Interview with Tomb Raider composer Jason Graves
It looks like Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider reboot has paid off with many reviewers praising the game for its new take on the British archaeologist, Lara Croft (Nerd Reactor included). The game’s musical score is definitely a highlight (I really dig Lara Croft’s theme), and we had the opportunity to interview composer Jason Graves.
John “Spartan” Nguyen: Please give us a short summary about how you got into the industry.
Jason Graves: I started composing for film and TV after graduating from USC in Los Angeles in 1996. I also worked in advertising and corporate media for a few years, all the while looking for the kind of work that would allow me the creative freedom I wanted.
I scored my first game in 2001, which was literally one of those “right place at the right time” kind of chances. A friend told me he knew someone who knew someone that needed music for a game. They only had three weeks and needed forty-five minutes of music. Games weren’t necessarily something I was trying to break into at the time, but after my first title I was hooked and went after more and more game work starting around 2003.
Tomb Raider is a very big franchise, how were you attached to the project?
Crystal Dynamics was already familiar with my work in other games, most notably the Dead Space franchise. They already knew this game would be an entire reboot and were looking for a score that would brand their new title with some kind of instantly recognizable sound. The scores for Dead Space were a good starting point in terms of taking a chance with the music and trying something different. It was just a matter of finding the right direction and hook for Tomb Raider’s score.
Have you played the previous Tomb Raider games before composing for the reboot?
I played the first two back in 1996 and 1997 when they were released, but hadn’t kept up after that. That ended up being a good thing, because I honestly didn’t remember how any of the original music went, especially the main theme. Everyone agreed we should start with a clean slate – everything else about the game was a complete reboot of the franchise and it made sense for the music to follow suit.
What’s your creative process like when trying to start on a track?
For me, it starts with determining overall musical intent. Why is it playing in the first place? What is it saying? I start by choosing instruments, themes and general musical tone. The beginning point is playing through the game and determining where the music needs to start and end. For Tomb Raider, I had a lot of predetermined musical “rules” that expedited choices of themes, instruments and overall music tone. For example, there are four major themes that were written and approved before any of the in-game music was composed. It became a very natural process to determine which themes would be needed, depending on the characters or situation of the gameplay.
Instrument choices were also heavily dependent on both the timeline of the game and Lara’s location on the island. The music begins very quiet, with sparse, mysterious instrumentation. By the time Lara hits her stride and gains confidence, the music has also become more dominant and features more traditional instruments such as taiko drums and orchestra.
Is there a specific video game genre that you’re fond of, or do you enjoy tackling on different types of games?
It’s definitely rewarding to compose in different genres. Part of the fun of working in games is the inherent challenges that each new project, and genre, bring with them. Fantasy is a specific genre I would love to spend some more time in. I’ve dabbled in it a bit for Ubisoft’s Heroes of Might and Magic franchise and would love the chance to compose an epic, full-scale fantasy score.
What’s on your music playlist?
I looked under “recently played” and got this list of artists – Johnny Cash, Sting, Delta Rae, Miles Davis, Rachmaninoff, Alabama Shakes and James Newton Howard. Needless to say, variety is the spice of life!
Do you have any nerdy hobbies?
I love to cook and geek out on a regular basis over new recipes and food combinations. I even have chickens in the backyard for fresh eggs. I’m addicted to taking pictures of my meals, even in fancy restaurants, which can sometimes solicit funny glances from the wait staff. I’m also severely obsessed with recording and building my own virtual orchestral instruments, which requires a lot of time in front of the computer. There’s nothing nerdier than programming your own software!