Prepare to embark on an extraordinary adventure through the captivating melodies of acclaimed composer Gareth Coker.
Prepare to embark on an extraordinary adventure through the captivating melodies of acclaimed composer Gareth Coker. Known for his enchanting compositions that have breathed life into beloved titles such as Ori and the Blind Forest, Minecraft expansions, and the Ark series, Coker's musical genius has transported players to realms of wonder and excitement. In this interview, we delve deep into his creative process, exploring the inspirations, challenges, and exhilarating moments that shape the art of composing music for immersive gaming experiences. Join us as we uncover the secrets behind crafting unforgettable soundscapes and discover the magical synergy between music and gameplay.
How did you first get involved in composing music for video games?
When I started thinking about writing music as a career... Some people want to do film, some people want to do TV. I wanted to do games. So when I finished my education, I started going online and started doing music for mods for games. And eventually, the director of Ori 1 found the work of one of my mods, and he asked me to do the music for the prototype of Ori. I obviously did the music for free, but he said, "If our prototype is successful with a publisher, then I will pay you to do the soundtrack." And so obviously, Microsoft was the publisher and I got paid. I produced the Ori 1 soundtrack and then everything else is history.
The Ori series is renowned for its emotional, evocative, and melodic soundtrack. What inspired you to create such a unique and enchanting musical experience?
That question has such a big answer. The inspiration for Ori, I think, first comes from the story itself. The story is interesting because even though we're looking at mythical creatures, in reality, we're looking at a mother, we're looking at a child. And so that is something that literally everyone can relate to. They are representations. I think the reason why people get emotional when they play the Ori games is because they see someone else in their family as a certain character in the game. Like you might see yourself as Ori. You might see your mother as Naru. You might see a friend that you had as the Owl. All of the characters are relatable, even though they are fictional. So the first thing, that's the characters in the story.
But then the second thing, the inspiration comes from the visuals. In my opinion, both Ori games are the best-looking 2D games ever made. They're actually both quite different visually. I think the first one, the look is a little simpler. It's more like an old school Disney. The second one is definitely more detailed. It's more 3D, but it's still a 2D game. And I think they're two of the best-looking games ever made in this genre. And so how could you not get inspired to work with visuals like that? I feel very fortunate as a composer to have worked on these two games. Because I think a lot of composers go through their entire career and never get to work on a game like that where also the music is at the center of the experience the whole time. It's hard to get that kind of job as a composer, and I'm very lucky that I had it at the beginning of my career.
Can you share some insights into your creative process when composing music for the Ori series?
So the first thing I would do, and I ask this on every project, but it was particularly the case with Ori, I asked to play the game. Even if there's no visuals, I want to see how the game feels in my hand. Why do I want to do that? It's because I feel that every game has a speed and has a tempo. And that tempo is something I try to find in the music. If I'm playing Ori and I write some music that is too slow, because I've played it, I will be able to feel that the music is too slow. I can change the music accordingly. So playing the game and feeling the gameplay, that allows me to decide tempo and speed.
Then the other thing it helps me decide is how many sound effects are happening in the gameplay. So one decision we made early on in the creative process is that there are not many percussion instruments in the Ori soundtrack. Not many heavy drums because Ori's sound effects are kind of like heavy drums. So I felt that it was better to just have Ori be the percussion section of the music. And that is one of the reasons why the game sounds so good, in my opinion. Everything sounds very balanced. It's because music and sound effects are never competing against each other.
Then the last part of the creative process is when the visuals come in. That's how I just decide what instruments I want to use. So for example, the Ginso Tree in Ori 1, it takes place entirely inside a tree. So my focus is on using instruments mostly made of wood. So woodwind and percussion instruments like the xylophone, which have more melodic sounds. Anything that was made of wood I wanted to use for the Ginso Tree. In contrast, the area called Valley of the Wind, I wanted to use instruments which you need to use air for. So I tried to think of different solutions based on the environment and the visuals of that area. So all of these things combined form my creative process for the Ori game since then it's kind of the same. Play the game. What does the gameplay feel like? Look at the visuals and then write music that's appropriate.
Did you always have a chance to play the game before you started composing music?
Yes. Not on every game, but now honestly, it's something I demand. And if you don't give me that, then basically I don't work for you. Because it's a waste of my time. I always tell developers, I will write better music for you if I can play your game. So why wouldn't you want to give me that? Do you not want the best from me? If you want the best from me, let me play your game. Even if it's rough, even if it's early, I understand.
We met Inon Zur a few weeks ago, and we talked about Starfield. And he started composing the music for the game when it was just an idea in Todd Howard's head.
I think you can come up with concepts for sure. But I suspect the music that Inon wrote at the very beginning of the process, probably not much is in the final game. But perhaps it forms the basis of what is in the final game. I think that's normal, it's much like concept art. The concept art doesn't end up in the final game, but it inspires the vision. I strongly believe that composers, if they are involved early in the process, we should be doing concept music. But a lot of the time we just get hired, and then it's like, write music. We need music, and we have no time to do concept. When you have time to do concept work, the end result is usually much better.
If I'm not mistaken, you were the sole composer on Ori but you got to work with other composers on Mario + Rabbids and Halo Infinite. So how does the process of creating music differ when you're working solo and when you're working with other composers?
It depends on the project. Usually when there's a project with multiple composers, there's a music supervisor. And the music supervisor is a connection or a conduit between all of the other composers. Some music supervisors want each composer to do their own different thing, and some music supervisors want the composers to be connected to the others. For Mario + Rabbids, we use a little bit of each other's themes, but not too much. And for Halo Infinite, we were kind of all doing our own thing, partially because we were also using music from Halo 1, 2, and 3 as well. So working with other composers is usually no problem, especially if there's a good music supervisor in place.
Minecraft, apart from the massive player base and a huge success, is known for its distinct style. How did you approach composing music for the expansions that reflect different worlds?
You know what's interesting? When I was hired to do the Minecraft expansions, I thought they would want the lo-fi ambient style, but actually they said, no, we want realistic Hollywood, and I'm like, this is completely different from anything that you've ever done in Minecraft before. And they said, we know. And so I asked them, what's the reason? Because I need to understand their reason. And they said, we just want to take our players and transport them to that time and place. So with Minecraft: Egyptian mythology, we want to transport you to ancient Egypt. With Minecraft: Norse mythology, we want to transport you to the Viking times.
And so my job was to create music, actually not that fit the visuals for once, but actually just fit the time and place and the general setting. So when you're playing the Minecraft expansions, you're still looking at the blocks, but you're hearing super high fidelity music. And it might seem jarring, but actually, it kind of works because the visuals, they really worked very hard on creating the world, and your brain can make the connection between the music and the visuals. It was the same with Minecraft: Pirates of the Caribbean. I had to study the Pirates of the Caribbean music, but I wasn't allowed to use Hans Zimmer's themes for licensing reasons. So it had to be music like Pirates of the Caribbean but not the same. That was hard.
How do you approach a situation like this, when everyone expects Pirates of the Caribbean content to sound like Pirates of the Caribbean, but you have to do your own thing? How do you balance these aspects?
I think you just have to study the music that they want the style of and then just find a way to make it your own. Usually, the easiest way is to make a new melody but keep the style the same. And once you study someone else's music enough, you can start to recognize the patterns and the ideas, and once you can see the patterns and the ideas, you can take them and make your own thing. But you have to study.
Since you mentioned transporting players to different places and different times, I guess it counts for the next question I wanted to ask, and that's about the Ark series. It's a similar topic, transporting players to a different time and place. How do you approach composing music for a game that offers such a dynamic experience and is about survival with dinosaurs?
It's funny. The first piece of music I ever wrote for Ark was actually my test for the game. So the main theme for Ark was my test, and then it became the main theme. But I didn't know it was going to be the main theme at the time. I think when people play Ark, they just want to feel like they're having an adventure and then the adventure they're writing themselves. Some people play Ark and they never do anything. They just want to stay quiet, tame their dinosaurs, and never compete against other players. And some people want to do all the craziest, most epic things possible. I'm not going to lie, it's hard to write music for a game where you can basically do anything.
So the focus was making sure the music feels adventurous. Most of Ark's music is heavy. Most of Ark's music is combat. In the most recent expansions, especially Genesis Volume 2, we started focusing a bit more on the story and lore, and now I'm really getting excited about it because Ark's story, I think, is actually amazing. And what's really amazing is that we're doing the animated series, and the animated series basically takes the Ark story, and now you don't have to play the game for 1,000 hours to experience the Ark story. You can just watch the series and you can actually understand what Ark is all about.
My only regret with the Ark game is that I think the story and lore are so amazing, but not enough people get a chance to experience it because it requires so much effort to find everything and experience the story. But it has been a lot of fun creating the music for the original game, which is set on the island, and then we had Scorched Earth, which has kind of a desert feel, and then Aberration, which is like this weird sci-fi setting. And then gradually it's become more and more science fiction, and Ark 2 is going back to a primitive approach, and the TV series kind of covers everything. I've basically gotten to do every single style of music in this game, but I've also been able to reuse the main theme and compose it in many different ways to still give the brand its identity.
Honestly, that series, the game, and the TV show have been a major gift to me as a composer because they have been very successful, and we've been able to record everything with a live orchestra. I never, in a million years, when I started working on it and it came out in early access, I never thought that I would have written, if you include the TV series, I've written 14 hours of music for the game and the show. I never thought it would become that. But as I'm sure you know, it's unbelievably successful, and I know what's coming in the future, so I think it will be around for a while.
And this is my next question. What can we expect from the music in the animated series and even Ark 2?
I can't say too much, but I will say, if you've been playing Ark 1, there will be plenty of Easter eggs in the music in the animated series. It's been nice to take music from Ark 1 and adapt it to the show. However, the show features a bunch of characters that you do kind of see in Ark, but not really, but that's the big strength of the animated series, that we have characters and we can develop them, and that means every character has a theme.
Ark 2, again, I can't say too much, but you've seen the trailers already. The sci-fi element is still there, but it's very much back to basics. There will not be many synthetic sounds in the Ark 2 soundtrack, at least initially, so kind of more like what the original Ark 1 soundtrack was, but probably even a little bit heavier.
Since you mentioned that you're composing themes for characters in the show, are you doing the same for the second game?
How do you approach creating a theme for Vin Diesel’s character?
It's about understanding what the character's motivations are. Again, I can't say what they are, but I talk with the design team and the creative team, like what's he going to be doing in the game, what's his background, what's his origin, and then I compose around that idea. I mean, clearly you can look at the character and get an idea of what his vibe and energy is. Always for me, it's about talking with the development team and just finding out what the goal is.
Are there any specific challenges you encounter when composing music for video games compared to television?
They all have their own unique challenges. There are two things with games. One is they're so big. For me, it's finding the balance between having enough material to cover the game, but if there's too much, then it may not be memorable because there's too much different music. So you want to have a good theme that people can remember, but if you hear the theme too much, then the player might get annoyed by it. So it's defining the balance between variety and memorability.
The second thing with games is the interactive element, but that's different for every game, so that's a problem you have to solve in every game, so it's not unusual to me. TV or film has its own challenges because the timing is always the same, and you can't change it. So you're always restricted by what the visuals are doing, whereas in games, the timing is always different. Both are challenging in their own way.
Collaboration is often crucial in development. Can you tell us about your experience working with developers and other members of the development team to create a musical experience for games?
The collaboration part is essential. I don't believe you can create a great soundtrack without collaborating, not just with the sound team, but also with animation, story. Everyone has to be talking to everyone to make a great game. You can make a good game when people are not talking to each other, but I feel like the games that are truly great, the games that we remember, the games that we play forever, everyone is talking to everyone, and there is a beautiful synergy between every single department.
That's very hard to create on a big AAA title when every department is so big, but I feel like we have to try. Big films can do it, big games can do it too. For me, it's the most enjoyable part of the process because also you get another point of view. It's actually good to get a point of view from someone whose job isn't music or isn't sound. It's good to know what they like and don't like because actually, most of the public, they don't know about music and sound. They just know if something is good or bad. So, I'm always looking for as many different kinds of opinions as possible. So, yeah, the collaboration is so important.
So far, you have worked on action platformers, on Metroidvania games, action games, different kinds of games. So, are there any specific projects or genres that you haven't explored yet and would love to work on?
So, I am working on a project right now. It's very specific. I have worked on sci-fi because I've worked on Halo Infinite, but it's not my IP. I wanted to create an IP from scratch in the science fiction world, and I have that now. It's not been announced, it's many, many years away, but they have given me complete freedom. So, it's basically what I got to do on Ori, but now on a science fiction project. It's an RPG, and we'll find out if I can do science fiction.
With so many influential sci-fi soundtracks we have heard over the years, where do you draw inspiration from?
So, this is actually the most important thing: I'm trying to ignore inspiration. This game is so vast that taking inspiration from one thing is the wrong approach. So, there are no rules for this soundtrack. There's only what feels good in the game. Of course, the developers have some basic ideas about influences, but I'm also trying to ignore them. So, I'm trying so hard to come up with my own thing, and yeah, you'll have to wait to hear the results. I am very excited about the project though, and eventually it will be announced, and I can talk about it more, but for now, I can't say much more.
What do you expect from the AI in your field, and how does it influence your work?
So, yeah, it's a big topic. I think AI can be used for good and can be used for bad. It depends on who has control of it. For me personally, there are definitely things that can speed up. It can also help with analytical decisions on music and the technical side of music. Already, there are plugins which are using AI to improve the sound quality of music. In terms of the creative, AI is only as good as the information it is fed. It needs to be given content. And that's why so many companies are basically trying to steal artists' content without their permission.
An AI could definitely create music that sounds like me if it had the information. If I fed it the Ori soundtrack, yeah, it can create the Ori soundtrack, but it can't come up with the idea of the Ori soundtrack from scratch because it needs to come up with the melody and it needs to come up with the aesthetic. That's the thing it can't do. It can't think grand vision. It can only think how to copy right for now. Maybe in the future, it can come up with something from scratch, but right now, it needs to be prompted to come up with ideas.
I don't believe an AI could create Breaking Bad. I don't believe an AI could create Star Wars from scratch. I don't believe an AI could create The Witcher. An AI might be able to create a game based on The Witcher if it read all the books and then looked at the game, but it still needs that basic input. So it's going to be an interesting time because there are some creators who will give all of their intellectual property to an AI and say, hey, you can buy the Gareth Coker AI and it will make music for you forever. There will also be some creators like me who will be like, no, no one is going to use my music and feed it to AI. And I had people ask me, well, don't you feel it's inevitable that an AI will figure out? Maybe, but maybe not. I don't want to find out. And if it happens, then I will deal with it when it happens. But right now, it hasn't happened.
I am yet to hear any AI that can do anything like a film soundtrack or game soundtrack at very high quality. What is going to happen is AI is probably going to replace very low-level music, like the kind of music that's on reality TV shows, very, very basic, simple music. I don't believe that AI is capable yet and will be for quite a long time of matching music to fit certain emotions in games and film at the right time. That requires such a deep understanding of how music works and it requires an understanding of human psychology. How do you put that into code? I'm not sure. But I'm not an AI expert. Maybe it's being worked on right now. So, yeah, I am going to protect my intellectual property and sound for as long as possible.
But I also understand why other people might not want to do that. I think the future of AI, what's going to happen, and I've said this to a lot of people, you're going to have the scenario where you look at your game or film or TV and it's like going to the supermarket. You can get synthetic food. You can get organic, gluten-free. And now when you go buy a game, this game was made by AI. This game was made by humans. And it's your choice. And I think that's okay. I think, actually, the end result is both will coexist. But there's going to be some dark storms to go through for the next five to ten years while we figure all that stuff out. So, yeah, it's going to be weird for the next five to ten years.
But I think humans are interesting. We like the idea of AI. And we will have AI content made by AI for us. And we will experience it. Maybe we will enjoy it. But I also think we will seek out entertainment still made by humans as well. I think the interesting thing that AI potentially offers, it will be, for example, AI, please make me a film that combines the Avengers with Barbie. I'm just using the most weirdest example. And AI will make this film for you. That is the future. It's very weird, but also kind of cool because no one would make that film. No human would make that film ever. Who would pay money to develop that film? Avengers meets Barbie. No one's doing that, right? But an AI could maybe give you an idea of what that might look like. And that actually is quite interesting.
Of course, you have to feed the AI with Avengers and Barbie for it to make it. But I actually think that's interesting. Another example from the music world, AI, please make me a track that combines Beethoven and Rage Against the Machine. What does that sound like? Because no human is really making it. Maybe I could make it, but an AI could answer that question more quickly or give me an idea. Maybe it's not perfect, but it can give me an idea. So there is potential for a lot of new and especially mixes of art to be created. And I think that's quite interesting. But it still needs the original creator in the first place. It needs the original Beethoven and original Rage Against the Machine.