How to compose an epic.
Even if you don't know the name Inon Zur, you know his music. With credits in games like Baldur's Gate II,Icewind Dale II, Prince of Persia, Dragon Age II, Fallout 3...The list goes on and on for dozens of award-winning games, and that's not even including his work in film and television. It's hard to be a gamer and not have heard Zur's music.
And this year, Zur added two huge projects to his resume: Fallout 4 and the recently released Dungeons & Dragons game Sword Coast Legends. We recently talked recently with Zur about what it's like to create the soundscapes for these massive worlds as well about diving back into the world of D&D.
GameSpot: This question's a bit broad, but what's your writing and composing process like?
Inon Zur: It's interesting because, and I don't know how much it was changed over all the 26 years that I've been writing music, but it will always start with having a melody, having something that is a little motif or a rhythmical pattern. This is how it will start. This will start after I try to get the idea behind the atmosphere of the theme that I'm writing.
Let me give you the order. If we're talking about a very bleak city; it's nighttime and it's dangerous. I picture it in my mind, and then I'll hum something. It could be the most random thing. [Hums ascending notes] Then I'll play it. From then on, I have no control whatsoever on what's going on next. It could go in so many different ways. You start, but after that you basically open yourself up to the musical world. In a way you lose control and in a way really want to lose control because you want to be able to be lead by the ideas and not lead the ideas.
We, as composers, have a lot of limitations because all that we can contribute is what we did before. In order for us to try to be original and do something we haven't done before, then we need to let the ideas lead us instead of trying to lead the ideas. More than this, I cannot say.
Especially when you're creating the fantastical worlds for something like Sword Coast Legends, what kinds of things do you use for inspiration?
It's more about the emotions and not only the emotions that are running through the heroes inside the story but also the emotions being evoked by the story and by the players. I want to try to get inside the brain of this player that just opened the story and is starting to get immersed inside the game.
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What are their feelings? In music it's all about feeling. Music is all about emotional aspects. Music is all about describing something that you cannot really describe in words. You try to be open to a world that has no explanation, just feeling, just emotion. Sword Coast Legends has a lot of it. The story, the graphics, the whole set up is very inspirational for me because I came from this world. My first few games were mainly RPGs, and I was always deeply immersed in Middle Earth, Tolkeinian ideas, and this kind of fantasy world. So it's easy for me to get immersed into it. But when you see Sword Coast Legends, you don't really need to explain anything. It just takes you and grabs you. I was much trained to translate these thoughts and feelings into music.
Did you try to connect this thematically with the world of Dungeons and Dragons and previous games in the series you worked on, or is this something you tried to take in a new direction?
I would say that there's always something that you could do in order to enhance this and to do it better than what you did before. I'm definitely drew inspiration from older games like Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, Neverwinter Nights, and other games that I worked on. And I think to myself, "If you could do it all over again, what would you do different?" Well this is my chance, and I try to look at what I did and what I liked about what I did then. Then I'm try to look mainly about what I liked and what I didn't like, and then I apply it to the next game, which is Sword Coast Legends. This is one aspect.
The other aspect is: this is different. It's not the same. We need to create a special identity for it. We know many stories that are fantasy stories and even Tolkinean in nature, however each one of them is different. It's a whole huge world, and Sword Coast Legends definitely created its own niche, its own character, and its own nature. Was I influenced? Definitely. Was I trying to create something new within this world? Most definitely.
And for a lot of games you don't always know the context of what people are going to be doing, especially for something like Sword Coast Legends, where people are creating their own world. Or something like Fallout 4, as well, where people are wandering around but you don't know where they're going to be specifically at any point in time. Does that effect how you compose the music that you create?
That brings us back to the storytelling and the emotion that's being evoked. People are not just wandering around. People are not just building stuff. People are being thrown into a situation, and they're doing things because they are in a specific situation. I'm composing the situation, not what people are doing. They could wander in Fallout. They could wander for months. I don't care. What is the situation? Where did they come from? Where are they going? Same thing in Sword Coast. Same thing with any other game. I'm not treating it as just "exploration." No, this is part of the story. Where are we in the story? What happened to us before? Since I know the game, I could throw hints in here and there of what's going to happen.
Many gamers are very sensitive to music. They take hints by the score, not only of where they came from but where they're going also. I will be throwing, here and there, some hints that can reveal, very lightly, things to happen in the future.
Of course, you're tuned in with the game as a whole. You know the overall narrative structure, you know the story and what's going to happen with that kind of thing. Do you work closely with the developers and the narrative designers when you're writing these kind of games? Or do they give you an outline of the world that they're creating and what things look like, and then you just create from that?
I think Sword Coast is a great example of interesting teamwork. Usually it's just me and the audio director. Sometimes when it's really important for cues like the main theme, character theme, maybe opening cinematics or the ending, the producer/director could weigh in. But in Sword Coast Legends, there was not one cue that [game director] Dan Tudge did not approve personally. I was basically immersed with the whole team. I wasn't with them physically in Florida, but it wasn't just about sending me emails asking for changes and redos. Every cue that I sent, there was a phone call with a whole discussion about it. It's rare.
It is very unique, and I think that by doing this, you can achieve a lot in terms of how the music actually fits inside the game because I don't have the game. I'm not playing it with them, it so I can't really know exactly what they mean. But when they're telling me "When we heard this piece, we thought it was right for this area but it was not right for this area," and then describe the area. Then I can say, "OK, I get it." Sword Coast Legend's was a very unique and it was a great experience working this in depth with the team.
Having worked on a lot of RPGs, of course you're trying to do something that's unique and different. Are there any specific sounds that you try to incorporate into the genre?
Genre is something that is very general. Fallout is an RPG, Lord of the Rings is an RPG, Sword Coast Legends is an RPG. They are all role-playing games, but they are very, very different. For Sword Coast Legends, I used a specific ethnic instrument to be the signature voice of the score. A duduk, which is an Armenian flute and has a very unique sound. It's not like another flute; it's nasally and it sounds very unique. I used this as the signature for Sword Coast Legends. I try to find and develop a very unique language for each game so it will become sort of the language that we're speaking inside the game.
The duduk is not an instrument I had heard of before. Where did you first become acquainted with it? How did you feel that fit into something like Sword Coast Legends?
It doesn't, and that's the whole point. A duduk is a Middle Eastern instrument. I think Hans Zimmer used it in Gladiator. It's not widely used but it has been used before. In fact, I used it before in some other scores, but not as frequently as I'm using it here. The sound is Middle Eastern, but when you play a Middle Eastern instrument without using Middle Eastern phrases, then it becomes very peculiar. You expect it will do these Arabic scales and melodies. But when the duduk plays melodies that are almost Irish this weird combination between Middle East and the Nordic world creates a very unique signature and that's what I was after.
It's a little bit unconventional. Is that something you typically try to integrate into the music that you create?
Yes, although some scores are more mainstream and I try to concentrate more on the orchestral boundaries, and just try to create something that will be emotional and grabbing. But there are other projects where I will look for a specific sound or specific soundscape. And if there is nothing to be found, I will create one. I remember that a long, long time ago when I composed the music for Fallout Tactics, which was the game before Fallout 3, maybe 14 years ago, I was looking for a very intense sound. But I couldn't find it. It wasn't a musical instrument, but it was also nothing mechanical. Then I brought a group of people to the studio and I told them, "Start screaming." They started, but in a different way. I took their vocal combination of screams and created a patchwork out of it. This was exactly what I was looking for.
There were other games that I didn't know exactly how to achieve a certain feel. Then I would go down to the more basic and primitive sounds. Take a bow and try to bow objects and see what noise it makes. Then take it and effect it in a way. Basically creating a signature, something that the player will hear and remember. The first time they hear it, they may say, "What?" And then after that, every time they hear it, they think, "All right. This is it. This is right away connecting me with this kind of situation."
You also mentioned near the beginning of the interview, how the fans are something that's very important to you when you're creating music. How has that affected something like Sword Coast Legends when you think about what the fans want and what they expect?
I remember that when I did the music for Rift, the score was accepted in a mixed way. In Rift, I really tried to go for colors more than strictly melodies or what we call songs. The fans liked the idea, but they missed the melodical content. Even on Dragon Age: Origins, which was one of my more successful scores, I got criticized by the fans, not by the media, which is totally different, that the fans want to hear more songs. When they say songs, they mean they want to be able to hum it, they want to be able to really listen to it in their cars and during jogging. They want melodic content that will be simple, grabbing, catchy. This was very important for me, and I listen to fans. The fans basically are my fuel for writing because I know that the fans are what matter. This is my audience. No artist can live without an audience. I'm sitting here alone in my studio and writing here all day long, and the most feedback that I'm getting is from the development team. I couldn't compose anything without thinking that I have audience and the fans are my audience so I really care about them.
Music is something that you want fall into the background, and you want people to maybe not notice it as much but at the same time you want the recognition and to know that this stood out, that this was a very memorable experience. How do you strike that balance between making something that you want people to talk about, but also something that doesn't overpower the game itself?
The question basically nails it on the head. I believe most composers that are composing for media, this is one of the hardest tasks if not the hardest. How do you create something that will be really good, but yet not stand out in a way that will present a distraction? We have to remember that the music is only one component of the whole experience, and it needs to be, more than anything, supporting and not standing out. It needs to be part of it. It needs to be part of the whole picture.
The best music for media is the music that you feel, not the music you hear. Yet that's not the whole answer, because there are some places inside the game but you need to be very picky when you pick these places that there is a time for the music to shine and take the front stage. It rarely happens but it does.
If you remember, Star Wars Episode 4, Luke Skywalker is standing and looking at the two suns going down and there is the famous theme. Luke and the two suns are not in the front stage. John Williams is and Lucas really gave him enough time to just stand there and look at the double sunset so Williams could complete the whole theme. In every good game, movie, TV series, there's one or two points where the music gets a front stage and this is our time to shine in a different way.
Were there any other final thoughts or final comments you wanted to leave with our readers?
The media and the fans are basically what give us the inspiration to keep on going. And not only good comments, but negative comments as well. We're learning a lot; I learn a lot. I'm 50-years-old, and I feel like a little child learning from 13- and 14- and 15-year-old kids. You cannot really teach somebody something without actually listening to what they have to say and trying to understand. I want to thank everyone, and I want to thank all the fans specifically and tell them just to keep on being involved.