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Behind the music: Crafting the score for Ori and the Will of the Wisps - Part 1

Speaking to us during a Q&A, composer Gareth Coker explained how he crafted the score to Ori and The Will of the Wisps. This is the first half of an incredibly detailed two-parter filled with tales and tidbits from the world of game audio.

This is the first part of our full, unedited Q&A with Ori and the Will of the Wisps composer Gareth Coker. You can find part two here.

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: It's been over half a decade since the first game came out, which seems pretty hard to believe. Has your creative process changed in that time, and did it affect how yourself and the Moon Studios dev team approached Will of the Wisps?

Gareth: I think my whole life has changed in that time, let alone my creative process. I think were I to write the score to Blind Forest in 2020, I’d approach it in a completely different way than I did when I started working on Ori in 2012. I can’t speak for everyone on the dev team but I would say as a whole the studio matured and changed too since they first started working on the original game. And never mind people changing personally, just think for a second about how quickly technology has progressed in the last decade. It’s easier than ever to collaborate remotely as Moon Studios does. This is obviously a scenario that has unfortunately played out for countless originally office-based developers across the globe now due to the pandemic, but at least the tools are in place (and constantly being developed) for effective remote working, and I suspect with more people working from home now, the development of those tools will be accelerated.

As far as working within Moon’s setup as a freelance composer as I am, at first one would expect a contractor to be left on the outside looking in. On the contrary, from the very start I’ve been given all the access I could ever want, and all the answers are available to me if I go looking for them. As a result I’ve learned so much about game development I don’t think I’d have ever come across had I stayed in the composer ivory tower!

Moon Studios has a highly iterative approach that requires a lot of experimentation, and inevitably failure. Failure is encouraged at the studio because it’s always part of finding the best solution. I’ve often found it helpful when it comes to music to figure out what isn’t wanted so it can be removed entirely from the plethora of choices a composer has to sift through when writing. A phrase that often comes up is ‘show, don’t tell.’ It’s easier to figure out if something works or not if it’s actually tangible and can be shown, rather than pontificating in words or not whether it’s any good. 

The studio also strongly encourages the entire team to test the game as much as possible whether you’re an employee or a contractor. As far as I’m concerned this is an extremely important part of my job. Time must be spent playing the game and my focus isn’t as much finding bugs, but it’s general big-picture things like overall flow and pacing, things that deeply affect music and the player’s experience over the longer term. I think there can sometimes be a dangerous tendency to score games in chunks without thinking about the overall experience. I’m looking to tie all that together so it’s more cohesive. 

An example of this is the ending of the game. The finale of the game is made up of several ‘chunks’ but they were all written to be one continuous cohesive piece of music. It starts with a cutscene at the Spirit Willow, which then transitions seamlessly into the final boss fight. The final boss fight is multi-phase which has 3 transitions in the music, and then when you complete that, it continues into the final outro sequence, which is made up of 3 back-to-back cutscenes. It’s seven different chunks of music but they were all written with an overall flow in mind. Now, you could do this without testing by writing at the same tempo and key, but that’s honestly far more limiting. Depending on the player’s ability, it’s about 20-30 minutes of game time that is seamless. It’s one thing to write all this stuff though, it then had to be tested and implemented properly and as it was the ending, I went over that final 20-30 minutes again and again to make sure it was fitting just right. I’m quite proud of what we achieved with the ending as I think it shows off the strongest aspects of Moon, an epic boss fight with fun gameplay, merged seamlessly with interactive and non-interactive cutscenes, but telling and wrapping up an emotional story over a fairly length period of game time.

Gamasutra: The score for the Ori and the Blind Forest clearly resonated with a lot of people -- how did you look to 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 get go? 

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? 

Gareth: 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!

I’d qualify my statement about ‘telling people what to feel’ just by saying that I think music often needs to be the gateway into allowing people to connect with their own thoughts and feelings on how a scene plays out. In a game like this where people will relate to the characters in a different way (we all come from different backgrounds / circumstances) the goal for me is to simply write music that takes a point of view rather than forcing a certain emotion onto the player. If the music reflects what Ori is feeling, then the player - who is controlling Ori the whole time - will connect to the character in a stronger way. In the ending of Will of the Wisps, there are several cutscenes showing various characters and some people have an affinity for one character over another. It’s been interesting to see how different people react on their Twitch / YouTube streams of the game and which part of the ending hits them the most. The ending is a prime example of where if we force a certain emotion too hard with music it doesn’t resonate, but if the feel of the music is taking a point of view of a character, the player will make their own connection.

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. 

Getting things to hit right (or miss!) is simply a result of being in constant contact with the team and putting the music up against gameplay or a cutscene and seeing if it works and asking for constant feedback on things that we can try to improve. The cross-department collaborative approach at Moon and having access to a lot of different brains really helps in that regard.

Gamasutra: How did you work with Moon Studios to ensure the score married well with gameplay and the narrative at its centre? Who were your main collaborators?

Gareth: It’s tough to say who was a ‘main collaborator’ on a project like this for reasons stated in the prior paragraph. I’m in close contact with Thomas Mahler, the game’s director, and Gennadiy Korol, who leads things on the technical side which includes audio programming. I worked with Jeremy Gritton who led the art and story development on the game, but there are so many hands that things go through that it’s a lot more nuanced than a traditional game setup where I might be working with an audio director and/or a music supervisor, sending off stems and being done with it. At Moon, it’s generally expected that you are hands-on from conception to completion. You can get a sense of Moon’s design philosophy from this interview with Thomas. Several of the things he says there overlap with (but from a different perspective) with what I’m saying here, particularly with regards to playtesting.

The way I write the music for this project is I’ll record myself playing a segment of the game, whether it’s an environment, boss fight, or a chase scene. I’ll make sure that I capture the sound effects too, and then I bring that into my sequencer and start writing to the video. Then I write until I feel something matches what I’m seeing on screen.  My instrumentation and palette choices are almost entirely based on what I see and what musical sounds I think match the feel of the environment that Ori is in. Being able to take the latest build, play it, grab some footage and write to it is what informs almost all of my decisions. 

Moon has long placed a great emphasis on collaboration, not just within respective departments but across all disciplines. Everyone can give feedback on everyone’s work and while to someone not part of the team that might sound like a tricky scenario to navigate, Moon has done a great job of hiring people who are able to be self-sufficient working from home and give people enough autonomy to address and deal with issues without being babysat. The onus on team members to find and fix problems and come up with solutions is - at least from my perspective - very empowering. Not every single issue gets dealt with, if one person brings something up but it’s not a problem for everyone else then it might be treated as subjective, but if multiple people agree then it gets looked at. That said, I’ve taken feedback from individuals and implemented it, and also when multiple people have piled on! All feedback points are taken into consideration, some get shot down and some get taken on board, it’s all in service of trying to make a better game. The open dialog between everyone on the team means that people aren’t taking it personally when there is an issue with work that’s done. I imagine for new members coming from a work environment where there may be a stricter protocol for bringing up issues, this openness may be a bit alien to some, but when you’ve been part of the team for as long as I have, it works nicely and it enables you to move forward a lot more quickly.

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. On this project, I’m deeply connected to every aspect of the game and I’ve decided where and how all the music will be played. It’s not reliant on a deep or complex technical system, it’s not driven by AI, it’s not remixing musical stems or layers, any musical choice was initiated by me and then passed through the team and ultimately shipped in the game. It is a highly handcrafted horizontal approach to scoring. With narrative games like this, I feel like you can’t rely on building block / stem-driven music as much, so much of it needs to be placed individually. Games are getting bigger and bigger and are often dependent on a systems-driven approach to music, but I think it’s extremely important to not lose the handcrafted approach that a composer with a deep attachment can bring. Gamers are looking for moments that they can connect with and remember for a lifetime, and to do that, I firmly believe that the personal human touch from the people not just implementing the work, but also creating it, needs to be deeply engrained into the player experience.

Whether you are an indie title or a AAA juggernaut, a music supervisor, audio director or a composer who is doing it all, stay close to the game!

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