The music has always been central to every Halo game, and to make sure Halo 4 is no different, Microsoft and 343 Industries aren't leaving its scoring duties to just anyone. Neil Davidge helped pioneer the trip hop subgenre of electronic music in his role as co-writer and producer for Massive Atttack. He's scored films including Clash of the Titans and worked with artists ranging from David Bowie to Mos Def and Snoop Dogg.
Yet when it comes to Halo, he's taking over for Martin O'Donnell, a composer who's earned the trust and admiration of millions of fans over a decade of incredible creations. Those are some big, metal shoes to fill, even for someone like Davidge. When he offered to speak with us, we had our fingers crossed that that wouldn't be lost on him—it was going to be a very awkward interview, otherwise.
Check out 343's latest vidoc above for a behind-the-scenes look at scoring Halo 4, listen to a sample track at Halo Waypoint, and read our blessedly not-awkward interview below.
COMPLEX: Were you a Halo fan before becoming involved?
Neil Davidge: I certainly was. I've been playing it from the beginning. I've played every Halo game and I've been playing them consistently over the years. I haven't just played them once, I've played them a number of times, and I often play them whilst I'm working on a project, if I'm getting stuck musically and getting frustrated, you know, one of my options apart from going for a walk or having something to eat will actually be getting on the Xbox and playing Halo. Yeah, it's been consistently there for me. I can't remember which—since 2001 or 2002 I started playing it, so right from the beginning.
So how did you get involved with Halo 4?
There were some secret meetings going on, I believe. I was in LA with my manager a couple of years ago and they told me that they were off to do a couple of meetings and I wasn't invited. So I was like, "Okay, alright," [laughs]. And I know that there was a lot of negotiations going on for quite a period of time, and since then I've kind of found out that 343 [Industries] had a bunch of different composers that they had—they had a list of hallowed composers. Apparently I was at the top of the list.
So, I mean, I only actually found out about the game I think it as a week before I was due to get on a flight to Seattle to meet everyone at 343. So it was a secret from then. And my management didn't actually know I was a Halo fan, so you can probably imagine—they were telling me about a possible score for a video game for a while, and I said, "Yeah, that could be cool, cool be fun. Let me know if it comes off." And when they actually said "Okay, it's happening, you're booked on a flight to go to Seattle, and the game is Halo," I almost fell over.
You know, I was so excited as a fan to get involved in the game, and also daunted as well. Because I've obviously listened to Marty [O'Donnell]'s scores for many years. It was like wow, so how am I going to put my spin on this? He kind of hit the nail on the head many times, and kind of changed—well, paved the way, really—for serious film score ethics in game schools.
Do you feel a lot of pressure going into that legacy?
Oh, absolutely, yeah. I mean, there's a lot to live up to, and obviously there are a lot of Marty fans out there. So it is extremely daunting. Obviously some of the music I've written has just started to leak on the internet now, and I've been quite nervous as to what the fans will think of it and touch wood, so far everyone for the most part seems to be liking it, so that's great. But yeah, there's a big challenge there to try and come up with something as iconic as Marty's score, yet sort of put my own take on it as well and help evolve Halo into this new galaxy and to this new story arc.
You've got a pretty incredible history in the music industry, as a producer, as a performer and as a collaborator—you've worked with a lot of really incredible artists. Are there any past experiences in particular that you're drawing from?
Kind of generally from the whole lot of it. I'd say the experience of working with Massive Attack for the last 18 years would stand out from that, but you know I'm even drawing on experiences of kind of playing in bands myself and being a, you know—I started in this business actually as a singer-songwriter, so I'm bringing my kind of songwriter aspects to the game as well.
You know, a lot of the melodic themes for this game were, you know, me sat at the end of my bed with my acoustic guitar singing into a dictaphone to try to find a lyrical melody that would sum up the particular character or the particular theme that 343 were pushing for.
But there are aspects to some of my work with Massive Attack, certainly in terms of pulling together various textures and kind of contrasting genres and sonics, and finding a way to make them all work together in a cohesive and very natural way. Pulling electronics and organic instruments together into the same world and creating whole new worlds from doing that.
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Is it a lot different scoring a game versus other types of projects? Is it what you expected?
Yeah, I mean, there's quite a learning curve, I have to say, scoring for a video game. I began approaching it in the same way that I would approach any film score, but very quickly I realized that that just wasn't going to cut it. For the most part, I've not had any visual material other than some artist impressions to work to, even though I've seen various builds of certain missions throughout the period I've been working on the game. For the most part I have to work, I'm working from an impression in my head of kind of, a vision that I've had to create from just a bunch of disparate elements that have been sort of handed to me over the months and through reading the script and just drawing on my experiences of actually playing the games over these years.
So it's a very, very different experience to writing for a film. There's no set length to a scene, you know, it's all down to the game player. They dictate where they go and how long a particular mission takes. Just a lot of the game is still being built right now, and those guys kind of work right to the wire, whereas they need to start implementing the music as soon as possible. So often I'm writing before they know exactly what's going to be happening in a particular scene in the game.
From time to time the guys have actually changed a particular moment in the script, a particular moment in the game because they've been listening to the music I've produced, and that's influenced the build of the game. That's influenced the build of the environment and how the environment should feel and how it should look, because they've been listening to this music. They go "Oh, wow, now I get it!" [laughs]. Which is such an honor, you know, it's an amazing experience.
But it's, you know, in a way it sort of feels around the wrong way. It feels like the—is it the cart leading the horse? [laughs].
I've always felt that the scores from past games have had overarching tones; Halo 3 felt sort of expectant, Halo: Reach was a little bit tragic. Can you say the same yet for Halo 4?
Well, without giving anything away about the story, I think that this game is attempting to say more about who the Master Chief is and actually what's going on underneath all of that armor. So it's a little more emotional. Certainly in places it's very emotional, and it is quite tragic. But I probably can't say too much more because I like my job [laughs].
Do you have any favorite songs from past Halo games? Are you going to be bringing in a lot of that music?
No, I mean, I've not actually been involved in re-working any of the old themes. I've purely been writing new material. That's been my brief, is to evolve the musical world of Halo. Even though obviously I reference—purely because I've been playing the games for many years—I'm referencing Marty's work. But not in any direct way. I've not been taking any of his melodic themes and updating them and changing them around and rearranging them.
I believe that there might be a few key moments in the game when they'll reprise one of Marty's themes or a couple of Marty's themes. That's going to be quite a small part of the score for the game, and quite possibly that will be just more toward the beginning of the game to help with the natural flow from Halo 3 to Halo 4.
Do you feel like it's going off in a very new direction?
I think everyone's very respectful to the work that's been done before on the game. And everyone's—again, I think the phrase that we've all kind of used is it's an evolution rather than a revolution. No one's trying to re-invent the world of Halo, but everyone's trying to move it forward. It's a new story arc. Technology has moved on, and so there are more options available these days in terms of the build for games than were available back then.
So there's a design to move forward, to update, and to fill in some of the details that maybe were missed out before. And just progress the story in a very exciting way. So everyone's trying to honor the history of the game and just add to that and keep the story moving forward.
How do you approach composing for specific types of gameplay?
The first battle scene that I wrote for the game specifically for one of the missions, I first of all tried to script the action and write directly to picture, but I found that to be very restricting. And instead of actually doing something that helped the story and helped the player engage with what was actually happening on screen and underscore the emotional motivation of that particular mission. It ended up hindering the process.
So in general when I'm writing for a scene, for a battle scene in particular, I'll only watch it through once, and I'll pick out any visual references that are important, environmental references that are important, and those will inform me of certain sound characters that I might want to use that don't fit in that particular mission, and which kind of musical references I might—you know, if it's more of a military mission, I use certain kind of military references, even though I find my own way of kind of referencing those. And then I just start building a track that seems to have the right kind of energy and the right kind of tone for that scene and I'll just keep experimenting until I hit the—you know, I'm pretty tireless when it comes to that sort of thing. I know when it feels right.
And for me, it's always about how it feels. I don't approach it conceptually. I always approach it from a gut level, and every piece of music I've written for this game has been written from a gut level. It's very much from the emotional perspective. You know, I'd surround myself with the materials, I'd surround myself with the visuals, I'd read the script through, I'd get the context. I play the games, the past games. And sometimes I'll pick out some themes from movies and kind of have those playing around.
But generally, once I've got the right picture in my head, I just turn all that stuff off and just start writing. Yeah. And produce as much material as I can and play it for the guys [at 343] and see what they pick. I'll normally, for each mission I'll write three different pieces of music and the guys will pick one of those pieces, the one that kind of best fits their visions for that mission. And often they'll also pick the other pieces and say "Actually, that piece would sound great in a different place. So very little music that's been written isn't going to be used somewhere in this game. And I've written over four hours of music, there's over 100 pieces of music I've written for this game so far. Just a huge amount of material. I can't actually believe it sometimes, that I've written that amount of material [laughs].
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Especially in Halo, the player's actions can affect battles and how they play out. The music has to be pretty dynamic.
Absolutely, yeah. And I mean, the pieces themselves if you just kind of listen to them in their entirety aren't necessarily going to make sense in the same way that, like, a song would on an album where you'd get a specific kind of structure, a traditional kind of structure, a verse, chorus, and just change things up a little bit, add in some extra percussion, and then we go into the next chorus. The pieces themselves are constantly going through changes, and sometimes pretty fundamental changes. Any theme that I do will be evolved considerably as the piece progresses. Play it on different instruments, changing the timing around, changing the score for that particular melody. Sometimes the melody sounds pulsive and heroic, the next moment it sounds pretty grim and tragic.
So it's really stretched me as a composer to produce material with this amount of variation. You would never do this for a film score. You would never do this for an album. You wouldn't write music in the same way because it would be too schizophrenic. But for a game, it works because you never quit know exactly what needs to happen in that scene. Obviously as a game player I can understand it now, you know, it took me a little while for it to settle in. But once I got it I really got it.
Watching my daughter play Halo, for instance, she's a monster. She just kind of charges in there and kick ass. When I'm playing the game, I like to kind of sit back and check out what's going on and take people out with my sniper rifle. And I'll only go diving in there right at the last moment, when I've got a good feeling of what's going on, what I need to do. So kind of watching people's different gameplay styles, I'm kind of going okay, right, now I get it. This music has got to cover all eventualities if possible. It's got to be multi-layered so that within the audio engine of the game they can unlock certain layers depending on the energy of the scene, you know, the pacing of the scene, and that is all dictated by the player.
I would love—I really hope that when someone's actually playing this game they can both feel like the music is telling them where they are in the story, why they're there in the story, helping them kind of relate emotionally to why they are here and what they are supposed to be doing and what their motivation is. But also linking very much to their gameplay style. That's important. In the same way I'm often, when someone walks into the studio room in the morning, I'm actually imagining what their theme tune would be when they walk through the door depending on their mood, you know? I hope the music to this game is going to underscore the gameplay for each individual.
Are there any pieces in particular that you're excited for people to hear? Can you describe them, however vaguely you need to, in the context of the game?
I can't really give you any specific details of any of the key themes at this point. That's kind of still under wraps. I'm hoping that some of these pieces are going to be aired in the next few weeks. There's pretty dynamic pieces of music. There's some huge, epic pieces, huge percussion and electronics driving beats, but with gorgeous orchestral lines over the top of them. And then some of the pieces are absolutely beautiful, sort of heart-melting pieces as well. Very emotional. And then there's some really, really dirty electronic manipulated music as well, which I've had a lot of fun doing.
It sounds like Halo.
Yeah, it feels like Halo to me. You know, I've been teased with just a couple of pieces that have actually been leaked online that some of the comments coming back about the music, it's been good. It's still pretty daunting taking on an iconic game like this is always going to be a bit of a challenge.
You know if the internet likes it that's a really good sign.
Yeah, exactly. You know, my daughter is a huge Halo fan. She's been playing it for a long time. And every so often she'll pop into the studio and give me the fan's perspective on the music. So that's been kind of a leveler as well. I know if she's loving the music then I'm not going far wrong.
Thanks again Neil, good luck, and we can't wait to hear the final results.