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Maintaining Composure: Interview With Enslaved Composer Nitin Sawhney

by Ben Reeves on Sep 24, 2010 at 08:00 AM

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Nitin Sawhney is one of Britain’s premier musicians. A one-time law school dropout who became famous for his work on films like the critically praised The Namesake, and 2007’s PlayStation 3 title Heavenly Sword. Sawhney’s critically-acclaimed work seems to combined a smattering of worldly music influences with electronica and jazz element and often explores themes such as multiculturalism and spirituality. Sawhney took some time to answer a few questions about his newest work with Ninja Theory on Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

Since you’ve worked in both, how is working on a game different from working on a film?

There are many differences. With a game such as Enslaved or Heavenly Sword all possibilities have to be accounted for and covered within the score. This means that each time there are multiple outcomes each outcome has to be given its own musical narrative and path.

Subsequently it is very important to consider key changes, time signatures and tempo in a very different way to the approach for a film score. I find that it is also a greater challenge to keep a strong sense of narrative development in a game as the work is over a much longer and greater arc of expansion. Ultimately both types of work involve their own independent challenges but I think game scoring is definitely an art form in itself.

What is the overarching theme of Enslaved’s score?

The theme of the Enslaved score mainly revolves around journey, transition and resolution. The journey aspect of Enslaved is both outward and inward. Monkey and Trip’s characters are both continuously in a state of flux. I have attempted to reflect this in the score by using dynamics and orchestration to reflect the psychology of all the characters involved. The relationship between the characters, and the changes in that relationship, is as much a journey as the physical one to the West.

Your work seems to incorporate a bit of world music, how many sources do you usually draw from?

I always try to find an appropriate vocabulary for whichever project I happen to be working on. With this game I was particularly interested in creating themes that could be developed as the game progressed. Sometimes those vocabularies and ideas can involve the use of instrumentation that may be unconventional but I don't like to be constricted by geography or culture in such choices.

How much of a game are you exposed to before you starting writing music?

When I scored Heavenly Sword, I was exposed to very little of the game beforehand as only preliminary drawings were initially available. However, with Enslaved I have been working much more closely with the animation as it develops and have had much more exposure to Alex Garland's script as it went through all of its editing and changes. This has enabled me to work much more fluidly than before with the entire team at Ninja Theory.

What are a few of your favorite recent scores from either games or film?

I enjoyed the music for Killzone, which was composed by Joris de Mans. The orchestration was particularly strong and I was very impressed by the mix. I was a judge on the Ivor Novello game awards committee this year and was very impressed by the high standard of scoring for the games submitted. In terms of film, I have always been an admirer of Gustavo Santaolalla's score's for Babel as well as his work on Motorcycle Diaries, 21Grams and Brokeback Mountain. Thomas Newman's work on Jarhead was also impressive. I often listen to trailer music for films, which can be very inspiring for dynamic development over short chunks of time.

Some composers argue that little is borrowed from 8 and 16-bit era gaming composition, and scores borrow more from films than gaming’s legacy. What do you think?

I feel that this is probably correct as the processing power and memory of games consoles has allowed for much more detailed orchestral work to be included in ornamenting narrative subtext. I also feel that the increasing popularity of games and the correlating financial backing means that using large orchestras is even less prohibitive in many instances than film scoring.

Crafting music that dynamically changes with the action isn’t exactly new, but it’s definitely more polished than when it first became popular (games like Shadow of the Colossus). What advancements have been made recently?

From my perspective I don't really find it that interesting to simply score action sequences to merely underline what we are already aware of in the visual content. I find it far more stimulating to look for emotional, psychological and narrative subtext, which enhances our depth of understanding. Games are beginning to have the same levels of character and story development as films, and I feel this is where the future lies.

Sometimes we’ll play a game where the soundtrack drowns out the action or voiceover. Is this audio imbalance purposeful? How do game designers decide how much presence a song has?

Quite often nowadays games have the option of selecting relative volumes between audio information and music. I think that it is very important that all of the sonic elements work closely together in concert, to create a perfect gaming experience.