Interview with Ghost of Tsushima composer Ilan Eshkeri

Ilan Eshkeri photo by Stuart Acker Holt

Ghost of Tsushima is the highly anticipated game from Sucker Punch, the video game studio that brought us the Infamous series. The team has switched from the superhero genre to the samurai genre, and the new game is keeping things grounded and bloody, which is during the Mongol invasion of feudal Japan.

To help create the sound of Ghost of Tsushima, composer Ilan Eshkeri was brought on board with fellow composer Shigeru Umebayashi. The former’s work includes 47 Ronin, Kick-Ass, Ninja Assassin, and The Sims 4. In an interview with Nerd Reactor, Eshkeri talks about how Sucker Punch convinced him to take on the project, his process of creating authenticity in the music, and having anxiety listening to the scores from God of War and Insomniac’s Spider-Man. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

John Nguyen: What caught your eye with Ghost of Tsushima?

Ilan Eshkeri: When they first started talking to me about it, you always go, do the meeting and you find out about it, right? It’s always good, but my immediate instinctive reaction was, “You know what, I don’t want to do fighting. I don’t want to do a game with swords and slicing people up with blood.” That’s not me; I’m not interested in that kind of stuff. When I met the guys at Sucker Punch, they had prepared this giant narrative with videos, images and music with this big explanation of the whole story arc. It took an hour to go through it; it was very detailed. By the time I got to the end of that, I was so blown away.

Of course, there’s sword fighting and all those things that I expected. But there is this incredibly moving and passionate story about a man who has to go against everything that he was taught, morally and traditionally, in order to save the people that he loves. What that means is that this character is in a constant state of emotional conflict all the time. That is very rich, that bit of emotional friction and conflict. That’s a very rich place to start writing emotional music. Even the action, the fighting music in the game, that feeling is at the core of it. Everything about it is very emotional, I think.

Ilan Eshkeri at the studio

So would you say the more emotional it is, the easier it is for you to come up with ideas to compose?

Oh no, I wouldn’t say easy because depicting specific emotions in music is extremely hard. But what ties my work together, whether they are my personal projects, my ballet work, the shows I’ve written and all the random projects that I’ve done in my life is that I love narrative storytelling with music.

In fact, I studied literature at a university alongside my music. I’ve always been fascinated by storytelling and how one does it and how it affects people. I like to tell stories through music. What music does is tells emotional stories and tells an emotional narrative. So when you have very simplistic stories, they are not rich or fertile work to make interesting music with. It’s about complex emotions, conflicting emotions or just strong emotions. Yeah, that’s where the interesting stuff is for me.

Ghost of Tsushima's Jin playing the flute on top of a rooftop.
Ghost of Tsushima’s Jin playing the flute on top of a rooftop.

With video games, what was the difference between that and the other projects that you’ve done before?

These days, I do very, very little. The film and TV are few and far between. I’m doing a project with astronauts and the European Space Agency, which is our version of NASA. That and the David Attenborough thing I’m doing. What draws them all together for me is the idea of telling a story through music. That’s what’s important to me.

When you write music in video games, there isn’t just this idea of linear storytelling. There’s a sort of the third dimension, vertical storytelling, where you have a piece of music that is more intense or less intense. Nonetheless, it’s the same piece of music depending on what the character’s going through.

If you’re fighting one person, you might have the music but without a lot of percussions. But if you are fighting three people, then there’s more percussion and some scarier sounds with it. It’s still the same piece of music, and depending on what’s happening in the game, it’s either more or less intense. The things that we can do now to enhance the gamer experience with music in the vertical sense, as well as the linear sense, is really extraordinary. That lends itself to a technical challenge but also a creative challenge. That is definitely unique to video games.

Does that mean you have to figure out a way to organize all these since you’re not just going linearly, but you’re going everywhere?

You’ve got to think very carefully. Sometimes if you took away the melody and the bass line, sometimes all you’re left with is something pretty dull and boring in the middle. Imagine a Big Mac, and you took all the bits away. In the middle, you’ll just be left with a really boring bit of brioche, right? But it’s necessary, but it’s not that interesting. In the video game, that middle bit has to be full of character and interesting stuff. So you’ve really got to write the shit out of every single line and every single instrument.

The game takes place during Feudal Japan. Was it something new for you?

Many years ago I did a film with the Wachowski siblings producing and my friend James McTeigue directing. It was a sort of ninja film but it was contemporary. It had some Japanese elements in it. But this journey was very different because there was a real desire from PlayStation and, particularly, Sucker Punch, to have great authenticity in the music. They were striving for that in the way the game looked and in the way the characters move, the authenticity in the costumes and the culture. They wanted to be really respectful of that, and I love that idea. I really took that and ran with it.

I started researching the instruments, the kinds of music you got in feudal 13th century Japan when the story takes place. The Japanese pentatonic scales are quite difficult. So I found a professor at a university, who was a master of it. He guided me towards some books and some amazing musicians who were very patient with me. Often with these amazing musicians, they’re like, “Oh, the koto wasn’t designed for this, but don’t worry, I can do it anyway.”

And my thing was, “No, no, no, I want to learn. Why is it that there are that many note differences between the penultimate and the lowest string of the koto? So what’s the tradition? What’s the thinking behind that? How do you write for that?” I broke the rules when I needed to, but I did my best to really learn the authenticity of these instruments and to make the foundation.

A lot of Japanese music is about single lines of music, but we needed more harmony, so I built chords out of the pentatonic scales. Everything is rooted in authenticity, and then I listened to folk music. Along this journey, I found this incredible instrument that blew my mind called the biwa. It was the instrument that the samurai learned to play. It’s the instrument that they used to sing the exploits of the great samurai stories. They would sing poems about them on this instrument. The biwa, in every sense, is the most warlike of instruments. The whole tradition of playing with it was almost forgotten in the last century in the 1900s.

I’m no expert. I’m sure someone out there will correct me and please do, but my understanding of it was that there was basically one great master of this instrument left, and they taught a few players. Now there are only a few players in the world who are masters of this instrument, and they’re teaching more people. Fortunately for me, one of these masters of the instrument, Junko Ueda, lives in Spain.

She was very generous with her time, thoughts and expertise. We spoke a lot on Skype. She was a really inspiring vocalist. So we flew her to London and spent a really wonderful and inspiring day where she taught me so much. We recorded a lot of music including this incredibly famous ancient Japanese piece, “The Tale of the Heike,” which was written around that time. It’s like the Iliad. I included some of that music on the album. It was a great journey. I learned so much and there is some really genuine authenticity that runs through the score.

Sucker Punch also brought in another composer, Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi.

Yeah, friends call him Ume. Ume and I collaborated 10 years ago on the prequel to the Hannibal Lecter movies called Hannibal Rising. What a lovely man and an amazing composer. It was a great treat to be able to collaborate with him. The way we did it this time was that it was agreed that he would work on certain areas of the game and I’d work on certain other areas of the game. So our work didn’t really crossover, but we worked in a studio together in Tokyo, and we had an amazing dinner together. I’m very proud to be able to share credit with a great master like him.

We literally divided it up into, “You’re going focus on this kind of stuff, and I’m going to focus on these kinds of things.” The thing about collaborations across the board is that if you’re honest, upfront, and decent to each other, your collaboration is always going to be wonderful. If you take the attitude that you’ve got something to learn from someone that you’re collaborating with, the good stuff is going to come out of that. That’s the way I always see these things. If I was being asked to collaborate with somebody that I didn’t want to collaborate with, for whatever reason, and I wasn’t artistically comfortable collaborating with them, then I wouldn’t do the project.

Do you currently play video games?

I generally don’t play games these days. I had a Commodore 64 and a VIC-20. When I was eight years old, I had a Commodore 64. I had a Sega Mega Drive. I played games passionately all throughout my childhood. I was really passionate about all of that growing up, and I guess the last console I owned passionately as a gamer was either a Nintendo or the first PlayStation. I can’t remember.

I do another game called The Sims. I play that from time to time because I need to understand what the user experience is in order to be able to do my job properly. I want to understand that and when I embarked on this project, I bought a PlayStation 4, and the guys at Sony very kindly sent me over a bunch of games. I actually got pretty sucked into God of War. It’s got a brilliant score, and it gave me quite a lot of anxiety. Then I played Spider-Man. That’s also got a great score, and that also gave me a bit of anxiety. I was like, “Oh my god, how am I going to do this. I’m going to have to work really hard for these guys.” [laughs] It was a real eye-opener to play those games, and I really enjoyed it.

Netflix will have a Transformers series out this month. Would you want to do a Transformers project? Like live-action or something along those lines depending on the director?

Yeah, absolutely. I would love to scratch that boyhood itch. I would love to do that. But above that, I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but if I was doing My Little Pony the Movie, I would be like a hero to my daughter. I will be the best dad ever. A Barbie movie, I would be like, “Yeah.” That would have to come first for me.

So Barbie and My Little Pony.

I can’t believe I’m saying this.

You heard it here first.

Anything for my little girl.

What’s really funny about it is that I did show her the Shaun the Sheep Movie. I always remember watching it with my daughter on a plane, and halfway through I said to her, “Do you know who wrote that music?”

“No.

I was like, “Daddy wrote that music.”

She took her headphones off and wouldn’t watch it. To this day. She won’t watch it. I thought this would start when she’s a teenager, but she started at 4 years old. If I have anything to do with it, it’s not cool.

Maybe Barbie and My Little Pony wouldn’t be a good idea.

Maybe I’ll ruin it for her. Let’s go back to Transformers.

The Ghost of Tsushima soundtrack is now available.

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John Nguyen
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