Interview: Composer Jack Wall on creating music for video games

In a movie, where only one thing is ever going to happen no matter how many times you watch it, it's relatively easy to create the perfect musical accompaniment. But what about for a game, where almost anything can happen at any time? We spoke to Jack Wall — who has composed music for such games as Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Mass Effect, and the upcoming Into The Stars, a space exploration game from Fugitive Games that some have described as "The Oregon Trail…in space" — about how a game's genre and setting impacts its music, how much of a game he gets to see, and what he thinks is the role of music in games.

GC: When you're approached about doing the music for a game, how much of that game do you typically get to see before you have to say "yes" or "no" to the job?

Jack: These days it's quite a lot. With the latest game engines, developers can quickly mock up what the experience is going to be in the end. Sometimes I have to laugh when they're embarrassed that the lighting isn't right or the shading isn't final. There's a very high bar these days, but what I get to see early on often looks light-years better than a finished game would look only a few years ago.

GC: I would imagine that could backfire on you, though. Have you had any instances where you thought a game was going to be cool, but when you started working on the music for it, you realized that no, no it's not?

J: Not really. I can usually tell by the passion and dedication of the team whether or not it will be cool. Though I have worked on games that were very cool, but didn't see the light of day. That's the worst I've dealt with. But that's usually the fault of the marketing or lack of publisher support.

GC: Into the Stars is not the first sci-fi game you've scored. But you've also done music for fantasy games , horror games , and military games . How does the genre of a game influence your music?

J: I really approach every game from the standpoint of what it's telling me it should be, musically. I try to give it it's own signature sound. That's part of the fun of what I do. I, as only one person, can have a significant impact on the overall feel of the game. I love that and take that as a personal challenge to come up with something that the listener can hang on to. I'm always looking for that one sound or motif or theme that says what the project is.

GC: Does the kind of game matter, though?

J: Yes. Because it was a stealth game, Splinter Cell had more tension cues and I used a totally different sound palette than I did for Black Ops II, which was much larger experience and had so many different styles within the context of the game. Each game is different and has different requirements.

GC: Was there anything about the Into the Stars score that made working on it unique for you?

J: I would say that this is the first game I've worked on that was such a short game experience. It's designed to be about 90 to 120 minutes long, but with tons of replay possibilities. I was initially hired to write about fifteen, sixteen minutes of music, but when I learned what the game was really about, and that there was a built in mechanism for replay, I wanted to contribute more music so that you might hear different pieces on replay. Repeating music can be exhausting to listen to, and I didn't want that for the player. I think we ended up doing well over thirty minutes of music, with some built in interactivity based on the gamers' actions.

GC: Along with all your game scores, you were also one of the co-creators of Video Games Live, and were the principal conductor and music director for its first five years, from 2005 to 2010. How did playing video game music in concert, in front of people, impact how you make music for games?

J: It really helped me to understand what gamers really enjoy about the music in their games. They love themes. Themes and story are of paramount importance to them, and that's what brought them out to hear the music live. Telling stories through music is the best way that I can reach into the hearts of people who enjoy playing games. Games are so important to a healthy society. Studies have been done that show that games are one of the best ways to work out life's many difficulties in a way that is constructive and useful. I love story. I love helping storytellers craft that story with music, whether it's a video game, a movie, or TV series. It's all about story. Why do we tell stories? We tell stories to share common experiences that can bring us all closer together. Not to be too lofty, but it's a noble occupation in my humble opinion.

After I gained this knowledge through my time with Video Games Live, I was really interested to get back to composing full time. What a great experience conducting amazing orchestras around the world and meeting so many game fans. Now that I'm back at it, it feels much more purposeful to write original music for all media that tells stories.

GC: So, do you play games?

J: Of course I do. I play as often as I have time for. However, for the past year, it's been pretty slim. I've only been able to play the games I work on. Along with Into the Stars, I'm also working on a TV series , and this past fall, I produced and music directed a live rock opera called Psyche that was written by my wife, Cindy Shapiro. That was an incredible experience, but left room for little else.

GC: When you play games, do you ever turn off the music?

J: Never! Blasphemy!

No, I want to hear what the developer intended for the experience. Music is very important to that intention.

GC: Lastly, if you could do the music for any game, what would be your dream job and why?

J: I'm living the dream every day. I am grateful for the opportunity to work as a composer and storyteller and make a living at it. Any chance I get to do that is a good day. If someone like Alden Fillion and Ben Jones come to me to ask me to do their music, I'm incredibly honored and privileged to help them make their vision a reality.

Into the Stars will be available for PC, Mac, and Linux via Steam Early Access this July.