Whether the average gamer knows his name or not, Jack Wall is one of the superstars of the video game world. As a composer, Jack has put his musical signature on over thirty games, including Myst III and Myst IV, Jade Empire, Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, Dungeon Siege 2, and Mass Effect. And now, with the release of Mass Effect 2 just around the corner, Wall's rich, complex, and emotionally engaging music will be front and center once again. A week before the game's release, the score for Mass Effect 2 has been selling briskly on the iTunes music store.
Although his reputation as a composer has been firmly established for quite some time, Wall entered the world of video games via a somewhat circuitous route. Armed with a “fall back” degree in Civil Engineering, Wall decided soon after college the career was not for him and quit in frustration, realizing “that I knew exactly where I'd be in ten years.” Not long after, Wall ended up with an internship at Synchro Sound Studios on Newbury Street in Boston—a studio built by The Cars.
After spending eight years working as a recording/mix engineer in Boston, Philadelphia and finally, New York, Wall says he “moved out to LA to compose a score to my first game, a very little known title called Flying Saucers. While few people played the game (it was only released in Germany), I learned how to compose for a game and how to design an interactive music playback system.”
Although he was, and always had been, passionate about music, Wall had to fill in some gaps in his musical background and technique.
“I had to seek out people who could teach me only what I wanted to learn—to figure it all out and produce some decent music. Being a sound engineer, my focus was always on the sonic quality of the music.”
Wall cites film composers John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and minimalist Steve Reich as major musical influences.
Anyone who listens to the music of recent triple-A titles will often hear interesting and well-produced soundtracks. The standard of quality has steadily increased since the “bleeps and bloops” of 8-bit games. According to Wall, what he most misses in recent scores is melody.
“I really yearn to hear melody. It's difficult to get that across in games because (a) it's all done so piecemeal over a long period of time, and (b) there are precious few opportunities that show off music. You have the menu screen and maybe the opening cinematic. Game developers would do well to take a more cinematic, dramatic approach to game scores.”
Just like in films, composers for games are working in a visual medium and their contributions have an incredibly important role in the dramatic impact of the story and characterizations.
Wall says, “I like being a dramatist. I enjoy looking at something and exploring the various angles to approach the visual and narrative, to help tell the story with music. Do I take the serious approach? Or maybe take the tongue-in-cheek or comedic approach. In either case, it's very satisfying to be the one who can make that sort of a difference to the end product.”
BioWare are known for creating games in which a rich narrative is weaved together with player choices that have real consequences.
Wall adds, “story is becoming paramount in games and I predict it will continue to go much further in this direction. Mass Effect 2 is all about story and I feel extremely fortunate to be involved with helping to tell it. I really can't wait to play the game in its finished state. I've played the entire game in pieces during the writing of the music—something I've never been able to do—but playing it finished I think will be a very different experience.”
Because so often game composers must attempt to create effective music without access to the finished game itself, Wall and his team of sound engineers worked with BioWare to implement a new system of linking the compositional process with the actual game.
“We created over 160 minutes of music that was then taken apart and implemented using a wonderful tool called Wwise where we could, ourselves, link up specific gameplay events to the music. We are fully responsible for the transitions and the emotional arc of each piece of music played in the game. This is unprecedented in my career of over 30+ titles. This marks a new era in how video game music gets composed for games.”
Wall's music for Mass Effect 2, just as it was for the first game in the series, is full of symphonic grandeur, percussive electronics, world music beats, driving rhythms, and often, more intimate, spare textures where the melody is allowed to blossom. A good example is the cue “Humans are Disappearing,” where electronic rumblings give way to a solo cello playing a musical motif associated with the character of Shephard. According to the composer, about “95% of the music is sampled,” while the remaining cues were recorded with live brass and strings.
In addition to his work as a composer, Wall is one of the co-creators of the popular “Video Games Live” concert series, which couples symphony orchestras with the sights, sounds, and characters of popular games and highlights some of the incredible music being written for them. With over 150 performances so far, “Video Games Live” has certainly helped to change the perception of games with an older audience. “It's more of a bridge at this point between the parents who love the idea of taking their kids to see the symphony, and the kids who just want to hear their favorite music.”
Pre-release buzz and early reviews of Mass Effect 2 all seem to suggest that the game will be a groundbreaking contribution to the art of digital storytelling, and Jack Wall's nearly three hours of music will be an integral element in the game's success. But this is all just the beginning. “Eventually,” Wall hopes,”video games will be more and more a part of the fabric of our culture and less stigmatized as a 'violent' form of entertainment. It's a serious art form and storytelling medium now. I'm fortunate to be involved with BioWare whom I consider to be at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of what games can be.”