Marrying the cinematic and the interactive

The music of ERICA — part 1

Image for post
Image for post

Warning: mild spoilers ahead!

I normally wouldn’t indulge in so deep a dive as this, but Erica was such a complex and fascinating experience that I’ve let myself go a little overboard. Most of my “blogging” has shifted to Youtube content lately, but for the 1% that make it all the way to the end of this piece … enjoy!

Erica was, without a doubt, one of the most challenging scores I’ve ever been asked to write. All scores are a challenge in their own way, as the many variables intersect (schedule, budget, aesthetics, egos/vulnerabilities of collaborators, expectations of the final result, etc) but this one seemed to amplify every challenge because of the way it marries cinema and videogames. Historically speaking, the FMV (Full-Motion Video) genre was experimented with the moment games started to move to the CD-ROM format in the 90s. The ability to encode video files into the game meant that now — instead of relying solely on animation, text, or rudimentary voiceover for game content — we could actually record actors on set, much like a traditional film.

And basically, with almost no exception, the original generation of FMV titles were garbage.

Laudable attempts, certainly. And I won’t deny playing the absolute hell out of Sewer Shark on my SegaCD. But not a single timeless classic among them.

It was through the stubborn belief of Erica’s creative director Jack Attridge — that FMV was not per se a fatally flawed medium — which led him to the development of this game. A lesser game designer, under the assumption that no FMV game could ever be good, might have quashed any inclination to give the genre a renewed effort. But Jack insisted that the medium simply hadn’t been treated with the respect it deserved. Or, perhaps it was more like a code that’d never been cracked.

(As a side note, Sam Barlow has recently experimented in the FMV space with brilliant results in the form of Her Story and the subsequent Telling Lies. Both use footage in explicitly un-cinematic ways, so they’re outside the typical aspirations of FMV in my opinion, but they’re masterful games and well worth your time.)

Under the shadow of those heavy historical circumstances, it’s also worth giving a little background to how I first met Jack. It was GDC 2016 when a mutual friend of ours messaged me out of the blue, saying she knew a guy who was working on something I should check out. No details. No word on who the guy was. I was simply told to head to a specific hotel and look in the bar. Fantastic.

As somebody who can never reject the opportunity at blind adventure, I decided to meet this mysterious stranger, arriving to find a young man holding an iPad and headphones. This was Jack Attridge. He quickly introduced his business partner, Pavle Milhajlovic.

Without another word, Jack put the iPad in my lap and said, “just put on the headphones and play this prototype.”

With a tap of the screen, I was immediately confronted with the visage of a young woman standing on a street corner, looking around as if waiting for somebody to arrive. The very first thing I noticed was how beautifully everything was shot; I’ve worked on quite a few films and I’d like to believe that I have a good eye for production. It’s a real delight to see master filmmakers light a scene and capture the beautiful shapes and shadows with the right kind of lenses and color palette. This was exactly one of those situations. Even in its simplicity, the image was striking.

After a moment, a phone rang in the distance, and Jack told me to tap on the phone. I did. The actress, suddenly and totally seamlessly, turned and walked over toward it. It was then I realized that I was playing a viable FMV game. In that simple movement, I was already hooked.

Image for post
Image for post

What followed were various prototypes of puzzles and branching dialogue trees, almost like you would find in a Bioware game except more elegantly handcrafted to fit the mold of the FMV medium.

GDC 2016, first time meeting Jack Attridge and somehow we both look 14

I instantly said to Jack, “I’m in. Where do I sign?”

Jack later managed to sign a deal with Sony, bringing me along to officially score the game.

The Process

I knew from the start that the process would explore where typical games did not. Something that generally separates films from games is their three-part creation structure:

1) Pre-production (write the script, hire the actors, and find the locations),

2) Production (go to the location and shoot the script),

and 3) post-production (edit the footage, add sound design and color timing, and write the score).

Video games tend not to divide up the creative process that way. While certain aspects of the pipeline may be named similarly to those of film, the actual process itself is less segmented and more of a continuum, much like the difference between a fully electric engine and a traditional engine that’s periodically shifting gears. You feel only the continuous torque and acceleration in a modern Tesla and that’s exactly how many modern games are.

Because this was going to be filmed like a movie, the game’s production process closely mirrored that of film but with important distinctions; I anticipated that there would be an enormously long post-production phase because of the nature of having to not only edit the footage, but place it in the game engine and test its functionality. However, it turned out that much of the testing was planned for pre-production instead. They worked on the script, set locations, and were casting for a very long time. I was then warned from the start that, after they shot, it was going to accelerate to maximum speed and post-production would be comparatively fast.

Based on its aspirations as a complex psychological thriller, I suspected that the score would have pretty nuanced and detailed needs, and I was a little apprehensive that we would run out of time. I was adamant that I constantly draft ideas to play around with during pre-production in order to give us time to think through everything.

The first thing I decided to do to start was writing some thematic material (which is pretty typically where I start). This coincided with the fact that they were doing a test shoot for a prototype of the game, just to make sure that their technology would work on a PlayStation4 (since the original demo Jack had shown me was created for the iPad). I used the initial PS4 prototype as a laboratory in which to experiment on themes. It was a low-pressure, low-stakes way to iterate.

But as it turned out, it was way harder than expected!

I must have written 100 themes, with many experiments of melodies, aesthetics, instruments, etc. I tried some very odd combinations: an entire orchestra of only flutes and violas at one point (which funny enough, Jack said reminded him of Tomb Raider, and as a result of which we shied away from winds in general. What survived of the winds to make it into the final score was a small flock of tenor saxophone, whose breathy and moody tones were played by Ian Roller.)

The material that made it into that prototype was actually quite simple in the end, leaning mostly on strings and piano. By the time we finished, we still weren’t convinced that we had found the right theme though, so I continued to iterate. But the most important takeaway was realizing that anything less than totally interactive music was very dissatisfying. Simplistic loops or stingers were just not going to cut it. More on that later….

One of the challenges surrounding the development of this theme encircled the philosophical question of what exactly the theme was supposed to do. It seemed to me that there was potential need for three or four distinct themes; however, it is also my predisposition to try and make themes about some kind of philosophical idea and not about literal characters or locations (ie leitmotives). Thus, my scores tend to have only one or two themes that undergird the main narrative point of the game, with incidental music that captured those specific moments and characters.

Said another way, most games (and films, and TV) are only about one basic thing. A familiar archetype like falling in love, honoring one’s ancestors, etc. Boil the story and characters down enough and usually you end up in a place like that, and I try to make those ideas the anchor for any theme. Because there’s usually a real trajectory there. If a character doesn’t really evolve, I have a hard time justifying why they need a theme. Something simpler often suffices.

But all that notwithstanding, it seemed like the game had a need for a central theme for Erica, a secondary theme for the character of this Mysterious Woman, the location of the Delphi House itself (where most of the game takes place), and even possibly a fourth theme for Erica’s deceased father.

Trying to sort out this challenge had me going in circles for a little while as I struggled with rationalizing the utility of all that thematic material. But as is so often the case, I quickly decided to simplify things and write just a single theme for Erica herself. After close to a year of trying things, we landed on a melody that seemed to capture it all.

Image for post
Image for post

Jack was very keen that this theme be something that feels heavy and broken but yet, not weak or timid. Erica is not someone who sees herself as a victim of trauma, despite the horrors that she has weathered, and yet she is not a superhero either. She is a real person who was damaged by something horrible.

On top of that, one of the design pillars of the game involved giving the player parallel possibilities for navigating the complexities of who Erica is. It’s true to life in that way: sometimes, you might respond to somebody more aggressively than you usually do, or you might keep your mouth shut when you typically speak up, etc. We have a wide range of behaviors that we engage in and that had to be true for Erica as well. Because of this somewhat wide definition for who Erica is, the theme couldn’t declare anything too overtly. If we made her too definitely X or Y some of the player decisions might seem out of place (this is all much easier described after the fact, by the way. These were the sorts of revelations that came to us during the process!).

Developing the material always goes in tandem with developing the aesthetic and, because I knew that Jack wanted the world to feel oppressive and heavy, I was constantly exploring various low-range colors. The weighty bottom end of music is something that’s mired in cliché amongst thrillers, so I was trying to find something that could be expressive and beautiful, even in its heaviness.

The resulting sound palette was a solo cello, (a sound I generally can’t resist anyway :]), various pianos, a string orchestra, and a lot of droning low synth sounds. To that I added:

- A six-piece Double Bass ensemble recorded in Nashville, which provided the rich harmonies on the bottom of the spectrum that you get through five or six-part chords

- tenor saxophones and contrabass clarinet, whose terrifying gurgles and screeches owe themselves to the artistry of Ian Roller and Andrew Leonard.

- and solo violin (by the wonderfully talented Caroline Campbell), which also managed to carry Erica’s loneliness in a loftier way.

These musical colors all summed up to something that felt true to the world of Erica.

That’s a pretty comprehensive rundown of the foundations of the score, so I’ll leave it there for now. Are you still here? In part 2 I’ll get into the specifics of the other strands to the score and also how it was implemented in-game.

If you haven’t played the game yet, I definitely encourage it! You can find it here!

Written by

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