"Hopefully it won't suck," Peter Jackson recently commented to Dark Horizons regarding the upcoming Halo movie he will produce.
There's no denying that most movies based on games do indeed suck. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true, with the exception of a few. When Ubisoft was granted the rights to create the official game for Jackson's King Kong movie, they wanted to break that trend -- and judging by the game's review scores, the team has succeeded in developing one of the best movie games to date.
GameDAILY BIZ had the great pleasure of chatting with three men who were crucial to this project: creative director Michel Ancel, producer Xavier Poix and composer Chance Thomas.
Interestingly, Ubisoft decided to go with an original music score instead of using the soundtrack from the movie. The fact that the game's music was created from scratch actually makes the 120-minute orchestral music score for Peter Jackson's King Kong: the Official Game of the Movie one of the single largest all-original artistic elements in the game. The decision to go with new music paid off, too -- the soundtrack has been universally praised by the enthusiast press as a key element in the game's immersiveness.
We began by discussing the music and then moved on to production issues, working with Jackson, WETA and the film's actors. Here's our complete interview:
GameDAILY BIZ: From a game design perspective, what went into the decision to create an original score for the game rather than using the King Kong movie score?
Xavier Poix: Music for games and music for movies are different, even if they have the same purpose: give you emotions and make the experience overwhelming. We strongly believe that music is part of the gameplay, and music in games has to be dedicated to different types of emotions and gameplay. A music [score] specially made for a movie would not have been "enough" to meet this purpose even if some parts would have certainly matched. Plus, on this particular project, the timing was so tight to even think of using the same music. Of course, all of Chance's music has been validated by Peter Jackson.
BIZ: When it was decided an original score was the way to go, what elements were you striving for in your composition? What influences did you draw upon?
Chance Thomas: A great game score plays the player while the player is playing the game. Spot-on music ratchets up the intensity of the experience by twisting, turning specified knobs and switches inside your emotional control panel. That's my job, to be the man behind the curtain while you play the game.
The players deserve to get lost in the experience, totally caught up in game world and what is happening around them. Skull Island obviously needed a primal, mysterious and terrifying ambience, so I pulled from tribal rhythms and chant, dissonant harmonic patterns, and unconventional orchestration techniques. For instance, the violins, violas and cellos played certain parts of the score using chopsticks rather than bows. And my orchestrations called for some less frequently used instruments such as cimbasso and hecklephone.
It was also important to make the player care about the experience by connecting with the characters themselves, especially Jack Driscoll, Ann Darrow and Kong. The score needed to infuse the experience with heroism, tragedy, hope, [and] love. Neoclassical melodies, themes and motifs, rich brass and string orchestrations, choral arrangements, lots of layering -- these were the tools used for that type of work.
BIZ: Did the budget for the game ever affect how you had to go about creating the soundtrack?
Chance: Yes, certainly. Both sides of the budget -- the financing and the time. Xavier and Didier Lord (president of Ubisoft Music) made sure we had the financial wherewithal to record the score with a big orchestra and choir, and we booked the Northwest Sinfonia in Seattle. Once I knew those guys were on the hook, I had no reservations and no limitations to my writing. Whatever frenzied musical passages I could imagine, whatever inventive and bizarre techniques might be required, whatever magnitude of difficulty or sheer volume of material was needed to realize the right musical vision for the game -- I knew it would be handled well. This was extremely liberating.
Now let's talk about the time budget -- 110 days from blank page to finished masters for a two-hour original music score. Not bad if you have a small army at your disposal, like most Hollywood film composers. But definitely a brisk pace for a game composer like me who handles all the composition and orchestration personally. It was not uncommon to put in 20-hour workdays to get the job done.
Xavier: Chance did an amazing work dealing with all the constraints of timing, the challenge was clear from the time we shake our hands!
BIZ: Obviously creating the official game for the movie is a huge undertaking. What steps were needed to ensure that production stayed on course?
Xavier: The main challenge is to work in parallel with a movie and a universe that is created as you are developing the game. You have to anticipate, to wait for assets to be delivered, and make sure you validate on a regular basis the different choices you make to make sure you are on the right track...while making sure everything still fits in your planning.
Peter J made us feel comfortable because he really did not want the game to be a simple adaptation of the movie but he sees the game as a sister or a brother to the movie and an expansion to his universe. That means he accepted (and was suggesting) differences between the movie and the game in order to meet our constraints and make the best game possible. We also worked with Philippa Boyens (co scenarist) to make sure we were respecting characters and tone.
You need a lot of exchanges, and we were lucky to go to New Zealand five times to breathe some of Kong's air!
BIZ: It must have been an incredible experience working with Peter Jackson. Do you have any interesting anecdotes you can share?
Michel Ancel: When we first met in Los Angeles, I discovered that Peter had just finished playing Beyond Good & Evil, our latest creation. He asked the people around him for a special pencil just to get an autograph on a copy of the game. It was an incredible situation.
BIZ: How crucial was Peter Jackson's involvement in making the game?
Michel: To me, the crucial point was the fact that we needed to understand the world of Kong, from Peter's point of view of course. We went several times in New Zealand and Peter was available for us and took a part of his precious time to share his vision of the movie. It was a month before the first film shots so it was very exciting; we had the real feeling of being part of Peter's team.
BIZ: We understand that you had access to WETA's assets from the film. How much did this help you in recreating Skull Island and the unique King Kong atmosphere?
Xavier: We received a huge quantity of 2D artworks. The amazing work that our artists did was to analyze these 2D artworks and turn them into 3D while capturing the magic and ambiance of this beautiful universe.
Chance: Beautiful and terrifying, I might add. My studio was wallpapered with WETA designs for three months! It kept me firmly rooted in Skull Island while creating the score. I take a lot of inspiration from visual cues, and there's no question that WETA's artistic vision seeped deeply into the score. One of the bass trombone players remarked after recording a particularly dark and creepy passage, "Man, you must have some dark dreams..."
BIZ: Recent reviews have been largely positive but the game's length isn't much over 6-7 hours, and some people might not be able to justify paying $49.99 or $59.99 (Xbox 360) for an experience that is over so quickly. Did you look into ways of lengthening the game or adding more options/replay incentive?
Xavier: We have many replay incentives. While replaying the levels, and performing better scores (be the best hunter) you can unlock some bonuses; go online and try to compete with others and you also can unlock an alternative ending to the game in New York City.
Chance: I think Kong's tightly compressed gameplay is one of its best features. So many times I've been frustrated and bored with games that just drone on and on ad nauseum. Or with otherwise good games offering cool moments of gameplay interspersed with long stretches of tedium. But King Kong is relentless. The action and drama just never let up. It's like taking all the high points of a typical 25-hour game experience and jamming them together, without any of the filler-fluff padding you usually find in between. It's like the difference between bungee jumping from a tower and taking the stairs down.
BIZ: What was it like working with Jack Black and others who reprised their roles for the game? Is it hard to get Hollywood stars to deliver their lines with the same emotion that they displayed when actually filming?
Xavier: First, it was brilliant! And Jack Black is as funny and wild as you can imagine. The actors felt very concerned with the game and we all thank them very much because they really gave us everything. Philippa Boyens was directing them during the ADR sessions and she made sure that they were acting the exact same way (same tone, accent...) for the game as in the movie.