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Play interviews Inon Zur

Tell us about yourself. How did you get into composing for videogames?
Well, I was born in Israel and went to High School there, and following that I went to the Israeli army. But from a very early age I was into music. I studied piano and the French horn from the age of 8, and then advanced to music programs that were created specially for kids of my age. But when I went to the army I kind of deserted music. I became an officer in the tanks for the Israeli military for four years, and it was only following that that I decided to go back to music again. I migrated to the US and studied music at the Dick Grove School for Music and then at the UCLA music program. After that I was pretty much ready to go at it professionally, and I quickly decided I wanted to start doing music for media.

So what was it about videogames in particular that drew you to them?

I actually really didn’t care about videogames [laughs]. At that point I really wanted to do TV and movies, and in ’94 I started to work for the Fox Family Channel and composed hundreds of TV episodes of Power Rangers and Digimon and all these kids shows. But then in ’96 I was contacted by an agent for videogame composers. I didn’t even know such a job actually existed! He asked if I wanted to try that and initially I said ‘no thank you’! But he was very persuasive, and sent me a lot of examples, and soon I began to think maybe I should give it a try. I quickly found out that it was a really interesting area.

What about the medium did you find so interesting? What were the big differences you discovered between writing for videogames and writing for TV?
The big thing with videogames is that you’re not writing to picture, you’re just composing music. It’s a very old style of writing, y’know, like ‘let’s write about blue skies or a storm’. The way of thinking is totally different. It’s about imagination, and it’s very compelling to me because I didn’t have to adjust myself or hook myself to something that informs what I have to do with my music at any given second. You think in more of a musical structure rather than thinking around a dramatic picture. It’s obviously a more difficult approach, but it offers a lot of creative freedom and I really enjoy it.

You’ve now been writing videogame music for over a decade – and a lot can change in videogames in ten years. What changes have you witnessed personally?
I think there are two major components. One is all the technical aspects. Machines have got much better, much stronger, and that allows us to do what we need to do without thinking about technical limitations. Also, developers became far more aware of the importance of music. With this came more knowledge abut what music could and should not do. So this all goes hand in hand, and the general outcome is that the whole level of music for games, in the last ten years, has just grown tremendously.


The interactivity of the medium must be interesting to someone in your position. How difficult is it to make music that reflects a player’s actions in a game?
Well, this is an extremely interesting area. I feel that every game I write I’m contributing a little more to the development of this concept; the concept of how to make music for something that is very adjustable and interactive, without being able to perceive or predict what’s going to happen at any given moment. If we’re talking about ‘stemming’ the music so it can seamlessly go from higher intensity into lower intensity but still keep the same rhythm, the same tempo, the same structure, or playing a track and then playing another track that will go in and out and on top of it; there are many ways to achieve this goal. It depends a lot on what the technical aspects of the game are, like how much power and how much memory there is for the audio. So this is all a very, very technical process that actually has nothing to do with actually composing music. It’s one aspect of composing games that simply doesn’t exist at all with music or television.

Is creating dynamic videogame music like this a common process for you?
Yeah, very much so. We’re always looking for ways to add a dramatic and emotional dimension to games without being intrusive and without jarring transitions between music. There are a lot of ways to do that but it takes a lot of planning and thinking.

How does the actual process of composing music for a videgame work? Do you tend to see a demo of the game, then go away and write the music, or do you work in close collaboration with the game’s creators?
It’s a bit of both. Usually I will meet with the people designing the game and they’ll show me their product and describe their vision for the music – how they want it to sound, the style of the music, the way the music is going to act in the game, everything. But then the writing part usually begins when you start to experiment. It’s easy to describe something, but when writing it things can change. Maybe they’ll say what they imagined is not working and they want to try a new direction. So the beginning of most games – unless a developer has an extremely exact style of music in mind, which is very rare – is a very hit and miss process. You’ve got to hone in on what works.

Out of all the games you’ve worked on, which do you consider to have the most ambitious score?
Well there are several. I think Fallout is definitely one of them because Fallout doesn’t have many boundaries when it comes to style or genre. It can vary between many styles. Crysis is similar in that apspect. You can move from very traditional music into very non-traditional.

Fallout’s an interesting score. It can go from very ominous to very relaxed and ambient. What were your inspirations for that game?
I was really trying not to be inspired by anything. I wanted to do something that would be disconnected from other influences. I was not trying to model it after other games or scores. That’s what makes it an interesting process.


A lot of the games you’ve worked on are RPGs. Is a better-produced, bigger musical score important for RPGs?
I think that RPGs are more story-driven than other shooters or third-person games. They’re more about the action. In RPGs there’s a lot of thinking involved, a lot of planning, a lot of wandering around trying to find quests, so the music is playing a lot of roles. It’s not just there to pump up the action, but to add feeling and emotion. So for Dragon Age, for example, that’s a whole story with love, hate, seduction, betrayal – a lot of things that the music has to address. I definitely feel that RPGs usually are a bit more challenging when it comes to the array of musical targets and styles that you have to work towards.

How much does a genre really impact on a musical score? Is it fair to say that it’s the thematic ambitions of a game that are more important, rather than the gameplay?
Well, what really drives the music is the story and the characterisation behind it. The second thing is what the developer wants the player to feel. These are the two main components that drive the music to wherever it’s got to go. Then there’s the location of the game, the tempo, and the specific events that occur therein. But the most important thing is the story: who is the player? Who are you? You have to define the game, and you have to define the person who will play the game. Music is an emotional link so it really helps to connect the player to the game. You have to find and define that link before you can just go ahead and write a chase scene!

Although you’ve written the score for some pretty big triple-A, next-gen titles you’ve also worked on smaller games like Avatar on the DS. What’s the difference there?
It’s very restricted in many aspects, so there are a lot of challenges to getting what you want to work on a very limited engine. You need to take into consideration that the way it sounds; for example, the guy playing with headphones won’t hear all the details. But you still want the music to be impactful. That’s really challenging.

What other game scores have impressed you personally?
BioShock was one of them. It definitely had an interesting sound to it. I like anything that has that kind of interesting, unique sound. Like Assassin’s Creed, for example. That has quite a different sound. I’m a big fan of people that think differently about boundaries, and are really daring.

What would you define as an ‘interesting’ sound in a videogame?
The game that Jason Graves did, Dead Space. That had a daring sound because they used more orchestral effects rather than the actual orchestra. This is interesting to me. It’s not that I don’t like good, traditional composing, but I’m drawn more to more experimental ways of doing things. I remember when I started to make music for videogames they wanted everything to sound like Carmina Burana. That was it, they didn’t know anything else. But today they know a little bit more, so they can go for the big orchestra, but they could also go for something a little bit smaller, or something a little bit different, something with electronics, or a hybrid. The knowledge of game developers has grown tremendously, so they have more tools now and can ask for more from us.




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