Whether you’re a film buff or gamer, chances are you own a piece of media that Lorne Balfe has scored. From Transformers, The Dark Knight, Inception to Assassin’s Creed III and Beyond: Two Souls, the Grammy-award winning composer has helped create sonic soundscapes for some of the decade’s most popular entertainment. Recently, Tech-Gaming had the chance to speak to Lorne about the development of his newest work- the score for the latest entry in Activision’s Skylanders franchise.
Tech-Gaming: You recently completed working on the soundtrack for Skylanders: Swap Force. Can you tell us how long the score took from project commencement to when the final master was delivered?
Lorne Balfe: It normally takes about a year when working on a Skylanders game. It is a long process. Levels can sometimes change and the plot of the story will take a new approach. But it’s no different than a film really. Also with a game like Skylanders, the visuals change i.e. color and design of characters. So months after completing the music for a level, I can sometimes come back and change it to suit the new look of the level. Normally I spend time talking with the creators of the game for a while before ever playing a note.
T-G: How did you get a feel for the title? Did you watch video or play the game during the development process?
LB: I always start off by seeing the drawings of the characters and the environments. The actual gameplay isn’t always finished when I start writing so you have to use your imagination!
T-G: With Swap Force, there’s a lot going on in the game, from interchangeable characters to the wide variety of environments and different types of enemies. How did you go about finding a suitable thematic feel?
LB: Thankfully the fantastic Skylanders audio team makes the whole process actually manageable. The game gets very complicated due to so many changes and interactions and the audio teams keep a handle on my questions and me!
T-G: How many autonomy is given by most developers and directors?
LB: If you mean “How much freedom is given ” then A LOT! The Skylanders world is unique and hopefully the music matches this. The game designers will have musical ideas when they are creating the game’s level and that is when we start discussing the role of the score and start experimenting.
T-G: How much, if any, of the score’s DNA is passed down from the original title, Spyro’s Adventure?
LB: The DNA keeps evolving. The original theme written by Hans is still used in several levels.
T-G: Speaking of, Spyro’s Adventure reunited you with Hans Zimmer, who you’ve collaborated quite frequently with. Are there any other composers you’d want to team up with?
LB: It’s pretty hard to beat having Hans as a collaborate. The fantastic thing about being a composer is to be able to work with wonderful musicians.
T-G: Seemingly, composing for television and film is substantially different than creating a video game soundtrack. Whereas the first two mediums are static, the mood of interactive entertainment fluctuates with the actions of the player. Does this difference change the scoring process?
LB: I have never looked at scoring for games as any different than writing for a film or even a commercial. The objective of the composer is to help tell a story.
The only difference is the fact that music in a game can change unlike in a film, where it stays static. This is why when writing for games you have to make sure your organization is faultless. Keys of the music have to be able to mix with each other and it helps to have connected tempos.
T-G: Games have a much longer running time than the average film, or even mini-series? Just how much music is created for a game such as Swap Force?
LB: With Swap Force, there was probably about 2 hours of music written. I find when composing it is always useful to try and create different versions of the cue, for example a version with no melody or less ambient. Having a good audio team on a game is so essential. They are able to look at the bigger picture of the game far more than the composer can. For a film, I watch it and can see the melodic development of the musical score. With a game, when the game play is sometimes 29 hours long, it is very difficult to have that perspective.
T-G: Swap Force’s operatic “Pull Your Strings” isn’t something that’s typical of game music. What was the inspiration for this song?
LB: I didn’t write it! Matt Pirog did and he did a fantastic job. The song perfectly fits the game, I think.
T-G: Often game music can be a bit redundant, merely affirming what the visuals already articulate? How hard is to strike to create a piece which harmonizes yet also conveys information aurally?
LB: It is very hard. It is also very like a film though because it is very hard to balance when the music should not overwhelm the scene. With Beyond: Two Souls, it was a great challenge to not engulf the visuals.
T-G: A few years ago, the convergence of film and interactive entertainment was building buzz. From your perspective, what’s the status of this union?
LB: It is getting stronger and stronger and Beyond: Two Souls is a great example of this emergence. The storylines and character developments in new games are stronger and more elaborate than those in some of the films I have seen recently!
T-G: Lorne, thank you for your time and best of luck in all your future endeavors.