How many lines of dialogue is enough for a Groot? That’s the kind of question that buzzes around my mind when given the chance to speak to Steve Szczepkowski and Richard Jacques, the senior audio director and composer, respectively, for the upcoming Guardians Of The Galaxy game. How often do you get to ask someone something like this?
“I would hate to say a number and be completely wrong. I’m gonna guess around 5000”, starts Szczepkowski, and I can’t help but laugh, because that can’t be right, surely? Szczepkowski notices and reacts: “Maybe less. I dunno, there is a lot! There’s gotta be at least a thousand. The actor we got was phenomenal. He did such an amazing job and he really committed and gave himself to it.”
But a thousand, Szczepkowski? “I’ll have to get you a better number”, he teases. Both Szczepkowski and Jacques are passionate about this game, having worked on it for around four years now. They have enormous respect for one another, and come from very different backgrounds. Szczepkowski is a rocker who has played the bar (his press shot shows him holding a Gibson Flying V), while Jacques comes from a classical background. They met four years ago when Szczepkowski approached Jacques and they just hit it off instantly. Both have experience with previous titles like Mass Effect (Jacques) and Deus Ex (Szczepkowski), so there’s pedigree here.
But Guardians Of The Galaxy? Even previous works can’t have prepared them for the kind of pressure that a Marvel property brings, right? Even my elderly mother knows what Guardians Of The Galaxy is. “Should I put her down for three copies?” Szczepkowski jokes, before getting a little serious: “my answer is probably bordering on insanity, because I don’t put that pressure on.
“When you surround yourself with the right people, the confidence kind of outweighs the pressure. I’m not gonna deny that there’s not a pressure there, but I don’t think there’s any pressure that’s gonna surpass the pressure I put on myself to deliver the highest quality possible. I’m gonna give you everything I’ve got and at the end of the day if that’s not good enough I’m not gonna lose sleep over it, because I left it all on the table, I couldn’t have given more”.
Jacques agrees, “I’m a colossal Marvel fan anyway, and I think when we started the project, both Steve and I could have bowed to the external pressure. But the pressure is what I put on myself. I know how much pressure Steve puts on himself and not on anyone else, it’s self-made pressure to deliver and to do the best we can. I never want to work on any project that I can come away from and think I didn’t give it a million per cent from day one to the end”.
The way the licensed music works in Guardians Of The Galaxy, means that all of the tunes need to be able to weave together somehow, which makes the process difficult for the composer. Jacques explains: “The licensed music is such a big part of the DNA of the game, and Steve and I were both wanting to make a completely seamless experience. So even when some of the licensed tracks might change, I would then react to make sure the score that happens before and after that licensed track lands in the right key.
“Sometimes I’d have to change the ending of the score that precedes the tracks and comes after it, but we really wanted to make that seamless, and I think we’ve really taken a lot of attention to detail over that. Without giving too many tracks away, there are certain points where you might get an echo of the main melody or the main lyric and it just comes into the score, and you might get it in the French horns or something to take you into the next scene. So we’ve worked hard to make that as seamless as possible, and as a fan I love the selection. It took me back, and there’s a really good mixture of things for everyone”.
As the composer, Jacques is a fan of themes, but is clear he wanted the right balance for this game. “We’ve got such a huge roster of characters and villains to choose from, I didn’t want to overload the score with a theme for every single setting and every single character, because that would be too much. But I would say there’s a good five or six very very strong themes that will come in and out of the score from the beginning to the end of the game”
“A good theme has to have legs, longevity, and good shape, and I’m pretty confident. I’ll be really interested to see if players key into this (and I think they will), but throughout the story line we wanted to hit the main story beats with themes, and I’m really pleased with how it’s come together. It was a long process of gestation, but I did write the main theme as part of my demo process, and Steve and I talked about it and he loved it from the beginning. So that’s made it into the game intact”.
Szczepkowski confirms this, saying: “I felt it was so strong that it was the first thing I said we really need to exploit this and I think I used Star Wars: A New Hope as the reference just how well they use the theme. Again, we’re comparing a two-hour linear experience to a 22-hour anything-can-happen one, but all the more reason when you have a strong theme to really use it, and to find different ways to serve it up”.
Aside from the original score there’s still the licensed music to talk about, and Szczepkowski did let on that there’s a wide range of musical tastes accounted for, and that everything is meticulously chosen. I noticed Hot Chocolate, which threw me back to my own youth, for example. “I’m hoping there’s gonna be a few other ones”, he says, “for me, throwing in something like Gary Numan‘s ‘Cars’: that’s such a brilliant track and I’ve always loved it. We’ve got some Joan Jett, some Kiss, some Iron Maiden: there’s a really good span of some new wave, some rock….” he trails off, adding he doesn’t want to spoil too much.
All of this is a lot of work, so do they think audio design gets the recognition it deserves? Some of the most iconic moments in gaming are memorable because of the audio and/or soundtrack, yet audio design is rarely spoken about in the same hushed tones as narrative, graphics, or even gameplay. Jacques thinks back to his work on Mass Effect, “There’s one point in Mass Effect where you go to this planet for the first time and it’s a really iconic moment and when I scored that scene I knew that the player would really remember this. So I’ve used some of those recipes in our game that the big iconic story beats, they are very, very memorable moments.
“There’s a lot of careful thought about how things are gonna work together. There’s a plan behind it, and we also look at the shape throughout the game, where we’re gonna have big iconic score or when we’re gonna go with a minimal underscore but big on the sound design, and then we go and execute it and we might tweak a few things, but in general that’s worked really well. And I think audio design is often overlooked, but I think Steve can give his point of view…”
And that Szczepkowski does: “I feel it’s not given anywhere near the credit it should be, because I’ll tell you why: in a game like ours, where you often have branching, this gets very complicated very quickly, and it’s not like I can just turn to Rich and go ‘Hey Rich, here’s the scene and the scene can branch three different ways, and then it’s gonna merge over here… have fun!’ That doesn’t work. I have to sit down and I have to respect an overall budget, and if I score every branch of this I’m eating up a lot of budget, and you know what I mean? I have to look at it and think maybe in this scene the branches are different that they do need a different score, or perhaps they don’t, and it’s more about an overall vibe. If they do need an individual score, how do we weave in and out seamlessly from choices?
“Sometimes you have a choice wheel that comes up. Sometimes it’s timed, sometimes it’s infinite: how do you sort that out? So honestly, I’m not gonna say we’re splitting DNA, but it’s a lot more complex than I think people give us credit for and I think if people saw the amount of time and work… I mean if I was to show you just one spreadsheet for one chapter, where there’s probably like 80 cues, and we have 16 chapters so it gives you some idea of the scope and keeping track of all this, and time and minutes. Not only that, but for Rich to have the time to compose everything. So all of these factors are a long answer to say: I definitely don’t feel it gets the proper credit”.
Jacques chimes back in to explain some of the process and why it’s so difficult, saying “There could be points where you might be talking to one of the characters and there could be 12 to 14 different outcomes in the conversation you’re having before you come to an end point. So Steve and I would discuss it as he mentioned, and we’d look through the script, and I would normally tape together six A4 pages and I would put all of the branches and where they converge and how they’re different emotionally, and make sure that whatever the dialogue is, and whatever the conversation is that the player is having, it’s seamlessly scored as if it’s one scene. But another player may play it a different way and get different outcomes, and the music will be reacting accordingly with that. Quite a lot of work, but we wanted to give the player the best experience and that was definitely the way to do it”.
Before my time with the pair was over, I wanted to know about Montreal as a city. There’s so many studios setting up over there right now, and with Steve not only working, but also living there, I wondered if he might know. “It’s a very rich city in terms of the arts and just the whole creative scene,” he says, “I mean Montreal, Quebec as the province is probably the most European City or Province in Canada. So it tends to lend itself very well to the creative arts, whether it’s visual arts, music, narrative, or stuff like this, I just think it’s a very strong art-driven city. You come out in the Summer and it’s Jazz fests, comedy fests, film fests: it’s all of this. It’s not like car shows; we do have that, but the big focus is people coming out and celebrating the arts. For someone who grew up there it feels pretty normal, and I have to say on a governmental level, they did a lot of grants and submissions to basically try and encourage studios to set up there and make it profitable, or at least viable”.
Oh and by the way, Szczepkowski did get back to us on the Groot thing. “We can confirm that there are 1630 ‘I am Groot’ lines. (500 of these being combat bark versions of ‘I am Groot’)”. One thousand six hundred and thirty. Bloody hell.