About a month away from the release of Until Dawn on PS4, we had the opportunity to sit down with Jason Graves, the man responsible for scoring Supermassive Games’ branching interactive horror.
Jason is an award-winning composer boasting an impressive CV, including work on The Order: 1886, Evolve, Tomb Raider and the Dead Space series. In short, when it comes to building atmosphere and tension, he has very few peers in the games business.
With his work on Until Dawn wrapping up, he was kind enough to let us in on a few of his trade secrets and discuss how he’s been helping the game’s developers ratchet up the fear factor…
How did you first get involved with Until Dawn?
Jason Graves: I’ve been involved with it since 2011. From the very beginning, we all agreed on a shared vision for the music; an emotional checklist that we were looking for. We really wanted to place you physically in this mountain, and in this cabin.
You’re surrounded by a group of friends so there are musical opportunities to have great character themes and some fun pieces, but also you need to be able to score the more ‘horrifying’ situations that make up most of the game.
What is your creative process? Do you go into a project like this with a clear idea of what you want to produce?
Jason Graves: The first thing I like to do is to have a long conversation with the game’s audio director – and that’s exactly what happened with Barney Pratt. I think we must have talked for three hours. It was a really good sign because, not only did we get along personally, but our creative views and perspective of what Until Dawn could do that other games maybe hadn’t in the past were right in line.
It was very easy once I got off the phone with Barney to move forward with the main theme, which is what I like to do first. The idea is that the main theme, even if it is never really used in the game in one particular place, really encapsulates everything about the game that we’re trying to achieve.
You’ve talked before about making ‘reactive’ music for Dead Space, where some instruments get louder with your proximity to threat. Did you use similar techniques in Until Dawn?
Jason Graves: That’s more of an implementation idea; how the music is put in the game and how it plays back. Nowadays there’s third party software that does similar things with the music, which is wonderful because it means you don’t have to have an elaborate proprietary music system – it’s available to a lot of folks now and that’s a fairly common technique. We do use that quite a bit, especially during suspenseful scenes; maybe if there’s a door that you’re going to either go in or not, then you can have the music get louder or softer depending on how close you get to it.
Your score for The Order 1886 put a big emphasis on choir, cello and viola. Are there any instruments you’ve brought to the fore in Until Dawn? How would you characterise the game’s ‘sound’?
Jason Graves: That’s a great question. We have no violas in Until Dawn and we didn’t purposely do the opposite of what we did for The Order, but I wanted that space of the strings to have other things instead. Since it is a very cinematic score, a lot of the themes play in that space where the violas would have been.
There’s this one little shaker that I have. It’s a goat-hoof shaker. It was actually featured a lot throughout the score to represent the mountains, the location, and the history of the people that used to live there. You can distinctively hear that throughout the main theme and some of the key tracks.
I also wrote a two minute theme that has a couple different melodies in it, and is very tonally ambiguous – you can’t really tell if it’s major or if it’s minor. There are certain kinds of chords in there; is it happy, is it sad? I can’t really tell. And that was the point, because you have eight different characters in the game, you can play as all of them, and there’s a killer on the loose. What’s happening? Who’s the villain? Nobody really knows. There’s definitely an intentional ambiguity in the music.
Until Dawn launches in North America on August 25th! In the meantime, have a listen to three of the game’s tracks below.