Scoring emotionally complex scenes in Middle-earth: Shadow of War

The composers of Middle-earth: Shadow of War's soundtrack swing by to talk about their process.

At GDC 2018, there's going to be a session that both Tolkien nerds and game developers should take equal interest in if they're interested in the emotional impact of large open-world games. In this talk, composers Garry Schyman and Nathan Griggs will discuss the process of designing over 4 hours of music for Monolith's Middle-earth: Shadow of War.

But because we at Gamasutra as always, are impatient, impulsive, and curious, we decided to invite Schyman and Griggs on to our Twitch channel for a conversation about the production of that score. 

For your viewing purposes, we've archived that conversation up above, but down below we've highlighted a few quick takeaways to improve your musical brain. 

Tolkien's work inspires game music too

The Middle-earth series has, to this point, created a unique thematic relationship with the original Lord of the Rings novels, one that's been explained to us by its developers before. While most of Tolkien's work was concerned with how power corrupts, the games have had to grapple with conventional RPG design being about the acquisition of more power. 

According to Griggs, that's something he and Schyman kept in mind while trying to create a unique sound for these games. If you're a game composer paying attention to the narrative, be sure to listen for audio cues during scenes where the hero starts to cross a moral line to hear how the 2 composers introduced those themes into the game.  

The systems-driven design crept into the audio work

Last time we checked in with Monolith, we were interested to learn that the Nemesis system didn't just reshape the flow of gameplay, it altered how Monolith makes huge triple-A games. Griggs says this impacted the composition too, and created a set of creative and technical challenges that were fundamentally different than normal game production.

In one example, Griggs discussed getting hands-on with the interactive moments in the game, using design tools to create specific musical cues before handing them off to the audio team to work off his example. (And sometimes picking up tools he hadn't touched in months in order to get it just right.)

Balancing between memorable themes and emotionally impactful music

As we discussed, the score for the Middle-earth series often deliberately avoids the ear-wormy melodies composer Howard Shore made for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Ring movies. As our discussion went on, Griggs and Schyman not only discussed why that decision was made, but also the relative value of clear, hummable themes in games versus emotionally impactful moments. 

It's not a discussion that comes with a finite conclusion, but Griggs was able to explain how this thought process led into creating a modern-feeling song that plays at the end of the game. 

For more developer interviews, editor roundtables and gameplay commentary, be sure to follow the Gamasutra Twitch channel.

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