Interview: Garry Schyman

featured / Interviews / News / Special Features / November 21, 2017

Garry Schyman is one of gaming’s all-time great composers.

The man behind the music throughout the entire Bioshock series is also the guy who, moreso than many others in game music, has overseen the soundscapes of franchises from start to finish. After getting a start in games, perhaps too early, Schyman departed this work until the technology could accommodate his scope. Since then, it’s been a barrage of awards and BAFTA nominations, along with an escalating series of high profile projects. Schyman did the score for the much beloved Shadow of Modor game that allowed the Lord of the Rings universe to spiral off into a darker yet still accessible place. Now, he’s just released the score for the sequel, Shadow of War (which he worked on with Nathan Grigg), which is poised to be one of the biggest successes of his career.

Schyman sat down with Modern Vinyl to talk about the video game scoring process, plus his greatest success — and the lesser known battles.

What was the experience of working on a Tolkien inspired Lord of the Rings game?

This was my second. Shadows of Mordor was my first. What’s interesting, and I didn’t know this at the time, was that it was the first of the LOTR games properties to not be based on the books. It was creating a new story whole cloth. It’s a fascinating world full of wonderful creatures, so from a composer’s perspective, it’s a thrill. We were nominated for a BAFTA for that one, so I’m looking for bigger results here. The second game has more, how do I say this, gameplay? There’s turns that will blow you away if you’re into this world.

Are you into this world? The whole orcs and magic thing?

I’m into these two games. I saw one movie and played these games.

What level of stuff do the video game companies send you? You’re already talking twists and such…

I got a script and artwork. Usually, by the time I get really into it… by then it is playable. They’ll send me video capture of that. They’ll send me that video and I’ll put that on Digital Performer as my platform for recording, and I’m not writing directly to this one playthrough, obviously, but it does give me a sense of what I’m writing to in terms of, say, the intensity of combat? Is it night or day? What does the world’s landscape look like? All of that is part of what I use to write. Those are the things that inspire me. There was also an enormous amount of in-game movies and cinematics — I wrote two and a half hours of music and more than an hour of that was for cinematics. Nathan Grigg, the in-house composer, scored an extra four hours. We worked together on the last one, and him being in-house in the Seattle area makes it easy to work with the team each day.

How does this process work with co-composers?

Mostly, there’s just such an enormous amount of music to write that there is no shortage for what we’re working on. I was dependent upon him in terms of directing me. He ultimately decided what parts of the game I was taking on and what he was taking on. This is pretty typical as a contracted composer. You’re dependent on the audio lead or music supervisor, though it varies from game to game. In Bioshock: Infinite we had a music implementer who didn’t write but who dedicated where I fit into the world.

Is there any sort of pressure to do right by a Tolkien universe? What do you look to in order to make sure you’re doing it right?

You start by not trying to copy Howard Shore. I’d forgotten his score, and we were never asked to imitate that music. The Star Wars composers are asked to directly imitate John Williams. That’s not us. But what would happen from time to time is that representatives of the Tolkien estate, who have licensed this to Warner Brothers, would come in and look at the game and listen to the music. They were always very happy with the music. They were fantastic about never giving us notes like “fix this cue” because they were fans of what we were doing. But if we did something they didn’t [like], we would’ve heard about it.

What’s the evolution of working on the sequel after working on the first game? It’s rare to see someone like you who sees game series from start to finish, and that’s what you do.

It was a pleasure. You never know when someone is about to get replaced on the music side, and sometimes it is just because the producers are bored. I have friends who have worked on parts of a game franchise, and then you choose to go a different way, and occasionally that’s for good reasons but rarely.

Do you play the games?

I play the ones I score. That seems important to me.

The original ‘Mordor’ flew beneath people’s radars.

I was personally surprised by how amazing it was. I thought it might be just another LOTR title, and then I said “oh shit” because I could see what these guys did. You hope that what you’re doing is something good, but you can’t see how that ends up…until it’s done. It was a happy surprised and I was delighted. There’s a quote from Hollywood that “Nobody knows nothing,” and you don’t know what will hit until it’s done. But you can’t play a game if you’re not in-house, because security is what it is in this industry. But I’ve reached a point where I can tell from the assets I’ve got and from talking to a team when something is going to do well at this point.

I loved your work on ‘The Bureau: XCOM Declassified.’ That’s a game that very few people have played and it has a very public, in fact brutally public, history of major creative changes that clearly hampered the end-product — but your work is solid. And because it is such a derided title, even finding isolated soundtrack examples to share with others is nearly impossible. What is it like to work on a title of this scale and then experience those types of set-backs?

I enjoyed working on the game. I was working with the audio director Michael Kamper who was also the audio director on Bioshock 2. I thought the game was going to be cool, and I think the score turned out very well, but it just never — I don’t know the machinations of what went on. The people you work with in games are the best because they have no ego. Especially not the ego of folks in film or TV. If they don’t like something, they’ll just tell you, and if they do like it you get it done. My joke is that the game industry is the Minnesota of the entertainment industry. It’s where all the too nice folks congregate.

You famously got into game scoring way too early and then bailed on games because you publicly declared that the medium didn’t have the money or the technical strength to do things right, and then you came back a decade later. Can you talk about making that kind of choice?

I score three early ’90s games, and that’s because a friend from high school became a game producer and because of how that technology was formulated, he hired me to score Voyeur and Voyeur 2 — again doing that franchise work in games. And then the company went out of business, and I didn’t have other contacts in the industry, which was not that interesting to composers at the time. I didn’t want to trigger synth engines. It wasn’t that direct of a departure. If I was smarter — or had a crystal ball — I would’ve stayed in. In 2004, my agent at the time sent my work to THQ and you still sent resumes via fax at the time. My girlfriend’s roommate from college saw my resume on the fax machine, and that’s how I got back into games. That’s how I get people to listen to my music. I didn’t play games back then, and then in 2004 I started playing and thought, “oh wow this is the future.”

That’s what brought me to Destroy All Humans! And while I didn’t win awards, I got nominated for some. TV at that moment was at a low ebb. TV was bad and reality was just getting in and it was all synths and samples. It was the perfect time to pivot into games that had budgets and orchestras and concepts. And that’s when Bioshock was offered to me. The audio lead from Destroy All Humans! went from that studio to Irrational Games. At the time, the name Bioshock meant nothing. She said, “We have to hire Garry,” but they didn’t know me. She pushed and they hired me. From there, I was told that this score had to be completely unique, which is a great challenge right from the start. That game became huge. That’s just how things happen. Sometimes things just connect to the zeitgeist and I don’t know why they hit when and how they hit.

What inspirations, other than time period music, did you use for that soundtrack. Also, how much information were you given on various characters and themes when you got started. Like with “Cohen’s Masterpiece” how much information were you given on that character?

That particular character is so famous and that piece of music — I only got a small amount of understanding about him. He was a nasty, murderous genius with a piece of music he’d written, and I needed to create that, so I started to think about it and I went back to Sergei Rachmaninoff who was writing music well into the 20th century but still harkening back to much earlier romanticized eras — Real Music, you see. See what I wrote was Rachmaninoff-esque. I didn’t even know that Cohen blows up the pianist. That was interesting. They liked the song well enough that they used it across the level, instead of being a single source.

Do you think of game music as having a point of view, i.e. from the protagonist or dictated by who you encounter?

In every level of Bioshock we had cues that were called reveals. As you entered a new level, the music would give a sense of what this level was about. There was a level called Hephaestus where the engines and power lived. So I used that as a structural point of context. These mechanical sounds also included actual machines I cut up to make percussion instruments out of. That gave it a vibe that was important narratively.

You’re talking about basing your sounds off a location, but then you had to return to these locations in ‘Bioshock 2’ to tell a different story. How do you switch that up?

They were pleased with what I’d done the first time around, so I switched the perspective and wrote the theme which had heart, and was really pretty. The main character in the first game is used and fooled. But in the second there was much more sadness in the story, but the original sadness came from the failure from humanity’s attempts at perfection. It always fails. There’s something tragic about that political pursuit and that grand collapse befuddles the best of us. In the sequel, it really moved to a personal nature and their relationships, so I took the style of the first game and really developed it.

Where do you go from here?

I’m scoring a game I can’t talk about, but we’re using a live orchestra and to some extent… jobs are offered to you and you try to choose what is worth your time. If something interesting is offered to me, I’ll take it. I’m on the ride. I can’t pick and choose everything I want, which is hard to do especially when you don’t know what you’re working on. What context could I even be offered for the original Bioshock? Except that I ran into someone else from the industry who was flabbergasted that I was working on that title, which was the first time I knew anyone gave a shit.

When does Bioshock get a full vinyl release?

I am considering doing a best of Bioshock new recording, just get an orchestra together and redo all my favorite cues. We’re just waiting on 2K to approve. They seem uninterested right now, but I really want to do that. If I could take the best 40 minutes across all the games and redo it in a grand way, I would love to pull that together.

We’ll put our pressure on them.


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Christopher Lantinen
Chris Lantinen is the owner and editor-in-chief of Modern Vinyl. Along with his modest collection of sad sounding records, he collects his share of soundtracks and previously adored indie up-and-comers. Chris is currently a professor of journalism and public relations at Edinboro University in the Erie, Pennsylvania area.

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