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In-depth: Crafting the score for Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Ori and the Will of the Wisps composer Gareth Coker outlines how he created the score for the super sequel in this incredibly in-depth Q&A.

Chris Kerr, News Editor

September 2, 2020

24 Min Read

We're led to believe that lightning doesn't strike twice, but Moon Studios has rubbished that notion by following up its debut hit Ori and the Blind Forest with an equally wonderful sequel in the form of Ori and the Will of the Wisps

The acclaimed franchise has quite rightly won plaudits for refining and iterating on the metroidvania formula while using stunning painterly visuals and an emphatic score to create an emotionally resonant experience that feels wholly unique.

While that success is undoubtedly down to the collective efforts of Moon Studios and its collaborators, we were particularly curious to hear how composer Gareth Coker -- who was tasked with creating the enchanting score for Blind Forest and then building on those sonic foundations for Will of the Wisps -- managed to pull the franchise forward while preserving its musical soul. 

Speaking to us during an Q&A, Coker recounted the five year journey from Blind Forest to Will of the Wisps in extraordinary detail, and much like the game itself, it was an adventure filled with lofty challenges and rich rewards. 

Gamasutra: The score for the Ori and the Blind Forest clearly resonated with a lot of people. How did you carry that emotional core into Will of the Wisps while adding something fresh? Was there a lot of trial and error, or did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to achieve from the start? 

Gareth: A lot of decisions like this are dependent on the story, however one thing that was very clear is that we would need to re-use and continue to put into new compositions. For example, Ori's Main Theme from the first game, the core of the music from the chase scenes (‘Restoring the Light, Facing the Dark’) in the first game, and secondary themes from the first game such as ‘The Sacrifice’. However, tonally the feel of the second game is quite different to the first, and it became pretty clear that there would need to be a much weightier feel to the score. If Ori’s first outing was something of a naive voyage of discovery, then Will of the Wisps is the realization of a larger role to play in a new environment. Niwen, the setting of Will of the Wisps is more foreign, with greater danger throughout. Additionally, the main antagonist, Shriek, has an extremely morose story that overshadows Ori’s time in Niwen. 

In terms of freshness I was never too worried about that with the game being in a completely different setting to the first game. New visuals, environments and gameplay with a greater emphasis on combat would naturally push me to write music in a slightly different way. This combined with the overall tone change would result in a score that sounds different to the first game but retains the overall aesthetic DNA. But I have to re-emphasize that my approach for any game, sequel or otherwise, is dependent on what is presented in the story, the game’s design and the visuals.

Achieving emotional storytelling in games through music isn’t simply a case of thinking "I will write a {adjective of choice} music cue here." The effectiveness of how a player might respond to what one plans as a key scene in the game is not just dependent on the scene itself but also the flow into and out of the scene. It’s a challenge that I imagine a lot of game developers face when they give the player freedom to explore, namely, how to add weight to scenes when the player has control over when exactly these scenes will occur in their experience. If you look at the overall design of Ori, over both games, you’ll see we have pockets where things build and get to a peak in terms of how involved we expect the player to be in a scene, and then things flow away after that. This ebb and flow / peak and valley approach in the game’s design and pacing is key to helping me be able to write music that fits the mark. There’s a constant back and forth with the team when it comes to pacing, aided by everyone constantly playing the game and experiencing for themselves everything that the team is putting together.

Gamasutra: Were there any tracks that didn't make the cut? Perhaps some you felt missed the mark, emotionally? You've previously said you don't what to tell people what to feel, so how do you step back and sort the hits from the misses in that regard? 

I rewrote most of the music for the prologue fairly near the end of production. The prologue is centered around Ku, the baby owl, and I’d been set on a certain theme for Ku for a long time. Then, in September/October-ish of last year I decided that it didn’t really work and there was a lack of connectivity in the score as it pertained to Ku’s character. So yes, the entire prologue music got scrapped 2 months before the first recording sessions. What ended up becoming Ku’s theme that shipped with the game actually originated from the piece ‘Separated by the Storm’ (the Ku Melody heard from 1:44).

This was the first piece of gameplay music that I wrote for the game and it was well received by the team and they did not get tired of it. So the melody that plays on English Horn got repurposed into Ku’s theme - ‘We Named Her Ku’- and all of a sudden that became the musical representation for Ku’s story in the game. Narratively speaking it also changed for the better the impact of ‘Separated by the Storm’, as all of a sudden you are hearing Ku’s theme in a minor key (after hearing it in a major key in the prior scene) because Ku and Ori have been separated. Ku’s theme was staring me in the face for most of development and I’m glad I realized it before it was too late.

One of the constant things I came up against (and I’m sure I’m not the only composer who does this) was over-writing a scene. Sometimes, the best solution is just to simply mute some things. Additionally, not over-writing a scene gives space for everything else to breathe and can actually make things more immersive. My favorite example of this from Will of the Wisps was from the ending. The ending after the final boss fight is made up of three cutscenes, the second of which is interactive. The track on the soundtrack is called ‘A Stirring of Memories’. Without spoiling the end of the game, there are certain moments' in the interactive cutscene which are trigger points that cue a short slice of music, a phrase that syncs up exactly with what appears on screen.

Originally, I had the full orchestra and choir and all of the other ‘magical’ Ori elements (synths, pre-recorded instruments, etc.) playing at the same time. And it was just too much, it ended up making the scene feel far too saccharine, an example of the music telling the player what to feel rather than being a gateway. I looked at the music and I wondered, ‘what would happen if we muted the orchestra’. So there I am muting our live orchestra of 73 players to be left with just the choir and the magical Ori sounds, and it connected in absolutely the right way. One of the great things about the human voice and particularly a group of them is it’s something that can sound very intimate; by focusing on the choir, it drew me into the scene more. It’s not that the orchestra played incorrectly, they nailed exactly what was given to them, but I was able to get some quality testing in after recording the score, and this was one of the things I was able to find. We could have shipped with orchestra+choir together, but this change helped that scene in an extremely tangible way. 

Gamasutra: How did you ensure the score married well with both gameplay and the narrative? 

Gareth: One of the things that carried over from the first game to this one that is a concept that helped enhance the feel of the gameplay was the lack of percussion in regular exploration and gameplay music. Ori’s sound effects are very percussive by nature, and quite transient heavy. So in the end, Ori’s sounds are the percussion section. This philosophy was actually enhanced in Will of the Wisps due to the game’s greater focus on combat, which of course, features percussive sounds! It’s also important to point out that we only use combat music when you absolutely have to defeat something to progress further. All this combined allows for greater dynamic range in the music, due to only having to amp up the music when we really needed to (chase sequences, boss fights, etc.). Even on the boss fights I tried to keep the percussion to a minimum. Shriek and Ori’ , the final boss fight music is probably one of the most substantial pieces of music across the two games, but it is still percussion light. It’s not necessary due to how much is going on-screen, and it of course gives the sound effects room to punch through when necessary.

I think there can be a tendency on some game soundtracks to over emphasize combat music, when actually the sound effects can do just as good, if not a better job to convey that the player is stressed and in combat. Your combat music can matter more (and therefore connect more) to the player if it’s used more sparingly or handcrafted into key moments. It obviously depends on the atmosphere your game is going for, some games do indeed benefit from amping up the music in combat, it’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all situation, but given that combat is a staple in so many games and there’s so much combat music, I think a very high time investment needs to be put into how it relates to the player’s experience.

An aspect of the game’s music I wanted to really enhance from Blind Forest into Will of the Wisps was having more granular changes in the music within each environment. This happened occasionally in the first game, but several environments were restricted to only one music track. To enhance the player’s journey through the game I wanted the music to shift in a subtle way as a means of propelling the player forward. One of the benefits of sequels are greater resources and that enabled more music to be written and recorded and also for it to be tracked by the game’s various states at a much deeper level. This primarily benefited environment music and bossfight music.

With the environments, they are quite large and even a good player will be spending a fair amount of time in them. Ori is a game that has music that is almost omnipresent, it’s just part of the DNA. With that, a lot of music needs to be written to cover the environments, but instead of just writing incredibly long music tracks or delivering stems that are mixed on the fly by middleware, I chose to write curated but fixed tracks of 3-5 minutes in length that would then move into a new track based on actions that Ori completes during the game. The advantage of creating the fixed tracks is that I can fully control the overall flow of the music. It’s something that works for a game like this. 

A couple of examples of this environmental variation in ambient music are in the opening of the game where Ori has just been separated from Ku. The track ‘Separated by the Storm’ plays, which is a sad and wistful variation of the melody that plays during ‘Ku’s First Flight’. This is the first piece of gameplay music and it plays against a backdrop of Ori in a new and unfamiliar environment, with a storm, looking for Ku. You explore the opening environment until you reach an Ancestral Tree. This music transitions seamlessly into a short cutscene, and then you receive the Spirit Edge, the first weapon in an Ori game. The music that now plays within the same environment is a much peppier version of the same initial melody. The track that plays is Now Use The Light, We Want to See’. It’s the first moment of optimism since the player started the game proper, and it should feel exciting to wield Spirit Edge for the first time. Later on in the track you can hear a callback to the exact same melody from ‘Separated by the Storm’ at 4:05 in the track.

A much more granular example is in the Ancient Wellspring. When the player arrives at the exterior of the Ancient Wellspring’, a very lush, slow and grandiose piece plays, befitting of the area’s title. When the player enters, a variation of this theme plays but the interior of the Ancient Wellspring (‘A Look Inside’) is quite different to the exterior, like an old mysterious house with cogs and wheels everywhere. As you venture further in, there’s a small room where you become trapped and have to defeat some enemies to progress, so we get a combat cue that is related to all the prior Ancient Wellspring music. Following this you enter a platforming puzzle room, you progress through the room and then pull a lever, which rotates the environment by 90 degrees, and then you repeat and progress through the new orientation of the room. This is repeated three times and can be heard in the cue Turn, Turn, Turn Again With each repetition, the puzzle room music increases in tempo, pitch and a slightly busier, more frantic arrangement. It’s important to make clear that this is not just a cheap audio pitch-up/speed-up plugin trick, it’s a brand new recording. Overkill? Certainly. But it’s a small thing that I felt would improve the area and make it a bit more memorable.

The final thing I’d want to mention is regarding the boss fights. It’s a new gameplay element in Will of the Wisps that was an opportunity for the entire team to really work on making some moments that would be showpieces. It would have been very easy to just provide some ‘epic Ori’ music and that would have probably worked. But I wanted to try and give each fight some kind of a basic narrative, if nothing else in order to change the music during a gameplay sequence that it would be likely that players would spend a significant amount of time on. I was aided in this with the bossfight design. Each boss has multiple phases, if we take Mora the Spider as an example, there’s an opening introductory cutscene (0:00 - 0:38 in the track) and then the player is plunged directly into Phase 1 of the fight (0:38 to 3:19). The music here reflects the terror that Ori (and the player) would feel as it’s the first time Ori has directly confronted an enemy this large (in Blind Forest, Ori runs away from Kuro, never faces her directly). Once you get Mora down to a certain HP, a transitional chase sequence (3:19 - 4:00) starts that takes you to a different and final arena (4:00 - end), which is a far more optimistic variant of the bossfight music that also brings in Ori’s theme on top. It’s designed to encourage the player to keep going and tell them that they are almost there. When the player defeats Mora, the music changes one more time and transitions into another cutscene - “Eyes of the Forest”. This approach is repeated throughout all bossfights. 

Finally, Mora’s theme that plays throughout the fight is foreshadowed in the darkest environment track in the game,Shadows of Mouldwood’, which plays as you progress through the Mouldwood Forest. You’ll hear the theme in piano very clearly amongst all the constantly shifting strings. This theme is then played quite prominently in the first phase of the boss fight. Once the fight is over, the environment music changes to reflect the change in tone within it. It’s the same theme but arranged and presented in an entirely different way - “The Darkness Lifted”. It’s just another example of changing music within the same environment.

I think at this stage it’s very important to point out that nothing I’m doing here is particularly revolutionary. These approaches have been around for a long time, but I think the difference is that in this game, it’s about the execution of these simple concepts and applying them from start to finish.

Gamasutra: What was the biggest challenge you encountered during production from a technical point of view? 

There are two things that stand out. The first being the implementation itself. Due to the horizontal nature of how the music plays back and switches in the game, the fact that there are so many individual music cues, and the game is a Metroidvania so players can trigger different game states in different orders, it took quite some time to figure out the technical aspect of getting the right cues to playback at the right moments and most importantly make sure the game was tracking the correct game state. This was especially the case where several cues played within the same Unity scenes - a particular issue with backtracking later on in the game and revisiting areas. The only way to overcome it was with extensive testing of the game to make sure the music was playing back as I expected. Guy Whitmore (who handled the actual technical nuts and bolts of making the music playback in the game) was also implementing and creating ambiences for the game so he already had an incredible workload, thus I did everything I possibly could to give him as much information as possible to fix music-related playback issues. Thankfully Formosa Group, who took care of the audio on the entire project - led by Kris Larsson - also had several people on their team play the game too that were able to pick up on these things and make sure it was all logged.

The second one is more personal, and it was the schedule changes. Everyone knows that the game was delayed several times and this mostly affected our recording dates. Looking back, we should have recorded the soundtrack in a more modular way with several recording sessions spread over a longer period of time. But the way things were planned and the way the game was being developed, a lot of the final music decisions were left a lot later, and as a result we had the recording sessions as late as possible into development. But ‘late as possible’ shifted each time the ship date got moved, and it became a logistical challenge to get things set up over and over. So many people are involved in the production of a soundtrack, it’s not just the composer, it’s the orchestrators, engineers, copyists, librarians, conductors, studio support crew, and of course the players! They all have to be booked (and then rebooked). Thankfully, a contractor can always take care of this for you, but it’s still something that has to be worked into the thought process as a composer. Additionally the soloists on the soundtrack: Aeralie Brighton, Kelsey Mira, and Kristin Naigus were always ready and willing to record whenever I needed them!

A key aspect of having a fixed date for the recordings means it gives me a target I can work towards. I like to press the accelerate pedal harder and harder as we get closer to that date, aiming to peak a few weeks before, but it’s obviously hard to figure out where that peak is when the schedule changes!

That said though, the delays helped us ship a game that people seemed to love, so I have no regrets. I was able to overcome it thanks to my brilliant team of people that help me get my recordings over the line. Alexander Rudd and Zach Lemmon in particular, who I went to school with and excellent composers in their own right, we have worked together on every single one of my projects and they make the stress of a recording session so much easier. The team overall allowed me to focus on just writing and finishing the music and focusing on the game while they got through all the orchestration (a mammoth task completed by David PeacockEric Buchholz, and overseen by Zach) and music preparation assignments in order to make sure that the music would be ready to record on the stage.

Recording crew on Ori and the Will of the Wisps. Front row: David Peacock (orchestrator), Jessica Kelly (score co-ordinator), Alexander Rudd (conductor), Gareth Coker (composer), Zach Lemmon (supervising orchestrator), Jake Jackson (engineer), Cassandra Brooksbank (film crew and closest friend!). Back row: Steve Kempster (engineer), Allan Wilson (librarian and copyist), Gianluca Massimo (assistant engineer), Alex Ferguson (recordist), Ashley Andrew-Jones (assistant engineer), Dakota Adney (film crew).

Gamasutra:  What did your studio setup look like on Will of the Wisps? Were there any specific tools, software, and equipment you relied on to shape the score? (Some behind-the-scenes shots would be great!)

Gareth: My personal studio is fairly simplistic in terms of how it looks, but the power is all under the hood. I’m a bit of a computer nut and I’m always on the hunt for the latest parts and I’m unreasonably excited to build a new workstation at the end of this year! I’ve just purchased a 32TB SSD which was advertised first on LinusTechTips and uses the PCIE 4.0 interface to deliver insane bandwidth. One of the things I’m constantly looking to reduce is loading times which is something that all composers working with large virtual orchestras have to deal with, I’m looking forward to seeing how this drive performs. However, that’s the future setup, the current setup is an 18-core processor, 128 GB of RAM, with my orchestral samples spread out over 7 different SSDs, 2 of which are M.2 drives, the remaining 5 being Samsung 860 EVOs. There’s a system drive on M.2 and a project drive which is on another EVO. I always buy the latest and greatest graphics card because it helps me when I’m playing games I’m working on that aren’t optimized! (And yes, it does make my downtime playing other games fun playing with high settings!). I monitor my work on Genelec speakers but honestly I do most of my actual writing on headphones. The biggest asset in my room is honestly it’s acoustic treatment which was done by GIK Acoustics. They did a great job in tailoring this room with appropriate treatment and it’s helped a lot to make sure I can trust in what I’m listening to.

The software I used to write the music for the project was a mix of Reaper and Cakewalk. Blind Forest was written in Cakewalk so for legacy reasons I kept it around to access the old project files, but I’ve gradually moved over to a highly customized version of Reaper. Notation is all done in Sibelius notation software though I’m eyeing up Dorico as a potential alternative. The amount of score printed out for this gargantuan soundtrack was quite a sight to see all in person at the studio!

Stacks of music…! (Nowhere near all of it)

A couple of technical things on the music side that I was particularly excited to utilize on the project were being able to create custom samples for the score. I did this both myself but also commissioned a sound design team to make some bespoke Ori sounds. The company, Slate & Ash, had produced work on Arrival, Into the Spiderverse, amongst others and I had been familiar with their sound design work for a while. I contacted them and I’m fortunate that they agreed to work with me and they made some particularly appealing sounds for the project and built a software instrument for me to playback those sounds.

A custom Slate & Ash patch made for playback in Native Instruments Kontakt.

As for custom samples, I had woodwind player extraordinaire Kristin Naigus record 951 different woodwind samples for the project. Some of which I’d written out, but some which she’d improvise based on my written ideas. She played these ideas across several different wind instruments, the alto whistle, bansuri, fujara, quena, quenacho and shinobue. They all have subtly different characteristics. We used these samples to create various pad sounds in the score, but also they are used in stingers in the game, and various musical flourishes or transitional moments. Often a composer might use a cymbal roll to flourish from one music section into another, but on Ori, more often than not we used a woodwind flourish instead. That’s all Kristin. She not only provided these samples, but she also performed several stellar solos on the soundtrack, including ‘Separated by the Storm’, and ‘In Wonderment of Winter’. This latter track also features several of the sounds created by Slate & Ash.

In addition to the woodwind samples, I created some custom string samples along with my orchestration team specifically for use in the game. These were recorded in Vienna by the Synchron Stage Orchestra. They focused on creating constantly shifting sonic textures. The standard way to write for strings is for the section to be divided up into 5 lines (Violin 1, 2, Viola, Cello, Bass). However I booked 20 players andgave each player something different to do (20 lines). This resulted in some extremely interesting textures that provided that constantly moving and evolving feel in some of the softer string work in the game.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps vocalists Aeralie Brighton and Kelsey Mira.

In terms of the recording and production any featured solo instruments such as the aforementioned woodwinds were recorder remotely. Aeralie Brighton, the singer of the ‘Main Theme’ amongst many other tracks, and Kelsey Mira, the singer featured on ‘Luma Pools’ both recorded at home. There are a wealth of amazing musicians who have the capability to record themselves at home and this has become even more of a necessity now with the pandemic. I must admit as a composer I feel somewhat spoiled when I can just send a ZIP file with what I need recorded and then what I receive back I can just drop straight into the music with no fuss.


The orchestra was recorded in the Lyndhurst Hall at AIR Studios in London. I’ve long wanted to record here and always thought it would be the perfect room for an Ori score recording. Steve Kempster, an engineer who is a key part of establishing Ori’s sonic aesthetic, worked with AIR’s terrific team helmed by engineer Jake Jackson to put together the setup for the Philharmonia Orchestra, who I’d worked with before on ARK Survival Evolved and was delighted to work with again here. For the largest cues in the game we used 73 players, down to a chamber string group of 22 for the smaller cues. 

Gareth Coker, Alexander Rudd and Zach Lemmon with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

We also had the chance to record choir with the Pinewood Singers, a 20 voice ensemble. Human voice is a big component of Ori’s soundtrack, both soloist and choral. In the first game we had to use samples, but we were able to use a real choir this time around and their value is especially felt in the weightier scenes in the game.

When you combine the above and my work on the first game, I look back and feel very fortunate to have been given the resources to put together these two scores. Both scores deliberately have a bit of a different feel, but between them I feel like that at this point in 2020, between the almost 6 hours of music I’ve written for the franchise, I’ve said all I can say musically with regards to Ori. But were there another compelling story to work with that would help me tread new ground, it would be fun to re-explore down the line.

About the Author(s)

Chris Kerr

News Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Game Developer news editor Chris Kerr is an award-winning journalist and reporter with over a decade of experience in the game industry. His byline has appeared in notable print and digital publications including Edge, Stuff, Wireframe, International Business Times, and PocketGamer.biz. Throughout his career, Chris has covered major industry events including GDC, PAX Australia, Gamescom, Paris Games Week, and Develop Brighton. He has featured on the judging panel at The Develop Star Awards on multiple occasions and appeared on BBC Radio 5 Live to discuss breaking news.

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