Dragon Age Composer Explains How To Elicit Emotions Via Music

by Annette Gonzalez on Mar 01, 2011 at 03:00 AM

Award-winning composer Inon Zur started off his career composing for film and television with projects like Digimon and Power Rangers under his belt. Zur eventually made an unexpected move into the gaming industry and is now widely recognized for his work on Prince of Persia, EverQuest, Crysis, Fallout, and most recently completed scores for both Dragon Age games. Zur explains his transition into the video game industry, the art of creating scores across various media, and how to draw an emotional response from gamers with an epic score.

Getting into gaming

It’s a funny story. I started to work in 1995 at the Fox Family Channel, which is now the ABC Family Channel. I was recruited to be a staff composer there and I composed hundreds of TV episodes for the Power Rangers, Beetleborgs, State of Grace, you name it. I started to create a lot of music and throw demos around here and there, and in 1997 I got a strange phone call from somebody who presented himself as a game composer’s agent. At this time I wasn’t a gamer so I didn’t know games actually had music and definitely didn’t know there were composers for that. I thought it was a hoax. So he said to me, “Would you like to compose music for video games?” and of course I said “No.” That was it pretty much. Lucky enough the guy, Bob Rice -- he is my manager, agent, and very good friend -- was really persistent and started to call me again and again. He’d ask me, "What kind of music do you like to write?" I said "I like to write orchestral music for films and TV." He said, "Well, games have a lot of orchestral stuff." I told him "You’re kidding me." He said "No no no!" So he started sending me music composed at the time for Star Trek games and I was like "Wow, I didn’t know that" and said "Well, can I try?" And he said "Only if you ask nicely." I asked nicely. That’s how I started.

Composing for Dragon Age

The last titles before Dragon Age that I did for BioWare was Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate 2. That was in 1999 I believe. In 2007 I got a phone call from BioWare saying they’re working on some kind of continuation to Baldur’s Gate. At this point they were not really sure that this was going to be the next new thing. They made the call for six or seven other composers. I had to submit a demo like everybody else. I decided to call a singer here, her name is Aubrey Ashburn, and I said to myself, "Let’s do something different. Let’s have a vocal main title as opposed to a standard orchestral main title." So we created the main title for the demo. The demo became the main title for Dragon Age: Origins.

Adding vocals to the main title

This kind of vocal really adds a strong emotional element. It takes everything and puts it on a very intimate and personal level. It's like somebody is really speaking to you as opposed to being bombarded by a huge orchestra. It’s somebody singing some kind of a phrase that gets directly to your heart rather than something that will just shake you. I really believe in first connections to each and every one of the players, and I think the vocals really helps make that connection. This is why usually I start the cue with the vocal and then I go into the orchestral piece.

Differences between Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II

The first Dragon Age was really epic. The story was epic. It’s a story of origins and how they came to be in the world of Dragon Age so the music had to describe that. In Dragon Age II, we’re going in a very different direction. It’s all about one person so the story is very personal, intimate, and since this is the way the game goes, the music follows it. I had to make a lot of changes to the style of Dragon Age. It’s still very dark, it’s still orchestral in many parts, however, the elements that were standing out is the use of string quartet playing versus the live orchestra that brings this personal sound, very small and emotional sound. I’m also using the vocals of Aubrey Ashburn, but in a different way. There’s lots of tragedy involved in the story, a lot of struggle. In Dragon Age II I’ve also incorporated a different style. We were looking for a special sound for the city so we went a little bit into Middle Eastern style because it’s a very foreign place and we felt it would be an interesting approach.

How story affects the score

Story always dictates what the music is going to be all about. It’s all about creating one big experience for the player. The experience is made out of the graphics, story, music , sound effects, and everything has to support and complement one another.


I was looking into some Nordian elements, history, even Greek tragedies. I wanted to see how people were approaching this kind of material. I did lots of research before composing for both games.

The composing process

When I start composing I ask questions. What is the experience you want the player to have? What does he or she need to feel? Should they feel scared? Victorious? Chased? This is the most important thing for the music to convey from an emotional point of view. We’re almost dictating to the player what to feel -- and it’s awesome. There could be a very dark scene and we’ll play happy music and the player will be totally nonchalant. Or it could be a very sunny street, but play scary music and the player will be scared. There's also the location to consider. If there are any historical times we need to take that into consideration when we choose instrumentation and the palette of sounds.

Influential game soundtracks

Games like BioShock or Assassin’s Creed or Dead Space are games that definitely utilize music in a great way. In games it’s not all about the music. It’s also about how the music is being implemented in the game. A composer could write great music, but if it’s not utilized right, it’s not working. You could judge great music if you hear it in a concert hall, but when it comes to judging music in games, like in movies or TV, part of the judgment is not about the quality, but also how it’s being utilized in the game. Does it support the game the way it should? With the games that I mentioned the music is a cohesive part of the game and part of what makes them so great.

Influential composers

I’m always taking notes from everyone. Trying to learn from many people. Classical composers like Stravinsky or Brahms have always been role models to me. Film composers like John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith, or newer ones like John Powell or the Newman family, specifically Randy and David Newman, all very influential in their music to me.

Scoring different genres

It’s all about the pace and timeline. In RPGs the pace is usually slower and more emotional, whereas in a shooter the pace is much faster and you need to really support the action. The way of thinking is totally different. In a shooter it’s a little less about the emotion and more about the action.

Scoring across media

Music through all media is being created to perform the same role, and the role is emotional dimension. It needs to support everything that has to do with the emotional elements, the dramatic elements. The way it’s being utilized and the way it’s being written is what's totally different. Basically, [in film] you’re hooked to the picture, you have to follow frame-by-frame what’s going on there and write the music. In games, you can't do that. You cannot predict what the player is going to do. You have to concentrate on framing the scene from an emotional point of view and at the same time try to develop a technique that allows the music to respond to changes. For example, you can write one cue but the cue will have three variations, one low intensity, mid-intensity, and high intensity. So you’re playing at low intensity, then more enemies join,  then you go into mid-intensity, and then you’re health is getting lower and things are getting graver, and then you go high intensity. Transitions between those variations will be seamless because they are basically the same cues, but with different instrumentation. So these elements or these techniques are complicated to achieve, but in games they are extremely necessary to create flawless music, music that will feel adaptive and interactive. This terminology isn’t existent in film.

Is music essential to the gaming experience?

I think that you need to ask your audience. I think you need to ask people who play Dragon Age, who play BioShock, Dead Space, Uncharted, if they think they will have the same experience without the music. I think the answer from 90 percent of them will be "no." Yes, there are some games that poorly utilize music causing people to turn off the soundtrack. I think that games, or good games, that are being created today know what to do with the music so that the music will be such an important part that playing that without it, it will be like playing 50 percent of the game, basically.

For more on Inon Zur, check out his official website. Zur will also be on a GDC panel this Friday, "The Music Recipe Of Emotion Part II", following up last year's discussion on using specific musical techniques to elicit certain emotions in games. For the latest on GDC, click on the banner below.