Q&A: Richard Jacques spins The Club

A-list game composer of award-winning soundtracks for Mass Effect, Jet Set Radio Future, and Headhunters talks about scoring Sega's latest hyperviolent shooter.


This week, Sega and Project Gotham Racing developers Bizarre Creations are inviting gamers to groove with The Club. However, rather than spinning house beats, The Club offers a medley of a cappella screams from the dead and dying, as well as the percussive rhythm of high-caliber machine gun and rifle fire.

Richard Jacques.
Richard Jacques.

But that's not to say The Club is devoid of tunes outright. Quite the contrary, given that Bizarre has brought onboard storied composer Richard Jacques to lend his audio expertise to the project. One of the most prolific composers within the industry, Jacques has scored or contributed to more than 70 games, not the least of which being Sega's Jet Set Radio Future and Headhunter, as well as BioWare's Mass Effect, winner of GameSpot's own Best Original Music of 2007 award.

Jacques boasts a number of accomplishments that bridge the gap between the gaming industry and mainstream music. In addition to being the first game composer to find major backing for a live symphony orchestra, Jacques' music has been featured in art galleries and concerts across Europe, Japan, and North America. Jacques' work on Headhunter was also the first to use the prestigious Abbey Road Studios' Studio One, where his music was performed by members of the London Session Orchestra.

With The Club out this week, GameSpot spoke with Richard Jacques to get a rundown on his most recent project, as well as to gain some insight on what makes one of the highest-profile gaming composers tick. For a sampling of Jacques' work, head over to his official Web site.

GameSpot: Where did you get your start, and how many game soundtracks have you contributed to?

Richard Jacques: I began my career in the games industry as an in-house composer with Sega Europe in London back in the early '90s. This was shortly after I had just completed my music degree at university, and as I had been a gamer for many years, it was indeed a great opportunity. I don't know the exact number of games I have worked on (I have been too busy to count!), but at the last tally it was between 70 and 80 projects.

GS: Have you composed music for anything other than games?

RJ: Yes, I have worked in TV, film, and various music-industry projects. In the commercials industry, I have worked with leading advertising agencies such as MCI Saatchi and McCann Erickson, scoring advertisements for global brands such as Audi, Bacardi, and Stella Artois. I have worked on many independent films and have an upcoming feature-film score later this year, as well as working with artists like Shirley Bassey and producers such as Matt Johnson (Jamiroquai)

GS: Do you play the games you compose music for? Would you consider yourself a gamer?

RJ: Absolutely 110 percent YES! I have been a gamer since I was very young, starting off with a ZX Spectrum computer, then playing many arcade games, followed by a Commodore 64 and later Atari ST computers, before getting into console gaming. Over the last 15 years, I have bought every console released. I play games very regularly, as it's essential for any composer working in the medium to understand how games are created, constructed, and executed by the player. This valuable insight is vital for the composer to be able to score the most appropriate music. I always have a working copy of the game that I play whilst I am composing in my studio.

GS: Your most recent contributions have been to The Club. How much material did you create for it?

RJ: I created about 30 minutes of original music for the single-player campaign.

GS: How would you describe the music you've created for it? What themes or elements did you incorporate to capture the style of the game?

RJ: From a stylistic point of view, the soundtrack is very much in the electronica/industrial vein. I have an excellent relationship with the talented folk at Bizarre Creations (who created the Project Gotham Racing series, as well as The Club), and from the outset of the project, we were all very much on the same page regarding the direction of the soundtrack. Because the game is an incredibly fast-paced action arcade shooter, we really needed to emphasize the feeling of speed and time pressure in a similar way to a racing game. I had worked with Bizarre Creations on the music and sound design for Metropolis Street Racer (M:SR) a few years ago, so we already had an existing understanding of our common goal.

As the music in The Club is very fast, aggressive electronica, we were very conscious from the outset that we wanted the music to become part of the gameplay, and so took a great deal of inspiration from the levels themselves, specifically the sound-design elements. Working closely with Mathias Gr�nwaldt (audio lead on The Club) and Nick Wiswell (audio manager at Bizarre Creations), we looked at a great deal of research material that the team had gathered, such as still photographs, video footage, and raw location-based audio files. This would play a big part in building the overall "sound" of the music in The Club. To give you an example, one of the levels is set in Venice. This was one of the first major tracks I composed, and in a way provided a blueprint for the rest of the soundtrack. We identified the key sounds that could potentially be included into the sound palette for the soundtrack, such as church bells, various wooden creaks and hits, water--basically anything you would expect to "hear" in this particular real-world location. These sounds were then extensively processed by me and my assistant Marc to give us a totally unique bed of sounds to work with; I then wrote the tracks with other more traditional electronic and industrial sounds.

GS: You're also working with Jesper Kyd and Chris Chudley on the project. What do they bring to the table?

RJ: Yes, absolutely, I was delighted to be working alongside such great talent. I have known Jesper for many years, and in fact we have very similar backgrounds. He's a good friend of mine, and we have mutual admiration for each other's work and musical styles. Jesper created a wonderful main theme for The Club--he is so great at creating gritty electronic soundscapes--and I then fused some of his ideas with my own for the opening cinematics of the game. Chris Chudley is also an excellent composer and producer of electronica, and having worked on the PGR series with Bizarre Creations, he was the perfect fit. Chris scored the multiplayer music for the game.

GS: How do the visual and interactive elements of a game affect the composition process? Do you actually take a look at the game beforehand or just go off a description?

RJ: I usually begin by engrossing myself in the game, including the visual style, looking at concept artwork, playable levels, and really absorbing the atmosphere, story, characters, and action of the game. So the visual elements are very important to me as a composer and provide clear direction as to how the music will sound. In general, I usually have a playable version of the game or some footage to work from whilst composing in my studio.

GS: How would you describe your musical style? What are your influences?

RJ: That's a tough question to answer. Many people describe me as a "musical chameleon" since I am comfortable in many different musical styles, be it a fully symphonic setting for projects like Headhunter and Starship Troopers, an electronica style such as The Club, or hip-hop for projects like Jet Set Radio Future. I think from my perspective, it is to do with the musical styles I was influenced by whilst I was growing up and studying music. I am essentially a classical musician--my main instruments being trombone, piano, percussion, and guitar--and during my studies when I wasn't playing in orchestras or studying piano, I was DJing, playing in jazz and funk bands, writing songs and dance music. So I was fortunate to have been exposed to many different styles from a very young age. I think this gives me the creative freedom to incorporate different aspects of each genre into my compositions. Like many composers, I have a huge number of influences, but for starters here are a few:

Classical: Stravinsky, Debussy, Messiaen, Bernstein, Mahler, Vaughn-Williams
Film scores: Michael Kamen, Alan Silvestri, Jerry Goldsmith, Basil Poledouris
Other: Hybrid, BT, Incognito, Jazzanova, Shur-i-kan, Plump DJs, Genesis, far too many to list!

GS: How big of a contribution do you think the soundtrack makes to the game?

RJ: 50 percent or more! Have you ever watched Jaws and replaced the amazing John Williams score with the Lalo Schifrin funk version of the same track? It's essentially the same music but changes the emotion of the experience beyond recognition. Music is vital to any form of entertainment; it provides the emotional backbone to the experience.

GS: What do you think is necessary to make a soundtrack really stand out?

RJ: I think that is really a question of making the most suitable music for the game, to really marry the music together with the action, visuals, and overall style of the game. Also, a great game soundtrack should not detract from the gameplay but enhance it without ever getting in the way. As a composer myself, I am also a very thematic writer, so where appropriate, I would add themes to the game to give it its own identity, and this would make the soundtrack really stand out.

GS: Do you have an opinion on licensed soundtracks? Do you think there is a time and place where simply licensing music is acceptable, or do you think music needs to be composed within the spirit of the game?

RJ: Well, I have been working in the industry a long time now, and when licensed soundtracks started to appear, I think some composers looked upon them with a little skepticism to say the least. But after having played Wipeout on the PlayStation, I was completely sold on the idea. Licensed music is great for many genres of games, so long as it is carefully selected and the appropriate music/artists are chosen with the game in mind first and foremost, and not driven by a more marketing-based approach. I believe that the choice between licensed music versus original (or often a combination of the two) needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis. Look at the music/rhythm genre, for example. These games are usually based solely upon licensed music. Games such as SingStar would not even exist without the great job that the licensing team does in bringing your favourite artists and bands to the game. And at the same time, you wouldn't think of plastering a role-playing game such as Oblivion or Mass Effect with licensed music throughout the game; it simply wouldn't be appropriate. So I believe both licensed and original music are equally valid.

GS: What games do you think have done a soundtrack well, and what was it about them that got your attention?

RJ: Well, as I mentioned previously, the Wipeout series is an example of the perfect licensed soundtrack for a game. The tracks were selected so carefully to fit in with the design and branding of the game. I also love quirky original music for games like Katamari and LocoRoco. Plus, if you look at games such as BioShock, Assassin's Creed, Halo 3, and Mass Effect (to name but a few of last year's big titles), the music in all of these games is just so perfectly fitting.

GS: How do you choose which projects to do?

RJ: I always look at projects in terms of what I can bring to the table, both in terms of my experience of working in the games industry for 15 years, as well as musically speaking. I have to be inspired by each project, and there is almost always something that grabs me about working on a particular game. This, of course, gets me incredibly fired up, and that is when I write my best music, which is ultimately what my clients and the gamers want, so I ensure these criteria are met before taking on new projects. This way, everyone's a winner.

GS: What has been your collaboration with Video Games Live?

RJ: I have been working with Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall closely since they launched Video Games Live at the Hollywood Bowl back in 2005. My original task was to arrange and orchestrate the opening of the show, the "Classic Arcade Medley," which features some of the most iconic video game music of all time and was carefully compiled by all of us. I also arranged and orchestrated the "Sonic" segment, since I have worked on Sonic titles in the past, and still maintain close ties with Sega, and my score from Headhunter has been featured at various shows. I have also performed on piano a number of times.

GS: Do you think game music performed outside the game setting has the same impact?

RJ: That's a really good question. I think it certainly has as much of an impact, sometimes even more, because it's a passive experience for the listener, but the impact is of a different nature. When a gamer is playing his or her favourite game, the music is providing the emotional backdrop, accentuating the action, and so on. When you go to see something like Video Games Live, you not only hear your favourite music/themes from the game performed by a symphony orchestra and choir, but you see the in-game footage on a huge screen as well, so the impact is huge but in a different way.

GS: What presents the biggest challenge for creating game music? What's the easiest part?

RJ: The main difference when creating game music, as opposed to TV and film music, is that game music is interactive; it's nonlinear. In TV and film, the composer would always know that at a certain point, there would be a car chase, a battle, and so on, so the composer can carefully craft the music to fit with these certain scenes. In a game situation, the player is in a way like the film director, producer, editor, and screenwriter, all rolled into one. I therefore have to create my music with a scheme that can react to the player's actions, often in a split second, to heighten tension or action for example, or to pinpoint a moment of emotional impact. Composers have to think of every scenario in the game, and often produce multiple iterations of the same cue, or provide layers of music that can rise and fall in intensity with the gameplay. Having scored in all media, games are certainly the most challenging, but that is part of the reason that attracted me to them.

GS: You've contributed to a number of games with award-winning scores, most recently BioWare's Mass Effect. What is your personal favorite single piece, and what was special about it?

RJ: I would have to say that from Mass Effect, it's a cinematic I worked on called "The Citadel." This is the first time you see the Citadel in the game, a colossal space colony. For some reason, it just worked. You really get a sense of awe and wonder with a continuing sense of exploration.

GS: Did you do the honors on the paramour scene in Mass Effect? If so, did BioWare spell that one out for you?

RJ: Haha! Well, no, actually that scene was scored by my good friend Jack Wall. In fact, this is one of my favourite pieces of music in the whole of Mass Effect.

GS: You've won a good deal of acclaim for your work, with success including being the first game composer to land major funding for a live symphony orchestra and the first to have your soundtracks released commercially in Japan, among a number of other achievements. What do you think it is that sets your music apart?

RJ: I think that it's a combination of factors. Firstly, that I come from a very musical background and had a very wide musical upbringing. I didn't learn music on a computer; I studied the old-fashioned way (pencil and paper, and learning real instruments!). This is something that is getting lost in today's world of computers and comparatively cheap studio equipment. Also, my influences are, of course, a very big part in building my sound--my style, if you like. I think also because I really understand games. I understand the function of music in games, and I am incredibly passionate about this industry.

GS: Where do you draw inspiration for your work?

RJ: Everything inspires me in one way or another. Games, movies, TV, radio, art, magazines, people, music, life. I have a very creative and imaginative mind, so I guess I am always absorbing one thing or another. Having a good imagination is also useful to a composer.

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