Exclusive: Jason Graves and Scoring Dead Space

Jason Graves is a British Academy Award-winning composer who has brought his passion for music to a TON of vg titles such as Area 51, Star Trek, Command and Conquer, and of course … the reason for the season: Dead Space and Dead Space 2. Graves’ scores are filled with unique, cinematic textures combined with modern aesthetics, and he is renowned worldwide for his cinematic, immersive and award-winning music.

Graves was solely responsible for creating the score for Dead Space, EA’s best-selling original title, which has been deservedly dubbed “the scariest game ever made.” Not only has Graves’ work on Dead Space been hailed as a “truly original soundtrack” and “the best score of the year”, but it has been widely praised by critics and fans alike – garnering MULTIPLE award nominations including two BAFTA award wins – Original Score and Use of Audio. For the latter, the Academy stated, “It’s the music soundtrack that boasts horror and tension.

Ready to get to know Jason Graves before the Necromorphs eat your soul?

Crix Lee: Jason, I am totally honored that you’re taking the time out to do this for us! LOVE LOVE LOVE Dead Space and the music in Dead Space 2 demo is what I like to call Amazeballs. Thank you SO much for doing this.

Jason: Wow, thanks. My pleasure!

Crix Lee: What is your professional/educational background? How did you become involved in game scoring?

Jason: I’m actually a classically-trained percussionist that ended up majoring in Music Composition. I’ve played drums and piano since I was in middle school and always loved music. It wasn’t until I decided to enroll in the University of Southern California’s Film Scoring program that I decided to try and make it a profession.

It was my experience in the film and television world in Los Angeles that actually got me into games in the first place. In 2002, I was referred to someone who needed music for the film-based game “King Arthur.” I scored the game’s trailer for free with an existing piece of music I had written for a music trailer library. I guess they liked it because they contacted me a few weeks later about scoring the whole game.

Crix Lee: Who tapped you for Dead Space?

Jason: That would be the audio director of the original Dead Space, Don Veca. I submitted four pieces of music based on his music requirements. Words like ‘creepy,’ ‘horror,’ ‘psychological fear’ and ‘extreme tension’ were used a lot. A few days after the submission, Don called and was going on about how perfect my music was and how it was exactly what he was looking for. The rest, as they say, is history!

Crix Lee: You’ve scored over ninety different titles (including one of my FAVES, Area 51). How hard do you work to make sure each game has its own unique sound, yet have your mark on it?

Jason: That’s my personal goal for every game I work on! And it’s also the most challenging. Most of the time I know I’m being my own worst critic. I’m the one listening to the music, day in and day out, and I need to keep it fresh and fun just for my own musical edification. Each title has different sets of musical rules and limitations, which can actually be very liberating when it comes to the score. It allows me to focus on trying to deliver a unique score for each title.

Crix Lee: How much primary research (i.e., game footage) do you receive in order to come up with the game’s score?

Jason: My first step in researching a new game is to go and visit the developer. Those few days are where I really get a chance to soak it all in and get a really good feel for the project. Once I’m back home, the developer will send as much as they can to keep me up-to-date. Most of the time I get a little bit of everything. Scripts, artwork, backstories and walkthroughs (videos of gameplay) when different parts of the game are ready. The walkthroughs are always really helpful for me, because they usually have no music under them, which is my preference.

Whenever I’m working on a new track I can always pull up the movie and see how the music is playing underneath the game. It also helps me a lot with instrument choices; most of the time there are sound effects and dialog going on at the same time. I always carve some space out of the music to let all the other sound effects cut through.

Exclusive: Jason Graves and Scoring Dead Space

Crix Lee: What is the FIRST thing you do when approaching a game score?

Jason: The first thing I always try and do is get the main theme, or musical identity, of the game in place. This allows me to easily give the developer an concrete example of what the rest of the score will sound like. It usually begins with a visit to their studios and a few days of hanging out, getting to know everyone and play through the game. I soak everything in, come back to my studio and send these initial ideas back to them.

Crix Lee: How much freedom do you have when it comes to scoring a title like Dead Space?

Jason: Well, we are talking about horror music, so the first and most important rule to remember, at least from a musical perspective, is that there are no rules! EA was ready for anything I could dream up, literally! As long as it was creepy, scary or just downright unusual they were happy.

Sixty string players picking at their instruments and making sounds like bugs scurrying across the floor? Great! Woodwinds blowing into their instruments without creating any actual pitches? Awesome!

And the thing was, there really had to be complete freedom from the beginning, because there wasn’t any way for me to let anyone hear what any of this would sound like until we recorded it with an orchestra. Sometimes, I didn’t even know what it would sound like. It was absolutely freeing and terrifying for me at the same time. Yes, I could do anything I wanted, but what if it didn’t end up working? Everything was unproven ground. Fortunately, it all ended well and scared everyone that played it half to death. In a good way, of course!

Crix Lee: Did you ever think in a million years you’d have two BAFTAs for scoring a video game?

Jason: Not in TWO million years! The overall audio in Dead Space was nominated for “Use of Audio,” which included sound effects, dialog and music, and “Original Score.” We won “Use of Audio” first, which truthfully I expected to a certain extent; the whole audio package was just a phenomenal presentation. I happily went onstage and accepted on behalf of the whole team. When then announced my name for “Original Score” it was truly one of those out-of-body experiences you read about. It was a wonderful surprise and definitely something I’ll remember as long as I live!

Crix Lee: How many of the games that you’ve scored have you played?

Jason: I’ve most definitely played them all, especially if you count all the time I spend working on each title. Once all the music is finished, I’ve probably played through each game at least seven or eight times, but I usually don’t play through them again once they’ve shipped. It can be uncomfortable for me to “look back” and listen to the music; a lot of the times all I can hear is what I wish I had more time to spend tweaking. However, I did play through the original Dead Space before I started on the sequel. It was a great way to get back into that kind of mentality and experience firsthand what worked and what could be improved in the score.

Crix Lee: Have you played Dead Space or Dead Space: Extraction? Does it scare the crap out of you, even though you KNOW where the ‘scary music moments’ are?

Jason: I’ve played both many, many times. I even played through the original Dead Space once more before beginning my work on the score for Dead Space 2. Sad as it may seem, I seem to now be immune to the wily ways of the horror that is Dead Space. I think it’s practically impossible not be desensitized after working on a horror franchise like that for the last five years.

Crix Lee: What advice would you have for budding composers and musicians looking to break into the game industry?

Jason: The number one piece of advice I can give is to make yourself as well-rounded as possible. The more you know about microphone techniques, mixing, editing and everything else that is the world of audio, the more indispensable you will be. And don’t put yourself below getting someone coffee for free while you watch them work. Every experience is a learning experience!

Exclusive: Jason Graves and Scoring Dead Space

Crix Lee

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  • CrixLee

    I have a crush on Jason now, haaaaaa.