‘Ori’ and ‘Immortals’ composer Gareth Coker: “You’ll never convince me you can write great music for a game without playing it”

The award-winning ‘Ori’ composer discusses how Japan helped shape his career, being hands-on with game development, and living up to expectations with ‘Halo Infinite’

Since Gareth Coker’s breakout score for modern indie classic Ori and the Blind Forest and last year’s similarly acclaimed sequel, his unique ethereal soundscapes have propelled the composer into the realm of AAA blockbusters, including last year’s Immortals Fenyx Rising.

Strangely enough, his approach to creating music was instilled within him after a few years of living in Japan where he wasn’t composing but teaching English. It’s not the most likely course you would expect for someone who had no prior real interest in the country apart from watching Lost in Translation, but as Coker explained, as I had the chance to sit down with him over a Zoom call, it had everything to do with music.

“A lot of people like to think of the composer as sitting in their ivory tower but to get the best results you need to be able to work as part of a team and understand all of the other elements of a project,” he says. “I play the game before I actually start writing the music because it helps me truly understand what the game is all about. And it’s not dissimilar to the Japanese mentality of the group as the most important thing.”

Immortals: Fenyx Rising
Immortals: Fenyx Rising. Credit: Ubisoft

Besides using teaching as a way to force himself to overcome his shyness that would also serve him well for conducting orchestras, living in Japan also meant he was within easy reach of other Asian countries like China and Korea, which was when he also took an interest in the various ethnic instruments of the continent.

“When you grow up in a Western country with a ‘traditional’ music system, you’re going to have these preconceived ideas of what music sounds like, so when you travel to a different part of the world and there’s different scales being used, different harmonies, and of course different instruments, there’s just so much out there that is incredibly interesting,” Coker explains.

Taking these new and unique sounds has been key to what sets his music apart from a more traditional orchestral or synthetic score, which made him an apt choice for composing music for four different world mythology packs for Minecraft, and of course open-world RPG Immortals Fenyx Rising, which transports players into fantastical worlds based on ancient Greek as well as ancient Chinese mythology.

Ori and the Blind Forest
Ori and the Blind Forest. Credit: Moon Studios

While the Ubisoft title still does incorporate an orchestral and synthetic score, the authentic flavours of the culture and history are apparent with Coker’s use of ancient Greek instruments like the lyre – Coker actually had two lyres commissioned for the project – as well as the aulos, a wind instrument he admits took time to adjust to.

“The first time I heard it, I was like, ‘This sounds horrendous, I don’t know who on earth would want to hear this’,” he said. “But I then reconfigured my thinking about it, because what might sound strange to me is completely normal to someone who’s grown up with it as part of that culture.”

In the end, he found that playing it a certain way produced a dark moody atmosphere, which led to the aulos becoming the core of the underworld Vaults of Tartaros dungeons peppered throughout the game world.

Orpheus
Orpheus. Credit: Ubisoft

Another challenge came with the Myths of the Eastern Realm expansion that followed, which transports players from the Golden Isle to a heavenly realm based on ancient Chinese mythology. Although Coker had previously written Chinese-themed music as one of the Minecraft mythology packs, this expansion called for a unique period that was less familiar.

“Whenever we watch a Hollywood Chinese-themed movie made to appeal to the masses, there’s always the Erhu – that token Chinese violin sound – which comes from the Tang dynasty,” he explains. “But the Immortals expansion is set during the Qin Dynasty, when the Erhu didn’t exist. I was given a massive list of instruments I could not use, instruments that were too common or cliché, and instruments with comments that they were ‘era mismatching’. It was a glorious history lesson as I learned how to create a Chinese-sounding score without using certain instruments.”

Coker’s dedication to combining different sounds together extends to how he views all pieces of a game as equally vital, whether it’s the story, the gameplay, the visuals or the music. It’s why instead of merely focusing on the music he tries to be as hands-on with the development process as much as possible, such as his involvement with Ori and the Blind Forest, which began with its prototype in 2011.

Such a privilege isn’t always afforded to creatives outside of a game’s core development, where sometimes narrative, music or even voice-acting is left until the end. But the results speak for themselves when the music in the Ori games – both having bagged their share of awards – are able to stir big emotions entirely in sync with every moment on screen.

Ori and the Will of the Wisp
Ori and the Will of the Wisp. Credit: Moon Studios

“You’ll never convince me that you can write great music for a game without seeing or playing it,” Coker continues. “There are plenty of composers who believe that’s possible and actually plenty of great scores have been written that way, but that method is not for me.”

“Take Halo and Doom. These are both first person shooters, but fundamentally, they play at a completely different pace, and that will inform how I write the music. If you think about melee combat, some are really chunky and heavy, and in other games it’s going to be really fast and precise, and that also informs instrument choices and pacing in the music, so for me I like to see as much as possible.”

That’s not to say you need to be a hardcore gamer to write a game score – in a big open world game like Immortals there’s an interactive music system, while in other cases, Coker prefers to have someone from the development team who can filter the relevant information for him like video captures of the game. But he claims he can tell you exactly what music is playing from any screen in Ori, why it’s there and his reasons behind it: “I know the game inside out – I did what I thought was necessary to get the best result in the game.”

Ori and the Blind Forest
Ori and the Blind Forest. Credit: Moon Studios

It’s an approach he believes the original Halo composers Martin O’ Donnell and Michael Savlatore probably took with Bungie’s shooter, as he praises the series’ “well-spotted” music (“there’s nothing better than playing games when the right music plays at the right time”). It’s perhaps no surprise then that Coker is one of three composers also scoring the highly anticipated Halo Infinite due later this year. Given his hands-on approach, surely it means he’s had the chance to play a fair bit himself? Unfortunately he was not at liberty to give anything away, but given the pressures of fan expectations, which had already seen the title delayed from its original launch last year, does he feel any pressure of producing a score that lives up to the series’ legacy?

“It’s not that I don’t feel pressure, but because the original material is so strong, it’s like you’re building on the strongest possible foundation,” he says. “The challenge was that Halo is the first time I’m stepping into someone else’s creation, so it’s been about learning the vocabulary and understanding why people like the original Halo music in particular. Fans will be very interested to see how we use past material and expand upon it.”

Interestingly, he describes the process as “just like learning a whole new language”, bringing us back to his discussion of discovering his interest in other countries’ native sounds. “And normally I’m the one creating the language. I guess people will just have to wait and see how far we expand on the original Halo material – I definitely cannot say any more than that!”

Halo Infinite will launch later in 2021.

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