When Gears Tactics came out back in late-April, one of the many things it received praise for was the game's soundtrack. The entire experience is basically tailor-made for the tactical title, and that sound came from the hard work and fine-tuning put in by composer Edward Patrick White. Which is a rather fine achievement of being able to put your fingerprints all over a game franchise that you enjoy. We got a chance to chat with White about the entire experience as the soundtrack has been released for people to buy.
Edward Patrick White
BC: Hey Edward, how are things going for you in these current times?
EPW: It's clearly a strange time – a horrendous time for some – and yet, throughout it all I've managed to keep working. So far, touch wood, all my nearest and dearest have remained healthy and we're really grateful for that. My sister had a baby just before lockdown so obviously it's been hard not spending time with my new niece but we use WhatsApp and Zoom and all the usual things to stay in touch.
Has much changed for you since COVID-19 or has it mostly been the same from home?
I have been working from home in my purpose-built studio space since my children were born, so it's been rather similar to the usual. The exception has been that I used to like doing face-to-face meetings and now much of that is happening through Zoom.
I read that you were a big fan of the series before coming on board. What did you think of the past few soundtracks, especially Gears 5?
I love all the Gears soundtracks. Obviously, Kevin Riepl created the vocabulary. Steve Jablonsky expanded it, and Ramin Djawadi has such a clear "voice" – his music is very modal – that of course, Gears 4 and 5 have taken the scores in new exciting directions.
How did you end up getting involved with making the soundtrack?
I'd written some music for a video game called Angels Fall First. One of my oldest friends, Josh Grafton, was one of the developers on that. We used to play in bands together when we were really young. When he began working on Gears Tactics, he very kindly brought me to the attention of the audio team at Splash Damage who then made the intro to The Coalition. I had to jump through a lot of hoops to land the gig but it's exciting to be pitching for a job on a big franchise. I approached it thoroughly through the prism of just enjoying myself. Gears is The Coalition's baby so they wanted to be certain they had the right person – but with each part of my pitch I just had a quiet confidence that this was my gig. I think my confidence gave them the confidence that I was the right person.
You already had experience working on previous video game soundtracks. Is the approach the same as you would film or TV, or is there a different path for you with games?
Ultimately, I view the job as musical storytelling whether it's a video game or a movie. So that's always the principle concern. Are we helping to communicate the character journeys in a way that connects emotionally for the audience? But, of course, there are structural differences between linear media (movies, television, and commercials) and non-linear media (video games). With linear media, the story progresses from A to B to C. But with video games, the player becomes the architect of what happens when; so music has to be constructed in a fashion that allows the game engine to be responsive to player input. This was a particular concern for Gears Tactics because it's a top-down, turn-based strategy game. We had to make the music as responsive as it could be to strategic decisions (and their consequences) that players made.
What's the process like for you when you work on a song?
For me, it always starts with story and character. I'm always thinking about the dramaturgy and how the music will reflect and underpin the narrative. So, then it becomes about finding thematic material, colors, and textures that can best service that. I like to "discover" – via sound design – new sounds that can be played within a musical fashion. I go into my "lab" and just experiment like a mad scientist until I find something that works for me and the rest of the team. In the end, there's always a time crunch and so at that point, it's helpful to rely upon well-developed muscles – things that you know from experience will work – but it's all about the iterative process of creating something. You start with the lump, or lumps, of clay and pull stuff away until you have a statue!
When you make a piece that has a particular tone, is there a conscious effort to find something players can listen to for hours, or do you aim more to find something that will hold a particular mood regardless of how long they're in there?
With video games, you really have to be mindful of when you're going to use thematic material and when you're going to keep the music more anonymous. If it's a cut scene, it's like scoring a movie, so we can be thematic and use motifs to tell the story. In gameplay, you don't want to have a theme just repeating and repeating because it will drive players nuts. It's a careful balancing act – more art than science.
When we were listening to it, a lot of the tracks feel guttural or mournful, almost mid-battle-gotta-go-fight kind of feeling that kind of put us on edge. Is that a pretty fair assessment as far as the tone you were going for, or were you aiming for something different?
Absolutely, in Gears Tactics, you should never feel like the characters "won-the-day." You merely survive to fight the next battle. Of course, there are moments of heroism, but it should never be too on the nose. For me, it was always like Orpheus going into the Underworld… A descent into hell.
What was the recording session like when you were finally able to put these tracks together?
I was on Gears Tactics for two years so we were constructing the music and implementing it into the game from the earliest moments. In that way, we were able to get really good feedback from playtesting as to what worked musically and what didn't. I loved that process of going into Splash Damage and giving the audio team my work and then having the experience of actually hearing how the video game engine was re-constituting the music in gameplay. It was really refreshing.
What did the developers think of the music once they were able to listen to it?
I think it's fair to say that everyone – developers and fans alike – have been pretty happy with my contribution to the Gears universe. You know, I think anyone who has played and loves the Gears of War games has a sense of whether the music works or not. Is it Gears-y? And that was our guiding star when we were making the music for the game, does this music fit in the Gears canon? Anything that failed that test was pulled out of the project pretty quickly!
How has it been for you watching people play the game and hearing your music underneath their experiences?
The response from fans and reviewers has been wonderful. Gears fans are hardcore so they'll tell you on social media if they don't like something. So on release day, I must have bitten my nails to pieces. But the response came back that the music, and indeed the whole game itself, felt really authentic and met the high benchmark set by other games in the franchise.
How does it feel at the end of the day, being a fan, to be able to leave your mark on the franchise in some way?
It's a bit bonkers really. I played the first Gears back when it first came out. Just me, in my new apartment with no furniture, sitting on a deck chair hammering an Xbox controller for hours on end. The cover-based thing was brand new at that point and I just had a blast. I never dreamed I'd have the opportunity to make a contribution. An incredible experience with life-long friendships forged.
What's next for you? What are you working on that you can tell us about?
I've signed non-disclosure-agreements on a couple of projects in the video game space so more video games are definitely something people can expect from me. I've also been working with a really visionary young Director named Haz Dulull on road-testing some ideas in Unreal. We're actually doing early work on a feature film that is based on a video-game IP. And I'm working with some filmmakers on a thriller set in the run-up to the second world war. It's a busy time.
Is there anything else you'd like to talk about before we go?
My wife, Mitra Djalili, is a singer and just released a cover of "Let's Fall In Love" which I did the arrangements for and produced. We recorded with some crazy good Los Angeles session players and that's out now on Spotify and Apple Music. We also shot a behind the scenes music video which is on YouTube. People can check out my work at EdwardPatrickWhite.com, they can follow me on Twitter to get the latest on what I'm up to.