The gaming year may be halfway over already, but we’re heading into exciting territory with some fantastic treasure in tow already. One of those games that took us by the emotional collar and never let go, was Ori and the Will of the Wisps by Moon Studios. A visually stunning showcase of art and tight platforming that evolved the gameplay of Ori and the Blind Forest to glorious new heights, this sequel wasn’t just a triumph for your thumbs and eyeballs but also your ears.
That’s thanks to Gareth Coker’s return to the series, as he was tasked with evolving his iconic score and growing the sound of Ori. Some of those tracks were melodic, others were haunting and all of them were capable of sticking an emotional landing that would stay with you long after you’d put your controller down.
I recently got a chance to have the fattest of chats with Coker on his work for Ori and the Will of the Wisps, his guiding philosophy for crafting a soundtrack, defining the melody of horror and the final push to nail the landing for this momentous sequel. Here’s what he had to say.
When you’re writing music, do you have a rule or a philosophy that you follow? What’s your guiding principle?
So I’ve been gaming since I was 4 and as a result I feel like it’s the the medium I understand best and I carried over into my work. And it’s very important to me to be able to play the games that I work on as much as I possibly can, and subjective to NDA’s and security and all that, because obviously some companies don’t want their early versions of the game going off site, but I do what I can to play the game so I feel like that gives me the best chance to understand exactly what the gamer is going to be going through when they play the game.
Some people might ask ‘why don’t you just watch a video of the gameplay?’ and I always reject that because it’s never ever the same as if you have the controller in your hand. If we take the first one, Ori and the Blind Forest, all you’re doing with the controller is just moving from left to right and you’re triggering a new cinematic and you can jump, that’s it.
There is very limited control but if you watch it as opposed to actively taking part, if feels completely different so I guess I’m saying that the only rule I really have is to make sure I am as familiar as I possibly can be with whatever I am working on so I can get inside the the gamer’s head and shoes with them, when they’re playing the game, as best as possible.
Just to give you a bit of insight into the way I work, is I record myself playing the game, and then I bring that video into my music software and then I write to that video. And then if I’m playing back the video with the music and it doesn’t really work or if I put the music into the game and it doesn’t work then I’ll never submit it to the team. My thinking behind that is if it doesn’t work for me, how on Earth can I expect someone who isn’t me to also think it’s going to be good.
That may not be the right philosophy but it’s my philosophy.
You’ve done a lot of video game work recently, from ARK: Survival Evolved to Darksiders Genesis and of course, the Ori games. At this point, I’m imagining that video game studios are banging on your door so that you can create a soundtrack for them. So I guess the question I have is, what do you look for in a video game, that attracts you to the project and makes you want to invest time and creative energy into developing its soundtrack?
I think if you look at the projects I’ve done, a lot of them requiring a different palette or a new canvas, so like if you wanted a straight-up typical orchestral score you’re not going to come to me because there are plenty of other composers who can do that. Now you might say that ‘but lots of your soundtracks have orchestra in them’? and yes there is lots of orchestra in them but there is other stuff going on around the orchestra. I guess this is what makes me me, and the things that attract me to a project are the chance to create a new palette and a new sound.
I think it’s very fun to have a completely blank canvas, but it can also be intimidating. If you take the Ori games for example, they look and sound in my opinion like no other game and I think that’s a mark of quality. There are plenty of other games that do that, you can hear like 5-10 seconds of them and you know exactly what type of game it is based on what you’re hearing.
I guess the other thing I like is the chance to tell a story. Frankly you could be making a bathroom commercial and if the narrative around that bathroom commercial is compelling…hell I’ll do the music for it. That’s obviously an extreme example but I just kind of wanted to illustrate it.
The two things really for me is story and creative freedom, the blank canvas. Sometimes you don’t get either of those things and there are exceptions. If a mega big franchise came along and already had an established legacy and sound, maybe it would be fun to to work on that big franchise and then try and have a stab at it, but generally speaking story and creative freedom are what motivate me the most.
For a project like Ori and the Will of the Wisps, I’m pretty certain that it was a no-brainer to bring you back on as soon as development began. When you’re looking at a project like that, how do you create a sequel to your own work? What’s the process like for evolving a soundtrack that has a very distinctive sound to it, and building on top of what you’ve already produced?
That’s always the toughest thing with sequels, because you’ve got to include stuff from the original. People are going to be upset if you don’t include the original themes, but you’ve also got to push it forward and take it in new directions. I think I was aided by the game on that front, because the game is so much bigger than Blind Forest was. The environments themselves are still incredibly varied, but perhaps the bigger addition was that the game had more characters.
In Ori and the Blind Forest, you have Ori, Naru and you have Gumo who’s a companion figure. And you have Kuro the antagonist. That’s pretty much it, you don’t actually spend much time with those non-playable characters in the game. In this game we have so many more characters, we have a new tribe called the Moki, we have a giant toad called Kwolok. These aren’t just characters that you meet once. Kwolok for example has a multi-act character arc, he turns up in different spots and there’s a boss fight against Kwolok.
When you have more time to spend with characters, it means that you have a chance to make some new themes! New themes can naturally help to expand a soundtrack, whereas on the first one if I was to nitpick, I’d say that I was overly reliant on Ori’s main theme. But on this one I didn’t have to be and the result of that meant that I could drop Ori’s main theme when I needed it to really hit home. So it was like less is more, I still used it but not having to rely on it made it more of an impact.
Ori is a game about speed, nailing that perfect run and working your way through obstacles with hopefully no scratches on the little guy. How does a gameplay style like that, impact on your music when you’re looking to set a certain pace, when you’re telling a story through your music?
Well I think one of the important things to remember is a lot of that pace is dictated by sound effects, and I think this is something that is often overlooked a little bit in games, it’s the value that sound effects can bring to the emotional experience that the gameplay can have. If you’re hearing the pitter patter of footsteps and then you’re hearing Ori’s bash sound and then the glide sound and all the others because of all of the movement, all of Ori’s traversal abilities have unique and quite identifiable sounds.
And that can often be enough to communicate to the player the general speed. So generally-speaking, for regular gameplay where Ori is just kind of moving around the environment, I usually stay out of the way because I treat the sound effects kind of like the percussion section of the music.
If you listen to most of Ori’s soundtrack, it’s very very light on percussion and what that helps with is giving the sound effects a chance to punch through because you have this nice warm inviting sound with the music. And then the sound effects allow you to punch through and that makes Oris’ movement feel very tactile and helps the gamer get a feel for the speed. Now where we do dial up the music is on the chase sequences and the boss fights because they’re a little bit more scripted and you can kind of predict what’s going to happen when the player is going to go through it.
So the chase sequence music is much more in-your-face and the boss fight music is in-your-face even more, and you know one further development of the boss fight music is that it isn’t that it’s just one loop that plays the whole boss fight. And honestly I don’t think people would have complained if I’d given them that, but we have multiple phases of our boss fights and as a result that gives an opportunity for the music itself to change without it feeling like a gimmick.
Because when there’s a visual change on screen, like the boss fight moves from one arena to another, that’s a justification to change the music. What I don’t like in games is when music changes but there’s no visual change on screen to represent the music. You’ll see it a lot in games where the combat music comes in and you’re like well ‘I don’t see what I’m supposed to be fighting’ and it can actually take you out of the experience.
But when there’s a visual change on screen, you can change the music. So with the boss fight, I’ll take the spider as an example, you have a little intro sequence that’s kind of a piece of music by itself, and then phase one of the combat starts and that’s fairly typical aggressive scary boss fight music. Now when you get the spider down to 50 percent of its health points, the music jumps into a transitional cue that takes you to the next phase of the music which is much more optimistic and kind of gives you a ‘you can do it yes you’re getting close’ kind of feels to the music and that gives the boss fight’ a little bit more emotional meaning to the player, because they’re feeling like they’re making progress in the game.
A lot of the decisions for how music is placed in Ori are based on me wanting to make the player feel like they’re making progress. So a loop that plays in the initial area where you’re maybe lost and you have nothing, might be quite sad and forlorn, but then you stumble across an ability tree which gives you the sword and then the loop that plays in the same area is much more optimistic and peppy.
It still uses the same melody but the accompaniment is much more uplifting and there are lots of little things dotted throughout the game where the music changes and it’s designed to keep pushing the player forward. And it’s not just music that does that, it’s the visuals too because you’re constantly having new visuals thrown at you, then you might find a new monster and then you might find another new ability and the idea is just to keep you going as long as possible and not to break the emotion.
There’s a lot of emotions within the Ori and the Will of the Wisps soundtrack, some light, some dark and some heavy. Were there any unusual influences that helped shape your direction for this score? Shadows of Moldwood as an example strikes me as a horror theme without the sounds we’d usually attribute to that genre.
I’m so glad you brought that up because that’s probably one of my favourite tracks on the soundtrack. Partly because when I first started that track, it takes place in an area where you’re basically shrouded in darkness and you have to use light sources to progress. If you stay in an unlit area for too long a darkness shroud envelops you and you die.
So you’ve got to keep moving and I was thinking ‘okay well this is the pre-spider boss fight environment’ and ‘you know it’d be very easy to do the typical spidery music’. What can we do that’s different, what is horror in the Ori universe? Because it’s not going to be like horror in the Dead Space universe (and I freaking love Dead Space it’s one of my favourite games ever) and so the sounds that you hear in Shadows of Moldwood, would that kind of give off the horror vibe.
I like to call them tonal string effects because I can’t really just describe them in any other way. So what we did, we had the string section play some ideas that I’d written down, but played them randomly. And the word for that is ‘aleatoric’. Now they were playing randomly but they were playing a very strictly defined set of notes, and that’s what makes it not feel like a horror movie because with the typical horror sounds you’re generally getting these screeching clusters.
But actually if these sounds were still in isolation they’d still sound quite pleasant, but because they’re being played randomly it gives that constant sense of unease and movement and tension, because it feels like something is constantly moving in the background. And that’s kind of what you hear throughout the track. The other thing you hear are these low string slides in the cellos and basses where they all start on different notes and they move to a center node, so they might start an equal amount of distance away from what will be the center node.
But then literally all of the instruments moves that sentiment so you have this very uncertain beginning and then it moves to something that is completely unified and that is kind of like the sound of something that is stalking you. You’re uncertain what it is and then it’s very definitely there and that is kind of a constant pulse throughout Shadows of Moldwood.
If you listen to the track, you’ll hear exactly what I mean when it comes in because I made it pretty prominent. In the soundtrack it’s like these low grunt sounds, it’s kind of like a moan, a low bass moan and I was thinking ‘that’s enough now’. I can just write a melody on top of all of this stuff to make it feel like Ori and to present the spider’s melodic theme. Combining those all together meant, we had a melody but we had that creepy feel that we needed.
But it still felt like Ori because of those uneasy sounds. It’s the only area in the game where you could justify that approach and as a result I think the track stands out.
The Ori series is also one of the most artistic games to have emerged this generation, and visually the game is a buffet for the eyes. When you looked at concept art and the animations for Ori and the Will of the Wisps, did that inform you creatively of where you wanted to go with your soundtrack?
The first thing is figuring out the gameplay. Every game has a certain tempo and speed when you play it. Ori has a speed, and if you look at every game they have a rough tempo where things feel good. I play the game often when there’s no art in it, just to get a feel for how the game is working, where the level design is working and where I want to change up the music. Just to get a feel for the flow, that informs things like tempo and structure.
When the visuals come in, the decisions that they inform are the types of instruments I’m going to choose. Now obviously we have the orchestra but what makes each area stand out and be unique in an Ori game are the instruments around the orchestra. The featured instruments from different instruments from parts of the world.
Baur’s Reach as an example, there’s a track called Wonderment of Winter. The opening of this track mixes up some soft ambient sounds with an instrument from Indonesia, that’s like this tuned bell percussion instrument. The melody in the track is played by a low Irish whistle. Why combine those two instruments? Because I can and because it sounds good to me.
Those kinds of decisions are what makes each area sound unique. But if you had just those unique-sounding instruments it wouldn’t sound like a cohesive score and that’s where the orchestra comes in. That’s the glue that makes it feel like a soundtrack rather than a collection of unique pieces.
I always like to find out from composers, if the development of their soundtrack made use of anything unusual in the instrument department. Were there any such unique instruments that had the perfect sound for certain tracks and moments?
It’s not an unusual instrument but it’s unusual for it to be featured. It’s the bass clarinet which you’ll hear featured in Kwolock’s Hollow, and dashing and bashing the bass clarinet has such an amazing tone. Especially when you play it low, and it’s a reed instrument. I was thinking ‘well Kwolok the toad lives in a swamp, so let’s use a reed instrument’ because swamps have a ton of reeds in them. Kwolok is also very large so I thought ‘what’s a nice heavy meaty wind instrument?’
You’ll hear the bass clarinet pretty much throughout, and the very first note it plays is actually the second lowest note that is possible to play on the instrument, and it just like fills the spectrum of sound. Kristin Naigus, who played all of the world woodwinds in the game, she owns hundreds of woodwind instruments, and on this soundtrack she played 21 of them. Only 21! She played an instrument called a Fujara.
It’s a Slovakian overtone flute that she has, that is taller than her and it’s used at the very beginning of the sandworm chase because it has this kind of gnarly aggressive sound, that when you blow really hard it just produces these cool harmonics and overtones. She used something called a crystal flute, which is in the Ancient Wellspring, it has an incredibly mellow and ethereal sound which I thought was suitable for the Ancient Wellspring.
It is kind of like this ancient building packed with law and knowledge, so I wanted to give it a more kind of spiritual vibe. One of the things I did on this soundtrack that I hadn’t done in the previous Ori game, is I used vocals for an environment cue. Normally I’m using vocals for the emotional cutscene kind of stuff, but this time around I thought let’s use one for the environment cue.
And then in the track Luma Pools, which is a very unique area of the game, it’s very bright, I thought ‘well let’s do let’s just put some solo vocals in here and really stack them up.‘ And it’s almost jazzy, especially the opening of Luma Pools but it’s such a refreshing and relieving area. I thought ‘hey this is this is going to work pretty well, especially when you’re in the water’.
There’s a lot of water in the Luma Pools that you can play in and one of the cool things I read on the comments on YouTube, was ‘they finally did it they made a water level the best level in the game’! Because apparently water levels and video games are very unpopular, but we did the opposite.
I felt that the human voice was a just a good sound to have for swimming around in the water. I don’t think it’s the first time that a human voice has been used, but it’s just more about the execution and how it matches with the visuals.
Was there anything left on your cutting room floor by the time you were done? Any tracks that you wish could have made it into the soundtrack which already has 60 tracks in total?
The 60-track soundtrack doesn’t even include all the music that’s in the game. I was looking at the soundtrack and I thought ‘man this is already kind of obnoxiously long’. Because you know when you when you’re getting to three hours you’re thinking ‘Oh my God are people really going to sit through all of this?’. There are two schools of thought: Do you curate the soundtrack you know will make a really good album listening experience, or do I give give the listener as much as possible?
What the listener has on the album that you were given is pretty much the Golden Path. It’s what almost everyone will experience when they play the game. It might not be in the exact order but it’s pretty much all the music that everyone will play, is here when they play the game from start to finish, so the stuff that isn’t included on the soundtrack, that is in the game are a select few mini-boss and short combat cues, but that are very very inconsequential. At least in my opinion but apparently some people disagree with me based on what I’ve read online .
In terms of stuff that’s on the cutting room floor, there are a few environment tracks that didn’t make it into the game just because they didn’t work. I think that’s something that’s not unusual, that’s kind of something that happens in almost every game. That stuff gets left behind or concepts just don’t make it because they don’t work.
I don’t ever view it as wasted work, it’s just work that didn’t make the final cut.
When you look back at this soundtrack and you see how people react to it, and I know this probably sounds weird, but do you think your job is done when your score delivers an emotional gut punch across grief, dread and happiness themes, and you see people react to it in their own way? Is that the “hell yeah” moment for you, that creates a sense of accomplishment?
That is literally the reason and I get out of bed. Seeing reactions on Twitch and YouTube make everything worthwhile. I think it’s one of the best things about working in game development. It’s the people who record their reactions to when they’re playing the game, it’s not something you can ever get from a film. When people play games, there are so many different reactions.
When I was done with the ending, I was thought ‘we’ve nailed the ending, if nothing else we have nailed the ending’. Not everyone is going to like our ending because of how it ends and I’m okay with that. Because it’s not the safest ending in the world but it is going to be an ending where different parts of it are going to connect with different people based on where they’re at in their lives and how they feel and what side of bed they got out of that day.
It’s probably the thing I’m most proud of, is how not just musically we ended the game but how we wrapped up the story for Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and how it tied into Blind Forest. It was one of those things that when I first saw it come in and I got the rough animatic of it I was like ‘All I have to do is not screw this up’ because 90% of the work was done and this is already working emotionally without music so all I have to do is to step in and give it that final push.
There are some scenes in games where you’re thinking ‘what am I going to do here?’. But for the ending and I can tell you I knew what they were planning in the story but I didn’t know how we were going to execute it and I was dreading it. I thought ‘this is going to be impossible, it’s going to go through like hundreds of revisions and I’m never going to get it right’.
And honestly? I can say that the version of the ending here in the game musically, is version two. Version one was pretty close, and what you hear on the soundtrack is that. I knew exactly what to do and then I thought ‘Well I hope my taste is good’. I think we’ve nailed the ending and then of course I got to see people react.
I’m always watching Twitch streams. To see how far they are into the game, I can make sure that I’m logged in and ready to view their reaction. But yeah, it is the most satisfying thing and I think it’s unique to the game industry, we get to see people react. I know for a fact that when we were finishing the game, a lot of the team looked back to the reactions of our trailers not just to keep going, but just to keep the the morale high and keep motivation up.
It reminds you that a lot of people were expecting something really good from this game and just gave us that little bit of an extra push to be able to see other humans reacting to what we were making .
If you’re keen on owning the Ori and the Will of the Wisps soundtrack, you can find it right here! And while you’re at it, go give Gareth Coker some high fives on his site as well!
Last Updated: May 28, 2020