Jason Graves Interview: The Same, But Different and Better (January 2011)
Interview Subject: Jason Graves
Interviewer: Michael Naumenko
Editor: Michael Naumenko, Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Michael Naumenko
Michael: Two years have passed since the original Dead Space and now the second part is on its way. This time, the game takes place on an orbital station called The Sprawl and thanks to the Red Marker, the game's protagonist Isaac has a serious mental injury. How did all of this affect the music and how did the soundtrack evolve?
Jason Graves: Having the game take place in a setting so different gave me a chance to have the score reflect the same ideas as the game. We’re now in a much bigger setting, and I wanted the music to reflect that. The original Dead Space was very claustrophobic, and the music had a very chaotic, out-of-control sound to it. I wanted the music for Dead Space 2 to sound bigger and more focused than the original. So the score makes use of more instruments in the orchestra to convey that larger-than-life feeling.
Isaac definitely has a more identifiable character arc in the sequel. I used a string quartet, which is the antithesis of the huge, churning orchestra, to portray Isaac’s vulnerability and character arc as he progresses through the game. I was interested in the juxtaposition of the large orchestra with the small string quartet, and I use the quartet to also illustrate Isaac's mental weakness throughout the game.
Michael: Issac Clarke has become a more fully-fleshed protagonist, with a lot of dialogue cues. Does he also have a musical leitmotif?
Jason Graves: Yes, he does! But I didn’t want to create anything musical, like a tune you could sing, because after all this is Dead Space! So I chose a simple four note statement to musically identify Isaac throughout the score. The notes are D-E-A-D. It seems simple enough, but I had a lot of fun incorporating these four notes into the score. Sometimes they are amazingly dissonant and other times quite peaceful. I also composed a concerto for string quartet, entitled Lacrimosa, which combines this theme with other themes from the franchise. The themes are constantly in conflict with each other, until the last 2 minutes of the piece. By then they have reached some sort of harmonious agreement, although you never know how things will turn out. This is Dead Space, after all!
Michael: What was your collaboration with Dead Space 2's audio director like?
Jason Graves: Andrew Boyd, the audio director for Dead Space 2, was wonderful to work with. There really weren’t many specific directives for the music, except it should be “the same, yet different, yet better.” I said that in our first meeting together, and everyone completely agreed that was our goal for all of the audio in the game. Of course, there are specific instances in the game where the music needed to be tailored to fit a certain scene. Andrew was always available to talk, sent plenty of movies and artwork, and we also spent hours and hours hanging out together at EA, playing through the game, and discussing ways to make the audio even better than in the first game.
Michael: What were the differences between working on the first and the second Dead Space game?
Jason Graves: It’s funny, because I see myself and Isaac as following the exact same path in the Dead Space universe. In the original title, both of us were unsure of what we were doing. We were experiencing something we had never seen before. We didn’t know what to expect. We weren’t sure how it would all turn out. A few years have gone by now, and we’ve had a chance to process what happened in the first game. There’s a little bit of a “been there, done that,” attitude about us. Now we’re able to use everything we learned from the first game and apply it to the second one. We’re a little more confident, a little more sure of ourselves. We know from experience what works and what won’t.
Michael: Stylistically, Dead Space 2 is similar to the first game, but as you mentioned, you've introduced some changes - could you describe these in some more detail? What references were you given before starting to compose?
Jason Graves: There really weren’t any references given to me for the sequel. In the original Dead Space, I had extensively researched and studied as many pieces of 20th Century classical music as I could find. Those were essentially the “puzzle pieces” that I used to assemble the final score. When I began working on the Dead Space 2, I went back and listened to the first score and approached it as if someone else had composed it. “Let’s see what the composer did with the score.” I picked it apart and quite quickly had a list of things I hoped to improve. I knew I wanted the interactive music to play more smoothly in the game. I also knew I wanted the overall mix of the music to be more in-your-face and aggressive; definitely bigger and sharper sounding. In contrast, I also wanted the dichotomy of a huge orchestra contrasted with just a few musicians. That was how I was able to musically portray Isaac’s struggle through the game. Essentially, he’s the string quartet and the Necromorphs are the huge orchestra.
Michael: How much music did you write for the game? How much time were you given to compose the soundtrack?
Jason Graves: Even before I answer that directly, you have to understand how the music for all the Dead Space games is implemented. It’s an interactive system, so there are constantly at least four, sometimes even eight, streams of music playing simultaneously. In order for these streams to work properly, I have to compose the music in such a way as to provide instruments on every stream that reflect the gameplay accurately. Most of the pieces I wrote were two minutes long, but with the interactivity in mind there were actually 8 minutes of music composed for those two minutes of “stacked” gameplay music. The idea is that any one of those streams would be able to stand on its own and enhance the gameplay, but also be able to be mixed in with the other streams and still work. That being said, there were more than two hours of music written. But of course, that’s before you count the “interactive streams,” and the music count goes up significantly higher!
That’s a lot of music, but fortunately for me EA gave me a lot of time - and not only time to compose the score, but time in-between composing the score. I would write five to ten minutes of music, deliver it to them and wait to hear how it worked in the game. That kind of perspective is priceless for any composer! I think you get much better music when it’s written over a long period of time rather than squeezed into just five or six weeks. It’s not always possible, but when it is I definitely relish it. I was involved with the music for Dead Space 2 over a period of about 18 months. Most of that was the “on-again, off-again” kind of music schedule. But as with any game, the last four or five months were when the bulk of the music production was done.
Michael: Where was the soundtrack recorded and how big was the ensemble that you used?
Jason Graves: There were three different recording sessions for Dead Space 2. The first two were completely orchestral and the third was with the choir. All three were recorded at Skywalker Sound with the Skywalker Symphony Orchestra and Choir. The orchestra was about 70 players, with an augmented brass section and woodwind section. I wanted lots of low instruments and added twice as many low woodwinds and brass than there are in a normal orchestra.
Michael: Was there anything in Dead Space 2 that you would have liked to realise, but didn't get the chance to?
Jason Graves: There are always music cues I wish I could have spent more time on. Even with an 18 month music production schedule, I could find things to improve! Overall, I felt EA gave me so much latitude with the score for Dead Space 2, I don’t think it’s a matter of not being able to do what I wanted. It’s more a matter of striving for the best score to support the game.
MIchael: What are some of your personal favourites on Dead Space 2 and can you elaborate a bit on the ideas behind them, their orchestrations etc.?
Jason Graves: The string quartet concerto "Lacrimosa" is definitely a highlight for me. I actually composed that outside of the game. That is, it wasn’t originally something that EA requested I compose - it was more of a passion piece for me personally. After hearing it, EA thought it would work really well during certain key moments of the game so I ended up acting as my own music editor and cutting different parts of the quartet into the game.
I also had a lot of fun playing Isaac’s theme against the Marker theme. Like Isaac’s theme, it consists of four notes stated very simply. But unlike Isaac’s theme, it has no direct tonal center. It simply descends a chromatic scale by half steps without any regard to its musical surroundings, usually wreaking havoc on anything it comes in contact with. Very much like the Necromorphs themselves! I took these two main themes and put them in constant conflict with each other throughout the score. Many times the Marker theme will state all four notes at the exact same time, creating the cluster sound that is now practically a musical signature of Dead Space. Other times it slithers down the scale in stepwise motion, creating an immediate sense of unease and tension. “Come Rain or Come Convergence” utilizes both of these themes, but in a much less chaotic way. However, there are still hints of the Marker and its monstrous Necromorphs if you listen closely. In fact, I would suggest making a direct musical comparison to the musical finale of the first Dead Space and the finale of the second one. I think astute listeners will notice a few extra notes here and there that don’t quite seem to fit. Those extra notes actually augment the melody and meter of the music to state the four note Marker theme. Even once all seems resolved, the four note cluster enters one last time before being subdued by Isaac’s theme.
The Church of Unitology plays a much bigger role this time around. EA wanted a specific sound associated with them, which is why we had the choral recording session. Now, of course this is Dead Space! The choir was not singing “music” so to speak. The entire session was all about textures and effects. The more out there and nonmusical the choir sounded, the happier I was. I took all of these creepy choir recordings and added struck bowls, glass bells and Tibetan chimes. All of these instruments combined are the musical equivalent of the Unitologists. Because these instruments are only used in specific locations and did not exist in the first game, they are instantly recognizable. I promise, as soon as you hear the music in the game you will know exactly what I’m talking about! By the way, there are also some inside jokes for all the Dead Space fans out there. Three of the track names on the official album release are disguised as anagrams. Anyone who can decode the anagrams will discover a few keywords and phrases paramount to the Dead Space saga.
Michael: What are the chances that we'll see a Dead Space 2 soundtrack release?
Jason Graves: There’s not one, but two soundtracks available to purchase. The official soundtrack will be available on January 25 when the game ships. The official soundtrack is a digital release on iTunes and Amazon that has sixty minutes of music I personally produced from the score. The Collector’s Edition is a physical CD, which is always a treat for collectors. It’s sixty minutes of score as well, but that includes thirty additional minutes of exclusive music not available on the standard digital release.
Michael: What projects are you currently working on?
Jason Graves: Oh, the pitfalls of game projects and their ironclad nondisclosure agreements! Unfortunately, I’m unable to discuss any specific titles I’m working on right now. What I can say is I’m working on five different games, and somehow they are all sequels! There are a few fantasy titles, a popular science fiction title, and a major sequel to a huge franchise that I’m really excited to be involved with. I’m also working on two independent films and an hour-long concert piece.
MIchael: Thank you very much for your time!
Jason Graves: Thank you very much for the questions! It’s been a real pleasure.