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Peter McConnell is among the most seasoned video game composers in the business. Not only is the ex-LucasArts alum’s wholly original work impressive, he’s an expert at diving into universes with established musical styles and infusing his own flavor. We caught up with McConnell to discuss his work on Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, composing for series with existing musical identities, and more.
Note: I recommend visiting McConnell's Soundcloud page and listening as you read
For the uninitiated, McConnell kicked off his video game composing career at LucasArts in the early ‘90s. He worked on popular Lucasfilm-based properties like Star Wars: TIE Fighter and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, remixing and arranging John Williams’ iconic themes to play on PC, as well as creating his own original music in the spirit of the films. He also worked with legendary adventure-game developer Tim Schafer on projects like Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. From Star Wars’ rousing marches to Full Throttle’s rockin’ soundtrack, McConnell’s versatility was crucial from the beginning.
His knack for picking up and running with established music styles is also evident in his work on the Sly Cooper and Plants vs. Zombies series (scroll down for a sample). McConnell began writing music for both franchises after the musical vibe had been set. He not only manages to capture what made Sly Cooper and Plants vs. Zombies sound great to begin with, but adds his own distinct style. Laura Shigahara composed the music for PopCap’s first PvZ games, combining catchy, lighthearted melodies with spooky theremin sounds.
I asked McConnell if he spoke to Shigahara before taking the reins.
“You know, I did not, and I kind of wish I had,” he says. “It was just sort of the circumstances under which things evolved, there was her world and my world, and that’s kind of the way I received it. My main goal, though, was to carry on the tradition in a way; I really studied her work. I think we all love the original [Plants vs Zombies] music. To me, the most important thing was to really take that forward in a way that wasn’t a total departure that still had my personality in it, because that’s just impossible not to do.”
On the topic of building on established musical styles, McConnell says you have to love the music first. Then you have to analyze what works, but not completely from a strict musical theory perspective. McConnell says you have to be conscious of your own emotional reaction to the music.
“So you listen to the music and you ask, ‘Why do I love this?’” he says. “What is the feeling that I’m getting, specifically? It’s like doing an experiment on yourself. Why am I getting this reaction? What’s this reaction that is happening to me when I hear this music? And then saying, ‘You know what, I want people to feel that way when I continue this.’ So it’s an emotional thing more than anything else.”
For PopCap’s most recent flora/undead faceoff, Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare (read Jeff M's review here), McConnell was tasked with upping the tempo to match the new competitive shooter gameplay.
“Well it was definitely kind of a challenge,” he says. “I think in some ways for me, it’s one of the tougher challenges I’ve ever faced, to come up with something that… because Garden Warfare, it’s a parody of that shooter genre, so it’s very much like PvZ in some ways and very much not like it in others.”
The changes to the series McConnell mentions involve switching over from simple, 2D fortress defense-style sequences to fully 3D environments with chaotic battles. The environments in Garden Warfare are more detailed, the characters are more lifelike, and there’s much more action happening onscreen simultaneously. McConnell says he had to do a lot of experimenting to find music that matched the action.
“So we really tried a lot of different things,” he says. “There were like surf versions of things and there was a Rocky movie version of things, there was a The A-Team version of things.”
McConnell wanted to convey the grander sense of Garden Warfare’s scale while simultaneously preserving the series’ quirky sense of humor.
“We finally kind of went back to the synth-pop roots of the original PvZ music and just blew it up a little bit, you might say, made it a little bit larger than life. what I found really useful for that was kind of channeling my – umm…I was in college, I hate to say it, during the golden era of synth pop right – and so bands like Human League and Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk, and all that stuff was very much in the air when I was going to clubs and being a young wild person. So it was very natural to go back to that, and say, ‘You know, what does a Pete Shelley version of PvZ sound like?’ Well, you know it works.”
Another element of McConnell’s soundtrack that worked so well involved dynamic musical accompaniments. A happy, whistling tune plays when the Plants are successfully defending their garden. This music switches to a groaning, goofy zombie song if the undead turns the tide of battle.
“It’s funny because that was one of those things that started out as ‘Oh, we’ll do this little thing and see how it works,’ and it became sort of a staple in the game as we saw that it worked really well,” he says. “The whole zombie choir genre…I mean the whole idea is that it’s like that synth-pop world meets The Wizard of Oz, and you have the guys marching along singing their ‘oo-dee-dum’ kind of song, and on the other hand you had the plant version of that, which was also The Wizard of Oz because it was sort of a parody on the whole ‘If I Only Had a Brain.’ And of course, ‘If I Only Had a Brain’ is relevant when you’re talking about zombies.”
“And for the actual zombie choir, I enlisted the help of my five-year-old and seven-year-old so we could get a little bit more of vocals, plus half the members of the audio team at EA that were on the project so we could get a real choir sound of various zombies.”
Garden Warfare’s soundtrack fits the onscreen chaos perfectly, and a big reason why it works so well loops back around to McConnell’s adaptability.
“I do pride myself in being versatile,” he says. “And I think probably a little more versatile than the next guy on the block. I really have done a lot of different styles, and part of it is just my – I had such a varied life in terms of musical exposure. I grew up in Switzerland, and we moved to Kentucky. So I grew up with Mozart and Sons of the Pioneers and Earl Scruggs. What kind of strange music are you going to write when you listen to that? My reaction to all the various musical influences that I’ve had is to really love every single one of them, and explore it on its own terms, and then see how it fits in with other stuff.”
The Plants vs. Zombies series’ foray into the shooter genre isn’t the only new ground being broken by video game franchises McConnell has composed for. The Sly Cooper series is getting its first animated film soon. I finished my chat with McConnell by asking about his potential involvement in composing for it.
“It sounds like a great project, and I would love to be involved, and I think they’re in pretty early stages right now, so it’s kind of too early to say,” he says. “But I hope, I wish, I could answer this question a little more fully than I am. It’s just too early to say.”
Whether McConnell’s tunes will be heard in Sly’s big screen debut or not, fans of his compositional style can look forward to hearing more from him in Act 2 of Double Fine’s Broken Age.
For more on Peter McConnell, read Matt Helgeson's Music Spotlight
McConnell's "Crainy Yum" from Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare