There’s a case to be made that we as a culture suffer from the bottomless pit that is nostalgia. How else could you explain the plague of remakes – some better (The Last of Us Part I), some worse (Saints Row) – that do a good job at making us ponder: why on Earth do we keep paying $70 for the same experience, although with better blood-splaying physics and noticeable level of details in Joel’s hair follicles, only a few years after its original release? Is this the perpetual cycle we’re doomed to live in now?
Garry Schyman reflects on the early beginnings that kickstarted his love for interactive media.
While GameMusic may not have the answer you’re seeking, (the now defunct) Pandemic Studios’ Destroy All Humans! 2 – Reprobed, released on the day we parted ways with the summer 2022, helped us better understand what the fuss is all about when it comes to all-consuming remakes. Yes, the graphics of this rollicking 2006 alien invasion sim finally match our memories of playing it on dusty PlayStation 2 all those summers ago – even with nostalgia goggles off. So does the joy of causing mayhem upon unsuspecting mouth-breathers – flower people, the KGB, M16 agents, you name it – using overpowered but wacky arsenal you’d expect from a game that casts players as a revenge-seeking alien invader with a libido bigger than its guns.
And while remakes are a great way to introduce younger players to the classic PS2-era blockbusters, they’re even better at making you appreciate things the carefree 16-year-old version of you overlooked upon the original playthrough. In Destroy All Humans! 2 – Reprobed case, at least for us, that definitely has to be the Bernard Herrmann-esque soundtrack scored by, lest we forget, the same person who later went on and helped to mature video game music in the form of Bioshock.
The award-winning composer based in sunny LA barely needs an introduction. Responsible for the mesmerizing sounds of Columbia (Bioshock Infinite) and the Rapture, Metamorphosis and Square Enix’ upcoming action-RPG Forspoken, Garry Schyman reflects on the early beginnings that kickstarted his love for interactive media, writing extraordinarily unique compositions and A.I.-powered soundtracks.
I should probably begin by congratulating you on being one of the leading composers in video games. From Bioshock to Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and now the upcoming Forspoken, you have scored some of the most memorable gaming experiences in the last decade. Where did your journey start?
As far as games is concerned, I scored a game called Voyeur in 1993 for Phillips Interactive. Although I can’t verify it I believe it is the first video game to have been recorded with an orchestra.
And now your first major composition is being released again, 16 years later, along with Destroy All Humans! 2 Reprobed. How do you feel about this?
I mean, that’s great. They must have liked my music, or they wouldn’t be using it again. I take it as a complement.
Perhaps you did some refining touches on the tracks you thought could use a little modern polishing?
No, I haven’t done that. They did, however, ask me to send them the original recordings, which I did – I sent them whatever I had. It’s been a very long time now, since 2004 when I recorded the score for the original Destroy All Humans! (2005).
If you had to compare Destroy All Humans! 1 & 2 compositionally, which one do you like better?
The first one was fun to score because I was sort of emulating the style of Bernard Herrmann who was of one of the great film composers and one of my musical idols. He scored “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), which was like the classic sci-fi movie from the 1950s. That was the vibe they were going for and it was a blast to do. But as far as which one of those scores I prefer it’s like asking which of your kids do you like the most. You may have a preference, but you don’t wanna say it publicly, you know.
How did you originally got involved in Destroy All Humans!?
I had an agent at that time who sent my resume over on a fax machine, back in 2004 when they still used fax machines. It was just sitting on the fax machine and by accident one of the executives there, a woman named Rachel DiPaola, saw it. And Rachel just happened to be my girlfriend’s roommate from college.
She said, ‘I know this guy, he’s a wonderful composer!’ So they contacted my agent who sent over a general demo – nothing specific for Destroy All Humans! – they listened to it and they heard one cue which sounded like Bernard Herrmann. And they asked, ‘Does he have anything more like this?’
As it turned out, my score for Voyeur, which was, as I mentioned, orchestral, and in the style of Bernard Herrmann. So I sent them everything I had and they got back and said, ‘We really love this! Will you do a pitch?’ And I thought, ‘you know what? I just sent them exactly what they’re asking for, if I do a pitch, it will be a reason not to hire me because the samples were not nearly as good back then as they are now. So I told them to decide based upon the music I sent – which usually is the wrong answer – but they ended up hiring me anyways.
Is it true that between Voyeur and Destroy All Humans!, you hadn’t made any music for video games?
That’s right. I was scoring TV and films.
What was the biggest difference going from making music for non-interactive media to interactive entertainment?
Well, I didn’t know anything about interactive media when I scored Destroy All Humans! There just wasn’t much interactivity in Voyeur. DAH! was mostly looped combat cues and they weren’t terribly complex from an interactive perspective.
The biggest difference, of course, is that you’re not playing picture – you’re scoring gameplay, though you play picture when you score the cinematics (in-game movies), which were familiar for me because that’s what I had been doing for the previous 25 years.
But scoring gameplay was, in some ways, easier because I didn’t have to match the picture, I just had to write a lot of three-minute combat cues, though you can’t be too repetitive when you do that – unlike a movie score where you can kind of repeat as much as you need to. In some ways it is like writing 19th century programmatic music. Do you know what that is?
I always try to play the games that I score because I want hear how the music was implemented. – Garry Schyman
Refresh my memory, please.
Program music was popular in 19th century classical music. Beethoven wrote his “Symphony No. 6” and in it he musically describes a storm building to a crescendo, and then it recedes. There was a lot of music like that. Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique” was also very programmatic in that it told a story.
In essence, [writing music for Destroy All Humans!] was like writing program music. Somebody says, “okay, here’s what’s going on. You’re fighting these humans and it’s in Las Vegas.” So, it should kind of sound like Las Vegas music, you know? That’s how I think about for games anyways.
And is it true that you didn’t play games before scoring Destroy All Humans!, right?
No. But I started actively playing games afterwards. I spent a couple of years playing World of Warcraft, and of course my favorites were Portal 1 and 2. I don’t play so much nowadays because I don’t have a lot of time to do that. However, I always try to play the games that I score because I want hear how the music was implemented.
Do you think your approach to Destroy All Humans! would have changed if you have been an avid gamer at the time?
I’ve never thought about that, probably not. The level of complexity in terms of interactivity in 2004 was just not that sophisticated. Plus, it was mostly looped cues, which, by the way, we still do a lot of: I scored Forspoken for Square Enix and much of the music is looped combat cues and looping traveling cues. They work great!
There has been a lot of sophistication in game music and some games are super interactive with the music. However, I often caution fellow composers that if you get too interactive – you start to lose creativity. You get this amazing interactivity, but then you can get boxed in by the interactive techniques. Creativity should be at the top of that hierarchy. Of course, interactivity can also be very effective and still allow the composer creative opportunities.
An interesting case in your career was the piece of music you wrote for the episode with Sander Cohen, the psychotic artist from Bioshock.
The piano piece when you first meet Sander Cohen and you go into this like theater and there’s a pianist chained to piano bench. Cohen is so unhappy with the performance he blows up the pianist along with the piano. I believe that’s what you’re talking about?
Yes! Correct me if I‘m wrong, but your original demo for this piece went through some big changes?
The first piano piece I wrote was not quite right and Emily Ridgway, the audio director, said, “no, that’s not quite it.” She then sent me additional direction. Finally I wrote a piece of 19th century classical piano music and she loved it- they ended up calling it “Cohen’s Masterpiece.”
The music was supposed to have been written by the in-game character Cohen and though the game takes place well in the 20th century I felt Cohen had old fashioned tastes, so I decided if he’s going write a piece of music, he’s going to have old fashioned ideas about what music should sound like.
They loved it so much, they ended up putting it as the background music throughout the entire level. I really enjoyed writing it.
In one interview you said Bioshock was the first game you felt like a “real” game composer.
I think that was misunderstood. I meant writing the cue Cohen’s Masterpiece made me feel like a real classical composer. After I wrote it, I called my agent and I jokingly said, “I feel like a real composer today. I wrote this piece of music and it’s like a really interesting classical piece of classical music.” Meaning a “real” composer is someone who writes classical music, right?
When was the last time you felt similarly, then?
Music for Forspoken was absolutely fascinating to write for. But it was also a challenge. There’s so much combat music that I had to keep finding new ways to play with it. The focus and concentration and effort I would put into making those pieces are really something.
And what about your music Metamorphosis?
Oh, that is an interesting project. I got to write an expressionist style score which was very unique for a game, or anything else for that matter. I used these techniques invented by the great Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. I used 12-tone and there’s nothing else like it. And that creatively was really unique. That’s why games are so cool, I think. You get these challenges that films rarely offer you, especially these days. And they do challenge the composers to really go into unique places.
There’s a lot of ambient music being written for films and TV these days, which works great with picture. But it doesn’t stand on its own as being particularly interesting. Games have invited me to deal with such great musical challenges.
A lot of film composers are happy to be making a living and all that. But are they really challenging themselves compositionally? Sure, some of them are writing some terrific music. But I’ve gotten to write stuff that’s so unique! Think of Dante’s Inferno, Bioshock or Bioshock Infinite. All these scores were like somebody asking me to write something extraordinarily unique, I feel blessed because I’ve gotten to satisfy my love for composing through game scores.
Next year will be your 30th anniversary as a game composer.
That’s right. It will be my 30th anniversary of scoring video games. And I feel truly grateful about the opportunities I’ve received.
We don’t want the music to sound like any film, TV or game score. – Garry Schyman
And how do you feel about the future of game music?
Video games remain very creative these days. It’s a huge, varied and very successful industry and it’s bigger than film and TV combined. There are such great opportunities for composers in video games and, I believe, hopefully will continue to be – unless, of course, they’ll get so good with Artificial Intelligence that the games will write their own score!
Well, the problem with that is that somebody has to program the computer. And the way they program music is that they look at things that have been written previously and essentially imitate it. But what computers can’t do is have someone say to it (like they did to me before I scored Bioshock), “we don’t want the music to sound like any film, TV or game score” and come up with something completely original that works with the project.
I don’t think it’s possible because the way our brains are structured. We’ve got all these different musical influences that have come to us through a composer’s studies and listening and through serendipity and through our own preferences and loves and interests – we can create something so unexpected and completely unique. So, I don’t think that can be programmed into computers yet. Maybe someday but not for a long time. Hopefully anyways!