The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope interview with composer Jason Graves

Courtesy of Supermassive Games/Bandai Namco Entertainment

The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope is the second installment of the horror video game anthology series by developer Supermassive Games and publisher Bandai Namco Entertainment. Hot of the popularity of Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, Will Poulter stars in the new game where college students and their professor try to survive a supernatural threat. Composer Jason Graves (Until Dawn, The Order: 1886, Tomb Raider 2013) returns to score for Supermassive Games, and he talks about what he brought to the game, breaking the music rules, having his daughter sing for the game, and more.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nerd Reactor: You’ve worked on many games with Supermassive Games. What’s it like working with them again for Little Hope? Are there any differences? What are the challenges?

Jason Graves: All the usual challenges with a new title, even though Little Hope is basically the spiritual successor to Man of Medan, which came out about a year and a half ago. They’re part of the Dark Pictures Anthology, but it’s a different story with different characters, different timelines, and everything’s really different. So we have an equal amount of differences in terms of music and everything else. But it makes it a lot easier every time because there’s less internal anxiety on both Supermassive’s part and my part. When you start a new job, you want to make sure you’re going to get it right. You don’t want them to think that you’re procrastinating because you haven’t said anything, but you’re working really hard to get it right. You don’t know how normally they expect to have things. None of that’s a problem because we’ve done so much stuff now. And it’s been the same audio director every time with Barney Pratt.

So I’ve been working with Barney for six years or something like that. I’ve been to his place in London, and he’s been to my place in North Carolina. One of my kids has been out there, and we’ve been blackberry picking with them, and we know each other really well. So there’s a lot of shorthand that makes it faster, just like with a composer and director relationship. After you get a couple of films under your belt, there’s a shorthand and it’s easy to talk about things. I can send things with little caveats that I would normally not send to somebody else. I prefer sending something music-wise that’s very close, and I can do that to a certain extent with Barney now because he understands.

It’s about understanding each other.

Exactly. And I think you mentioned that this is probably the longest run of games I’ve had with one company. I had Visceral and EA with Dead Space. And there were three or four games kind of depending on if you count the iOS stuff and everything. And there was a Wii game as well. So I guess technically, there were five Dead Space games. But yeah, it’s cool. It’s the greatest compliment in the world, right? They can literally go anywhere, and they’re defaulting to asking me to work on another project. So it’s like, “I love you guys.”

It’s good for you. ‘Yeah, just bring me all the projects you guys are working on. I would do it!’

Yeah, it’s really more about the people. Yeah, of course, it’s fun to work on the games, and it’s great that they’re doing so many different games. It’s so much fun doing scary music because you get to break all the rules, musically speaking. And every new title is like a different group of instruments and different ways of making the music. Maybe I’m recording something live, using a synthesizer or getting someone to play for me. But the greatest thing about it is the people and being able to come back and work with those same folks. Every time is just a blessing.

Courtesy of Supermassive Games/Bandai Namco Entertainment

What are the rules that you’ve broken?

All the rules with scary music. The general idea of music is that you want things to be lined up. They want to be in tune and follow a certain sort of key so that nothing sounds like it’s poking out. When we start talking about scary music, you just break all of those rules. You don’t make them in time with each other. You don’t make them in the same key, and you make sure that they poke out.

What was the most fun for me with Little Hope was not making sure they’re in key because it’s mostly live instruments, lots of bowed psaltery and hurdy-gurdy. It’s a kind of crank thing that you play that has these wooden keys on it, but they’re all stringed instruments that you either do with a bow or some sort of a crank. So you have to tune them all. And I intentionally kept them out of tune to the point where when I was mixing some of the things, it was like, “Wow, I think I broke that rule a little too hard.”

I have a big hammered dulcimer. It’s like a giant trapezoid and is literally that big with 120 strings on it. It was in tune, but I hadn’t played it in a couple of months. So the whole thing sort of went a little out of tune altogether. So when I’m playing it, it sounds great. But when you put it with a track, it’s like a little, “eh.” I had to bring that whole dulcimer up a little bit because the problem was that nothing was in tune, and I had my daughter singing this main theme, which was very much in tune. It sounded like she was singing wrong notes, and you don’t want it to sound like a mistake. I think that’s where the rule breaking has to stop. It needs to sound intentional, cool, mysterious and spooky, but not like a kindergarten band, which we were king of getting because of all the out of tune.

I’m imagining a part where you broke the rules too much.

It really was. I was working on the main theme, and it was very abstract with lots of [weird sounds], like this really dissonant sort of thing. It’s what I always think during the first two thirds of any project I’m working on, which to me means I’m going in the right direction. If I’m thinking that I’ve completely failed, normally, on the back end, it ends up working. And it seems like it makes sense once it’s finished. Of course, I decided to do that even though I was completely thinking that I was doing the wrong thing. And this time I kept waiting for that to happen, and it never did. So I fixed it.

Courtesy of Supermassive Games/Bandai Namco Entertainment

What’s your mindset when you go from one project to the next and from one genre to another?

Usually, it’s so game driven, right? If you were playing Moss, with no audio, I think your brain would fill in the hole, and there’d be a certain sort of sonic expectation there. It’s in the forest with these little animals and it’s also in VR. It’s very immersive but beautiful. The setting is just gorgeous, as opposed to playing something like Little Hope. Again, there’s a different mindset there. So it’s actually quite easy for me to jump back and forth. Honestly, it makes it easier because they’re so different. The real challenge is when I’m working on multiple projects that are maybe all very close.

I’m doing one right now. It’s not a horror game, but it’s a darker sort of game, and then I’m working on another horror game. In my head, I keep getting the instrumentation a little confused because I want to keep them separate. Because they end up coming out, let’s say the soundtracks come out within three weeks of each other, the last thing I want is for these two kinds of identical sounding scores because that wouldn’t help the game. And it wouldn’t really make me happy creatively, so I try to keep instruments and things separate. It’s more difficult when you’re talking about the same kinds of music, but that doesn’t happen that often. Thank goodness.

Courtesy of Supermassive Games/Bandai Namco Entertainment

I remember when you were working on Tomb Raider, you had a unique instrument. Were you able to just do something even crazier with the Supermassive Games?

Tomb Raider was really special. We ended up calling that The Instrument, and I feel bad because it’s such a lazy name. But that’s just what Matt, the sculptor, and I kept referring to it as. I don’t think I’ve done something on that scale since Tomb Raider. I mean, it was the size of a refrigerator and was seven feet tall, five feet wide, and six feet deep. But each game always seems to present some sort of unique opportunity.

So for Little Hope, it was really about that hurdy-gurdy, the dulcimers and the bowed psaltery. And then also, I got my daughter, who was 15 or 14 at the time, to sing the main theme, which is a really big deal. Personally speaking, it’s even bigger than having the sculpture for Tomb Raider, because she’s just got a great voice. She sang the main theme, and then I just recorded her doing a bunch of ghosty sounds and whispering, like whispering harshly and putting those in the computer and actually playing them on the keyboard. So yeah, she’s singing technically throughout the entire score. Sometimes you don’t even realize it’s a vocal because it’s maybe a pitch down from where she sang it. It sounds lower than my voice. And it’s this very ethereal, foreboding, humanoid-type sound. So those were the fun ones for this one. They’re always different, which is what makes it interesting.

So with Little Hope, there’s something at the end that teases a future game. Are you going to be working on that?

Time will tell.

Is there one genre you’d like to do that you haven’t done yet?

I’ve done a little bit of fantasy stuff. I did some Heroes of Might and Magic. And I think it could be argued that Moss is also a little bit of fantasy, but I’d love to do just some unapologetic medieval fantasy like Lord of the Rings, sort of just super epic choir and orchestra at some point in time. I would have said that I wanted to do something like Moss. If I had six months and someone said, “We want you to write an album of whatever kind of music you want to do,” I would probably have written something similar to Moss. I’ve always wanted to do something like that. So that sort of ticked that box for me. Now just I’ll stick with the epic fantasy. That’s a good way of stating it.

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