Game Music

To Hell and Back: A Conversation With Garry Schyman

February 23, 2010 | | 1 Comment Share thison Facebook To Hell and Back: A Conversation With Garry Schymanon Twitter

Just before the release of Dante’s Inferno, I had a wonderful opportunity to sit down with composer Garry Schyman and pick his music-filled brain. Philosophical pontificating about the craft and the gaming business ensued and it was certainly worth every minute. Most exciting for me was a nice insight into the main theme of Bioshock.

Click on to read as I badger the mind behind Bioshock, Bioshock 2, and Dante’s Inferno!

One of the first things that struck me while listening and playing through Dante’s Inferno the first time was how musically complex it was. “I thought to myself, ‘What a great opportunity and setting for something more complex.’ What better place [than Hell] to do that?” He continued, “To achieve the kind of grand wrath and amazing character of the setting, that’s what I opted for. That’s not to say there aren’t simple keys in there…” If I learned anything during my days in music school, I learned just how difficult it is to write complex music that has a clear purpose and narrative like Schyman’s Dante’s Inferno score. “I wish I got paid by the note. I could retire!” he said with a laugh.

One of the more interesting sounds in the soundtrack to Dante’s Inferno is the percussion: half of it a metal-like sound, the other a more thundering bass drum. I asked Garry about this and he said in a confessing-like tone, “[Laugh] those are probably my samples.” I explained that even I – a lifelong classical musician – could not tell. He continued, “Even though I’m always adding to my samples, we did have two days with an amazing percussionist….he helped with the combat cues and it was a great experience. I wrote things out and he would improvise. So, there is live percussion [in Dante] but not in Bioshock.”

Though not all the percussion is live, the orchestra itself is quite sizeable. “Not including the choir, we had a 65-piece orchestra. The Philharmonia Orchestra,” Schyman explained. For those who may not know, The Philharmonia Orchestra is no small potatoes and one of the more successful, well-known orchestras in England (and the world). “8 horns: 4 from the Philharmonia and the rest from the leading orchestras of London. The horn section was the most amazing horn section I’d ever heard. It wasn’t a huge orchestra, but when you add in a 40-piece choir it sounds huge.”

I asked Garry Schyman about any numerical relationships present in his score. For instance, Bach would often write the third movement of a piece in three. “There is a secret message……[laughs] No, I’m just kidding. I didn’t really think about that. I was more interested in what would work musically. There was no numerology at all. This [the main theme] was the second theme I composed and I immediately liked it, but there is no numerical relationship.”

Invariably, I’m always curious to see how many composers are “gamers.” Schyman proudly admitted that he beat Bioshock on ‘Normal’ difficulty just recently (after having beaten it on ‘Easy’ initially. “I also have a level 58 [World of Warcraft] character, but I had to give up playing because…well, I was a little addicted to that game. My wife came in at one in the morning and asked, ‘What are you doing?’, and I replied, ‘Leveling up, of course!’.”

Schyman, a pianist by trade, has formal training from USC (as does Joshua Mosley and Timothy Wynn, both of whom I had the pleasure of interviewing) where he studied with Bob Lynn and Jim Hopkins.

I was very reticent to ask Garry about some of the initial response surrounding Dante’s Inferno. To my memory, I had not experienced a game announcement that was met with such a polarizing response from a small group of journalists. Though I enjoyed the game (as did our friends at Destructoid and several other news outlets), many rushed to judgment before the game’s release. But, Schyman did not turn away from my pressing question. “If you were a Dante scholar, this could be the best thing that could’ve possibly happened. If anything, the game has done an enormous favor to this literature. Many are reading it now that probably would never have read it before so it’s kind of ridiculous to think anything to the contrary.” As far as God of War comparisons, Schyman responded, “Jonathan Knight has talked many times about how he and the team are big God of War fans and that this is another entry into that genre.” (Coincidentally, in the last week, God of War III director Stig Asmussen had very positive things to say about Dante’s Inferno.)

While I had his attention, I had to ask Garry about his Bioshock score. I was so curious to know how a game dealing with an underwater utopia (dystopia?) and plasmids and Big Daddies could have a main theme that is a stunningly delicate tale of a few strings in harmony. Garry’s explanation blew my mind. “I thought it would be very interesting to play the tragedy – the overriding human tragedy – that seems to occur again and again where man is going to create utopia on Earth and, in the most tragic way, we’ve seen that happen – whether in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, Communist China….it’s sort of this recurring tragedy of humans wanting to do something good and instead doing great evil. Maybe that didn’t come across, but that was my thought. There’s something really deeply tragic about this beautiful city that was completely trashed and destroyed by the tragic flaws of the human personality.”

I ended up the conversation talking about video game music versus film music and whether or not game music is “losing its voice.” I asked Garry about this in the context of wondering if there is a strictly musical difference between composing for film and composing for video games – for which he has done both. That is to say, all things being the same, I asked if he would change something from a technical standpoint (i.e. arrive at a theme sooner, make a tune “catchier”, etc) based solely on the medium of games or film. After a few botched attempts on my end to properly ask the question to Schyman, I finally made it work. He responded very simply: “No. There is no difference.” Interestingly enough, both Timothy Wynn and Josh Mosley had the same responses. Whoa! I can’t wait for the panel at GDC (for which OSV will have coverage. Stay tuned!)

More coverage of Garry Schyman and Bioshock 2 to follow!

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