Like what you heard from our last Deus Ex Sound Byte? Learn more about the man behind the music, Michael McCann.
GS: What's your process when composing tracks?
MM: It very much depends on the project. For example, even with Splinter Cell and Deus Ex, there were two totally different approaches just in the same medium. Splinter Cell is a very linear game; you can score it very much like you would a movie. Character goes from point A to point B; the story plays much like a movie, so the music can progress and reflect the story on a minute-to-minute basis. With Deus Ex, you have a very open-ended gameplay style. The player can choose his direction in the story and can also walk around in certain environments for as long as he/she wants. Because of these differences, each score requires a totally different approach.
An obvious example would be that on Splinter Cell: Double Agent, most of the focus was on lead melodies and one large piece of music for each of the 10 missions. Once the lead melody/theme is created, everything else gets built around it. On Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it's creating over 100 smaller pieces of music that aren't built around a melody but, instead, built around an emotion or environment. If there is any melody, the melody comes last after the foundation is completed. So two very different approaches.
GS: What is it like approaching a franchise like Splinter Cell or Deus Ex? Any pressure?
MM: Even if there weren't, I create it for myself anyway. (laughs) With a franchise, there's a precedent already set, and you know there's already a fan base and a long history, so it's trying to do something personal that's my own voice but still respecting everything that's come before it. In the end, though, my focus has to be 100 percent on the project I'm working on. I think the music (and game) would suffer if the first priority were looking to the previous projects to see if they matched, rather than whether music worked for what's right in front of you. The developers have created a story and a style of game that I compose to, so it has to match that before anything else.
GS: Could you talk about the musical style and approach you took with Deus Ex: Human Revolution?
MM: Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a really long project, so the music changed and evolved quite a bit. In the beginning, Steve Szczepkowski (audio director) and I looked more at darker electronic influences that suited the cyberpunk world. But as the game developed, it became very apparent that the art direction and story had a very organic tone. The predominant colors were very warm (gold, yellow)…the primary influence in the art direction was Renaissance, and since the game is a prequel set 25 years before the first, even the technology was older and less advanced. All this convinced me that the music had to have an organic influence, an influence that lives alongside the very electronic textures that are a part of the cyberpunk music style.
On a larger scale, the music is built to represent three sides, as there are triangles all over the game; not just in the visual symbols, but also very much in the story itself. For me, the three sides always represent the same thing. Basically, you have two extremes of an idea and then a hybrid of two (a compromise) representing the third side. One example in the story and in the music would be the idea of past/present/future. The past, represented by acoustic instruments (mainly vocals, strings); the future represented by electronic instruments (mainly synths); and the present, which is a hybrid of both, not just in the arrangement of the songs but also actual instruments that are built by combining an electronic and acoustic instrument. Or even better…creating very electronic, ambient textures by manipulating acoustic samples until they sound electronic.
This idea of threes is a very religious one as well. It pops up a lot in religious-themed classical art and in religious texts, and because of the Renaissance influence on the story, it was obvious that a religious time and place had to appear somewhere in the music. I used vocals primarily for this, and occasionally you'll get textures and slight distant melodies that convey a religious/spiritual tone. It's not often up front and in your face, but it's there, subtly in the background.
GS: What challenges did you face when working on this project?
MM: The biggest challenge was deciding how to handle themes and melody. The first challenge here is that the music system for this game is a three-layer music system (ambient/tension/combat). Each layer is a cue on its own but is built to interact with the other two. Ambient layer for exploring, stress layer for approaching an enemy, and combat layer for engaging an enemy. Because the cues are short, it meant that any melodic element would be heard over and over again, making the score very repetitive if we attempted to go in a very melodic direction.
The second challenge for melody/themes is based on the nature of the game. This is an open-ended game, where you can play the character in many different ways; for example, completely passive (not killing anyone), combat driven (fighting everything), social (talking your way through), etc. The player also has a great deal of choice on what direction they think their character and story should go. Meaning, what one player may see as a "bad guy" may appear as an ally to another player. It very much depends on how the players see the story and whose side they decide to take. Because of that open-ended style, the music cannot at any point tell the player what to do. It can't be like Star Wars where a dark militaristic theme will represent an enemy and another lighter and positive theme will represent a friend. The themes in Deus Ex have to be very neutral and nonjudgmental. Of course, the music is used to alert players to danger, etc. but melodies/chords are not used to place judgment on decisions or characters.
So between the music system and the style of game, themes and melody become a bit tricky. In the end, to make a long story short, I decided to score the environments as opposed to the story and reserve specific melodic themes for specific points in the game when the music needed to make an actual statement. What I mean by scoring the environment is to create the music as a reflection of the physical world the player is in. If you're walking through a very poor area of Detroit, the music will reflect the industrial decay, the lawlessness, the oppressive feeling of those in power, etc. If you're walking through a wealthy part of Heng Sha, China, the music will reflect light, wealth, and style of architecture/lighting of the game design. With this approach, the music becomes very much a part of the environment, as opposed to a non-immersive soundtrack sitting on top of everything. This also opens a strange avenue for incorporating melody in that once in a while, the lead melody/theme for a track will actually come from something in the environment you're in; for example, a street musician on the streets of Heng Sha or a radio playing an old gospel track in the streets of Detroit. All that environmental music a person would hear walking around in a city is all incorporated into the score.
I just wanted to compliment the article, great job GS. What Michael McCann said about the relationship between movies in the early 1900s and the Video Game Industry is spot on. In time, I believe it will continue to evolve and grow into its own distinctive art form.
Wow this guy is super intelligent! Definitely a control freak, you can tell but can't argue with a man who knows what he's doing!
WOW...talk about powerful muisic. This is the exact kind of music I could see myself throwing on the ipod and listening to in bed at night. Problem is this kind of music is usualy best heard at CD quality or better. I'm sure it will be on the DVD tommorow as mp3 though. Oh well, no biggie. I'll still enjoy the hell out of it. I was leaning toward getting the AE tomorow since it's only $10 more. Looks like that's definate now.
can someone find upper hengsha theme i need it best song in the game btw i finished the game it's awesome 9.5/10
I read a lot of articles on this website but rarely leave comments, but had to in this case. How awesome does these four tracks from the up coming Dues Ex sound? Like Assassin's Creed, Dragon Age, and Heavy Rain I believe game soundtracks are fast becoming a commodity and reason for me to buy special editions of the game.
who is reviewing Deus EX? I bet is Kevin or maybe.... Chris idk I can't wait to see the review a lot of other have been giving high scores