Ori composer Gareth Coker is happy to make players sad

Composer Gareth Coker chats to Laced With Wax about his latest game score for Ori and the Will of the Wisps — how he changed approach from Blind Forest, how he’s happy to hit players over the head (emotionally speaking), and his favourite melodists among other composers.

By Thomas Quillfeldt

In 2015, Moon Studios released the aesthetically sublime yet challenging 2D platformer Ori and the Blind Forest to critical acclaim — the developer’s first game release. The art and music in particular were praised for being exceptionally beautiful and affecting, setting high expectations for a possible sequel.

Fast-forward five years and the sequel has arrived: Ori and the Will of the Wisps was released for Xbox One and PC in March 2020. (In folklore, a will-o'-the-wisp is an atmospheric ghost light seen by travelers.)

Unlike its forebear, Will of the Wisps launches into a market stuffed with so-called ‘metroidvanias’ thanks to a resurgence of the genre. A metroidvania might loosely be defined as a game — often a 2D platformer — where the player can gradually access more of the world as they unlock new character abilities related to movement (e.g. a double jump) or tools (e.g. a grappling hook.)

We caught up with Ori series composer Gareth Coker just a few weeks shy of the launch of Will of the Wisps to find out about how he approached the ‘difficult second album’, the levels of interactivity built into the game’s soundtrack, and his favourite melodists from music history.

You can find links to the Ori and the Will of the Wisps soundtrack across all the different music services here: http://smarturl.it/wotw-ost 

Gareth Coker: Origins

Gareth Coker

A constant across both Ori games is the highly emotive music of the L.A.-based British expat. As an award-winning composer for media he’s worked on feature and short films, documentaries, and trailers. His video games work includes scoring ARK Survival Evolved, VR title The Unspoken, and the Mythology expansion packs for Minecraft.

Far from being a film composer that fell sideways into video games, Coker was playing games “since as young as I can remember. My first gaming experience must have been on the ZX Spectrum or an Amstrad, and my Dad bought me a book where you had to type in computer code in order to play a game. I also remember putting in cassettes to play games that would then take 20 minutes to load. [An early favourite] Star Wars: X-Wing [1993], came on five floppy disks!

“Of course I've been watching films and TVs shows all that time but I feel an affinity with gaming — it's the medium I understand best. I try to play as many games as possible.”

Coker also has a serious habit. Potentially an addiction. Every year (depending on the year) he has to complete the latest Assassin’s Creed title to 100% completion — including DLC! Call it a map-mopping mania.

One of the most interesting things about his career is the number of countries he’s lived and worked in. After being raised and studying in the UK, Coker has also lived in several U.S. states as well as in the Netherlands and Japan. He seems undaunted to work with musical styles and instruments from different cultures, evidenced by his work on the Mythology expansion packs for Minecraft.


Moon and me

The role of video game composer has evolved over the decades. Although there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, these days you often think of composers as guns for hire working with a development studio for just one project (and possibly a sequel.) They might visit the studio a few times. They’ll receive plenty of reference material. They might even get to play some builds of a game. Ultimately, they will spend a lot of time working solitarily in their respective ‘composer cave.’

Moon Studios logo

Coker’s relationship with Ori developer Moon Studios is a little different, in part thanks to the company being a globally distributed team (albeit with its roots in Austria.) This means that the L.A.-based composer, effectively a freelancer, need not feel like he’s any more distanced from the project than any other team member. “That's one of the cool things about the studio and a lot of people are still surprised by that. We made a map of where the team is located and the number of different locations is crazy.”

This interview took place before the more stringent lockdown measures came into effect in the UK (where Laced is) and California (where Coker was) in response to COVID-19. One wonders whether Moon Studios will have a distinct advantage over the next few years as other gaming companies adjust to the global pandemic. Coker says: “We literally make Will of the Wisps over Skype, Dropbox, Google Docs, and basically any online thing that doesn't crash. We've honed that process over the last eight to nine years.”

“My relationship with Moon is unique. I am deeply embedded in the project, but there have been other projects where I am more of a music supplier. My work on the Minecraft expansions followed a straightforward brief and is played back in the game in a ‘jukebox’-style system. It’s designed to immerse the player rather than be tightly tied to the experience.”

“With the Ori series and similar games, the music is tied closely to the gameplay, the visuals, and the overall experience. To be frank, I don't think the composer would be able to do their best work if they didn’t have a close relationship to the game. Of course there are exceptions, a few great soundtracks where the composer didn’t get to play the game. But, in those cases, they probably had a brilliant audio team [backing them up.]”

Coker is the music team for Ori titles: “For better or worse, I have complete creative control. The buck stops with me and it comes down to my taste. That is aided somewhat by working so closely with the whole studio, which prides itself on having as flat an organisational structure as possible across 80 people.

“I don’t just get regular feedback from the game directors. I get it from everyone! The art team might say ‘we created this beautiful vista so where’s the cool music moment to accompany it?’ And, in turn, if there’s something I feel strongly about regarding art or animation — for instance a sequence feels like it lacks a visual reward — I can speak up.”

Help! I need somebody…

The Philharmonia Orchestra

Gareth Coker and the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Will of the Wisps recording sessions at AIR Studios, London.

As Control composer Petri Alanko told Laced With Wax, it can be a blessed relief to a composer to have expert audio programmers to hand over musical material to so that it can be implemented in the game engine.

Coker also found this to be the case: “I'm very lucky to have [former Director of Audio at Microsoft Game Studios and game composer] Guy Whitmore do all the technical music implementation and some environmental ambience tracks on Will of the Wisps. He’s a wizard and a game audio legend, responsible for the deep musical interactivity of PopCap’s Peggle 2, where all the sounds are linked to different bricks.”

(Guy Whitmore featured in Polygon’s ‘making of’ article on Peggle 2.)

“Because Guy’s a composer, he understands what I'm going for and what the transition should be. I can tell him exactly how I want it to play back and it happens — no small feat! It feels like I’m using a cheat code to have him there so that I can focus on the creative side of things. 

“Nearer the end of the project, all I have to do is find music and audio bugs and report them; but the actual nitty gritty of solving them is out of my hands. That's probably smart because I don't think anyone wants me poking around in [game engine] Unity or [audio middleware] Wwise. He enjoys solving implementation problems that are my worst nightmare!

“We have to think about things like ‘the player has reached the third act and they finished that room a long time ago, but maybe there are still some collectibles they want to get. In that scenario, which music cue is going to play in that room?’ Thinking about all of that is a pain, made more complicated by the game’s structure where players can deviate from the ‘golden path’ at will. We don’t want the same generic track playing over and over again if a player has left the beaten path.”

The ‘m’ word

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

“Being involved from early in the process means I understand the flow of the game," says Coker. "I understand how Ori moves and how long a player might spend in an environment. It's not an exact science because of the ‘metroidvania’ structure, but I can make good guesses as to what the majority of players are going to experience while building in musical fail-safes for those who go off the beaten path.

“A metroidvania is a bit of a house of cards in terms of development. If you change one thing it can affect everything else. Design affects art, art affects gameplay, and gameplay affects what is appropriate musically. That's one of the reasons why this game has taken such a long time: we spent a ton of time on design and how everything works together.

“Ori and the Blind Forest [2015] launched right on the cusp of metroidvanias ‘coming back.’ [In the early 2010s] I’d say to people ‘I'm working on a metroidvania’ and they'd be like ‘a Metroid what?’ It’s a weird portmanteau to drop into conversation, but now it's everywhere and has seeped into the AAA space with games like Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and Control.”

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

“The fundamental design behind a metroidvania is quite ‘gamey’ but it enables you to do a bit more world-building” adds Coker. “It’s a natural way to increase the player’s desire to explore because they’re always on the lookout for currently closed paths to come back to later, or revisiting older areas to find paths now available. That’s a basic feedback loop that gamer brains love.”

Generally speaking, metroidvania games tend to have a particular musical structure. Scripted story moments will have straightforward, linear music cues. In addition each distinct area of the game world — which different players might visit in a different order — will have a set of environment cues attached to it. There will probably be battle and boss cues that cut across those.

Coker recognises this basic structure: “Back on Blind Forest we had fewer resources so each environment had one or two tracks. With Will of the Wisps, the music is much more granular depending on what the player has done within an environment. In effect, I’ve written suites of music per environment and designed the music to change based on actions that Ori completes.”

Ori’s sad… Ori’s sword!

As an example of how music interactivity works in a metroidvania, Coker says: “The player hears a particular sad melody during the prologue. Soon after, Ori wakes up and the melody plays again whilst they search for their baby owl friend.”

Soundtrack cue “Separated by the Storm”:

“Later, you pick up a sword — a momentous event because Ori’s never had a frigging sword before! Because you're in the same environment as the earlier search for the baby owl the same melody plays. This time the accompaniment is completely different though; it's more peppy and exciting.”

Soundtrack cue “Now Use the Light, We Want to See!”:

“It might seem an obvious thing to do but the technical support required to make it work is quite involved. There are so many different game states that have to be tracked by the game engine. For instance: ‘Ori has or hasn’t got a sword’ is one change of state. That is the case throughout the game. These suites of music should feel continuous and within each environment there are subtle changes according to what the player is doing. We couldn't do it on Blind Forest because we didn't have as tight technical support. This was down to resources, as well as it being quite hard to do.

“To achieve this, you also have to write loads more music! Will of the Wisps has way more music than Blind Forest — justifiably so. We're not just rearranging stems to create new tracks; they are new compositions, new recordings. I wanted the music to be more varied, especially at the beginning of the game when you can't traverse as quickly. Later, when you can traverse much more quickly, you don't need as much music [because players are speeding through different environments.]”

Puzzling out the tiny transitions

Coker gives another example: “There’s a puzzle room in the Ancient Wellspring. It’s an old, creaky building, in which you pull a lever to rotate the environment 90 degrees each time. There is ‘starting’ music; then for each lever pull you get a new variation. Each time it’s a new recording, slightly increased in tempo and pitch.”

“That happens three times in a row and then, when you complete the puzzle, you get a more relaxing piece of music [as a reward.] This stuff seems obvious but it subconsciously helps the player think ‘I'm making progress, I'm able to keep pushing forward.’

“With Will of the Wisps, there’s also some finesse required in managing the music transitions. I don’t want it to be too obvious unless it’s meant to be obvious, for instance when Ori picks up a new ability and there’s all this flashy animation — of course you’re going to have a big cue there.

“Sound effects play a part: when you pull the aforementioned lever the player hears the sounds of the grinding gears of this big mechanism and we remove all the music. Then, the next music cue starts when those sound effects die down and the player will never hear the transition.”

“Another example is when Ori enters a building. What's the best music transition time if the interior cue is different to the exterior? You won’t be able to work those things out unless you've played it over and over again. We don't ever want the immersion to be broken, and audio is a big part of that especially in a game that is full of music.”

Industrial ambition

The pioneering iMUSE system developed for LucasArts games in the early ‘90s is a frequent touchpoint for discussions around interactive game music. 30 years on, it still feels like ambitions across the industry don’t extend much beyond the template laid out in 1991’s Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge.

That said, there is a long line of experimental audio and music creators who pushed the boat out further and further. In 2019 Laced With Wax interviewed the music team behind best-in-class PlayStation VR title Blood and Truth; Olivier Deriviere is rewriting the rulebook with games like Get Even and A Plague Tale: Innocence; and Raison Varner recently discussed with us the complex system powering Borderlands 3’s soundtrack.

A quick example of the iMUSE system in action. Video by Peter Silk for his article “iMUSE and interactive game soundtracks”:

Coker grew up playing LucasArts Star Wars titles that used iMUSE, so he appreciates the legacy. “If they were doing that then there's no reason why we can't do it now. It's just that we have to make more music, more recordings. We also have to make sure that those gameplay triggers are tracked correctly and the music plays back in the game as appropriate.

“I do feel like the quality of audio in games has increased exponentially. People care more about it than they used to. Regardless of the studio behind a game, audio feels like it's become more important because you get called out on it now.

“It used to be a case of ‘here's your music system — you have to write within it.’ Now it's about developing the right system for your game and there's no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. Some games don't need any music interactivity whatsoever [as Risk of Rain composer Chris Christodoulou told Laced With Wax.] Some games need a lot.

Will of the Wisps falls somewhere in the middle because if you break up the music too much then you lose a sense of familiarity. Also, the Ori games are very flow-driven; you want people to get used to the tracks. Of course, then you face the battle of deciding what the line is between something being too repetitive versus being recognizable enough. That has been a particular challenge on this project because it feels like those aims are contradictory.”

There is danger that the more granular the interactive music system is on a given game, the more confined a composer might feel in what they can write. ‘Stick to C Major, 4/4, 120bpm, and create variations within that’ might not make for the most inspiring brief. On the other hand, solving little musical puzzles in this way might lead to more considered writing, and provide a musician opportunities to pause and ponder how to differentiate a cue.

Coker recognises this tension, commenting that “it's a little bit of both [feeling creatively restricted but also finding inspiration in the musical puzzle-solving.] There are areas where you run into headaches, for instance with the ‘crossroad’ areas of Will of the Wisps. What should play when Ori is passing between the game’s distinct environments? We want to differentiate the areas, we don’t want the music to drop out entirely, and we don’t want to create full pieces because the player is just passing through quickly.

“To solve this we created a set of tonal ambiences — minimalistic beds of music. We were therefore able to maintain the aural ‘warm blanket’ (as someone once described Ori’s music) and I think it enhances the experience because players get a moment of relative quiet.”

Battling musical bittiness

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

The increased emphasis on combat gameplay in Will of the Wisps has thrown up fresh challenges for Coker. “When I saw those mechanics being developed I was thinking to myself ‘wow this is going to be a noisy game!’ In the end we avoided specific combat cues for moment-to-moment gameplay because those encounters might only last a few seconds. A change of music for such a brief time is actually going to take you out of the experience and be less immersive, reminding you that you’re playing a video game. We settled on having combat music only where you have to defeat something. That allows me to make the combat music really matter.”

In 2015, Ori and the Blind Forest was known for being a challenging game with tricky bits that the player couldn’t back out of. At the time of writing in 2020, the industry and community has been through the whole ‘Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, accessibility and difficult games’ debate.

In contrast to its predecessor, Will of the Wisps sports multi-stage boss fights meaning that, design-wise, this had to be thought through carefully. The Ori team wanted to design around difficulty spikes so that players coming to the game primarily for the lush audio-visual experience might have a smoother time. Comments Coker: “We didn’t overload — we’re not going ‘full Sekiro’. Players can abandon a challenge and level up their character a bit more.”

Scoring boss fights allowed Coker to “go really big.” He adds: “I do enjoy the challenge of establishing the peaks and valleys of the game — and all the stuff in between. It’s like you’re designing the pieces of your own jigsaw puzzle.”

Going the extra millimetre

Gareth Coker at AIR Studios London

Gareth Coker reviewing the Ori and the Will of the Wisps choir score at the recording sessions at AIR Studios, London.

“A lot of the music cues for specific areas of the game are straightforward to write; that might make up 80% of the stuff I need to compose in terms of quantity of music,” says Coker. “Then cutscenes are another 10%, which are linear and no problem to write. But, my goodness, that last 10% — the crossroads areas, sections with tightly defined gameplay, etc. — filling in those gaps is usually the hardest.”

He recalls a tiny chase sequence where he was tempted not to compose something bespoke. After some thought, Coker decided to create an 11-second cue (not available on the soundtrack album) “because the game needed it.

“These are small things that don’t make a huge difference to the player — they make 0.1% difference to the whole — but if you nail a hundred small changes then you’ve made 10% difference to the experience. Being a part of Moon Studios for such a long time means I’m able to play the game a lot; and the more I’m able to play, the more of those 0.1% changes I can identify.

“That goes for the entire team — it’s all handcrafted. None of it is procedural. If something with the art needs tweaking, we’ll create something for it rather than copy and paste. There’s no tiling. Every asset has been placed by hand. You can imagine how much work that ends up being with a game that looks like this, but it shows in the finished product. You can tell the love that has been put into it across every department, including animation, sound, gameplay…

“There’s a whole other game sitting on the cutting room floor because that content felt like filler, or got in the way of the player experience.”

Tackling ‘second album syndrome’

The 'Ori and the...' series

Coker and the game’s creative leads did ponder whether to reuse music from Blind Forest. “We decided against it. I feel like Will of the Wisps is a more mature piece of work, which reflects my path but also the path of Ori as a character.”

“The tricky thing with it being the ‘second album’ is that it feels like people are starting with the question ‘how are you going to make the sequel and the music better?’ What does ‘better’ even mean? Our art team made one of the best looking 2D games of all time with 2015’s Blind Forest. How do you improve on that? [In trying to ‘better’ ourselves] one way that did manifest is that we experimented a lot and threw away some six months of work. Not bad work, but it didn’t feel right for the game.”

Coker points out that efforts to make the music ‘better’ included starting with a bigger recording budget and being significantly more granular with music cues. “There was a bit of pressure from YouTube comments like ‘Gareth Coker’s doing the soundtrack so of course it will be good.’ I appreciate the sentiment but I don’t know that’ll be the case! I read ‘Moon Studios is making the game so it’ll be great.’ I thought ‘we’ve only made one game so how can you be so sure!’

“With a game like this, it's expected that the visuals are going to be great, the audio is going to sound lush, and the gameplay experience is going to be good. That’s the bare minimum. The real key is getting those elements to combine in such a way as to create an experience that the player will actually remember. It’s not enough in 2020 to release a graphically rich game that is lacking in other departments. It has to blend together seamlessly.”

Unrestrained melody

Forrest Gump

Gareth Coker clearly loves a good tune, keeping good company with the leading Japanese composers for media including Joe Hisaishi (Studio Ghibli), Yoko Kanno (Cowboy Beebop), and Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy). It should come as no surprise that Coker admires all three, especially since he lived in Japan for a few years.

Given 21st Century audience sensibilities, there’s a risk that highly melodic soundtrack music runs the risk of being schmaltzy and overwrought. On the flip side, there’s been criticism of Hollywood for trending towards more textural than hummable scores. For our part, it is refreshing to hear a Western storytelling melodist working at the top of their game, as Coker clearly is.

He explains: “The first piece of film music that I was truly aware of — also one of the first pieces I ever learned on the piano — was the main ‘Feather’ theme by Alan Silvestri from Forrest Gump.”

Set phasers to ‘sentimental’:

Melodies don’t just have to be nice though. Coker points out that possibly the most famous melody in music history is, well, kinda 🤘metal🤘. Just hum the first thing that comes into your head when you read ‘DU DU DU DUUUUUU’. “The opening to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is a bit like an ‘ident’.” In advertising and broadcasting, an ident is a short audio or video clip that reminds you that you’re watching Netflix, BBC2, or a McDonald’s commercial, etc.

Inevitably, the conversation turns to Hans Zimmer’s influence on soundtrack trends. Coker is a Zimmer defender like many other composers we’ve spoken to. “What he’s doing is creating an identity [for the film.] That doesn’t have to involve a strong melody but there is a Beethoven-esque quality to some of his work. It’s easy to mock the Inception horns but they’ve never been equaled because he did it first and best.

“The Joker’s theme from The Dark Knight [“Why So Serious?”] is just a violin bow on an electric guitar playing a rising tone, but someone had to think of the idea. It’s a unique and highly recognisable sound. A ‘hummable’ melody isn’t necessarily memorable; but a more textural ident, like Zimmer’s, can be memorable.”

Of course, we can live in a world where Gareth Coker and Alan Silvestri tugs at your heartstrings; while Hans Zimmer and Hildur Ingveldardóttir Guðnadóttir (composer for 2019’s Joker) unsettle you.

“I’ve found that game directors — unlike with film or TV work — are asking for melodies. That, or they want something strongly identified with the game that feels irreplaceable. Across all media, if you ask the question of a soundtrack ‘can you replace it with something else?’ and the answer is ‘yes’ then you’ve not done your job as a composer. With Ori, these particular melodies, attached to these characters, in combination with the different musical palettes across in-game environments [make this soundtrack irreplaceable.]

“Looking at it the other way around, you couldn’t rescore the Ewok scenes in Return of the Jedi because John Williams’ melody is so tightly tied to those characters. That’s a true sign of an effective soundtrack. Mick Gordon’s DOOM (2016) soundtrack is so much more than a heavy metal album. He captured the core emotional loop of being a fearless badass with crazy guns killing a million demons.”

Coker laughs: “I’ve always wondered what it would sound like if Mick Gordon covered an Ori piece in his styles — and I could do a cover of ‘Rip and Tear’ in the Ori style. That’s an EP that needs to happen!

“With Ori, I've been lucky to work with a director [Moon Studios’ Thomas Mahler] who is big on melody. If there was a main criticism of the first game’s soundtrack it was that it was too reliant on one main theme. With Will of the Wisps, we have many more NPCs and you spend more time with them than in Blind Forest.

“When you enter [frog boss] Kwolok’s environment, a subtle version of their melody plays in the bass clarinet.”

“When you get the dash ability, you get a faster version of the theme. Then, when you finally meet Kwolok, you get their theme in all its glory.”

“It’s been a joy working on this game because I’m not reliant on ‘Ori’s Theme.’ I think of that melody as the ‘golden bullet’ — I only use it when it’s going to have the maximum effect, especially for players of the first game. I’m particularly proud of the music for the final act of the game, and how it will make people feel connected to both Blind Forest’s and Will of the Wisps’ endings.” He jokes: “Emotionally manipulating people with music is what gets me out of bed in the morning!”

The dark art of trailer music composition

Composers of trailer music have a pretty straightforward job: manipulate the emotions of the viewer, quickly. It’s a dark art worthy of respect however fed up one is of the tropes of a gravelly voice saying “THIS SUMMER” followed by a Zimmer-esque BWAAAAAMP while the screen fades to black.

Coker has come at trailers from every angle, putting in the time to understand the intricate timings of swells and impacts. He’s also scored every Ori trailer to date. “Working on trailers is a hardcore crash course in understanding pacing because trailers have to retain your interest while hitting you over the head. You’d never take that approach for scoring an entire Ori game, although we’re not especially subtle about which emotion we want you to feel in the games.

“I’ve been slightly perplexed by the tendency in recent films and games not to dial it up to 10 like they used to. There was a period in the ‘80s and ‘90s where scores would go over-the-top and I loved it. The flying moment in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is all music and it’s in your face, but it’s brilliant because they build up to that moment and then give you permission to release your emotion. But I guess these things are a matter of taste!”

“We’re doing that with Ori to an extent — wearing our hearts on our sleeves. We’re not shy about trying to emulate Disney in terms of visual storytelling. Yes, we chose to go ‘all out’ with some big music cues and maybe it’s a little bit over-the-top, but there aren’t many experiences going ‘all out’.”

The Pinewood Singers

“With Will of the Wisps, we had greater resources to record at AIR Studios in London with the Philharmonia and the Pinewood Voices. It’s the perfect studio to record a fantasy game soundtrack in — the reverb and characteristics of that space [are superb]. If I can’t hit you over the head [with emotional music] with these forces then I’ll feel like I failed."

“The choir makes me look really good. Again, it’s like using a cheat code. It gives it such an emotional kick.”

Composer as marketer

Gareth Coker onstage at E3 2017

For a variety of reasons, composers are often able to step into the limelight during a game’s launch window. After all, if the soundtrack album is also being released around the same time they have something of their own to promote as artists. Also, since they’re often freelancers with their own profile, they tend to be more recognisable than other game developers. You could take that as a positive example or — if the composer stands more or less alone — an indictment of the industry’s ability to publicly celebrate the talented people behind games.

As we all know, negativity can sometimes swell up around a game at launch — e.g. around platform exclusivity or microtransactions — but those sour sentiments rarely fixate on the soundtrack or composer, meaning they might have a clearer chance to advocate for the game.

When Ori and the Will of the Wisps was officially revealed at E3 2017, it was Coker, sitting at a piano, that introduced it to the world.

Coker says: “I felt very lucky and honoured, but at the same time I was thinking ‘if this goes wrong it’ll be on the internet forever!’ I'm a pretty good piano player, but I made sure what I wrote wasn't too difficult. A lot of people watch E3!

“Composers generally like to stay in the background and then come out at the end and say ‘thank you very much!’ before disappearing back into the dungeon. I insisted that the focus of the presentation should be on the visuals, not on me performing. That’s why there’s only ten seconds of me [before it cuts to the video.]”

Coker has done a fair bit of press around the Will of the Wisps launch, and can clearly speak knowledgeably about the gameplay and other technical aspects beyond the music. He points out: “Honestly, [it’s more down to the fact that] I’m one of the few native English speakers on the team. That, and music is a fairly prominent feature of both games. Also, people don’t seem to be totally fed up of me yet!”

He’s covered

Gareth Coker and colleagues at AIR Studios

The control room at AIR Studios in London during Ori and the Will of the Wisps sessions. Front row. Jake Jackson (engineer), Gareth Coker, Steve Kempster (engineer); back row, Jessica Kelly (score co-ordinator), David Peacock (orchestrator), Zach Lemmon.

There is a well-established network of musicians residing in the cosy nook of the video game music community, ranging from enthusiastic amateurs through to professional multi-instrumentalists. This music army hungrily greets each new soundtrack release by their favourite composers, and ravenously dissects them for pieces to learn, transcribe, arrange, and perform. Sometimes it feels like you can’t move on YouTube and other platforms for Chrono Trigger or Undertale covers and arrangements. There are endless examples of passionate people celebrating what they love.

Here’s “Ori and the Blind Forest Suite” arranged by David Peacock and performed by the Videri String Quartet, available as part of NIBEL: Ori and the Blind Forest Remixed, released by Materia Collective on Spotify and Apple Music:

Coker is flattered by the response to his music: “The cool thing about the covers community is that people are free to create what they want. It’s very flattering when someone does that with your work.” The composer is so tuned in to the community that he hired the arranger of “Ori and the Blind Forest Suite” as an orchestrator on Will of the Wispsprevious Laced With Wax interviewee David Peacock.

Another name on the credits that game music fans would be very familiar with is woodwind polymath Kristin ‘Field of Reeds’ Naigus, who played an almost unfathomable 21 different instruments across the score. In a tweet, Coker said of Naigus: “She's a genius, and has sound and tone that is in complete synergy with Ori.”

One returning performer is vocalist Aeralie Brighton whose mellifluous tones came to define the sound of Blind Forest. Coker explains: “She features possibly less than fans of the first game might expect, but, when she comes in, her voice is deployed for maximum effect.”

According to Coker, Brighton’s “big moment” in the game features at the tail end of the last track on the soundtrack album.  MUSICAL SPOILER WARNING FOR THE END OF ORI AND THE WILL OF THE WISPS:

Are we entering the ‘Golden Age’ of game music?

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

There are reasons to be cheerful for fans of video games and video game music. Over the past five or so years we’ve seen landmark releases from an expanding and increasingly experimental composer talent pool. Coker pushes back: “I actually think we're still on the cusp [of a game music golden age.] If you think it's good now, the next 5-10 years could be even greater. It’s an exciting spot to be in as a composer.”

The sheer quality and ingenuity of the current crop of fantastic game scores isn’t necessarily something one can appreciate from just listening to soundtrack albums or even watching gameplay footage. In many cases, you need to immerse yourself in the game itself to appreciate the true artistry. Coker agrees: “For many, it might be a struggle to sit down and enjoy something like Martin Stig Andersen’s incredible INSIDE soundtrack as a stand-alone album listening experience. It’s always a bonus if, as a composer, you can create an OST album that’s nice to listen to — but it’s not the core of our job. The strongest game scores are tightly woven into the experience. Martin, Olivier Deriviere, Mick Gordon, and others help me get totally immersed in a game with music that works seamlessly.” 



Gareth Coker is a composer for film, games, and commercials – www.gareth-coker.net | Twitter: @garethcoker | SoundCloud.com/garethcoker