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Interview With Jason Graves - February 2011

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"Bloody and narrow corridors, entrails hanging from falling fluorescent lights, buzzing noises sneaking relentless into our ears and that damn darkness that seems to infect even our thoughts. All of this is back. If you felt real horror while playing “Dead Space” and your heart survived after that experience, be careful since this time you may be not so lucky time when playing its sequel: “Dead Space 2”.

The game continues telling us the adventures of Isaac Clarke, surrounded by the perfect musical background created by the composer of the first game, Jason Graves. We had the chance to talk to Jason on the occasion of the release of the first Dead Space. We were delighted with his detailed explanations in the most technical interview we have ever made. So we thought that it would be perfect to talk to him again using as a excuse the release of the long-waited Dead Space sequel. Low the light intensity and close your room's door. Don't risk yourself by leaving any unwanted creature to get inside while you're reading this interview. You never know… "

Bsospirit: It’s a pleasure to have the chance of talking to you again in Bsospirit. By the time of our last interview, your score for “Alpha Protocol” was about to get released. Time has passed and after listening to that score, we would like to give you our congratulations since it’s just amazing. Looking back to this work, were you finally happy with the outcome?

Jason Graves: Well, thanks! It was definitely a fun score to work on. The whole spy genre is such fertile ground for music composition, both in terms of textures I got to use and especially the harmonies. It’s a very specific kind of sound, and I was really excited to be able to explore it further in Alpa Protocol.

BS: The style of "Alpha Protocol" is very similar to today’s action movies, like James Bond or even more the Bourne movies. Did you get some inspiration from John Powell’s scores for the Jason Bourne character when you start writing the music for “Alpha Protocol”?

JG: The scores are really fantastic, but I make it a habit to try and not listen to other music that exists in the same genre that I’m working in. I have found that once I get a specific score or theme from someone else in my head, it can be even more challenging to come up with something on my own that’s original.

The one directive I had from the audio director was that he really liked the music from the original Die Hard movie. That’s a really great score that I’m very familiar with, so I didn’t have to go back and listen to any of it. I knew exactly what he was talking about as soon as he mentioned the name of the film.

BS: After that work you did "Dead Space: Ignition" and now "Dead Space 2". Your life seems to get darker and darker in these past years, all the time surrounded by oppressive and dark noises, does it? In your particular case, did you do some kind of exercise of empathy when writing a score? You know, to get into the character’s skin and use that to find his music?

JG: Yes, it does seem to get darker and darker as time goes by! I’ve been working on music for the Dead Space universe from about six years now, so “getting back into character” musically speaking has gotten a lot easier for me. I tend to be a very deconstructive and analytical composer, meaning that I listen to other people’s music, pick it apart, analyze it and figure out what I do and don’t like about it.

I did that for about six months on the original Dead Space game, and that was almost 6 years ago! So I already had my palette of sounds and techniques together. It’s simply a matter of revisiting them and trying to improve on what I did earlier.

BS: “Dead Space” was a terrific game. After playing it many of us will not be the same person anymore. I think that even some players have now heart problems. In that sense, there is no doubt that your score was one of the key elements in order to create that experience. As you told us in the past, you managed to perfectly integrate the music within the game after doing an important effort of experimentation and research. In this second part, have you followed the same path of research and experimentation or you have decided to embrace a new perspective?

JG: Thank you so much for the compliment! Since this is a score to a sequel, I wanted to musically pick up where the first game left off. However, I did not want to repeat myself and produce the exact same kind of score again. So it was really a matter of finding the balance between continuing the first score and trying something new, all the while creating music that would be appropriate for the game and also keep me excited.

There are many textures and sounds that listeners will recognize from the other Dead Space scores. But there are also several new musical ideas. A lot of the music is slightly more action oriented and less chaotic. However, I’ve been told that it’s just a scary! The idea was Isaac has already been through this once and has a bit more confidence this time around. I wanted to portray the same idea in the music.

The one thing that I think really sets the Dead Space 2 score apart from its predecessor is the inclusion of a string quartet. Isaac is going through some pretty hard times, psychologically speaking, and I thought the string quartet would do a wonderful job of portraying his emotional, vulnerable side. So a lot of the music the quartet performs is fairly melodic, though oftentimes introspective and tragic in nature. At the same time, Isaac’s head is infected with some sort of dementia that causes him to see things that aren’t really there.

For these events in the game, the string quartet warps itself into a chaotic, atonal frenzy. I think that once listeners have been lulled into a false sense of security from the preceding emotional music, the dimension music will come as quite a shock. In a good way, of course!

BS: We have not played the game yet, which it’s quite essential to understand how well the music works in the game, but after having listened to the music we have come to the conclusion that for this second title you have tried to imbue the whole score with a melodic and tragic flavour... less visceral. Is this something you were looking for or it’s something that just happened without you being aware of it?

JG: I think that it’s probably intentional. The storyline of Dead Space 2 and Isaac’s character arc required a different musical approach than the first game. And of course, as a composer it’s always nice to have a bit of new direction to keep me creatively inspired.

BS: In the score, there are themes that obviously have been recorded with a big orchestra. However there others with a very constraint sound created as the result of the instrumentation with very few instruments. Regarding the recording of the soundtrack, do you think that this one was more rich and complex than the recording of the first part?

JG: I definitely think it’s a more sophisticated score than the original. It’s definitely a challenge to be slightly more musical and still scary, rather than just being completely chaotic and nonmusical altogether. You mentioned the contrast of the big orchestra with very few instruments. That musical dichotomy was the overall intended structure of the score. The smaller ensembles would make the large orchestra seem that much bigger and the big orchestra would make the small ensemble seem that much more intimate.

BS: When you learnt that you were going to be scoring the second part of this extraordinary and successful game, as it is "Dead Space", what were your first thoughts?

JG: Panic! It would’ve been one thing if it were a simple matter of just composing another horror score. All of the audio from the original Dead Space received so much recognition, it was practically impossible for me to ignore that and not worry about living up to the hype of the first game. Fortunately for me, EA gave me plenty of warning before I had to actually start delivering music. I had about three months to mentally plan the approach for the new score. As it turns out, my idea for the string quartet worked in beautifully with EA’s plan for Isaacs character arc in the game. With the idea of doing “something new” firmly planted and approved by EA, I felt like I had more freedom to explore the rest of the score, which was the horror aspect of it.

BS: While listening to the score, it seems as if you decided to establish a parallel line of work to the first part but at the same time totally different. Did you see it like some kind of challenge, to avoid repeating the ideas from the first title and try to be original with music experimentation?

JG: Absolutely! That’s really the key to sequels isn’t it? I knew I didn’t want to produce a replica of the original score, but I also knew I couldn’t stray too far from its intended path for fear of losing the horror aspect of it all. So it was really a matter of figuring out a way to pick up where I left off at the end of the first score. It definitely helped to know the overall plot of the game and what Isaac was going to have to go through.

A lot of my inspiration comes from my personal ideas of emotions and games. What is the player feeling as they progress through this level? How was Isaac’s character development being influenced by his environment? That may seem overly complicated for music that ultimately plays in the background of the game, but I really love what I do! I probably get a little bit carried away sometimes, but I want to make sure the music carries its maximum impact in the game.

BS: In your opinion, which are the main differences between the scores for “Dead Space” and “Dead Space 2”?

JG: The original Dead Space was extremely chaotic, to a complete nonmusical point. While a lot of chaos and non musicality is present in Dead Space 2, it’s being restrained, but barely. I also think it’s a much more emotional score, especially when the string quartet is involved. I would like to think it’s a slightly less oppressive listening experience when played on its own outside the game. Not a lot, just a little bit!

BS: Can you talk us about your upcoming projects?

JG: I have six different titles in various stages of musical development. Most of these are big franchise titles, so I have time in between delivery dates to rest my ears and work on other projects. There are a few independent films I’m working on as well, which is a wonderful break from the world of games. All of the game music I do nowadays is interactive, adaptive tracks. Sometimes it’s nice to be required to compose a linear score to picture! There’s also a concert piece I’ve been commissioned for, which is the antithesis of anything Dead Space or horror related and I’m having a lot of fun with. As I always say, variety is the spice of life!

BS: We have finished, Jason. Thank you very much for you kindness and for your time in this interview.

RJ: Thank you very much!

Interview by David Doncel and Oscar Rivas.

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