Friday 23 December 2022

Music for a video game must serve the players' actions: Olivier Deriviere talks about writing music for A Plague Tale: Requiem

Olivier Deriviere (Photo Alexandre Jeanson)
Olivier Deriviere (Photo Alexandre Jeanson)

Olivier Deriviere is a French video game composer, best known for his work on Alone in the Dark, Obscure, Remember Me and Streets of Rage 4. His work on Get Even was nominated for a BAFTA in 2018 for Best Score. Most recently Olivier has written the score for A Plague Tale: Requiem, the sequel to A Plague Tale: Innocence (2019 also with music by Olivier), and it follows siblings Amicia and Hugo de Rune who must look for a cure for Hugo's blood disease in Southern France while fleeing from soldiers of the Inquisition and hordes of rats that are spreading the black plague. 

Olivier made his debut in the game industry with the soundtrack of Obscure (2004), since when he has devoted his career to writing music for games

He explains that despite apparent similarities to the outsider (I have to confess to not being a game player), writing music for video games is an entirely different form to writing for films (and he uses the analogy of different forms of classical music such as opera and symphonic music). Unlike in a film, music for a video game must serve the players' actions and this requires a very different mindset, something that Olivier feels is tricky. Over the last five years, Olivier has seen a more dedicated approach to the music for video games, it is now much more about serving the players, though of course composers borrow from movies and from classical composers. 

Olivier has so far only written music for video games, and when asked to write concert music he has declined. He thinks concert music is difficult to write and he treats the genre with respect, pointing out that with a symphony by Shostakovich you do not need anything but the music, and he is not sure he will ever feel ready to write concert music. When it comes to films, Olivier feels somewhat out of sync with the current trend for large-scale blockbuster films (he prefers the more artistic, personal films). For a blockbuster, the music isn't really about the people, and Olivier's music is very much about the personal, about inner feelings, and this is something he brings out in his video game music.

He very kindly explains his two-pronged approach to writing for video games.

Firstly, it is a game, but he emphasises that this does not mean that it is a toy. Within this, there is a crazy landscape of different types of games, easy, challenging, multi-player and single-player, games about challenging subjects such as depression or loss. He feels that the artistic landscape of video games is so wide, so rich, that only literature can really compete. And at the forefront of everything is the game itself. And what makes a game is the gameplay. And this is the core of Olivier's approach, focusing on the gameplay. For instance, when John Williams scored a Stephen Spielberg film, Williams would watch the film and tailor the music to the picture. So, with a game, Olivier tailors the music to the gameplay. This can vary, it might be a strategy game, an action one, or one that requires a lot of reflexes from the player. Hence, there are a lot of different approaches to the gameplay, and his music has to adapt to each one.

A Plague Tale: Requiem

The second part of his approach is artistic. There are various approaches within games, it might be story-driven (like A Plague Tale: Requiem), an exploring game looking at a whole world, or a role-playing game. Olivier needs to consider what the motivation for the players is. And all these create different types of narratives; Olivier has to understand these, to adapt to the motivation of the players.

Beyond the music, creating a new game is a complex and difficult process, and Olivier feels that it is a miracle when a game actually gets released. Olivier's distinctive approach to creating the music includes being involved from the very beginning, which can mean being in dialogue with the developers for up to three years and having a daily conversation about developing the game together. Not surprisingly, this can be very demanding. One advantage of video games at the moment is that artistry still exists, the composer can have carte blanche when it comes to writing the music. Whilst this might still happen in some art house films, with director-led large-scale films the composer is simply serving the director's vision. But in a game, once the developers see you understand the game, they let you do the music and give you the ways and means to produce the score with musicians (in the past Olivier has worked with the London Contemporary Orchestra and on A Plague Tale: Requiem performers include musicians from the Ensemble Intercontemporain). 

A Plague Tale: Requiem was very special, partly because it is a story telling game. This meant that Olivier could not use systemic music that comes back repeatedly. So with around 17 hours of gameplay, there was no reuse of visual environments. Paralleling this, there were six hours of music. The musicians included Eric-Maria Couturier, the cellist from the Ensemble Intercontemporain, along with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and other highly skilled musicians including a player of Medieval bagpipes. 

Whilst the narrative of A Plague Tale: Requiem is set in the Medieval period, there is almost no Medieval aspect to the music. The creative director for the game did not want anything folkloric, so no modal melodies. The main theme is in a natural minor key, not Medieval in style, and the performers were all experienced in contemporary music. To the live musicians was added a synthesizer, not to fake musicians but to bring a warmer sound and Olivier is delighted that listeners generally do not notice the use of a synthesizer.

When writing the music, it is never for Olivier about telling the story from the outside. He talks about a film composer like Ennio Morricone whose music for a film like Once Upon a Time in the West, moves between large-scale narrative pieces and emotion-driven music. For A Plague Tale: Requiem, Olivier's music is always of the latter, about the inner narrative and inner feelings.

Olivier has always loved games and had a passion for them. But he points out that whilst games are a fascination, a passion, music is a necessity, a way of expression. Whilst he was studying music he wanted to programme games, and learned mathematics as well as music but found he was a better musician than a programmer! His mother was a choirmaster and there was a piano at home. But when Olivier was eight, she bought a synthesizer and it became fun for Olivier to write music. He would go through all the classical classes of harmony, counterpoint, fugue and so on, simply because he needed to learn them. But he was producing music from a young age.

When I ask about his heroes, he names three. First the singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel (the original lead singer with the progressive rock band Genesis), then the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and then Aphex Twin, the Irish-born British musician, composer and DJ whose birth-name is Richard David James. These three shaped everything in Olivier's music.

Looking ahead, there is always something on the horizon though Olivier tries to avoid re-doing what he has done before, avoiding going back to the same material. Each score is about the game, not about him, and what he puts of himself into the music is subconscious. He promises that the next game, which will be out in the middle of 2023, will be super chill and uplifting, with all electronic instruments and no live musicians. He admits that when he produces a new score, his fans often go 'why?' And he has a few other games on their path, and all are very different. Sometimes he surprises himself, and at the start of a project thinks 'I don't know how to do this'.

The teams he has worked with have been great, and the musicians have been a pleasure to work with. He feels he has been very lucky, but the job is not easy, it is surprisingly difficult.

The video is a concert with Olivier and world-class performers to celebrate the game's launch at a special concert hosted in Paris.

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