Q&A: Game composer Inon Zur

This Saturday night (September 26) marks the opening of A Night in Fantasia, a musical experience dedicated entirely to bringing to life the sounds of anime and video games. Taking place at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, celebrity guest performers span singers, composers, and conductors. We...

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This Saturday night (September 26) marks the opening of A Night in Fantasia, a musical experience dedicated entirely to bringing to life the sounds of anime and video games. Taking place at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, celebrity guest performers span singers, composers, and conductors. We caught up with Inon Zur, the man who has scored everything from the game soundtracks of blockbusters Prince of Persia, Crysis, and Fallout 3, to Digimon and Power Rangers music.

GameSpot AU: You've been working on the Dragon Age: Origins soundtrack, how did you become involved in the project?

Inon Zur: In 2007 the word was out – the big anticipated RPG from BioWare was up for bids to compose the music. I was very excited about this challenge and worked really hard to make the demo for it. I also contracted and recorded a small ensemble in my studio (strings, brass, woodwinds and voice) and sponsored it myself; I believed it could make the difference in choosing me as the composer, and apparently it did! I was very happy and charged forward to start working on the game!

GS AU: What can you tell us about the style of music you've written for Dragon Age?

IZ: I think the best description for it is if you take the Lord of the Rings music and taint it, corrupt it and apply darkness to it you will get the style of Dragon Age. It is what we call "Dark Fantasy" as opposed to "High Fantasy"– it's brutal, very powerful and emotional.

GS AU: We've heard you're working on the soundtrack to the Nintendo DS version of James Cameron's Avatar: The Game. How difficult is it to transition from the relative audio freedom of games like Dragon Age or Fallout 3 to a handheld with limited audio capabilities? How different is the creative process?

IZ: This was a very challenging project, but I also had a lot of fun doing it. The expectations verses the capability of the DS was a bit of a struggle but I think I was ultimately able to use every byte and put it to work for the music, so the player should be quite surprised with the quality of the sound. I have to commend the music & audio team from Ubisoft – they did a magnificent job in helping me to maximize the music for the game.

GS AU: You've written scores for a huge number of games ranging from modern day shooters to fantasy titles. What are the challenges of creating for such diverse genres?

IZ: I think that you have to really immerse yourself in the game in order to get the music to convey the real drama. Every game is different, and every development team has different tastes and preferences, so the challenge is not only adapting myself to the specific style of the game, but also understanding what the development team is looking for on the project. It takes a lot of work, compromises and most of all understanding that you are here to support the game rather than featuring your music. You have to be ready to change, fix and redo the music, sometimes many times, until you hit on what they are aiming for and sometimes there are unexpected challenges.

GS AU: Can you give us a simplified typical creative process involved in creating a game soundtrack from start to finish?

IZ: First you need to convince the team that you are suitable and the right choice for the game. Then comes the brainstorming process, which is demanding but very crucial – what do we really want to hear as far as music in the game? What kind of music? How should it work? Should it be wall to wall or only small parts of the game? How can we make the music as interactive as possible considering the technical limitations?
After that phase, the actual writing process begins. It is usually the longest (by far) of the creative stages. Then, if you have the budget, you record with a live orchestra, mix, produce, master and deliver the music. Then comes the implementation process (putting the music in the game) and sometimes the composer is heavily involved with it and sometimes not so much. This is the general scenario.

GS AU: Do you have a favourite genre of game to compose for? If so, what is it and why?

IZ: Truthfully, I see any project as a new musical challenge, and thus I'm as excited to take on each and every one of them. There are styles that I'm more fluent at, but I am always excited to do new things while expanding upon my musical style and vocabulary.

GS AU: When you became a composer, did you originally do it with a view to composing music for games?

IZ: No, but fairly early while growing up, I realized that I'd like to write a dramatic music for media, so games are very good fit for this aspiration.

GS AU: Does listening to game soundtracks outside of the game world changes the experience at all for listeners?

IZ: Yes! I think that they can discover a whole new world of excitement and an emotionally charged experience that they can sometimes miss because they are too busy fighting and playing the game… But we do need to remember that the music is there FIRST to support the game before standing on its own, so sometimes it is more impressive to listen to the music while playing the game – the context make it more meaningful and exciting.

GS AU: In your opinion, what do live performances of game music like A Night in Fantasia and Play! do for game music as art form?

IZ: It is transforming it from just a soundtrack to an art form on its own, and raises the appreciation value of the music while expanding the audience. It is also introducing the music to an audience that aren't necessarily gamers, and by establishing wider recognition of the music. I'm very grateful to Eminence for allowing me to introduce my music in this concert!

GS AU: Inon Zur, thanks for your time.

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