Marrying the cinematic and the interactive

The music of ERICA — part 2

Warning: mild spoilers ahead!

Welcome to part 2 of my thorough breakdown of Flavourworks’ debut title, Erica. If you haven’t read part 1, it can be found here.

As a recap, previously I talked about figuring out the basic palette and central theme to the game and all that that entailed. What I failed to mention was that, right before filming began in spring 2019, Director Jack Attridge requested that I work out a different tune …

Beyond the thematic material needed for the score itself, the game called for a song which we would see and hear on screen (these are referred to as ‘source cues’). It’s called “The Aria for Delphi,” and was to be mentioned by several characters through the course of the story.

The lyrics come from the Delphic Maxims, a collection of 147 wise sayings sourced from ancient Greek proverbs sometime before the 3rd century BCE. Some of the specific lines were selected by the game’s writer, Connor Potts, for me to set to music. I tried a few different genres before migrating in the direction of a fifties doo wop pop ballad, like something you might hear from the Righteous Brothers and, in the modern context, somewhat of an homage to Twin Peaks. In the setting of a chilling thriller, it’s hard to understate the power of juxtaposing with something upbeat and poppy.

I wrote a tune and sent it to my dear friend Laura Intravia — with whom I’ve worked many times over the years — for her to record a scratch vocal (meaning a temporary, demonstrative version of the vocals that is often replaced later on by the “official” singer). With the pronunciation guidance of my Greek friend, composer Adonis Aletras, we recorded the song. I then began the process of arranging it and, unbeknownst to me, Sony’s in-house composer and orchestrator Jim Fowler simultaneously created his own arrangement of the song as well. He finished before I did and sent it over to me. It was basically perfect. I quickly abandoned my own attempt and stuck with his version, and ironically never replaced Laura’s vocal either (she’d just nailed it!). All of this can be found in the final version of the song within the game.

Image for post
Image for post

Funny enough,Aria for Delphi” wasn’t just needed as playback for a vinyl record, though. There was also a scene where the girls were fooling around with the melody on the piano and one of them ends up coughing blood all over the sheet music (moments after saying she didn’t know who the composer was, but presumed he was dead)! I needed to make an arrangement for piano that the girls could conceivably be reading from, and then I had to perform the music so that the actress could mimic my hand movements and hit the right keys.

Further complicating things, the player actually gets to play along with the melody note-for-note, so I had to record the accompaniment and then sample the melody notes one by one. Fortunately, my piano skills are about on par with distressed women in an asylum, so I’d call this one perfect casting.

As a final comment on the “Aria for Delphi,” it was always intended to be purely a source cue, used during a few moments on-screen. But as I was finishing the bulk of the score, I kept feeling like I needed a theme for Erica’s father. It dawned on me surprisingly late in the project that this tune could be the perfect way to represent him, bending space and time by transferring from on-screen vinyl recordings to representation in the actual underscore. I ended up hacking apart Laura’s scratch vocals, and also writing many new variations on the tune for use in the score.

Here’s one example, though it might be a tad hidden. Here’s a far more explicit example:

Beyond the notes themselves, another major aspect of this score I didn’t quite fully grasp until I was well into it was just how interactive the score would need to be. This is something I obsess over in my career, but it surpassed even what I’d initially planned.

I think that gamers, myself included, have traditionally let composers off the hook dramatically much more than they should. By that, I mean that, were we to watch a film in which a music cue starkly ends mid-note, the entirety of the audience would recognize that something was wrong. Or even unprofessional. Yet, for decades, we have accepted those kinds of awkward executions in games. I don’t know if gamers implicitly understood that technological constraints (and not creative failures) were to blame in the early days, but either way, there are thousands of games whose shoddy music implementation passed right by gamers’ perception without a second thought. It’s something that drives me insane as a composer; I hate when the music is forced to behave unmusically for mere technological constraint, even though I sympathize deeply with the reasons for such restraints.

A simple example of this might be in an RPG where the composer has written some sort of combat music for action scenes, and more ambient music for dialogue scenes; you run up to an NPC and start chatting in the middle of a battle and the score does an instant crossfade between the two, barely different than if you’d just hit ‘next track’ in Spotify.

With Erica, I knew that any rough edges like that would be completely unacceptable because, even though the game had many of the traditional mechanics of common gameplay, the game was shot entirely as a film and would feel just like a movie. The brain simply could not accept the lower bar of game music implementation instead of the high standards of execution one would expect from film. That meant that, very often, dialogue had to be acknowledged in the middle of a scene in order to reflect the evolving subtext, even as unpredictable as the dialogue would be due to player choice and timing. The solution was to break the score into hundreds of cues that had to be very nimble moment-to-moment. Imagine the score as a constant lattice-work of transitions, alternate mixes, stems pivoting to alternate material, and large swaths of purely-optional music, all working together to reflect the player’s choices. And that these chocies would culminate on the large scale to form the larger narrative. Rather than getting (more) overly-wordy, I’ll leave you this video detailing the complexity of just a single scene from the game:

As I was finishing the score, wrapping up cues and sending mockups to Sony for implementation and testing, it was becoming time to record everything. Usually the dreamiest part of the process for me, this time around it was actually quite complicated! The sheer number of cues was almost overwhelming, not to mention the fact that no two cues needed exactly the same combination of instrumental elements. Beyond the two different “orchestras” I mentioned in the previous post, the score also features a barrage of soloists:

Tina Guo — Cello

Caroline Campbell — Violin

Ian Roller — Tenor Saxophone

Andrew Leonard — Contrabass Clarinet

Tom Strahle — Guitars

Uyanga Bold — Vocals

A look at the various musicans for Erica

Tying the whole score together was my incredible mix engineer Steve Kempster. He had the very difficult task of figuring out how to mix everything, knowing that none of the cues would be played as standard mixes. We had to test every single iteration that the stems, as delivered, could yield. As an example, let’s say a cue has a bed of synths, high strings, and a cello solo. It could be that the player walks into the area as we hear the synthesizers playing. Then, as the player makes a decision, the high strings come in. And then, as the player is leaving, the orchestra fades out and a cello solo enters in (You can hear this texture during the phone call at the end of both of the rooms in the Anatomy of a Scene video). Such an arrangement would mean that the synthesizers need to be mixed on their own, and then combined with the strings, and then altogether with the cello solo. Then we have to mix it, making sure that the looping elements can enter at any point and still sound balanced against the non-looping elements. We spent a great deal of time more on the mix than our usual breakneck pacing and thank god I have a natural enjoyment of excel sheets. Huge credit is owed to Steve and the gang for pulling this off, and to the musicians themselves for these incredible performances.

Putting the pieces together to form a soundtrack album was the final step as the game was nearing its release, and it was remarkably hard. One of the challenges I find with all interactive scores is finding a way of capturing the essence of what the music feels like to the player while conforming to the constraints of the linear soundtrack medium. This was made all the more difficult in this case because I didn’t want to inadvertently canonize a certain string of decisions the player might make. Something that is so wonderful about Erica is the massive amount of player agency, including choices that take her down mutually exclusive paths (that is to say, option A reveals a distinct reality from option B). I didn’t want the soundtrack album to hint at the idea that option A was the favored reality and that option B was kind of a bonus offered to the player. They both needed to feel important; In some instances, I skipped material in order to avoid playing favorites and, in others, I tried to edit them all together simultaneously. In other cases, I created alternate mixes that were not actually possible in the game, so as to meet the player halfway and give a summary of all available choices. I don’t even know if I did the best possible job here, although I think that the resulting linear experience of the soundtrack is enjoyable to listen to on its own. You tell me!

I know this was a long post though, honestly, it could have been three times longer. This game really pulled a lot out of me but I couldn’t be happier at the opportunity to be part of it. A lot of credit is owed to Sony for believing in Jack and Flavourworks on such an ambitious title, especially for their debut project as a studio. When I first met Jack, I was excited but I didn’t really imagine how difficult it could possibly have been by the time I finished.

I’m very pleased and shocked to conclude that, given how long it’s taken me to finish this blog, I had the honor of winning two awards from my peers in the Game Audio Network Guild in April of 2020, for both “Best Interactive Score” and “Best Instrumental Composition” for the main theme, “Know Thyself.”

Image for post
Image for post
How awards look during quarantine

Thank you for enduring this incredibly long and indulgent treatise on Erica. Now … go play the game!

Professionally curious about music. Composer for Journey, Abzu, Erica, John Wick Hex, The Banner Saga 1–3, AC Syndicate, Tooth & Tail, etc. Fan of humanity!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store