When Microsoft's in-house Halo studio 343 Industries took the franchise over from creator Bungie, it made a bold statement by abandoning longtime composer Marty O'Donnell's iconic score for one mostly written by Neil Davidge of the English trip-hop group Massive Attack. Think of it like Disney replacing John Williams' iconic Star Wars score with something by Randy Newman and you're about halfway there. His changes were drastic, eschewing established musical tropes for something simultaneously foreign and familiar, leaving no sacred cows behind. It was a ballsy move, and at the time 343's freshman bravado made a statement about how it would handle the franchise moving forward. But something happened in the three-year gap between then and now: 343 released Halo: The Master Chief Collection to disastrous technical results. How broken that game was (and in some cases still is) had an effect on the development team, and likely killed some of its confidence.
I recently had the chance to speak to 343's in-house composer Kazuma Jinnouchi as well as audio director Sotaro Tojima and lead audio producer Mary Olson. Our conversation covers everything from fan reactions to Halo 4's soundtrack to using music composition as a means of differentiating returning hero Master Chief from new protagonist Jameson Locke. Previously, Jinnouchi's worked on a number of Metal Gear Solid games, so we talked about the differences between writing music for a first-person versus third-person game as well. To hear how fan-centric the approach to the score was for yourself, you can stream the game's entire soundtrack as you read the interview below.
I've been listening to the soundtrack quite a bit and I'm curious what the approach was for the game and how it differed from Halo 4.
Jinnouchi: The major difference was me being the main composer. And me being in-house at 343 Industries from the very start of the project. When the story was only five pages long, I was there. Having that insight helped me understand the game a lot more than how I was involved in Halo 4. Because I joined the team a year before the game shipped, I pretty much jumped in in the middle of the production that was already happening between the studio and Neil Davidge. We were working remotely with Neil so there were a lot of challenges on our end. Communication was very ... it wasn't the easiest project for us. Getting to know people and then being told to make the biggest game was quite a challenge. Going through that experience and moving forward to Halo 5 was a lot easier.
When I listened to the soundtrack, I noticed that there were a lot of familiar themes, musically. The monks are back, for example. Why go back to what was in the original games?
Tojima: Neil Davidge did a great job on Halo 4. We felt that we were missing one piece from the Neil Davidge library: strong music pieces which the Halo fans really love. This is the reason I took Kazuma and said I really need one piece of really strong music which has a strong Halo classic aesthetic for Halo 4. "This is clearly your biggest goal." So we worked together and he composed "117." It was one of the users' favorite pieces, eventually.
Outsourcing a strong composer has a benefit because they have a bunch of experience working for film, TV or music. To me, especially for Halo fans, the most important thing is that the main music composer keeps thinking about Halo fans and the franchise a whole year, every day, with strong communications with the audio director, creative director or the whole studio.
What was the fan reaction to the Halo 4 soundtrack? It sounded different than you'd expect a Halo game to sound and was really experimental. I think that's what I liked most about it. Halo 5's sounds like a traditional score for the series.
Tojima: Actually, the music feedback was a combination of negative and positive. On the positive side, the many Halo fans said that the music itself is really cool, but some people complained about it having not enough of a classic Halo aesthetic; it was too different. "I can't hear what I listened to for 10 years." That kind of thing. Negative feedback was that each piece is great, but for some reason it didn't feel so memorable in-game.
This is kind of my bad rather than Neil Davidge's. The mixing or music and music direction; everything is not sophisticated enough. For example, Neil did compose a bunch of thematic, melodic pieces. Great pieces, but we couldn't use his great music most effectively. We should've used some specific music more repeatedly or arranged it more thematically. But like Kazuma was saying, we had a communication challenge. He's a great guy, easy to work with; we had a couple of Skype meetings per week. Compared to the daily communication with an in-house music composer, though, it's a challenge.
We should always talk about what Halo fans want. We're checking the user feedback pretty much every day and adjusting details, the direction.
What was it like working under fan expectations?
[Interrupts] Olson: Sorry to cut you off, but to be clear about this vision and what they set out to do was really more to combine. It wasn't to just go back to Marty's pieces and hang out there and give up. It wasn't just to go back and give the fans total classic Halo. It was more like a leaping point. There's absolutely the intent of establishing a new direction and taking a new direction, but taking a nod and showing the respect for that classic and bringing that into Halo 5 and incorporating it.
Jinnouchi: My process was to take all the musical elements from Halo 1, 2, 3 and 4 and say, "Okay, we have this theme for this type of moment, this theme for that character." We have a lot of that for our legacy. So moving forward, I have to take them and make sense against what we see and what we experience in Halo 5. I rearranged a lot of them in a way that the tone is still Halo 5, but you do pay homage to the previous titles.
Given your background and how differently Japanese culture views first-person shooters, did that play a role in how you approached the music?
Jinnouchi: My approach was very different from the previous games I worked on. Working on a Halo game felt like you need a lot more subtlety. You arrange differently because of that and write differently. Previously, I'd mostly worked on third-person games. When you work on a first person game, you're not looking at the character; you are the character. The music shouldn't be in the way of what you do or your thinking process. When I say I felt like I needed more subtlety, it's driven by that aspect; there's a lot of room for thinking as a user from that perspective.
With first-person shooter games, my approach is to have music not explain what's really going on on the screen because you are the character and you are fighting through the intense moment. You know it's an intense moment. The music doesn't have to be there to explain that. Well ... sometimes it needs to be there to drive that intention even more. In general, there's a different role for the music. What's the story behind [what's happening on-screen]? Why's it creepy? The music doesn't necessarily explain what kind of situation you're in from a gameplay perspective; it should explain why it's happening. It's not just third-person versus first-person; it's more about how modern gaming music should be.
Was there a specific reason Davidge wasn't brought back?
Olson: [16-second pause] I think that it touches on all the things that Kazuma and Tojima have said in terms of the advantages of having an in-house composer. At that point, because Kazuma came in in the last year of Halo 4, he was here and [having him compose] was an option that was available, whereas it wasn't on Halo 4. And again, like Tojima mentioned, he'd written "117." He'd taken some time to creatively prove himself.
"117" is a great track; I love the Halo 4 soundtrack and listen to it pretty regularly. When Halo 5 was announced, my first question was if Davidge was coming back.
Olson: It's fun to talk to somebody who did love it.
So this wasn't anything to do with appeasing fans that weren't happy with Halo 4 and just go back to classic?
Jinnouchi: No, it was more about creatively how we should move forward.
Tojima: Not just on the audio team, but I think all of 343 has a very challenging question: Where is a great spot between something totally new and epic, or a classic Halo aesthetic? So some fans really want to keep that similarity. As a new team, the creators, we try to hit something new creatively. That's why I think we are struggling between a classic Halo aesthetic, but something new.
We also tried to hit that sweet spot in Halo 4 with Neil Davidge. We arranged a couple of [existing] pieces in Halo 4. But we didn't use the iconic Halo choir on the title screen, but we didn't arrange one of the most thematic, iconic pieces. We arranged the more iconic pieces [from the past] this time because we feel these pieces should be the core of the experience for Halo fans. This is part of their gaming history, so we should really respect the melody.
You're introducing a brand-new character, Spartan Locke. What are the things you did differently musically to differentiate him from Master Chief?
Jinnouchi: Two things. One is choice of instruments. Another big factor is chord progression and melody. I used a different scale for Locke's theme as opposed to Master Chief. It's got little major/minor scale things that consist of two different chord progressions. It doesn't just stay within the minor or the major. It has this ambiguity to it.
Initially, I wanted to create the feel of, "Is this a good guy or a bad guy?" I wanted the music to make you ask, "Who is this?"
[Image credits: 343 Industries]
This interview has been condensed and edited.