Hitting the right notes

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We've all heard of the Miyamotos and Kojimas of this world, but when it comes to the music for games, it's blank faces all round. Imagine Final Fantasy without the plaintive keyboard theme or Silent Hill if the guys at Hanna Barbera had handled the score – scary. So I think it's about time we talked about the people that enhance the drama and atmosphere of our gaming experiences.

I had the opportunity to interview Richard Jacques (that's Jakes, so no crappy French accents), the man behind the critically acclaimed music of Headhunter. Richard is a freelance composer of videogame sountracks and worked in-house at Sega for seven years, but has also turned his hand to TV and film. As a classically trained musician, Richard favours orchestral soundtracks, which explains the 67-piece orchestra he squeezed into Abbey Road Studios to record Headhunter's cinematic score.

Chella squeezed into Abbey Road studios to talk with Richard about his game credits including Daytona CCE and more recently Jet Set Radio Future and Metropolis Street Racer. His music also is also featured at the Game On exhibition at the Barbican Gallery in London through September 15, 2002. Until then, find out what it's like to be "the music guy" in the games industry.

GiN: When you started your degree in music, did you ever see yourself composing for games?

Jacques: No, not really, but at this time I had just got myself a Sega Megadrive (Genesis) so I was spending a great deal of time on that! I hadn't really considered who actually writes game music, despite being a huge gamer and interested in music technology and composing. When a friend saw the Sega job advertised I thought it was perfect. The rest, as they say, is history.

GiN: Did the startling array of poxy music in games spur you on to do bigger and better things?

Jacques: To a certain degree, yes. I started out playing games on the Sinclair Spectrum and in those days there were a few talented composers who had the game music industry sewn up. People like Tim Follin, Rob Hubbard, Richard Joseph, Tommy Tallarico etc were creating some great music on very limited sound hardware. I suppose it was the hardware capabilities that spurned me on because I knew that in the future you would be able to create some very high quality game music, and then that would open everything up creatively.

GiN: Why is the music for games notoriously bad?

Jacques: I wouldn't necessarily say it is nowadays, but go back a few years and the technology was poor, therefore people looked down on it, not realising there was some clever composition going on, just on low quality hardware. I think with the advent of the CD-ROM, the boundaries are now wide open and it goes back to the quality of the composition of the music. You can give someone unlimited resources but if the quality of the composition is poor, it will still stick out like a sore thumb.

GiN: What are the clichés you say you are trying to get away from and isn't there a danger of just creating new ones?

Jacques: Perhaps, yes. I am trying to get away from the clichés that game music is poor, which I guess is still the opinion amongst the non-gaming public. Admittedly it is not so important for us games composers what the general non-gaming public think, but there are some very talented composers, sound designers and audio programmers in the industry now, it's time people started hearing their work.

GiN: Is the emphasis on music changing within the games industry or are you still ‘just the music guy'?

Jacques: I think it is still ever changing. These days it is commonplace to license in music for a project, so the specialist game composer is used for more integrated, ambient, incidental type soundtracks, regardless of the style. Most game developers still think "oh it's OK the music guy can do the sound design" which is a real shame as there are some great sound designers out there and the results would always be better when using a dedicated sound designer.

GiN: How does the process differ between writing for games and writing for movies?

Jacques: Well I haven't had so much experience in TV or film but the main difference is that games are a non-linear medium and films or TV shows are linear, i.e. in a film you know it has a beginning, a middle and an end and you know what happens in these sections so you can score the music to fit perfectly. In a game, because it is an interactive medium, you don't know what the player will do next, so it is best to use a certain amount of interactivity to fit with sudden changes in the game, to accompany what the player is actually doing.

GiN: What is your favourite game score?

Jacques: This changes regularly! Currently I am quite into the Medal of Honour stuff, Jet Set Radio Future and the Halo music.

GiN: Which game would you have liked to work on and what would you have done differently?

Jacques: Well, it's not released yet but probably my ideal project would be Panzer Dragoon on X-Box. The combination of the luscious style of artwork and innovative game design coupled with the sound hardware of X-Box would be a nice combination to work with!

GiN: How did you get to work on Headhunter?

Jacques: At the time I was the in house Composer / Sound Producer at Sega Europe. When Sega signed the title we knew the developers, Amuze, didn't have an in house composer so I was assigned to the project after they had evaluated my past work.

GiN: How complete is the game when ‘the music guy' is brought in?

Jacques: This varies all the time. For example one title I worked on was basically finished and I was given four weeks to do the soundtrack, then on the other end of the scale I started a project when it had only just begun and spent two years on it. In general these days, I would say the composer is brought in anywhere from a third to half the way through the development of the title.

GiN: Did you immediately have a sound in mind or did it come gradually?

Jacques: I discussed the music style in great depth with John Kroknes, Director of Amuze and Executive Producer on Headhunter. He is really interested in music and thinks very carefully about it so we went through loads of ideas with the game design and finally got the basic style and structure.

GiN: How much freedom do you get on a project like Headhunter?

Jacques: I got quite a lot of freedom on Headhunter. After we had mapped out what kind of music would go with each level / scene, we already had an idea of tempo / orchestration etc for the music cues so I had a relatively free reign within that overall structure.

GiN: What are the limitations when writing for games?

Jacques: Probably time, budget and technology, but not necessarily in that order! The time pressure can be very difficult but if you work with a good developer they usually know to give the composer a reasonable amount of time. Developers and publishers in general do not like spending money on audio, whether it is for a sports commentary or recording an orchestral score, so the budgets are generally quite tight. Technology wise, you have to realise the strengths and weaknesses of the platform for which you are developing.

GiN: Which game types are most difficult to write for?

Jacques: I would say driving games. Technically they are not difficult at all but stylistically they can be very hard, as people always have their own tastes. Especially because dance is more popular in Europe for driving games and rock is more popular in the US, so it is always a tough call, but it should be down to what works best for the game.

GiN: Would you call yourself a gamer, or does hammy music just keep you away?

Jacques:  I would certainly call myself a gamer, owning eight consoles and having spent some very late nights recently on Rogue Squadron, MGS2, NHL 2002 and others.

GiN: Have you got any exciting projects on the horizon?

Jacques: I have got some really exciting game projects in the works right now but I'm sorry I can't discuss them at this time. I hope I will be able to make some announcements very soon though!

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