BWW Interview: Gareth Coker, Composer of 'Ori and Will of the Wisps'
The second installment of what is expected to be a long, exciting, and inspiring game series, Ori and the Will of the Wisps has been released by Moon Studios for play on Xbox One and Microsoft Windows. Following the success of its predecessor, Ori and the Blind Forest comes a new adventure. Once again, composer Gareth Coker is at the musical helm.
Recently, Coker spoke about the project. "The whole studio spent the best part of four years on and was a significant part of my life," he explains, with understandable enthusiasm. "I'm really delighted with how it's being received. There are a lot of fans, especially those who played the first game and it looks like we made them happy. It's always fun seeing the reactions of people playing the game on Twitch and YouTube."
Will of the Wisps has racked up five-star reviews. TSA called the game "an instant classic," and awarded a perfect mark of 100. More to the music, GamesBeat called it "an exhilarating, emotional masterpiece," while giving the game a 98. Responses by gamers lauded the longer playing time, the storyline, and their investment, of which the music has a hand. "I think it is one of the big selling points of what attracts people to the Ori games," Coker says. "We spend a lot of time trying to find the balance between the emotional aspect, but also there's a big chunk of game in there. There's a lot of demands made on the player, so you do have to work to get through it. We wanted to expand the scope of what we built in the first game, so they could spend more time in the world because it's a very inviting world to spend time in because visually it looks incredible."
Coker went into detail about what goes into scoring for a game. "With it being a dialogue-like game, it's animation, music, and sound, basically visual storytelling," he explains. "We have to work really hard to convey the right emotion through music and visuals. I think that requires a lot more time, and not just time working on the game, for me it's time playing the game.
'I'm a big believer in composers playing the game as much as possible, much like on a film where a composer would sit down with a director and go through the film multiple times, watching it with new music. I feel the same about games. It's really important that I play the game and understand exactly what the player is going to experience, and I feel like if I play it, I'm going to write music that's more appropriate for every situation. With both Ori games I have hundreds of hours of testing, but I feel like it's part of my job, and it's an enjoyable part of my job, I get to play the games that I work on, and that's probably one of the reasons why the music feels very connected to every scene. I rely on my own taste, which I hope is good, and I hope that my choices match what the player is going to expect to hear."
Moon Studios allowed Coker a blank space for what he would do. "I'm very fortunate," he explains, "they don't really do temp tracks or put in placeholder tracks as a reference. They're just like, 'Go figure it out, and find what feels best for the game.' Obviously, with the second game, we had the musical vocabulary based on what I did for the first. But it was the same thing for the first game, there wasn't much of a reference point, just do something that feels right, which is very empowering as a composer, especially when you're trying to create a new intellectual property, which is what we did."
Coker described a novel (for this writer) method of composing: "The way I work, generally speaking, is to record video of myself playing the game, and I will simply stick that in my music software and write through it. I record all of the sound effects and the background ambiances, just to make sure that what I'm writing kind of feels good when everything comes together, and it makes it easier for our final mix team when they're balancing the sound effects. Working with those helps me create something that is super-cohesive," he goes on, "but also because I'm writing to the picture, obviously, if I'm writing for an area that is frozen and cold, it's going to sound different to an area which is more swamp-like or inside a cavern, but also if there's an area which has a lot of fast movement, it's going to be different to where there's an area where there might be a lot of puzzles to solve, and you're not moving around so quickly. So, it really just helps me get to the zone I need to be in at a much quicker pace, and that helps me write more quickly."
There are three phases of development, where Ori... is concerned. "The first is how does Ori move around in the environment," Coker explains, "how does combat feel, how does movement feel? You can do that without any of the visuals before, and the way it works is our level designers put together the game, there are no visuals, but you can still play a level from start to finish to get an idea of what the player is going to do. The next phase is (where) all the visuals start to come in; if it's an icy area, they'll start putting in icicles, there'll be snow on the ground, if it's a foresty area, then the flowers and the trees will start going in. And then, the final phase is whatever character and story and narrative development comes in. All of those are tied to music in a different way.
"I feel like all games have a certain tempo when you play them," Coker says. "There's generally like a sweet spot with the speed of what the music should be. The second phase informs palates and instrumentation. So the instruments I'm going to choose for a swamp area are obviously going to be different from the instruments I choose for an icy area, and then the final phase is dealing with story and narrative beats, and that is where I'm going to bring in the melodic character themes, and try and weave them into the soundtrack."
The sounds of the lands Ori and his friends travel are sourced from around the globe and combined. "It's such a fantastical world, that it would be remiss me to limit my palette in many ways," Coker explains. "I just like throwing things together that wouldn't traditionally be thrown together. We do have the orchestra that glues all of the different sounds together to make it feel cohesive, but actually, what makes each area stand out is usually the non-orchestral instruments. For example, Baur's Reach is a wintry area; most of it is led with a low Irish whistle in the melody, and it's accompanied by gamelan.
Indigenous to Indonesia, gamelan is an orchestra made up of gongs and percussive metal instruments, struck with mallets or hammers, accompanied by hand drums. "'Now why are you combining an Irish whistle with an instrument from the Far East?'" Coker says rhetorically, "and I'm like, 'Well because I can,' it's what I felt with the visuals. There is a lot of experimentation, there's plenty of things I tried out that don't work at all, but its fun trying these things out, because maybe if it doesn't work for one area, it might work for another. You end up with weird combinations, but because we've been able to try out lots of different things, it's satisfying for me to listen to. I hope it's satisfying for other people to listen to as well. It's the result of lots of experimentation, and I'm very lucky that I'm working with a developer that allowed me to explore and experiment in that way."
Coker's upbringing, it may surprise the reader, was not all that musical in his native Britain. "My parents listened to old British folk music when I was growing up," he says, "and I couldn't stand it. My father, in particular, listened to old folk music; and my mother was generally listening to Phil Collins. My parents bought me piano lessons for my eighth birthday. And I wasn't particularly excited or thrilled."
That changed a few months later at boarding school. "You're living there thirty-six weeks of the year," Coker says, "there's actually not that much to do. You have a lot of downtime, especially on the weekends. And what I ended up doing was practicing piano a lot; when you're a kid, and you know how to practice properly, you're going to get good at something pretty quickly, you're brain inhales knowledge when you're at that age. And I was probably practicing piano for like two to three hours a day, from age eight to about fifteen. Obviously, you're going to develop skills pretty quickly."
Coker found himself playing in orchestra but really found his "compositional tick" in jazz band, "because in jazz you have to improvise I lot. I don't know how I learned to improvise. I just found I could do it probably because I knew my way around the keyboard very well, and after doing musically pretty aggressively or seven or eight years, I knew about harmony and melody, and how to work with it. Then I was just noodling on piano in the practice room in school in my free time, and eventually, the head of music said I should apply to music school. And I hadn't even given (it) a thought, and then I got into the Royal Academy of Music."
His introduction to the Academy was not quite what he expected. "I remember they told me why they picked me," Coker recalls. "'You can't really write for orchestra, but that's why you're studying here; you don't really have any technical knowledge whatsoever, but we can fix that, that's why you're here; you can't conduct, but that's why you're here.' They just listed all the things I couldn't do, but then the one thing they said, 'You can write a tune, a melody and that is the thing that is hardest for us to teach.'"
Upon graduation, the road then took Coker to Japan. "No one's going to hire a 22-year-old composer to score their film or game," he says, "it just doesn't happen. I didn't really have the business knowledge to get started in the industry. I still need money, and I need to earn a living, but if I'm going to travel and see the world, let's do it now rather than later. I joined the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme), and I taught English in Japan for three years. That obviously opens up travel to the rest of Asia; and I took heavy advantage of that, visiting all across Japan but also other parts of Asia, China, Hong Kong Singapore, Thailand, getting as much of a part of the world I would probably not have been as likely to see if I'd stayed in England."
Beyond music, Coker took in a lesson, which applies to his work. "The most valuable thing I learned in Japan was how to conduct myself in business," he says. "It might seem unusual when you think about it, but Japanese society is fundamentally rooted around the greater the good of the whole, or team. When you're standing in front of a bunch of kids, you have to learn how to communicate clearly. Standing in front of forty people, who you don't really know, is that really dissimilar standing out in front of an orchestra and have to communicate the music. It's not really that different.
'There's the cultural benefit, I'm sure just by being there for three years there have been parts of Asian music that have crept into the (soundtrack). I think when you combine all those things, even though I wasn't doing music while I was there, it kind of set me up for how crazy the business can be. After my three years in Japan, I felt ready.
Coker spent one more year in the film-scoring program at the University of Southern California, then wrote production and library music, and worked on film trailers. "I was putting my music out in lots places online," Coker explains. "There's a website called modbot.com - it's a place where game developers made mods which are like unofficial add-ons to game you can just download. Literally out of the blue one day, I got an email from (Ori designer) Thomas Mahler-I have no idea why he was even searching there."
Coker provided "twelve to fifteen minutes of music" for the prototype, and came the deal for Moon Studios with Microsoft. "You never know who is listening," Coker says of this break, "you only need one thing to go right."
That has led Coker to work and accolades. Along with Blind Forest and Will of the Wisps, Coker's music appears on Minecraft expansions, Darksiders Genesis and ARK Survival Evolved. His accolades include the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences Award for Outstanding Music Composition, the SXSW Award for Excellence in a Musical Score, and nominations from BAFTA, GDC, and IFMCA.
As for where Coker stands in his growth as an artist? "I think that's a thing that's constantly evolving," he says. "I always like to say my favorite soundtrack is the one I just finished because I'm usually very attached to it in the moment when it comes to the end. I feel at the point of completion (Will of the Wisps) is the best representation of where I was as a composer at the time. I think the work (also) kind of reflects the growth of Moon Studios, and Ori as a character. Everyone's kind of grown-up, a little more mature; having written a lot of music between, I understand the orchestra better. I was able to deliver the score that was in my head with no restrictions. And with the way it has worked out and how the game finishes I close a chapter of my career, let's tackle the next five years and see how that holds out."
Coker adds the opportunities for musicians and composers to get involved in the industry are there, but he also lays down some truths. "Don't be afraid to have a crack at the industry," he warns, "but if you are, you have to be ultra-committed because if you're not committed, you're already going to be behind. If you're on time, and you're on budget, and you deliver even just adequate music, you're probably already ahead of 90% of the competition. The fact is, a lot of creative people are not reliable. I went to school with some people who genuinely believe are incredibly talented, but they didn't do the work. You've got to work really hard and remember this is the entertainment business. That will get you off the ground and keep you getting hired again and again if you want longevity in the business."
The one rule Coker says all must follow? "Finish your work. Simply don't leave a bunch of tracks on your computer that are Idea 1, Idea 5, Idea 792, develop those ideas, finish them and get them out there into the world. Finished things are tangible things people can enjoy, and it's much more attractive to talk about what you have done, rather than what you are going to do in the future."