Jukebox Heroes: Talking to HEX Composer Michael Shapiro

Justin Olivetti
J. Olivetti|04.16.14

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Jukebox Heroes: Talking to HEX Composer Michael Shapiro
Massively: On today's column we have the composer of the upcoming TCG MMO, HEX. Now that's a lot of capital letters all in a row, so take a deep breath, get over it, and please welcome composer Michael Gordon Shapiro. Mike, can you give us a bit of your background in music?

Michael Gordon Shapiro: When I started my career I was only interested in film music. Game audio was just starting to emerge from the low-tech era, and there was a kind of stigma associated with it, much as there used to be with television music. As fate would have it, I was offered an in-house composer position at a game studio and was pleasantly surprised to find myself recording the same kind of live orchestral music that I loved doing for film. I also came to appreciate the high artistic effort going into both console and PC game scores.

So from that point, the stigma dissolved in my mind and my artistic palette widened. Today I love doing both film and game music, for both overlapping and complementary reasons.

How did you get involved with HEX? Was there something about this project that appealed to you?

HEX has taken a twisty and sometimes dramatic road towards the public, and to some extent I've traveled along with it. I was brought aboard when the project was being developed by Gas Powered Games, and I was asked to write a relatively modest set of cues. After a while there was a publisher shuffle, and GPG was bought by another company. Fortunately Cryptozoic, the game's creator, had an enormous success raising continuation funds via Kickstarter. This meant among other happy things that we could significantly expand the amount of music in the game. I was thus brought aboard for a second and more ambitious round of scoring, this time working with Cryptozoic directly.

Lots of things about the game strike a chord with me: the fantasy setting, the extensive mythological backstory, and a gamewide balance between the epic and light-hearted. (A prime example of the latter is the Shin'Hare race, which is essentially made up of angry samurai bunnies.) I'm particularly won over by the passion of the games' creators and the fervor of the fan base. I've never worked on a project where so many fans were emotionally involved ahead of the game's release.

What did you use as inspiration for this soundtrack?

I frequently took my cues (to to speak) from the game's environmental and character design. The Shin'Hare imagery drew from medieval Japan, so I musically characterized that race with far eastern folk instrumentation. The Necrotics are an undead hive mind, so I scored them with dense clusters of voices and strings. The Vennen, an all-male cult of orc/spider hybrids, got wordless male choir and bass viol.

The game's mythology is a combination of the familiar and otherworldly, so I tried to model the score along the same lines. There are familiar heroic orchestral textures, along with percussive and synthetic sounds that add a sense of mysticism or supernaturality.

What motifs and themes should listeners be paying attention to?

Well, I don't think people "should" pay attention to music except in accordance with how much they enjoy it! But for those who read music theory books for fun, I can point out a few structural details. The main theme, which emerges from the title screen in the last alpha I saw, serves as the heart of the score. The melody pops its head back in in a number of places, some more obvious than others. I found it very flexible compositionally; in one of the traveling cues I turned it into a high-register flute ostinato that kind of dances above the main body of the music.

There's also a rising and falling arpeggiation that I internally call the "dark magic" motive. It appears during the deck-builder music as well as in some of the combat cues. Given the magical bent of the elves (no surprises there), I thought it made sense to base their music on that motive as well. I slowed the motive down and gave it to the harp, turning it into an ethereal and artsy accompaniment for the vocals.

How was composing music for this game different from composing for past video game projects?

One major difference comes from the open nature of the game's development. Many games are shrouded in secrecy and NDAs, then arrive in the public eye via a carpet bomb of publicity. HEX's Kickstarter campaign had a very sharing, heart-on-sleeve quality. Go watch the highly amusing video on YouTube and you'll see what I mean. Cory actually gives the viewer his phone number and asks for input. A side effect of involving a fan base so early in development is ongoing feedback. I had never before worked on a project where fans were chiming in about the score while I was still writing it! (Fortunately, most of the feedback was positive.)

Do you have a favorite track or theme? If so, what is it and why?

I'm sure I will, but it's too soon to say. By the time I've wrapped a score, I've listened to it so many times during mixing that it sounds like fancy noise. It takes a few weeks of separation before I regain my objectivity and re-listen with fresh ears.

What are some of your favorite soundtracks to listen to (that aren't your own)?

I grew up listening to film music, and the epic sound of the three J's (John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and James Horner) made a big impression on me. I still regard the original Star Wars soundtracks as a three-part holy grail of film music. I listen to a lot of music from movies that have swords in them, either in historical contexts (El Cid, Braveheart) or fantasy ones (Conan, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Lord of the Rings).

In the game music world, some of my favorite composers are Jeremy Soule and Inon Zur. The Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age scores are gorgeous. I listen to those outside of their respective games for enjoyment. Considering how much exposure you get to that music during the games themselves, that's high praise.

Any interesting stories that came out of creating the HEX soundtrack that you'd like to share?

Honestly, other than a brief juncture where it seemed like the project might go away, it was smooth sailing. I'm looking forward to the beta and final releases.

Thank you for talking with us!

MMOs aren't just about looks; they also have great soundtracks that often go unnoticed. Heroes don't stand for that! Massively's Jukebox Heroes examines game soundtracks and features the best tunes to share and discuss. Your DJ for the hour is Justin Olivetti, and the request line is open!
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