'Middle-earth: Shadow Of War' Composers on the Pressures of Scoring Tolkien-Inspired Video Games

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Courtesy of fortyseven

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Nathan Grigg and Garry Schyman have decades of experience under their belts creating music for videos games. Having composed for popular franchises like F.E.A.R. and Bioshock, respectively, not to mention winning numerous awards, the two crossed paths in 2012 to collaborate on the music for Monolith Productions' popular Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor game, an original story that takes place between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in J. R. R. Tolkien's legendarium. 

Following the success of Mordor and a partnership that seemed to work wonders, Grigg and Schyman once again teamed up to work on the highly-anticipated sequel, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, out now on PlayStation 4, XBOX One, and PC.

Billboard spoke with the composers about the hours of music they created for both Middle-earth games, the pressure of creating music for Tolkien's rabid fanbase and how scoring an open world game differs from TV or film. 

How did you two come to meet and how did a work relationship form?

Nathan Grigg: I've been composing and directing music for all of Monolith Productions' titles since 2001. Whenever we define a music scope that exceeds the internal production schedule, I outsource some of the composition work and select a composer I think is the best fit for the project. I became familiar with Garry's music via his scores for the Bioshock series and Dante's Inferno. I found it striking in the sense that there was very expressive, melodic writing that I thought would bring our iconic characters to life, but also wild aleatoric material and a kind of early 20th century-inspired approach to orchestral music that connected to the kind of sonic environment I wanted to achieve in our combat music. So, I reached out to him, and we started working together on Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor in the fall of 2012. It’s been a good five years of fun.

Garry Schyman: Nate is an amazing composer, and though our styles are not identical at all, we complement each other nicely. Seems to have been a good fit as we did get a BAFTA nod for Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Garry Schyman

Would either of you consider yourself to be a “gamer”?

NG: I sunk a lot of quarters into the coin-ops at the corner 7-Eleven over my high school years. I'm now well into my 25th year of a career that gets more challenging with every title, and I have a family, so next to our highly-skilled QA team at work and my two teenage sons at home, I kind of feel like Conan O'Brien. I even book my own "Clueless Gamer" sessions with my 17-year-old son from time to time just to stay current.

GS: I didn’t play games when I first got into scoring [them] in 2004 with Destroy All Humans, but once I became aware of just how far the technology had taken the industry, I started playing and was amazed. I could not in good conscience call myself a “gamer,” but I do play the games I score so I can get a true sense of how my music sounded in the final game fully implemented. I also have a soft spot for certain franchise games like Portal, which I love playing.

I'd imagine that you don't have to be a die-hard video game fan to compose the music for them, but do you think being well versed in games would give you any advantage in the music department?

NG: If you specialize in composition and your workload is dedicated to outputting content, mastery at playing the games you work on -- let alone the vast field of titles you're competing with -- is not always a realistic goal. I will say that despite the serious time constraints on playing games I have at this point in my life, I do get a lot out of working in a game development environment, where I'm not just evaluating my music in a vacuum, but collaborating with designers of all the evolving systems that work together -- including level design, combat, presentations, cinematics, UI, etc. -- and seeing everything take shape over a development cycle. I'm surrounded by gamers, and I listen to them because they’re all really smart. 

GS: You do need to understand how game scores function, how they are similar to and different from scoring a film or TV show, how interactivity affects what we write and what other composers are writing for the genre. That said, I wrote my first big game score having very little game playing experience. I think the most important thing a composer can bring is great writing chops. If you have that and you can take direction from a good audio lead or music director, you could probably get away with it. But, I know of a major film composer who was hired to score a game, paid a huge advance, then produced crap because he didn’t understand the genre.

Do you play the game yourselves beforehand to get a feel for the tone in order to compose the score, or do you watch gameplay footage to accomplish that?

NG: I’ve never seen a formal post process for audio in-game development. The game can change on you up to the eleventh hour if that change makes the game more fun to play, so you have to be extremely flexible and willing to work in parallel with other disciplines in order to finish on time. Some cues we can get going on with nothing but concept art and descriptive design text. If you should write a looping background cue for an environment, for example, you can get all the direction you need from a brief conversation with design and some concept art. Other cues, like scripted presentations or cut scenes are completely dependent on locked timing from visuals and dialog so you have to wait. There's stuff in between, too, like maybe a boss theme that has some unusual mechanics that you want to see in a near-final state before confidently tackling it. It's really about intuitively finding the sweet spot where you're not too early to get the full picture, but you're early enough to provide room for when all those timing-lock dependent cues start pouring in.

GS: As I am a contracted composer, I rarely live in the same city as the developer. Some studios permit outside contractors to have copies of the game to play at their home or studio, but most do not because they are too concerned about the game becoming public before it’s time. Therefore, I depend on direction from the music lead or audio director to supply gameplay video and other art to inspire me as I compose. Then, I record a mix of the music using digital samples and synths to allow the game studio to approve or request changes once they put my music into the game for review.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Nathan Grigg

Between the two of you, you've worked on some incredible games, but the Middle-earth games are especially epic encounters considering the universe they're attached to -- not to mention the fandom. Did that put any additional pressure on you going into working on Shadow of Mordor, and now Shadow of War?

NG: Calling yourself a Tolkien fan is risky enough given that at any moment you might run into someone who speaks fluent Sindarin. When you're telling a new story in a world that's been so deservedly celebrated for so long, you’re talking a huge risk, but if you don’t focus and follow through with your own vision, you get lost in the noise. We were telling a new story, with our own style and pacing, and a protagonist with a very un-hobbit-like view of Middle-earth. And most importantly, we were making action adventure games, and they needed to be really fun. My thought from the beginning was to simply acknowledge and respect the work that had preceded us, and then put our best foot forward along our own path.

GS: I'm not sure either of us knew how big a hit Shadow of Mordor would become and that did add pressure to make sure our work on Shadow of War not only matched but hopefully surpassed [it]. That said, there is so much music to write that you can’t take too much time becoming frozen in fear for not writing a big enough or significant enough cue. You just have to keep writing and making cool stuff. Plus, the game and the images we score are so epic [and] beautiful that I believe it inspired us to do our best work.

Did working on the last game make this one a smoother process?

NG: It did in the sense that we were confident in our direction and in the structure so we could hit the ground running. The new challenges often stemmed from the sheer scope of it. The cut scenes alone added up to a feature-length film. There's also an inherent challenge in a sequel to a successful title that comes from the ubiquitous goal of "like that, only bigger and better." You end up writing music that's more challenging to record, mix and implement. Bigger and better is always harder.

Tell me a bit about the instrumentation used for Middle-earth: Shadow of War. How many musicians are involved and how it was recorded?

NG: We recorded 132 minutes of our score at the Bastyr University Chapel in Kenmore, Washington with the Northwest Sinfonia and Choir. Most of that material was arranged for 62 musicians and a choir with 20 singers, but some of it was recorded with a smaller orchestra. Bastyr has truly remarkable acoustics -- how brass swells build and choir blends in that room is extraordinary -- and the Northwest Sinfonia’s players gave us great performances of some very challenging music.

There is plenty of completely virtual score in the game as well, but the title theme, nearly all the combat music, and about half of the cut scenes all feature live orchestra. The live pieces are “hybrid” in the sense that we’re flying in virtual tracks, found sounds, extreme processing, and some electronic elements into the mix.

There were a few solo overdubs as well. Some were more improvisational for the purpose of gathering material to integrate into our arrangements. Some were written parts, some were both. The lead voice on my “Fires of War” song at the end of the game is Kelli Schaefer, who also collaborated with me on the vocal writing and lyrics for the song. Kelli is an exceptional songwriter, and I was very fortunate to be able to bring her incomparable voice into our score.

GS: We also recorded unique instruments, like large conch shells, animal horns, an Aztec death whistle, and even a human femur bone. We used these as spice to give the primitive Orc tribes a sense of ferocity and the player the vibe that they weren’t in Kansas anymore.

Is there anything in particular you have to consider musically when it comes to a Medieval fantasy game as opposed to something futuristic or modern?

NG: If there was ever a guidebook written for what a Medieval fantasy game score should sound like, we probably broke all the rules in it. I close the story in Shadow of War with a contemporary song, and there are some very modern rhythmic elements and extreme processing in some of my themes for the Orc tribes. A soundtrack ultimately functions as an immediate expression of how a moment in time makes you feel. I want players emotionally invested in our game’s world so I keep that high-level goal in mind with everything I write. I do think that there is something universally appealing about having an orchestra recorded in a very live cathedral space as a centerpiece to the sound in Shadow of War, as it lends gravitas to the game’s epic story and setting that I don't think we could have achieved any other way. 

Where do you draw inspiration from for a project like this to get into the right mindset creatively? Do you marathon The Lord of the Rings trilogy?

NG: I’ll still watch the DVD box set of the extended The Lord of the Rings trilogy my wife picked up many years ago for my own enjoyment, and Howard Shore's brilliant scores are burned into my consciousness just like anyone else who has experienced them. But, imitating or dwelling on how our work compared stylistically to the work that preceded it wasn’t what our game needed. I guess I would say the biggest influences on the Shadow of War score aren’t from other music -- they’re from the story, the environment, the characters, and how we wanted each moment to feel. Our score doesn’t fit safely into a fantasy genre. Out of context, you might hear music that could feel just as much at home in a horror or post-apocalyptic setting, but when you consider our game’s protagonist is, well, dead, and that the whole environment is being violently transformed into a war machine, that’s where all the primitive, industrial sounds, harmonic dissonance, rhythmic asymmetry, and chaotic strings come from. They’re inspired directly by the game.

GS: Though Nate is a fan of the movies, I never saw but one of them. Once I started working on the games, I assiduously avoided watching it again or the rest as I did not want to imitate the scores of Howard Shore. Fortunately, Monolith encouraged us to find a completely fresh approach that matched the unique game style they were producing. Both scores are orchestral, but I think ours is grittier and perhaps unique to fit the new story and the excitement it creates.

As you have experience in scoring films and television as well, can you explain some of the differences in composing music for a video game, where the player is in control of the actions that take place (at least to an extent)? Are there any challenges that set video game music apart from other forms of media?

NG: Any time you work in an environment where the order of events is variable, crafting a natural sense of pacing is infinitely more challenging than it is in an environment where you know what happens next and when. This isn’t just a comparison you can make from game to TV or film, but from game to game as well. The highly active open world games that Monolith is making now are vastly more difficult to implement music for than the linear campaign experiences we created 10 years ago because there are more ways to get in and out of a situation than you can retain in your head. So, having a clear idea on what input from the game is most important to highlight at any given time, setting a rule-based framework to accommodate those inputs and structuring your music to seamlessly accommodate that framework is key.

GS: No two players play at the same pace and that raises the question of “How do you score gameplay so it feels like we’re scoring each player’s unique gameplay experience?” It is done through a number of interactive techniques as simple as a looped piece of music that loops until each player finishes a section of the game, and then it fades out at that point. But, there are many complex techniques in game scoring that help the development team, aided by powerful software tools, that almost precisely score each player’s gaming experience. Those techniques, never used in film scores, are at the core of the difference. Additionally, music can sometimes function to guide the player through certain activities and can thus serve beyond having an emotional impact. 

How much of the music that you compose for a game gets cut ultimately?

NG: In the end, I would say very little gets scrapped. Sometimes a design change will "orphan" a cue for a while, and then weeks or even months later I’ll find a perfect spot open up for it. Shadow of Mordor had some story-shifting design changes well into production that created some unavoidable scraps, but we were on firmer ground the second time around. I think maybe five minutes of work total between the two of us didn't make it into Shadow of War, out of around four and half hours.