Words by Jerry Smith
Returning for the sequels, and having ventured into the Tomb Raider and Far Cry franchises, as well as another modern-day horror classic in 2015’s Until Dawn, Jason has solidified his place as one of the most uniquely original video game composers today.
How does it feel to have been such an instrumental part of how well-received the Dead Space series was?
It’s immensely pleasurable to have any recognition, especially within that awareness level. But also, the other side of the coin is that the score is so angry and over the top - and even visceral. It’s so in your face and all of the reasons don’t equate to the reasons people would typically want to listen to the music, outside of the game itself. It turns out that fans of really scary music feel that it’s exactly what they want. The way it was crafted for the game, it’s a four-layered intensity, I tried to build the soundtrack to feel like you experience it in the game. So as a result, it goes from zero to a hundred in a heartbeat. It’s not exactly what you would do on a film score; which is more linear and following the on-screen action. For games, it’s made to be played for 12-14 hours, so it’s designed to be ratcheted up - even during the quieter moments of the game. I think that’s what most people responded to.
I laugh when I get mentioned on Twitter, and someone says, “Thanks for making my jogs exciting!” When it kicks in, that makes you run faster I suppose.
How did your involvement in the series come to fruition?
One of the reasons I think Dead Space and Dead Space 2 are such memorable experiences is that when we started on the first game, there were 15 of us, all working together to create a very visceral game that people could enjoy. There were no marketing angles or impending release dates, we were just left to our own devices. We went through a few iterations where certain things worked musically and certain things didn’t. When we finally had what is called a vertical slice game, where you have a playable version, it was a good eighteen months into development. I started working on Dead Space in 2006 and it came out in 2008. Even when we were finishing the game, we were still left to our own devices. I would bug the sound editor every week with ideas of things I could do with the music. After the second call, he said, “I know it’s going to be great, I’ll see you at the next recording session… I trust you and think whatever you do will be great.”
With 'Dead Space', I felt a lot of pressure to make the music as scary as possible.
They basically gave me a creative rope to hang myself, so I felt a lot of pressure to make the music as scary as possible. I recorded this insane sample library to use for the score. The opening theme is live music, but everything else you hear is from those custom samples. A lot of that intensity I spoke of, was me recording live sounds with an orchestra, bringing the music back, cutting it up and making it into samples which I would use to help create what the score eventually became.
It’s well known that you were given the mandate to “create the scariest music of all time”. What sort of challenge was that to take on?
It was a very fun and intimidating challenge. It was all up in the air, trying to figure out which direction to take the score, whether it be live music, synth-based or sound design stuff. EA Games said, “Do whatever you want to do.” I was flipping through the channels one day and The Shining came on and of course, it was the “All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy” scene. It’s one of my favourite movies anyway, and I know that score inside and out but had never looked at the actual conductor scores. They were done by the late Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki and, out of nowhere, a light went off and as I saw Jack’s face in the film and heard those pizzicato strings, I knew what needed to be done. That is what Dead Space needed to be - the abstract orchestra feel of it.
I took real instruments played by real people and just mutated their playing techniques.
The feeling of a group of humans on the Ishihumra being infected by the Marker and turning into these Necromorphs needed to be organic, because they were humans who were mutated, I tried to figure out ways to mutate the orchestra in any way I physically could get them to do that with their instruments, so I didn’t bring in synths or sound effects, I took real instruments played by real people and just mutated their playing techniques.
A game like Dead Space must be a different experience, score-wise, than what you would eventually do on Until Dawn, a game in which every decision a player makes dictates where the game will go.
In many ways, Dead Space and Until Dawn are logistically the opposite. With Dead Space, I had to create the puzzle pieces and put that puzzle together before delivering them to EA. With Until Dawn, I put the entire puzzle together, took it apart and gave it to Supermassive Games. They then took that and put it together in a way that you could have up to 10 or 11 hours of continuous, linear-feeling music. I gave them many little pieces that could all be assembled and reassembled in many different ways to create that much music. It was an unproven experiment at first and was just me, and Barney Pratt (Audio director). I did all of the music and he handled all of the sound effects, so it was an interesting experiment. I think after I turned in my music, Barney spent another eighteen months working on music and sound effects implementation before the game came out.
That’s always at the forefront of my mind, the question of 'What does this game or TV show or film need, musically, to help tell its story the best way possible?'
Until Dawn very much feels like a film score. Was that something that was important to you to do, or did the game’s story and approach necessitate that, itself?
It was both. That’s always at the forefront of my mind, the question of “What does this game or TV show or film need, musically, to help tell its story the best way possible?” Also, I always try to figure out what I can do differently than what I’ve done before, to keep myself creatively interested. Thankfully for me, I’ve never finished one thing and had the next person say, “Do what you did with Dead Space,” I’ve always been given the opportunity to do something very different. That’s what I love about working on games. In other media, you’re expected to do similar stuff — with video games, it’s kind of the opposite. With Until Dawn, I did everything very linearly, because I knew that Barney at Supermassive would have all of the tools to take the cues and make them what they needed to be within the story of the game.
A cue like “Icicle Elegy” will welcome you into a safe and whimsical mood before “Don’t Get Cold Feet” pulls that rug from underneath you. The score puts its listener through an experience. As a composer how do you utilize that ebb and flow of where you take your listener?
To give the listener an actual story just with the music is wonderful. The more you can swing the cues from the most non-horror cues to being absolutely terrified is exciting. It’s all about that break and going from one to the other, so you’re lulled into a serene and almost yin & yang approach. It’s giving you quiet complacency before getting hit over the head.
How do I make it bigger, when the first game was the biggest and meanest thing I had ever done?
I tried to also do that with Dead Space 2, with the string quartet in that one. The only thing EA told me with Dead Space 2 was, “Just do more of what you do, because it’s great,” and I was like, “Noooo!” How do I make it bigger, when the first game was the biggest and meanest thing I had ever done? If I couldn’t realistically make it bigger, I could at least make it feel bigger with a small string quartet as a contrast.
How did it feel playing in the sandbox of what John Williams created with Jaws for your work on Jaws Unleashed?
I think Williams is my favourite film composer. I’ve done several indie Star Wars films, so I’ve taken apart and put together so much of his work. The harmony, the melody…the orchestration. Everyone - and I mean everyone - could go on and on about how amazing it all is. It’s a slippery slope because you want to honour the original without ever feeling like you’re just mirroring it. That’s the tightrope (laughs).
What are your experiences with non-horror games?
I think a lot of it goes back to that John Williams comment. The more I studied about him and learned about his history, I discovered that he was essentially a jazz pianist. He was actually a “failed” jazz pianist. He tried to, and in some ways, he did become a great jazz pianist but for one reason or another, it didn’t fully take off for him as an artist. So he became a studio musician and studio composer with all of the disaster stuff of the ‘70s, before just unleashing Superman, Star Wars and then everything in the ‘80s. That said, you can hear in his harmonies, that jazz pianist approach. Nobody else was putting in fully diminished 7 chords and all of the great stuff he does with modes. I’ve really loved that, from the very beginning of my career, the jazz stuff. I actually started listening to jazz while scoring the first Dead Space, because I need some break. I was listening to a lot of early Miles Davis, just so my ears could decompress. So with something like both Moss games, anytime I am given the chance to work with those kinds of harmonies, I jump at the chance. That’s what I prefer to do, something that has those melodies. Something like the most recent Moss: Book II, something very pastoral and bucolic. I think I’ve been leaning that way so much lately because so much of my early career was leaning in the opposite direction.
I think working on a sequel to your own work is even trickier than tackling a sequel to someone else’s.
Moss: Book II is such a unique score and really stands on its own. What was your goal with approaching another sequel in your resume?
Sequels are always tricky; I’ve done a few of them now. I think working on a sequel to your own work is even trickier than tackling a sequel to someone else’s. You already have your set goal of what the first one was, but it’s a challenge to make it bigger. With Dead Space 2, I went to Kinko’s to get a big poster made that I hung up and it read, in three lines of text: THE SAME/BUT DIFFERENT/AND BETTER. I had that hung above my computer. To me, that’s what a good sequel should do. You want to honour the past but do something that feels like a move forward.