Hi Gareth, on behalf the community, welcome to Halo! We’re thrilled to have you on the team. For those who don’t yet know you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
Gareth Coker: I’m from Britain originally but have been living in Los Angeles for the last 11 years. I’ve been gaming for as long as I can remember, all the way back to when we used cassette tapes to load videogames. It’s been quite a ride to see how far things have come in 30+ years, not only as a player, but also as a composer on the latest titles, like this one!
Most will probably know me from my work on Ori and the Blind Forest / Will of the Wisps, but my music has also been heard in several Minecraft expansions, ARK: Survival Evolved, and Darksiders Genesis, to name a few.
What inspired you to want to come work on Halo? How did you end up composing for Halo Infinite?
My journey on Halo Infinite started with an email from 343’s Music Supervisor, Joel Yarger, and went from there. He referenced some tracks of mine from the aforementioned games that I’d worked on, and why he liked them, so I could understand why I was being approached to work on the game. After that, he then assigned me a scene from Infinite to write to. I guess Joel and 343 thought I hit the mark, because here we are!
A couple of things we talked about at the beginning of the process was respecting Halo’s musical history while also pushing boundaries to take it forward, which is of course dictated by the story too. Additionally, we went over thematic and motivic development, something I value very highly, and why it’s important to Halo.
Most of all, we talked about capturing the essence of what it means to be Master Chief. It’s not an easy thing to put into words, but when you play the game, it should be felt. It’s something that you learn to recognize when you play a lot of games as I do and you are also actively working on them. Anyway, that kind of ties in to the first half of your question, it is most definitely inspiring to be offered the chance to add to an iconic character’s story through music and most of all to capture the feel of playing as him.
The music of Halo is as rich and iconic to the franchise as Master Chief himself. What does Halo’s score mean to you? Do you remember the first time you heard music from Halo? What’s your favorite song from the franchise and why?
I appreciate this might be an obvious answer, but surely everyone at this point remembers the first time they first heard the monks singing?! It’s the ultimate success when you can hear 2 seconds of a piece of music and because of its motif, or a unique texture, or even a unique individual musical performance and be able to name that game/film/TV show. Halo absolutely has that, and it’s been quite something to have been able to study all the iconic music.
Like all my favorite game soundtracks the ones that stay with me the most are the ones not with just great music alone, the key is when the right music, plays at the right time in sync with the game to create a moment that stays with the player forever. This has been something that I’d say Halo is incredibly well known for and is a very important aspect of game music. For me it’s not so much one piece of music in particular, but more how it all makes you feel while playing.
How do you balance Halo’s legacy while simultaneously giving players new songs to fall in love with?
Halo has several musical ‘pillars’ to draw from which I’ve found to be extremely malleable. Working the legacy material into where we’ve taken things with new music has been remarkably fun, particularly when getting to play new themes and legacy themes off against each other within the same track.
There is really no predicting what players will fall in love with; I always try and make a guess before any game comes out but I’m quite often wrong! The truth is, that memorable music in games or in film is almost always memorable because it plays out in a way that is tied closely to what is being seen on the screen. It’s that connection that allows people to associate positive memories to music. I believe our job as composers for games is first and foremost to serve the story and the gameplay, serve what we are writing for rather than write something that only serves itself as a piece of music. When synergy between audio and visuals is achieved, alongside a great story with tight contextualization and pacing, helping to create those moments that we hope people will remember forever are why I love writing music.
Most recently you’ve done some incredible work as the composer on the Ori franchise. How do you approach Halo Infinite compared to Ori? What was one of the biggest adjustments when changing genres?
Thank you! In many ways, they could not be more different! But, there is one thing that does tie them together which I’ll get to momentarily.
Approaching Halo was not just a switch conceptually in terms of writing music, but also a switch in terms of workflow as the way 343 handles working with a composer is very different to Moon Studios, not only due to the size of the studio, but also simply for what this game requires. The way that music is composed is such that it can be edited and broken down by 343’s audio team to best be utilized by their playback system, which is insanely deep and not something I’ve experienced before in my career. We write a lot of dynamic music tracks but also several handcrafted linear pieces, the best of both worlds.
Probably the most important thing to point out is that this is one of the first times I’m stepping into an existing franchise rather than creating an IP from scratch. That’s where working with Joel and the other oracles at 343, while creating a new experience, has been valuable in making sure things are kept ‘Halo appropriate.’
In terms of the stylistic differences between Halo and Ori, I’ve written plenty of action and science-fiction music before, it’s just a case of applying that experience in the context of Halo’s world and making sure it fits. As is always the case with almost any project, there’s a settling in period where you try and get the musical vocabulary ‘under your fingers,’ and once you’re comfortable, something then clicks and things start getting approved more quickly!
An important point to mention is the concept of space in music, especially during gameplay. When looking through the prior Halo material, it’s not just the notes on the page, but the space in between them – the notes that aren't there – that allows everything else to shine. A lot of the most successful music – particularly in gameplay – is not over-written or heavily orchestrated, except when it truly needs to be, making the bigger musical – and by extension, in-game - moments matter more. If your music is big all the time, it will eventually stop registering with the player. Pacing is so key to the player experience and I know 343 will be working tirelessly taking our cues and making sure they fit the flow the game needs, continuing to refine until the game’s release. Ori’s soundtrack – while also focusing heavily on pacing – has a completely different approach to space, as the music is almost ever-present, the notes are always there! It’s densely layered and sustained, and that wall of music ebbs and flows alongside the game’s smallest and largest moments. It’s an example of two fundamentally different compositional approaches that ultimately are trying to achieve the same thing, that is music that resonates and flows with the player.
Additionally, while writing with sound effects and dialog is always taken into consideration, in Ori there’s hardly any dialog, and the sound effects are rarely competing with music, partially because there’s very little percussion in Ori’s soundtrack. With Halo on the other hand, it’s obvious that there’s a lot more activity going on in-game, and additionally we have to use percussion as it’s a musical staple of the franchise, thus, the concept of space in the music is extremely important to allow gameplay sounds the chance to shine. This conceptual approach to the compositions, combined with 343’s music system that allows us to have several mixes and edits of a track, allows us to create the space the game needs and make sure everything works in harmony.
Ultimately though, there’s one extremely important thing that is conceptually a huge crossover between these two franchises. The experience – not just music, but all elements – is deeply tied to the main protagonist of each respective game, Ori and Master Chief respectively. The music represents how you feel when playing them, but also commentates on how other characters in the game respond to each of them. Both Ori and John-117 affect the worlds they are a part of and the lives of people / creatures they encounter in very impactful ways.
It doesn’t seem too common for many games or films to have multiple composers. What’s it been like working with Curtis Schweitzer and Joel Corelitz? How are you all working together to bring the music of Halo Infinite to life?
The first challenge was getting used to two Joels! (Joel Yarger, Music Supervisor at 343 and Joel Corelitz, composer!).
Curtis is the ultimate professional, there are very few people I know who are as zen-like as he is! It’s been enjoyable on recording sessions with him to hear what he’s done, like his terrific score for Starbound but to also get to know him more closely as a person and what makes him tick. Curtis has a particularly high skill level with writing for choir based on what I’ve heard. I think we all enjoy listening to each other’s stuff!
Due to covid-19, I haven’t had a chance to meet Joel Corelitz personally, but am familiar with his work on the splendid game Unfinished Swan and more recently his contributions to Death Stranding. The thing I’d say about the three of us is that we all have our own musical vocabularies and background that fundamentally affect the way we approach writing music, but in the end, we are all storytellers at heart and we’re here to help Halo Infinite tell its story.
You are right to say that multiple composers are not the norm but given the game’s scope and logistical challenges in the first half of this year, it was necessary. This is where working with 343’s audio team and Music Supervisor Joel Yarger has been immensely helpful. Their guiding hands have been key in making sure that we are all a cohesive unit in delivering music that not only makes use of each of our unique skills as composers, but also making sure everything we do is infused with the right Halo feel. One of the nicest things about the project is that we’ve all gotten to write different kinds of music so it’s not just one person doing action cues, and another doing the softer cues. 343 have spread the workload around and it’s fun seeing how our compositions works together.
Your work can be heard in the recent Halo Infinite Campaign demo. Can you speak a bit about your contributions to the game? (no spoilers!) What were some of the key themes or emotions you wanted to evoke? What elements, if any, did you pull from previous Halos?
One thing above all else that constantly came up during development, is ‘what does it feel like to be Master Chief’ and delivering that in a musical form to the player while also contextualizing all the in-game events. Chief is a super-soldier, and that’s the feel we want to give the player. Chief – and indeed Spartans – are also beacons of hope when others see them. I’d say this has been central to our thinking when writing music for the game.
As with all things regarding the music in Halo Infinite, we’re given a pretty detailed brief by Joel and then it’s simply a matter of executing. The first thing to determine is usually the tempo to match the gameplay feel, palette (what instruments to use) and then expand from there, deciding theme, and then feel. As described before, the pieces are then written in such a way that 343 can make use of it in their music playback system which takes into account what the player is doing, and thus can be supported with the appropriate level of intensity in the music and make sure sections of a track are cueing up where they need to be.
My only focus when writing is serving the game’s needs as they pertain to the player, so I’ll pull from whatever I need to in order to deliver that.
I’m told you also led the creation of the theme for our new Banished War Chief, Escharum. Where do you turn for inspiration to create something like that?
Inspiration always comes from the story first! If I think back to the initial direction, it was to capture the essence of Escharum as a grizzled Banished War Chief mercenary – he’s seen it all before – who has finally found a worthy adversary in Master Chief, a new motivation for him at long last. This is really encapsulated by his monologue at the end of the Campaign demo. Great emphasis was placed on the weight and heft of this character in his theme, how he moves and feels. We used a double bass in the early editions of the theme and that stuck with everyone at 343 due to its menacing feel. Over the course of the game it’s played both as a solo instrument, with bowing in a very aggressive manner, as well as being played by an ensemble of basses, which gives us some versatility in how it’s presented. Throughout the campaign, you’ll hear bits and pieces of the motif show up in different ways, where it be a different instrument, a different key, played faster or slower – all depending on what the game needs. Here is what the theme looks like on paper.
Most importantly, in the end of the campaign demo, we wanted to emphasize the ‘duel’ aspect between Escharum and Chief. Escharum’s low theme notes are countered by the Halo theme higher up, a duel of themes and motifs if you like. It is also an example of Escharum’s theme played in a slightly different way (elongated). Here is a notated excerpt of the track “Set a Fire in Your Heart” that was played at the end of the campaign demo and also what we’re releasing here on the blog today – that musically illustrates the duel.
The interplay between existing themes and new themes is something we explore in several parts of the game. The above is just one straightforward example of many that are both simple and complex. It has been a tremendously fun and invigorating compositional challenge.
Anything else you’d like to share with the Halo Community about yourself or your work?
I’m looking forward to players being able to experience all the hard work the music team has put into the game, respecting the legacy while also introducing new and unexpected musical ideas into Halo’s musical tapestry. While I can’t say or reveal more today about where we’ve taken things - this is just a taste - I’m particularly excited for players to experience the music in-game and the journey it takes you on, merging familiarity with freshness, from where we start with the music, to the sonically unexplored places we’ve taken it, always keeping in mind to make the music feel like it belongs to Halo.
Lastly and most of all, in these incredibly challenging times I hope that when Halo Infinite is released, everyone who plays will be able to get great enjoyment and a nice escape when stepping into the role of Master Chief once more. Thank you to 343 and the Halo community for having me on board.