘Halo 4′ when it launches later this year.