When you think Rare and video game music, then chances are two names will spring instantly to mind: David Wise and Grant Kirkhope. These two massively influential composers are behind some of the company’s greatest soundtracks and are now in huge demand as freelance contributors.
They’re both writing tunes for the upcoming Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, which – given the fact that developer Playtonic is packed with other ex-Rare talent – gives the impression that this is yet another classic Rare game, despite not having the studio’s name attached.
However, while Wise and Kirkhope unquestionably bring their own trademark musical style to the game, the bulk of the audio work – both in terms of music and sound effects – is handled by Playtonic’s two in-house audio guys: Dan Murdoch and Matt Griffin.
We were lucky enough to get the chance to sit down with Wise, Murdoch and Griffin to discuss the audio side of Impossible Lair’s development, as well as discuss topics like soggy socks and the comfort of anonymity when creating music.
Nintendo Life: David, what’s it been like working with Playtonic on two new games?
David Wise: Well, they have to drag me from a bed kicking and screaming [laughs]. No, it’s always good to work with people you’re familiar with, that you’ve worked with before; you kind of know what’s expected. It’s quite comforting really, and it’s good to be in familiar territory.
Nintendo Life: You’d been freelance for quite a while before Yooka-Laylee, right?
David Wise: I’ve been contracted for ten years now. So I left Rare ten years ago. I quite like contracting. You get to do nice things and meet nice people.
Nintendo Life: Was Yooka-Laylee kind of like stepping into a familiar role, given the Rare connection?
David Wise: Yes, and they know exactly what they want and what’s expected. So it was a case of just coming in to look at what they’re doing, going home and getting on with it, then bringing it back in – rinse and repeat.
Nintendo Life: How do you decide what the split is between you, Dan and Matt?
David Wise: Well this is Daniel’s domain; Daniel’s running the show here.
Dan Murdoch: I love how you say ‘decide’ as if it was all pre-planned! If we’re going to get right into it, in the very beginning – going back a year or two at this point – we drew up how much music we thought we’d need in the game. I came up with a number, and then we got told a music budget and we said this is how much we want in commission from Dave and Grant, and then we’ll fill in the rest. Over the course of the last two years, with every review and every time we looked at the game progressing, it kind of felt like we should have a little more music. So we’ll do some more of our own tunes, and then get a little bit more from Dave, and so on. So what was originally supposed to be around fifty pieces of music – mostly from Dave and Grant – ended up to be more like sixty pieces of music, with the heavier split in our direction. It wasn’t necessarily decided; we needed a lot more music than we originally intended.
Nintendo Life: Playtonic MD Gavin Price told us last time we were here that Grant was doing the overworld music. Why was that choice made?
Matt Griffin: We felt like that was a natural way to divvy the work up, to give Grant the overworld, and then it retained that sort of feel from the first game; happy exploration and puzzle-solving music. Then we’d take on the 2D element.
Dan Murdoch: I think what we were trying to do on this particular game is that we looked a lot at Dave’s music, and then because the vast majority of the music is in the 2D levels, we then got ourselves into writing in Dave’s style. We’ve basically been trying to encapsulate that kind of feel.
David Wise: There’s been quite a few meetings where I’ve come over, listened to the work that Dan and Matt have done, and suggested things that I’d do if I were doing it; whether that’s improved it or not, I don’t know! But that was the idea.
Nintendo Life: Do you listen to some of the stuff that these guys do and think ‘that sounds like me’?
David Wise: Well, they both definitely have their own style, but they sort of veer towards the 2D-type music that was probably defined long ago from the days of Rare. So it’s just a case coming along, seeing what the backgrounds are, seeing what’s happening, how the gameplay is going, and then suggesting ways of perhaps changing things. Some of them were perfectly fine from the word go; it’s just seeing what works and what might need changing. So it’s more like friendly suggestions rather than whips and chains!
Nintendo Life: Is that process new to you?
David Wise: It’s quite unique.
Nintendo Life: I suppose a lot of companies will just hire you and they say ‘we want this, we want you to do this’, but this is more of a collaborative effort?
Matt Griffin: We had a lot of meetings at the start to sort of nail down the style of music that we wanted in this game, because that always takes quite a long time.
Dan Murdoch: As you can imagine, there’s quite a lot of pressure on us to start matching Dave and Grant. So a lot of what we learnt were ways of approaching writing music, like how we’re using melody and textures – these kind of things. Because you look at the last score Matt wrote and then see what was written on this game, and it’s a dramatic step up. And all of that was through these kind of ‘master classes’ with Dave, I suppose – or a feedback session, whatever you want to call it.
David Wise: So Dan calls them ‘master classes’ [laughs]. The reality is I’m still winging it; still making it up as I go along, and it’s not like this there’s some great big plan that I know where I’m going or what I’m doing.
Nintendo Life: Was it new to you for you to be giving feedback at that level of detail? It’s kind of role reversal in a way?
David Wise: I suppose. I said earlier it’s quite unique so it’s just a case of winging it; trying to give advice without trying to put somebody down or put be totally dismissive. Because everyone’s got their own unique style. I think as long as it’s working mechanically within the game setting and it’s quite nice to listen, to then I think that ticks a big box.
Nintendo Life: Dan and Matt, is it fair to say that you’ve grown up listening to David’s work and have therefore been influenced by him?
Matt Griffin: Yeah I’d heard of him. [everyone laughs] Even if I was working on a different 2D platform with a different company, I think it still would have taken the sort of inspiration from those early Rare games, because you inevitably soak that up when you’re learning how to do that sort of thing.
Dan Murdoch: I think for me, I’ve always playing with Rare games, so everything I’ve ever written – even stuff that was long before I was working in games – people kept telling me it sounds like it’s a video game, because it sounded a lot like Rare-style music. That’s what I grew up with and that’s what I liked, so it was kind of in the DNA of everything I wrote anyway. It’s been about refining it rather than having to learn about what it was like to take inspiration directly, it’s like the inspiration was already there.
Nintendo Life: How does the creative process work between the visuals of the game and the audio you guys are making?
Dan Murdoch: We would have looked at this before Dave was really that involved, I would have thought.
Matt Griffin: At the very late stages you get concept art and art tests. And then you just start writing to those, because that’s all that’s there.
Dan Murdoch: The communication is always a bit of a battle; you’ve got to try and stay on top of every twist and turn that they’ve done at their end of the room that will go into the game, because they will change their mind about exactly how it looks so many times. We’ve written loads of music that got thrown away because it was no longer workable, and we’ve got a lot of tunes that we completely re-wrote down the line.
Matt Griffin: And then it’s been decided that a level isn’t very fun, so let’s can that and replace it with this, and you think ‘OK, that’s fine, that was just three weeks work but no problem, no problem.’ [laughs]
Nintendo Life: Do you get to recycle those tunes into something else?
Matt Griffin: I hope so, one day.
Dan Murdoch: Some things have returned. There’s a bunch of music that we’ve got sitting in a pile that we’ve said ‘we like this music, but it doesn’t fit.’ There’s a bunch of music that we’ve gone ‘OK, this isn’t good enough’ and we just canned it. But there’s also a bunch of music that actually did get completely reworked and re-added into the game, if we happened to find somewhere that it really fitted.
Matt Griffin: It’s like Dave says. You can have a great tune, but if it’s not working with the level, then as much as you might want that tune to go in the game, if it doesn’t have a place, then you can’t just put it in the sake of it.
Nintendo Life: It sounds like it’s always the case of you fitting the visuals?
David Wise: It does happen the other way round. At times, I’ve had it where I’ve written something and somebody’s completely changed what they’re doing to fit the music. It doesn’t happen very often.
Matt Griffin: Do they work here? Because we should hire them. [laughs]
David Wise: But on the whole, you’re there to support the graphics and the gameplay.
Dan Murdoch: You’re also meant to be the last thing that goes in. Because it’s design code, then art, then music. There’s no point doing the sound effects and the music first if you have no idea what it’s going to look like at all. By the time you’ve added the music, even if an artist wants to change something, they’ve probably moved on to the next thing that they have to do.
Matt Griffin: And to add to that, our environment art team are absolutely amazing, so every time we get something through, it’s not like ‘it would be nice if it was different to fit my music’, it’s just like ‘wow, I can’t wait to write for this’.
Nintendo Life: David and Grant have shaped and developed their own style over the decades. How much of a challenge has it been for you guys at Playtonic to mimic that style but also put own identity into the music?
Matt Griffin: I wouldn’t like to use the word ‘mimic’, but that is a good question. Because you want to write in that style, but inevitably, everybody’s going to have a slightly different approach. I think a lot of the team here know who’s done which tune. We actually have a bit of fun, because now they’re all getting towards the end of the game, most of us put headphones on for the first time and it’s quite fun seeing if they can pick out who’s is who’s. And a lot of the time, they can.
Dan Murdoch: I think also, at the end of the day, because we’re the in-house guys, and because we contract Dave and Grant, the buck stops with us. So if we say this is going in, then it’s going in. Obviously, we want to make sure it’s meeting the standards and everything, but there have been times where we’ve deviated, I think. Because we’ve decided, ‘you know what, we’ve got sixty tracks in this game, we want each level to feel interesting. Why don’t we try something a little bit different, to spice it up?’ If it does get a little bit away from the style of the rest of the music in the game, sometimes it’s worth it, because then it makes that level feel unique and special.
Matt Griffin: We’ve all written stuff that none of the others could write. Or would never think to write.
David Wise: Yeah, I was going to say, you can’t help it; you can try and copy somebody, or try and mimic somebody, but inevitably you’re going to sound like yourself at the end of the day.
Nintendo Life: How tricky is it to make your mark on the game when you’re often the last thing that goes in?
Dan Murdoch: I think one thing that we do really want to keep pushing is the adaptive dynamic side of the score, which is something that we both really enjoy. Matt particularly is good at this; we’re adding elements in that are reacting to some degree of what’s happening in the game. At it’s most basic, we’re talking about a variation – you go underwater, and the music sounds like it’s being played underwater. We’ve got a lot of that kind of thing, and some considerably more complicated things in Impossible Lair. But I think, generally, that’s the one thing that I think we both genuinely enjoy bringing a little bit more of into the game.
Matt Griffin: I think our primary job is to make a game more interesting, more enjoyable, more atmospheric; I’m not necessarily here to try and make a name for myself, here like the rest of them, just trying to make great games.
Dan Murdoch: Plus, we kind of write in that kind of style – Dave’s kind of style – we know the importance of melody, and the importance of groove and so on.
Matt Griffin: What does Grant say? ‘Music is the last bastion of melody.’ Or something like that. I’ve heard him saying that twice, because he gets to write loads of melody.
Dan Murdoch: I think we’re already in that vein anyway; so we’re not trying to war against that sound, we’d like to continue making music that sounds fun and interesting and doesn’t all have to be mournful cello solos.
David Wise: I don’t like mournful cellos solos anywhere. Great at a funeral, but… [everyone laughs]
Nintendo Life: Talking about those layers, one of the big things about Impossible Lair is that there are two versions of every level. Does that mean you’ve got two unique pieces of music? You’ve done double the amount of work you usually do?
Dan Murdoch: Yes. So this is where, as the game really developed, we had to adjust our strategy. Originally, we were thinking that the level ‘State Change’ would be just a new way to play that level. And as the game went on, we realised that’s not good enough. It’s going to effectively be an entirely different new level, where there might be a different time of day, or might be an entire course which is completely different, depending on the level. The interesting link is that you’re in the same place, but you’re not doing the same things. You’re not on the same path necessarily, and you’re not doing the same gameplay. The atmosphere may be completely different. So, of course, we needed a new tune.
Matt Griffin: From a composing standpoint, this a new level. We did do a few tunes where we used a state change to inform how we could flip the piece and use similar melodies, but a lot of the time it seemed like unnecessarily restricting yourself when the level was so, so different.
Nintendo Life: So they are quite dramatic changes?
Matt Griffin: A lot of the time, yeah.
Dan Murdoch: I think depending on what the level’s state change is; there’s a lot of different state changes.