Epic Games chats with Infinity Blade composer Josh Aker about what it’s like working with ChAIR and his approach to making music for video games. The Infinity Blade: Original Soundtrack is available via iTunes, Amazon.com, Zune, and Amazon on Demand.
Epic Games: How did you first become involved creating music for video games?
Josh Aker: ChAIR was actually the first video game company with whom I had the opportunity to collaborate and score video game music. My aspiration was always to score films and at the time the opportunity to work with ChAIR came to me I had never considered scoring music for video games. But many years later I’m really glad I hopped onboard. The video game segment in entertainment just keeps getting stronger and there are great opportunities.
EG: What is the process of working with ChAIR like? How do you collaborate?
JA: Working with ChAIR has been a great experience and I feel honored to be the composer for such a highly creative and successful team. It’s been quite a growing experience and one that has evolved overtime as ChAIR has progressively elevated the benchmarks for creativity and quality with each game they produce.
Generally speaking, at the beginning of each project we sit down and discuss the story behind the game and look over the artwork. As the project moves forward I proceed to create music and deliver it to ChAIR to place in pre-release builds of the game to see if it works. There is a little bit of chicken before the egg with the process because ideally I’d like to see the completed game before scoring it but production deadlines seldom allow for that. So ChAIR delivers me artwork and builds as they have them, which helps me to create music to match the game and not in a vacuum. As we get closer to the end deadlines, specifically on a game like Infinity Blade, everything gets really intense and no one on the team sleeps very much. It’s a fun time.
The first game we ever worked on together was Undertow. Being an Xbox LIVE Aracde game, there were some bandwidth limitations because games were required to be less than 50 MB in size – total. So from a music standpoint I was limited to basically sound effects, stingers and a couple of minimalist loops. I remember sitting down with Donald to discuss ways to enhance the game musically using as little music possible while trying to avoid monotony. It was challenging but in the end we came up with a set of sounds and short musical motifs that fit nicely and really punctuated the gameplay in Undertow.
Then came Shadow Complex. The size limits were loosened a bit and Donald told me I could go bigger with the music this time, And, in addition to looping background music, I would need to create Boss Fight pieces. Specifically, he asked me if there were a way to allow the music to grow according to the progression of the Boss Fight. I gave him the best answer I could, “I have no idea.” Eventually we came up with a plan that took advantage of the versatility of Unreal Engine 3 and allowed me to create music that could stagnate or move forward depending on the progress of the player. We were really pleased with the music in Shadow Complex.
EG: How would you describe the music that is featured in the Infinity Blade games?
JA: Well the first descriptive word that comes to mind is ‘intense’. After Infinity Blade came out, Donald and I were discussing some of the feedback he had heard from test groups that played the game prior to release. One player expressed that at certain moments it was almost difficult to battle his opponent because the music made him so anxious. I took it as a compliment!
As for exploration pieces, the music you hear when simply going from one place to the next, they are not so monolithic. Some of the pieces are serene while others seem otherworldly. In the case of the dark and brooding sound of Dungeon, I was just going for pure evil.
JA: From a technical standpoint on boss fights the approach was very similar – create music that can stagnate or move forward. However, all the boss fights from the Deathless Kings and more recent are slightly more complex in that they intertwine looping and non-looping musical sections to keep in interesting.
Aesthetically, my approach was very different. The biggest difference is that Infinity Blade features quite a bit more live performance which results in a more emotive and powerful score. In addition, Infinity Blade has a greater diversity of foes that you duel and places you go. Accordingly, it has a larger set of recognizable themes so that when you listen to the music you think of a certain place or character in the game.
EG: What types of instruments were used to create the music of Infinity Blade? What is the one instrument you absolutely ‘must have’?
JA: The featured instruments were Cello & Nyckelharpa. I wanted extremely avant-garde performances from the musicians and they completely blew away my expectations. The cello harmonics literally became one of THE signature sounds of the music. The cello performance in Daerils, I Am Siris and Dungeon literally sounds like the weeping and wailing of damned souls. Timbre-wise it almost sounds like someone shredding away on an electric guitar but it is, in fact, one of the craziest cello performances I’ve ever heard. Then I’ve got a musician playing the Nyckelharpa. Most people haven’t even heard of this instrument, but everyone should. It is closely related to the violin but has a timbre and resonance all its own. Its unique sound really brought beauty and depth to the exploration piece Familiar Walls and was the main feature of the closing credits, Infinity Blade.
EG: How do you feel music adds to or enhances the gaming experience?
JA: Well the goal of any score is to give the thing you’re scoring a sonic personality. Infinity Blade is visually stunning and has a great story to match. I simply tried to create music that would be as strong and memorable as these other aspects of the game.
EG: How does creating music for games differ from creating music for films, trailers, commercials, etc?
JA: Well it depends on the video game I suppose. Some games feature a score that simply plays in the background. In such a case I’m not sure there is much difference between game music and film, trailer or commercial music. With the ChAIR games, however, they require music that is modular and adaptable to what is happening in the game. So it creates another dimension or parameter within which creativity must exist. The other mediums of entertainment are locked and don’t change. That’s the main difference that comes to mind.
JA: I loved Mario Brothers growing up. The themes from Mario Bros are perhaps still the most recognizable of almost any other video game. That is musical success – and it’s inspiring. I think most people love the music from The Dark Knight and Inception, two Zimmer works that have certainly had a an influence on my writing as well. The soundtrack for the cartoon tv series Avatar: The Last Airbender by The Track Team composers Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn is totally awesome. And Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings is pretty much beyond reproach.
EG: Which composers/artists have inspired you the most?
JA: Truthfully every composer I’ve ever heard has inspired me in some way. A few of my favorites are Ravel, Chopin, Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff. Some of the more contemporary composers that I’ve taken influence from are Wynton Marsalis, John Williams, Howard Shore and Hans Zimmer. Being a guitar player I’ve also taken a lot of influence from composer Isaac Albeniz and flamenco guar extraordinaire Paco de Lucia.
For more information on Infinity Blade II, visit the official site at: http://www.infinityblade2.com/