Interview with City of Heroes: Going Rogue Composer Jason Graves — The MMO Gamer

Interview with City of Heroes: Going Rogue Composer Jason Graves

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Staff writer Kevin Stoner got the opportunity to talk to composer Jason Graves, the man behind the music for NCSoft’s City of Heroes: Going Rogue.

The MMO Gamer: Thank you for taking some time to talk with us. Many of our readers want to know more about your background. When did you discover you had a love for composition/music?

Jason Graves: I’ve always been interested in music. My parents have pictures of me wearing headphones and “playing” the piano when I was four years old. I took piano lessons in elementary school and then snare drum lessons in middle school. By high school, I was learning to play vibes and drum set along with more piano lessons.

I originally was studying to be an education major in college, but switched to music composition at the beginning of my sophomore year. I spent the rest of college studying music, eventually deciding to focus on film and television music at USC in Los Angeles.

The MMO Gamer: Do you believe music is essential to a video game experience?

Jason Graves: Absolutely! Music is what sets the emotional mood, whether you’re watching a movie or playing a video game. It’s even more critical in games because of their interactive nature. A properly implemented music score can totally sell a title. On the other hand, a poorly implemented score can make the entire experience seem repetitive and predictable. The music really does make or break the gameplay experience. At least that what us composers like to think!

The MMO Gamer: You won and were nominated for many awards for Dead Space, however you have many credits prior to that. Do you agree that this was your best work to that point?

Jason Graves: It was definitely my most original, which is what I think a lot of people responded to. It’s always difficult for me to predict how a specific game I’ve scored will be received once it’s released. The only thing I can do is focus on composing the best score possible.

I assumed the score for Dead Space would be largely marginalized by critics and fans, only because it was so incredibly dissonant and non-musical. Ironically, that’s exactly what made it unique and why it received to much attention.

The MMO Gamer: City of Heroes: Going Rogue has a soundtrack that includes a lot of baseline and drums, what does this music mean to you in relation to the game?

Jason Graves: As a composer, I’m always trying to find musical ways to convey the emotions and storyline of the game. I have to pay particular attention when I’m involved with an existing franchise. The previous music for City of Heroes had a little bit of everything, including dance, heavy metal, and industrial electronica, so it seemed natural to include some elements from these styles in the “next step” of the franchise.

If you combine these elements with orchestral music, you end up with what is referred to as a “hybrid score.” This general idea was the intentional direction from Paragon Studios. I was hired to bring a more cinematic, epic feel to the franchise.

The MMO Gamer: Welcome to Nova Praetoria is a classic game intro, including the choir and exciting backbeat and is a great beginning to the soundtrack. Shadow of a Doubt was all beats and thumps and very action oriented. However, Beyond the Horizon went an entirely different direction with its smooth cyberjazzy feel. Do you find this contrast to be essential for action games? Or games in general?

Jason Graves: Contrast is the most essential thing in the world, whether you’re talking about music, food or life in general. You’ve got to have vanilla to appreciate chocolate, and music is no different. I always try and plan out a unique instruments palette at the beginning of a new score.

The instruments and musical styles for Going Rogue reflect the general ideas and background of the game itself. Synths and electronic percussion that highlight the superhero aspect of the game, while the orchestra adds that cinematic touch and more epic feeling to the music.

The MMO Gamer: How much gaming experience do you have personally? What connects you to the gamers who listen to your compositions?

Jason Graves: I’ve been playing playing games since I was a kid. Now that I’ve got two kids of my own, we have a really great time playing together. They also really like to watch me play some of the more sophisticated first-person titles. Sometimes I think they get more excited watching me than they do actually playing themselves!

My ultimate goal is to create music that really sells the gaming experience to the player; something that totally immerses them in the game. I’m trying to compose the best score possible for the game. If I succeed, I consider that a win-win for myself and the players.

The MMO Gamer: Where do your ideas for the music come from? How much of a games’ history or backstory plays into each composition?

Jason Graves: There’s definitely a huge amount of influence from a game’s backstory and history. In the best case scenario, I can completely immerse myself in the world of the game. Developers send pictures, movies, scripts and rough storylines to give me the most information possible before I start composing.

For Going Rogue, there was an entire wiki catalog on the history of the different characters and locations. As a composer, you can never have too much information!

The MMO Gamer: Do you hope to move onto bigger media such as movies? Or do you think you have a home composing in the video game industry?

Jason Graves: Honestly, I’m incredibly happy where I am right now. I come from a film/television background and have already experienced the ups and downs of that industry. For me, there was a lot of “copy this score” or “try and sound exactly like this composer” going around, especially in the world of film music. I didn’t really have a chance to do anything original. Working in video games has given me the creative freedom I never had before.

As a result, games have been my career focus for the past eight years. But that doesn’t mean I’ve turned my back on composing outside the world of games. In fact, I’m currently working on two different film projects right. But these filmmakers want me to bring my own sense of drama and creative energy to their projects. They’re not asking me to directly copy someone else’s music.

I’ve got creative freedom to learn something new and try different things, which for me is the best part of my job!

The MMO Gamer: Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions!

The score for City of Heroes: Going Rogue is now available on iTunes.

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